Letters and Sounds · Training v resources

Teach the teachers first!

It’s perhaps a little early in the day to be saying this but the signs are that the government has made a huge blunder in putting together resources and training for match funding. Already, it is becoming obvious to us that many schools are using the opportunity to replenish their libraries (a massive allocation of money (£3000). While, under other circumstances, I wouldn’t disagree – as can be seen from this blog’s support for Alan Gibbons’s ‘Campaign for the Book’ – in this case I shake my head in disbelief.
Why? Well, by and large the primary purpose of phonics books/decodable readers is to give pupils practice in what they have learnt more formally in class. Admittedly, the quality of some decodable readers will be of such a high standard that some pupils will ‘crack the code’ for themselves, so obvious is it that letters are symbols for sounds in the language.

That said, I would contend that for most pupils this kind of reader is a support to systematic and explicit phonics instruction. Such instruction can only be given by properly trained teaching practitioners. Right up to this moment, there are, as we have ascertained from the many NQT trainees who have already attended our courses, very few training institutions giving anything more than the most rudimentary training in phonics teaching – usually little more than half a day.
As for practising teachers, it seems that if they got any ‘training’ at all, it was a morning’s gallop through Letters and Sounds – the training amounting to little more than a familiarisation with the folder.There are some who argue that L&S is everything teachers need to remedy the problem of illiteracy in this country. They are wrong! To begin with, as has been demonstrated by past practice all too clearly, putting the latest government training initiative into document form and lobbing it into the schools, where more often than  not it gathers dust, is not training. Secondly, L&S does not make explicit the purpose for which the writing system was invented – to represent the sounds of the language. Thirdly, it doesn’t teach the necessary skills needed to develop fluency in reading and spelling with anything like the rigour required. Fourthly, it goes far too fast for the fifty percent tail. Fifthly, it doesn’t train teaching practitioners in what to do when pupils make errors.
Many school staff we talk to are still unaware that there is such a thing as matched funding; others believe it is only available for buying resources. This isn’t surprising if you look at the catalogue that has been sent out to schools.
If schools are spending their allocation on resources alone, we will be in the same place when the government funding dries up.
Train the teachers!