Dr Bethan Marshall · Michael Welsh · Sounds-Write

No excuses! All children can learn to read and spell

Despite the lame excuses of Michael Welsh yesterday on Radio 4 and Dr Bethan Marshall today in the Telegraph, there are plenty of examples of schools situated in poor areas having huge success in teaching all children -that’s boys as well as girls! – to read and spell.
Michael Gove says that the Coalition is particularly keen to get hold of solid evidence to show which reading methods work. Below is a table showing the results for fifty children taught using a linguistic phonic approach to the teaching of reading throughout Key Stage 1.
The test used was a simple, properly normed and standardised spelling test. What is immediately striking is the fact that only one child has a spelling age below his chronological age. This means that 98% of the children are performing above their chronological age. What is also quite extraordinary is that 90% of these children are already at least ten months ahead of the average chronological age for the class and that 64% are more than two years ahead. What is no less remarkable is that 44% of this cohort scored at the ceiling of the test (11 years).
In other words, not only is this school teaching pupils at the lower end of the continuum to read and spell successfully, they are also doing outstandingly well at the higher end of the continuum. there is still a continuum but it has been shifted massively to the right.
The school lies in a relatively poor area of Milton Keynes. It has topped the league tables in Milton Keynes in SATs for years and, just over a year ago, it came nineteenth in the league table for the country for the number of Level 5s in the English SAT.
How did the school achieve this? The answer is both simple and complex: simple because the school made it their policy to ensure that the teachers in Key Stage 1 were all properly trained to teach literacy; complex because training teachers to understand the way the alphabet code works in English and teaching them the specific skills, conceptual and factual knowledge needed to enable their pupils to learn to read and spell proficiently required resources and effort.
And the programme? Sounds-Write.

5 thoughts on “No excuses! All children can learn to read and spell

  1. This is beginning to look like a thinly disguised advertisement for one particular phonics reading systems. Of course you can produce as many tables of "evidence" you want – this is merely a "summative" marker of how children decode words not "reading" per se and as you may have heard the data is incomplete. Your highly skewed and biased version of the interview on radio 4 did not take into account that no-one is questioning the value of phonics (absolutely useless for dyslexic pupils by the way – have you read the research or is that too an inconvenient a truth for you) :


    What was proposed was a far deeper strategy to tackle lack of literacy – reading recovery, in some cases 1:1 remedial help and literacy programmes to help children within the family.

    A superficial reading of the situation would suggest that teaching phonics is a universal panacea. It isn't and a school community is far more complex and insightful than just the peddling of patent 'cure-all' medicines. A great teacher will get results with or without phonics – a poor one will fail with phonics. Phonics are just one very small part of a way to introduce and build on reading as you well know – or should do?

  2. Dear Anon,
    I have to answer your comment in more than one reply because it's too long to go in one comment.
    Firstly, thank you for posting your comment, although I think it’s a pity you choose to remain anonymous.
    Secondly, I think it rather odd that you should chastise me for advertising Sounds-Write. After all, it does state quite openly on the ‘about me’ that I am a co-founder of Sounds-Write. In any case I am proud of the work done by our trainers, the teachers teaching the Sounds-Write programme and David Philpot, who has spent so much time collecting evidence for the effectiveness of the programme. So, no apologies for that!
    Neither do I think my reporting of the Radio 4 conversation to have been biased. Frankly, I’m sick to death of listening to heads who appear in the media seriously believing that they are great experts on the teaching of reading when, in fact, I’ve hardly ever met a single one who could tell me how the writing system in English works. I’m not surprised; they are not linguists. To blame the pupils for having special needs – 25% in some areas?? – is lazy and crass. And to suggest that one-to-one tuition (using RR) is the answer flies in the face of independent research. As a matter of fact, the only things skewed are the graphs Sounds-Write have produced to demonstrate how effective the programme is: they are, in the jargon of statisticians, right-skewed graphs.

  3. Part II
    Of course phonics – and let’s not forget that there are many varieties of programmes that call themselves ‘phonic’, some of which I wouldn’t dignify with the description – is a means to an end. Whatever you say, unless someone can decode the words on the page, they are not going to be able to read. And, I wouldn’t deny that there’s more to it. In order to understand what one is reading one requires large amounts of cultural capital. For children who don’t get this in the home, schools must do as good a job as they can. Educated and aspirant parents will provide most of this in the rich cultural experiences they offer their children. However, unless even those children are taught to decode the words on the page, they won’t grow up to become good readers.
    I find your claim that phonics is ‘absolutely useless for dyslexic pupils’ bizarre. What is almost universally agreed within the research community is that beginning readers must discover/learn the alphabetic principle. I have myself taught very many pupils diagnosed by educational psychologists as being ‘dyslexic’ and always got excellent results, as have many colleagues around the country. I find that this kind of one-to-one or small group tuition is highly effective, far more so than whole language approaches. I can also honestly tell you that not one single one of more than seven thousand trainees in the Sounds-Write approach has ever got back to me to say that the approach doesn’t work, either at the one-to-one level or whole class.
    Of course, you’ll say I’m biased. The thing is that for many years in my early teaching career, I used whole language exclusively. Frank Smith was all the rage then. So, my bias was towards the top-down model. Unfortunately my findings over the years have led to exactly the opposite view.
    I do agree with your claim that nothing is a panacea and that highly effective and motivated teachers can always be expected to make more of a difference than poor teachers. But then I believe that there are relatively few teachers who are so poor as to be unsuited to the job, and, in my experience, most poor teachers can improve with the right kinds of training.
    I’m sorry you aren’t impressed by the data offered on fifty KS 1 pupils at the end of Y2. I think it’s enormously impressive because these children started KS2 able to cope with virtually anything that the curriculum threw at them. I also think that the evidence (91% within the range for spelling – superficial it is not!) we’ve collected from schools across the country on more than one thousand five hundred pupils throughout KS1 and which you will find on the website is even more impressive. I can’t recall seeing any evidence from top-down approaches coming anywhere near it.
    Best wishes,

  4. As a secondary special needs teacher picking up the pieces of literacy failure at KS3, I have to agree with everything John has said. Many of these KS3 literacy failures arrive with a statement or EP diagnosis of dyslexia, and I undertook dyslexia training from several institutions to become better at dealing with these students. However, it wasn't until I started using Sounds~Write that I began to get every student reading, even the dyslexics (Why didn't it happen before KS3, I ask!). It made my 'traditional' dyslexic teaching strategies redundant, as well as all my years of using other phonics programmes, both analytic and synthetic.

    Yes, there is more to reading than just reading the words, but until you can read and write the words, you haven't a hope of being able to get even literal meaning from the text, let alone make inferences or draw conclusions. And in my experience, students who are not reading the words are often not using a very large vocabulary even in their speech.

    I would suggest that Anonymous and anyone else who is interested in understanding the different approaches to literacy has a read of Diane McGuinness' excellent book "Early Reading Instruction: What Science Really Tells Us About How to Teach Reading".

    Over the years the NLS was meant to cure our literacy problems, and the requirement of a sythetic phonics approach at KS1 is a step in the right direction, however I'm still waiting to see some data on the effectiveness of Letters and Sounds, a programme I now view as rather incomplete and a lost opportunity, evidenced by the need for further in-put of things like Reading Recovery.

    I find John's example of a school in Milton Keynes typical of the primary schools I know of who are now using Sounds~Write at KS1. I just wish more of them were using it, then there would no longer be around 15-20% students with the poor reader or dyslexic label entering Year 7 (data from my not atypical school), even after all these years of various NLS initiatives in primary schools.

  5. Thanks for your comment, Gini. I'm glad you mentioned Diane McGuinness's excellent book, to which I'd like to add Keith Stanovich's superb collection of articles brought together in Progress in Understanding Reading, (2000) London, Guilford Press. Chapter 7 'Explaining the Differences between the Dyslexic and Garden-Variety Poor Reader' is especially interesting.

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