Is systematic synthetic phonics generating neuromyths?

A recent Twitter discussion about systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) was sparked by a note to parents of children in a reception class, advising them what to do if their children got stuck on a word when reading. The first suggestion was “encourage them to sound out unfamiliar words in units of sound (e.g. ch/sh/ai/ea) and to try to blend them”. If that failed “can they use the pictures for any clues?” Two other strategies followed. The ensuing discussion began by questioning the wisdom of using pictures for clues and then went off at many tangents – not uncommon in conversations about SSP.
richard adams reading clues

SSP proponents are, rightly, keen on evidence. The body of evidence supporting SSP is convincing but it’s not the easiest to locate; much of the research predates the internet by decades or is behind a paywall. References are often to books, magazine articles or anecdote; not to be discounted, but not what usually passes for research. As a consequence it’s quite a challenge to build up an overview of the evidence for SSP that’s free of speculation, misunderstandings and theory that’s been superseded. The tangents that came up in this particular discussion are, I suggest, the result of assuming that if something is true for SSP in particular it must also be true for reading, perception, development or biology in general. Here are some of the inferences that came up in the discussion.

You can’t guess a word from a picture
Children’s books are renowned for their illustrations. Good illustrations can support or extend the information in the text, showing readers what a chalet, a mountain stream or a pine tree looks like, for example. Author and artist usually have detailed discussions about illustrations to ensure that the book forms an integrated whole and is not just a text with embellishments.

If the child is learning to read, pictures can serve to focus attention (which could be wandering anywhere) on the content of the text and can have a weak priming effect, increasing the likelihood of the child accessing relevant words. If the picture shows someone climbing a mountain path in the snow, the text is unlikely to contain words about sun, sand and ice-creams.

I understand why SSP proponents object to the child being instructed to guess a particular word by looking at a picture; the guess is likely to be wrong and the child distracted from decoding the word. But some teachers don’t seem to be keen on illustrations per se. As one teacher put it “often superficial time consuming detract from learning”.

Cues are clues are guesswork
The note to parents referred to ‘clues’ in the pictures. One contributor cited a blogpost that claimed “with ‘mixed methods’ eyes jump around looking for cues to guess from”. Clues and cues are often used interchangeably in discussions about phonics on social media. That’s understandable; the words have similar meanings and a slip on the keyboard can transform one into the other. But in a discussion about reading methods, the distinction between guessing, clues and cues is an important one.

Guessing involves drawing conclusions in the absence of enough information to give you a good chance of being right; it’s haphazard, speculative. A clue is a piece of information that points you in a particular direction. A cue has a more specific meaning depending on context; e.g. theatrical cues, social cues, sensory cues. In reading research, a cue is a piece of information about something the observer is interested in or a property of a thing to be attended to. It could be the beginning sound or end letter of a word, or an image representing the word. Cues are directly related to the matter in hand, clues are more indirectly related, guessing is a stab in the dark.

The distinction is important because if teachers are using the terms cue and clue interchangeably and assuming they both involve guessing there’s a risk they’ll mistakenly dismiss references to cues in reading research as guessing or clues, which they are not.

Reading isn’t natural
Another distinction that came up in the discussion was the idea of natural vs. non-natural behaviours. One argument for children needing to be actively taught to read rather than picking it up as they go along is that reading, unlike walking and talking, isn’t a ‘natural’ skill. The argument goes that reading is a relatively recent technological development so we couldn’t possibly have evolved mechanisms for reading in the same way as we have evolved mechanisms for walking and talking. One proponent of this idea is Diane McGuinness, an influential figure in the world of synthetic phonics.

The argument rests on three assumptions. The first is that we have evolved specific mechanisms for walking and talking but not for reading. The ideas that evolution has an aim or purpose and that if everybody does something we must have evolved a dedicated mechanism to do it, are strongly contested by those who argue instead that we can do what our anatomy and physiology enable us to do (see arguments over Chomsky’s linguistic theory). But you wouldn’t know about that long-standing controversy from reading McGuinness’s books or comments from SSP proponents.

The second assumption is that children learn to walk and talk without much effort or input from others. One teacher called the natural/non-natural distinction “pretty damn obvious”. But sometimes the pretty damn obvious isn’t quite so obvious when you look at what’s actually going on. By the time they start school, the average child will have rehearsed walking and talking for thousands of hours. And most toddlers experience a considerable input from others when developing their walking and talking skills even if they don’t have what one contributor referred to as a “WEIRDo Western mother”. Children who’ve experienced extreme neglect (such as those raised in the notorious Romanian orphanages) tend to show significant developmental delays.

The third assumption is that learning to use technological developments requires direct instruction. Whether it does or not depends on the complexity of the task. Pointy sticks and heavy stones are technologies used in foraging and hunting, but most small children can figure out for themselves how to use them – as do chimps and crows. Is the use of sticks and stones by crows, chimps or hunter-gatherers natural or non-natural? A bicycle is a man-made technology more complex than sticks and stones, but most people are able to figure out how to ride a bike simply by watching others do it, even if a bit of practice is needed before they can do it themselves. Is learning to ride a bike with a bit of support from your mum or dad natural or non-natural?

Reading English is a more complex task than riding a bike because of the number of letter-sound correspondences. You’d need a fair amount of watching and listening to written language being read aloud to be able to read for yourself. And you’d need considerable instruction and practice before being able to fly a fighter jet because the technology is massively more complex than that involved in bicycles and alphabetic scripts.

One teacher asked “are you really going to go for the continuum fallacy here?” No idea why he considers a continuum a fallacy. In the natural/non-natural distinction used by SSP proponents there are three continua involved;

• the complexity of the task
• the length of rehearsal time required to master the task, and
• the extent of input from others that’s required.

Some children learn to read simply by being read to, reading for themselves and asking for help with words they don’t recognise. But because reading is a complex task, for most children learning to read by immersion like that would take thousands of hours of rehearsal. It makes far more sense to cut to the chase and use explicit instruction. In principle, learning to fly a fighter jet would be possible through trial-and-error, but it would be a stupidly costly approach to training pilots.

Technology is non-biological
I was told by several teachers that reading, riding a bike and flying an aircraft weren’t biological functions. I fail to see how they can’t be, since all involve human beings using their brain and body. It then occurred to me that the teachers are equating ‘biological’ with ‘natural’ or with the human body alone. In other words, if you acquire a skill that involves only body parts (e.g. walking or talking) it’s biological. If it involves anything other than a body part it’s not biological. Not sure where that leaves hunting with wooden spears, making baskets or weaving woolen fabric using a wooden loom and shuttle.

Teaching and learning are interchangeable
Another tangent was whether or not learning is involved in sleeping, eating and drinking. I contended that it is; newborns do not sleep, eat or drink in the same way as most of them will be sleeping, eating or drinking nine months later. One teacher kept telling me they don’t need to be taught to do those things. I can see why teachers often conflate teaching and learning, but they are not two sides of the same coin. You can teach children things but they might fail to learn them. And children can learn things that nobody has taught them. It’s debatable whether or not parents shaping a baby’s sleeping routine, spoon feeding them or giving them a sippy cup instead of a bottle count as teaching, but it’s pretty clear there’s a lot of learning going on.

What’s true for most is true for all
I was also told by one teacher that all babies crawl (an assertion he later modified) and by a school governor that they can all suckle (an assertion that wasn’t modified). Sweeping generalisations like this coming from people working in education is worrying. Children vary. They vary a lot. Even if only 0.1% of children do or don’t do something, that would involve 8 000 children in English schools. Some and most are not all or none and teachers of all people should be aware of that.

A core factor in children learning to read is the complexity of the task. If the task is a complex one, like reading, most children are likely to learn more quickly and effectively if you teach them explicitly. You can’t infer from that that all children are the same, they all learn in the same way or that teaching and learning are two sides of the same coin. Nor can you infer from a tenuous argument used to justify the use of SSP that distinctions between natural and non-natural or biological and technological are clear, obvious, valid or helpful. The evidence that supports SSP is the evidence that supports SSP. It doesn’t provide a general theory for language, education or human development.

distracted by bees: Tom Bennett reviewing Ken Robinson

Like millions of others, I’m familiar with Sir Ken Robinson’s plea for more creativity in education. Sir Ken has come in for a bit of flak recently from those calling for a return to more traditional teaching methods. Tom Bennett’s TES review of Creative Schools: Revolutionizing Education from the Ground Up, upped the ante. I didn’t recognise the figure he describes as ‘Herod’s favourite educationalist’ as the guy who thinks schools should be more creative. So I read the book. Some of Tom’s criticisms are justified. Others aren’t. In his review, brickbats get hurled in many directions, often at the wrong targets. I think the review requires a response.

Sir Ken’s argument is that state schools were originally designed along the same lines as 19th century factories and the design hasn’t changed much since then. The factory model isn’t effective for education because industrial products are standardised but students aren’t. The factory model stifles the creative thinking we’re going to need on an increasingly crowded planet. As a solution, Sir Ken gives examples of schools that have radically changed their structure or function to foster creativity.

Tom will have none of this. For him, schools are stuffed full of creative activities so Sir Ken’s diagnosis is wrong. The proposed remedy is simply ‘the usual blend of personalised learning, project work, thematic curriculums, knowledge-light/skill-heavy lessons that we’ve come to love from the 21st-century education movement’, worthy only of contempt. His criticism of Sir Ken’s solutions is partly justified. As for the rest, I think he’s missed the point. I think he’s missed several points.

Victorian factories

Sir Ken claims that state education systems were based on the same model as Victorian factories; he’s right, they were. Hierarchical, bureaucratic, mechanistic systems regulated by performance measures were at the time considered to be the epitome of efficiency. That assumption has since been found wanting. To be effective, organisational form has to follow function, and standardised systems are not good at coping with functions that need a lot of flexibility, such as teaching children. Sir Ken isn’t saying that creativity doesn’t exist in schools, but that a standardised system militates against it. It’s quite possible to be creative within a standardised framework. Good luck if the standardised framework itself turns out to be horribly wrong.

Sir Ken’s analysis of the problem is grounded in organisational theory. So is his emphasis on the importance of creativity. The same can’t be said for how he deals with creativity itself.


There’s no doubt that creative thinking has enabled human beings to adapt to a wide range of environments, solve problems and develop sophisticated technologies. Creativity should be fostered in schools. But despite his awareness of its importance, Sir Ken doesn’t go into detail about what creativity is or how it solves problems, what it looks like in different disciplines or how it can be learned.

In Creative Schools, Sir Ken slips, imperceptibly and perhaps without realising it, from a fairly coherent analysis of the problem based on organisation theory to the scattergun ‘success story’ solutions so popular in management theory.

There’s a significant difference between organisation theory and management theory even though they overlap. Organisation theory looks at the big picture from a systems perspective. Management is only one facet of organisations. For many managers, success is whatever works – even if it works only briefly or only in some contexts. For organisations, success needs to take into account the whole organisation and its environment and to be sustained. So knowing that performing Shakespeare plays transformed one school and cultivating students’ interests turned round another might be useful, but you can’t just chuck those ‘solutions’ at schools and hope they stick. Sustained success is likely only with the right structure, the right educational programme and the right teachers for a particular situation.

Management books are replete with abstract concepts that aren’t operationalized and there are plenty of those in Sir Ken’s later chapters; creativity, vision, skills, incentives, leadership and climate. My guess is that management theory is partly responsible for Tom’s despised ‘21st-century education movement’, since they both focus on context-free abstract concepts.

The ‘21st-century education movement’ and Ken Robinson appear to have fallen into the trap of assuming that specific pedagogical approaches that have worked in one context will work in all contexts and that teachers can and should pick’n’mix them regardless. Tom appears to have fallen into a mirror-image of the same trap; of rejecting said pedagogical approaches because they don’t work in all contexts.

Having dismissed what he thinks is Sir Ken’s diagnosis and his remedy, Tom has a go at what he thinks is Sir Ken’s model of education.

not just pointless, but harmful

Sir Ken makes a living mocking the ‘lie’ that if you get a degree you’ll get a good job, but that’s a straw man. No one seriously claims a degree guarantees that.”

Actually, they do – or they come close. One justification for increasing graduate numbers in the UK was that as a ‘knowledge economy’ we needed more graduates – presumably for graduate level jobs. Another was that graduates earned more. Libby Purves on ‘The Learning Curve’ once tried to explain to Les Ebdon, now director of Offa, how increasing the supply of graduates might mean that graduate pay decreased. She failed to persuade him. But her prediction was correct.

What people actually claim is that possession of an academic education is valuable in itself in order to be an informed member of the human race; plus it offers some advantage over those who don’t. Is there anything more sad than the sight of someone denying children the right to an academic curriculum and the fruits thereof, than from someone who is the very pinnacle of such an education?

What does ‘the possession of an academic education’ actually mean? A good education means that you have a good knowledge about how the world works and the skills you need to respond to change. An education isn’t a commodity that you ‘possess’, it’s something you experience. And why specify ‘academic’? If ‘academic’ refers to the education it’s a tautology, and if it means book-learning only it’s questionable. Tom also frames education solely in personal terms; an education makes individuals informed members of the human race and, interestingly, offers them a competitive advantage over others. He doesn’t seem to think of education as a common good. What’s crucially important isn’t the level of education we have as individuals, but as a community. The ‘possession of an academic education’ doesn’t guarantee anything as far as individuals are concerned; one only has to look as far as the track record of some government ministers.

Although he attacks Ken Robinson’s model on the grounds that it will damage children’s prospects, Tom himself doesn’t appear to have a very high expectations of children:

“…while the groovier end of the education spectrum may lend value to a small subset of very able, mature and supported children, for the most part they do not. If you set a child with low literacy an independent study program to boost their grammar skills, some will flourish… But most will give up when it gets hard, or a bee flies in the room. If you only ask children to study those things that they are interested in, would anyone be surprised if they only study things that appeal to them and forego anything difficult or remote?

Well yes, if you suddenly foist a badly designed programme on a kid who’s not prepared for it or don’t give them a clue why things that look difficult and remote might turn out to be useful and interesting. But that’s explicitly not what Sir Ken advocates. Some of his success stories, even if cherry-picked, are about schools that have adopted long-term strategies to re-engage previously disaffected students. There’s no indication that the turnaround applied only to very able, mature and supported children. Tom then goes on to say;

It’s not a stretch to believe that children are naturally curious, they kind of are – what they aren’t is naturally self-disciplined. Curiosity isn’t a good in itself; it is only a good when directed in a structured way that eschews novelty and distraction….You could have visited a Montessori school a hundred years ago and felt perfectly at home with the homilies preached therein, and here.

They ‘kind of are’ curious? Seriously? Tom obviously hasn’t experienced a class of 5 year-olds close up. And curiosity ‘is only a good when directed in a structured way that eschews novelty and distraction’? The whole point about curiosity is that it’s a response to novelty and distraction. It’s what prompts us to acquire new knowledge and skills. It’s there, young children have it in spades, so teachers might as well cash in on it.

As for Tom’s sideswipe at Montessori schools… The Montessori approach dominated primary education in the UK for the best part of a century. It’s still widely used, very effectively, in early years and special education settings. Maria Montessori trained in physics, mathematics, medicine, philosophy and anthropology. She based her educational approach on work done by French physicians Itard and Seguin with children with hearing impairments and learning difficulties. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. To dismiss her approach as preaching homilies is… well, for once words fail me.

a dismal model of education

Tom’s review of Creative Schools is entertaining and colourful. He makes his points very clearly. Some of them are accurate. But I get the impression his model for education is based on a reaction to the status quo, rather than a rigorous analysis of educational models. He ignores the fact that a standardised, performance-based model of education had been largely abandoned in England by the end of WW1 – because it hadn’t worked. He overlooks the fact that organisational theorists have figured out why. He mistakes Ken Robinson’s reference to similarities in the deep structure of schools and factories for a reference to their surface features.

What Tom probably has seen fail miserably is a bunch of badly thought-through, poorly implemented (21st-century education movement) attempts to develop children’s learning. He appears to see the movement as monolithic and assumes anything that remotely resembles it must be part of it. That includes underlying assumptions about schools being designed like factories or children’s curiosity being powerful enough to make them want to learn anything and everything. If the 21st-century education model is the wrong one, the right one must be the opposite.

I agree that the 21st-century education model is pretty dismal, but I find Tom’s model equally so. It assumes most children aren’t motivated to learn anything hard, nor are they able to ignore distractions. That they’re not interested in things they perceive as difficult or remote. That they are ‘kind of’ curious, but their curiosity is worth nothing unless it oxymoronically eschews novelty and distraction and is constrained in a straitjacket of self-discipline and structure.

I think Tom overlooks the fact that many of the children he’s taught will already have had their curiosity and interest in learning squashed out of them by a standardised, performance-based system that has tried to educate children using a context-free skills approach. If neither of those models works, it’s not surprising kids get distracted by bees. I suggest Tom spends a bit of time with a class of pre-schoolers. He might see things differently.

how to run a government – or not

A decade ago, the then government heard the cries of overworked teachers and implemented an initiative intended to reduce their workload. Statutory planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time was introduced; teachers were to be freed up from at least 10% of their contact time with students. My children’s primary school sent a letter home about it. Cover was to be provided by teaching assistants.

Since time immemorial, teachers’ working days have been relatively short- if somewhat intense – and they’ve had long vacations (not ‘holidays’, note), giving them ample time for PPA. So why the sudden need to resort to statutory guidance in order to give teachers time to carry out an integral part of their job?

The answer, of course, is that since the Education Reform Act 1988 an entire performance industry had sprouted from the education system, and teachers spent so much time servicing its bureaucratic demands they didn’t have time to do their jobs. But the reasons why PPA time needed safeguarding didn’t appear to have been considered by government.

Baffled, and concerned about both the need for and consequences of this initiative, I wrote to the school, our LA and the Department for Education and Skills (DES). Rather to my surprise, I got replies from each of them, the gist of which was along these lines:

School: *Sigh*. Yes, quite, but we’ll do our best (with yet another initiative that requires yet more reorganisation).

LA: (Phone call from primary HT seconded to LA.) You’ve summed up our concerns exactly. Do we have permission to quote you?

DES: (A month later). We are required to reply to your letter within 20 working days. This constitutes a reply. We’ll respond to the points you made as soon as we can.
(Another month later). We are required to reply to your letter within 20 working days. This constitutes a reply. We’ll respond to your concerns as soon as we can.
(Another month later). We’ve addressed the problem of teachers’ workload. If it doesn’t work, it’s the schools’ and LAs’ fault.

I also wrote to Boots’ Health & Beauty Magazine, which had featured an article about an over-worked teacher. It recommended products she could use to help her sleep, relax, boost her immune system and look less tired. There was no mention of the possibility of reducing her working hours. Their response? Essentially “teachers’ working hours are nothing to do with us”.

Taken at face value, the statutory guidance was successful. Teachers did get additional PPA time. But ten years on it doesn’t appear to have made a significant dent in their workload. That’s because PPA time itself wasn’t the cause of the problem.

How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy

The impact (positive and negative) of the PPA initiative illustrates the flaw at the heart of Sir Michael Barber’s ‘delivery science’ (formerly known as ‘deliverology’) described in detail in his latest book, How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy. Barber, a former history teacher, Hackney councillor, NUT official and education policy adviser, was head of Tony Blair’s Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (PMDU) from 2001-2005. He’s since worked for McKinsey and is currently chief education adviser to educational publishers Pearson.

The Delivery Unit’s job was to ensure that policies were actually implemented. Part of the Prime Ministerial role is to co-ordinate government so having a team dedicated to tracking the progress of particular policies and removing obstacles from their path makes sense. In How to Run a Government, Barber discusses prioritisation, organisation, strategy, planning, routines, problem-solving, ensuring that policies are well-established and that the outcomes are what the electorate wants. He describes the tools and processes the PMDU used to get the job done. On the face of it, his book could be viewed as a practical handbook for anyone who, with little experience, has been tasked with chasing up the progress of particular policies. Or as a project management primer that doesn’t refer directly to the substantial existing literature on the subject. It also offers intriguing insights into how the Blair government functioned.

But scratch the surface and underneath you find something rather different. Barber calls his book How to Run a Government but it’s actually about how to run a Delivery Unit – not quite the same thing. Barber appears to think that the narrow focus required of his Delivery Unit means it’s OK to adopt an equally narrow frame of reference. And for Barber a government and a Delivery Unit amount to the same thing because he attributes inefficiencies and ineffectiveness in modern governments to the failure to implement promised policies. He twice cites Margaret Thatcher’s famous exasperated; “Don’t tell me what. I know what. Tell me how”. For Delivery Units the ‘what’ might be secondary. But for government it’s of primary importance.

what governments do

Traditionally, the focus of central government has been national security; the defence of the realm and the maintenance of law and order. But in recent years governments have gradually taken on what were once local responsibilities – utilities, transport, education, health and welfare. And governments are not just making sure the services are functioning and are properly resourced, they are attempting to manage them. There are good reasons why they shouldn’t. One is that government ministers or civil servants are unlikely to have the necessary specialist domain knowledge. Another is the big risk of services being used for political ends rather than for the benefit of the people. Nonetheless, rightly or wrongly, modern government involves co-ordinating the functions of several complex interconnected systems.

Complex interconnected systems are challenging things. Because they are complex and interconnected, what looks like a minor tweak to one bit can have a massive – sometimes catastrophic – impact on another. For example, removing ‘spare’ hospital beds, increasing GPs’ salaries and reducing social care budgets – all measures that in isolation seem perfectly reasonable – have resulted in the current A&E crisis. It’s imperative that people in government have a good understanding of how systems work. Barber’s book shows that they often don’t. Take for example, the origin of government policies.

where policies come from; a systems perspective

In his book The Open Society and Its Enemies Karl Popper suggests that the focus of a democratic government should be on resolving problems; he illustrates the point by highlighting the disasters that have resulted from attempts to instantiate utopian visions. Suppose for a moment that the next UK government agrees with Popper about its problem-solving role. Suppose also that it has accurately identified the most serious problems besetting the nation.

From a systems perspective, the next task would be to check out the causes of those problems. Causes can be complex, but it’s crucial to pinpoint them accurately in order to get the problems sorted. Sometimes a relatively inexpensive tweak to one system can lead to major improvements in several others – effective sanitation and access to clean water lead to big improvements in health and economic prosperity, for example. The specific policies would consist of whatever action was needed in order to address the causes of the problems. Before implementing the policies, government would need to pilot them to check out their actual impact. This is an essential phase because the complexity of system interactions makes it very difficult to predict the exact outcomes of any given change.

In other words, specific policies would emerge from an analysis of the systems within which the problems are embedded. Policies would be evidence-based and their consequences would be fairly predictable. Pilots would allow unintended or unwanted outcomes to be addressed before implementation.

But that’s not how Sir Michael sees policies. For him, they lie ‘somewhere’ between strategy and implementation (p.101). It doesn’t matter if they originate in ideology (p.62) or in the personal preferences of the PM or President (p.182). Barber recognises that policies can have unintended or unwanted outcomes, but attributes those to choosing the wrong targets (e.g. ones beyond the control of the PM – p.11) or to a failure of a target to ‘tell a good story’ or have sufficient ‘moral purpose’ (p.24). And for Barber, pilots and evidence-based policymaking represent an over-cautious approach (p.7).

One advantage of adopting a narrow frame of reference is that you can just focus on getting the job done. Another advantage is that you can overlook the problems that might emerge as a consequence.

looking past the problems

Barber talks with approval about Calvin Coolidge’s use of routine to implement budget cuts (p.164) but refers only in passing to ‘America’ (never mind anywhere else) being ‘plunged into depression’ even though the 1929 economic crash occurred shortly after Coolidge’s term of office ended and was arguably caused by factors he failed to address. Barber mentions the Iraq war only in passing too, in passages that deal in detail with a 5-hour meeting with Barber about asylum seekers (p.182) and Blair’s political capital leaking away (p.209).

In short, Barber’s narrow focus and narrow frame of reference allow him to get on with the job regardless of the consequences. Impressive results for delivery science; maybe not so impressive for the rest of us.

the emerging science of delivery

Barber claims How to Run a Government is about the ‘emerging science’ of delivery (p.xvii). To be sure he sets out 57(!) rules of ‘delivery science’ throughout the text – also gathered together in a convenient appendix. There’s a nine-page bibliography. And almost 300 pages on what Barber has learned about policy implementation. But that doesn’t make delivery a new ‘emerging science’.

Barber thinks it’s new because there are ‘countless books and manuals’ on various aspects of government, “but on how to get things done in government there is almost nothing. No manuals. Virtually no academic literature.” He goes on to say “Surveying the academic literature on the subject of political science…” (p.xvii). Maybe the clue to the missing manuals lies in where Barber looked for them. Maybe what politicians need to know about policy implementation isn’t filed under ‘political science’ because it’s already well-established in other domains.

Much of Barber’s bibliography is drawn from the literature on management; he doesn’t draw on (highly relevant) project management research; and organisational theory dating back at least to Weber (if not to Thucydides) and systems theory (tried and tested across multiple domains) don’t get a mention. In short, delivery isn’t an emerging science at all. What governments need to know about policy development and implementation is already out there. It just needs to be applied. The fact that recent governments have failed to apply it is worrying.

In his introduction, Barber quotes Charles I, who made a bit of a hash of his period as monarch; “There’s more to the doing than bidding it be done”*. There is indeed, but I’m not convinced Michael Barber has realised quite how much more there is.

Barber, M (2008). Instruction to Deliver: Fighting to Transform Britain’s Public Services. Methuen.
Barber, M (2015). How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy. Allen Lane.
Popper, K (1945/2003). The Open Society and Its Enemies Vol 1: The Spell of Plato. Routledge.

* The source for this quote is cited as Barber’s Instruction to Deliver (2008). In it, the quote is cited without a source. A Google search appears to attribute it to a 2013 RSA lecture by Stein Ringen, mentioned in How to Run a Government. I haven’t watched the Ringen lecture yet, but wouldn’t be surprised if he turns out to cite Barber. Did Charles I actually say it? Maybe we’ll never know.

jumping the literacy hurdle

Someone once said that getting a baby dressed was like trying to put an octopus into a string bag. I was reminded of that during another recent discussion with synthetic phonics (SP) advocates. The debate was triggered by this comment; “Surely, the most fundamental aim of schools is to teach children to read.”

This sentence looks like an essay question for trainee teachers – if they’re still expected to write essays, that is. It encapsulates what has frustrated me so much about the SP ‘position’; all those implicit assumptions.

First there is no ‘surely’ about any aspect of education. You name it, there’s been heated debate about it. Second, it’s not safe to assume schools should have a ‘most fundamental’ aim. Education is a complex business and generally involves quite a few fundamental aims; focussing on one rather than the others is a risky strategy. Third, the sentence assumes a role for literacy that requires some justification.

reading in the real world

Reading is our primary means of recording spoken language. It provides a way of communicating with others across space and time. It extends working memory. It’s important. But in a largely literate society it’s easy to assume that all members of that society are, should be, or need to be equally literate. They’re not. They never have been. And I’ve yet to find any evidence showing that uniform literacy across the population is either achievable or necessary.

I’m not claiming that it doesn’t matter if someone isn’t a competent reader or if 15% of school leavers are functionally illiterate. What I am claiming is that less than 100% functional literacy doesn’t herald the end of civilisation as we know it.

For thousands of years, functionally illiterate people have grown food, baked, brewed, made clothes, pots, pans, furniture, tools, weapons and machines, built houses, palaces, cities, chariots, sailing ships, dams and bridges, navigated halfway around the world, formed exquisite glassware and stunning jewellery, composed songs, poems and plays, devised judicial systems and developed sophisticated religious beliefs.

All those things require knowledge and skill – but not literacy. The quality of human life has undoubtedly been transformed by literacy, and transformed for the better. But literacy is a vehicle for knowledge, a means to an end not an end in itself. It’s important, not for its own sake but because of what it has enabled us – collectively – to achieve. I’m not disparaging reading for enjoyment; but reading for enjoyment didn’t change the world.

What the real world needs is not for everyone to be functionally literate, but for a critical mass of people to be functionally literate. And for some people to be so literate that they can acquire complex skills and knowledge that can benefit the rest of us. What proportion of people need to be functionally or highly literate will depend on what a particular society wants to achieve.

Human beings are a highly social species. Our ecological success (our ability to occupy varied habitats – what we do to those habitats is something else entirely) is due to our ability to solve problems, to communicate those solutions to each other and to work collectively. What an individual can or can’t do is important, but what we can do together is more important because that’s a more efficient way of using resources for mutual benefit.

This survey found that 20% of professionals and 30% of managers don’t have adequate literacy skills. It’s still possible to hold down a skilled job, draw a good salary, drive a car, get a mortgage, raise a family and retire on an adequate pension even if your literacy skills are flaky. Poor literacy might be embarrassing and require some ingenious workarounds to cover it up, but that’s more of a problem with social acceptability than utility. And plenty of jobs don’t require you to be a great reader.

It looks as though inadequate literacy, although an issue in the world of work, isn’t an insurmountable obstacle. So why would anyone claim that teaching children to read is ‘the most fundamental aim of schools’?

reading in schools

There are several reasons. Mass education systems were set up partly to provide manufacturing industry with a literate, numerate workforce. Schools in those fledgling education systems were often run on shoestring budgets. If a school had very limited resources, making reading a priority at least provided children with the opportunity to educate themselves in later life. Literacy takes time to develop, so if you have the luxury of being able to teach additional subjects, it makes sense to access them via reading and writing – thus killing two birds with one stone. Lastly, because for a variety of reasons public examinations are written ones, literacy is a key measure of pupil and school achievement.

In the real world, if you find reading especially difficult you can still learn a lot – by watching and listening or trial and error. But the emphasis schools place on literacy means that if in school you happen to be a child who finds reading especially difficult, you’re stumped. You can’t even compensate by becoming knowledgeable if you’re required to jump the literacy hurdle first. And poor knowledge, however literate you are, is a big problem in the real world.

SP advocates would say that the reason some children find reading difficult is because they haven’t been taught properly. And that if they were taught properly they would be able to read. That’s a possible explanation, but one possible explanation doesn’t rule out all the other possible explanations. And if Jeanne Chall’s descriptions of teachers’ approaches to formal reading instruction programmes are anything to go by, it’s unlikely that all children are going to get taught to read ‘properly’ any time soon. If some children have problems learning to read for whatever reason, we need to make sure that they’re not denied access to knowledge as well. Because in the real world, it’s knowledge that makes things work.

Now for some of the arms of the reading octopus that got tangled up in the string bag that is Twitter.

• I’m not saying reading isn’t important; it is – but that doesn’t make it the ‘fundamental aim of schools’, nor ‘a fundamental skill needed for life’.
• I’m not saying children shouldn’t be taught to read; they should be, but variation in reading ability doesn’t automatically mean a ‘deficit’ in instruction, home life or in the child.
• I’m not saying some children struggle to read because they are ‘less able’ than others; some kids find reading especially challenging but that has nothing to do with their intelligence.
• Nor am saying we shouldn’t have high aspirations for students; we should, but there’s no reason to have the same aspirations for all of them. Our strength as a species is in our diversity.

Frankly, if forced to choose, I’d rather live in a community populated by competent, practical people with reading skills that left something to be desired, than one populated by people with, say, PPE degrees from Oxford who’ve forgotten which way is up.

brutal – and unworkable

This morning @HeatherBellaF posted an example on Twitter of what the principal of a high profile ‘flagship’ academy called her “direct style of management”. @HeatherBellaF’s comment was “Flippin’ heck! Brutal!”

In her first week at the academy, the principal says she asked the senior leadership team to “list those who they thought were inadequate teachers”. The names of almost a third of the 60+ teachers at the school came up. (We’re not told if the list included any of the senior leadership team.) A frank interview with each member of staff on the list followed. Within a year almost all had left.

Tales of ‘new brooms’ are a popular feature of management periodicals. Typically they mention the unsentimental removal of ‘dead wood’, the introduction of ‘new blood’ and the organisation in question being ‘turned around’ as a consequence. Such strategies are sometimes necessary, but most chief executives of private companies the size of the academy in question would think long and hard before replacing a third of their workforce in the space of a few months.

Private companies have responsibilities towards several groups of people. Shareholders, who provide capital; customers, the main source of income; their workforce, who enable them to operate; and taxpayers, who provide the infrastructure the company needs to function. All those groups of people need to be kept happy, or things go badly wrong. If a lot of shareholders sell their shares the company could go under; if customers go elsewhere, income dries up; if there’s high staff turnover productivity plummets; and if the firm avoids paying taxes the national infrastructure can suffer – and then everybody suffers.

For a private company, the strategy adopted by the academy principal would be a risky one. Leaving aside issues like whether senior managers would comply, the impact on the remaining staff or the union’s view, the outcome is unpredictable. In a best case, all those listed might see the error of their ways and pull up their socks and their performance. At the other extreme, all the staff in question might exit ASAP. That could be a problem for a medium-sized private company, because replacing staff costs money and time. Productivity and cashflow could suffer during those few months and if the company was struggling financially anyway, it could be the last straw. So most managers would adopt this approach only as a last resort, or would make sure the company could survive a few turbulent months before grasping the nettle.

Traditionally, state schools haven’t had to worry about the impact of recruitment costs on cashflow because they’ve had LEAs to fall back on, though questions would have been asked about a secondary school with a 30% staff turnover. But for a showcase academy, stumping up the cash to make sure teachers are top-notch and on message isn’t only good for the kids, it’s a sound marketing strategy.

The market economy model adopted by successive UK governments assumes that competition is a good thing because it fosters excellence. What this model conveniently overlooks is that the private sector looks healthy because we see only the companies that survive; not the 50% that don’t make it through the first three years. It also overlooks the fact that private companies can do whatever it takes to make a (legal) profit; if a particular type of customer isn’t profitable, the company can change its target demographic – unlike public education, health and social care that have to provide services for everybody.

It’s possible that all the teachers deemed ‘inadequate’ were simply not suited to that particular challenging academy and that the principal was right when she calmed her ‘moral qualms’ by hoping that the teachers who moved on would “succeed in a smaller, more orderly school”. That’s possible, but what if every ‘challenging’ school did the same? And what about the teachers who left having been told that “you (sic) have been identified by the leadership team as inadequate”?

Teacher training, recruitment and professional development are funded by all of us and it’s in all our interests to ensure that that investment is a productive one. The strategy of replacing teachers who are not up to the task might benefit a particular school, but the cost is borne by the community. So is the cost of another school recruiting them. So are the costs of teachers leaving the profession because having heard that they, personally, have been deemed inadequate has prompted them to think that making the ‘right decision about their career’ is to get out of teaching.

Many private companies, given the opportunity to replace ‘inadequate’ staff at no cost, would do so in a heartbeat because that would likely result in a rapid, substantial improvement in performance. So although the academy’s human resources management approach was effective, it was effective only because the costs were passed on to others, notably taxpayers. And the strategy won’t scale up; it will be effective for a few early adopters, but the pool of superlative teachers willing and able to work in a challenging school and have frank conversations with the principal isn’t a bottomless one.

It might have been more cost-effective in the long-term to have put in place a robust training programme that enabled the ‘inadequate’ teachers to become ‘adequate’. Or even ‘outstanding’.

This approach to teacher recruitment and retention isn’t just brutal – it’s unworkable.

synthetic phonics, dyslexia and natural learning

Too intense a focus on the virtues of synthetic phonics (SP) can, it seems, result in related issues getting a bit blurred. I discovered that some whole language supporters do appear to have been ideologically motivated but that the whole language approach didn’t originate in ideology. And as far as I can tell we don’t know if SP can reduce adult functional illiteracy rates. But I wouldn’t have known either of those things from the way SP is framed by its supporters. SP proponents also make claims about how the brain is involved in reading. In this post I’ll look at two of them; dyslexia and natural learning.


Dyslexia started life as a descriptive label for the reading difficulties adults can develop due to brain damage caused by a stroke or head injury. Some children were observed to have similar reading difficulties despite otherwise normal development. The adults’ dyslexia was acquired (they’d previously been able to read) but the children’s dyslexia was developmental (they’d never learned to read). The most obvious conclusion was that the children also had brain damage – but in the early 20th century when the research started in earnest there was no easy way to determine that.

Medically, developmental dyslexia is still only a descriptive label meaning ‘reading difficulties’ (causes unknown, might/might not be biological, might vary from child to child). However, dyslexia is now also used to denote a supposed medical condition that causes reading difficulties. This new usage is something that Diane McGuinness complains about in Why Children Don’t Learn to Read.

I completely agree with McGuinness that this use isn’t justified and has led to confusion and unintended and unwanted outcomes. But I think she muddies the water further by peppering her discussion of dyslexia (pp. 132-140) with debatable assertions such as:

“We call complex human traits ‘talents’”.

“Normal variation is on a continuum but people working from a medical or clinical model tend to think in dichotomies…”.

“Reading is definitely not a property of the human brain”.

“If reading is a biological property of the brain, transmitted genetically, then this must have occurred by Lamarckian evolution.”

Why debatable? Because complex human traits are not necessarily ‘talents’; clinicians tend to be more aware of normal variation than most people; reading must be a ‘property of the brain’ if we need a brain to read; and the research McGuinness refers to didn’t claim that ‘reading’ was transmitted genetically.

I can understand why McGuinness might be trying to move away from the idea that reading difficulties are caused by a biological impairment that we can’t fix. After all, the research suggests SP can improve the poor phonological awareness that’s strongly associated with reading difficulties. I get the distinct impression, however, that she’s uneasy with the whole idea of reading difficulties having biological causes. She concedes that phonological processing might be inherited (p.140) but then denies that a weakness in discriminating phonemes could be due to organic brain damage. She’s right that brain scans had revealed no structural brain differences between dyslexics and good readers. And in scans that show functional variations, the ability to read might be a cause, rather than an effect.

But as McGuinness herself points out reading is a complex skill involving many brain areas, and biological mechanisms tend to vary between individuals. In a complex biological process there’s a lot of scope for variation. Poor phonological awareness might be a significant factor, but it might not be the only factor. A child with poor phonological awareness plus visual processing impairments plus limited working memory capacity plus slow processing speed – all factors known to be associated with reading difficulties – would be unlikely to find those difficulties eliminated by SP alone. The risk in conceding that reading difficulties might have biological origins is that using teaching methods to remediate them might then called into question – just what McGuinness doesn’t want to happen, and for good reason.

Natural and unnatural abilities

McGuinness’s view of the role of biology in reading seems to be derived from her ideas about the origin of skills. She says;

It is the natural abilities of people that are transmitted genetically, not unnatural abilities that depend upon instruction and involve the integration of many subskills”. (p.140, emphasis McGuinness)

This is a distinction often made by SP proponents. I’ve been told that children don’t need to be taught to walk or talk because these abilities are natural and so develop instinctively and effortlessly. Written language, in contrast, is a recent man-made invention; there hasn’t been time to evolve a natural mechanism for reading, so we need to be taught how to do it and have to work hard to master it. Steven Pinker, who wrote the foreword to Why Children Can’t Read seems to agree. He says “More than a century ago, Charles Darwin got it right: language is a human instinct, but written language is not” (p.ix).

Although that’s a plausible model, what Pinker and McGuinness fail to mention is that it’s also a controversial one. The part played by nature and nurture in the development of language (and other abilities) has been the subject of heated debate for decades. The reason for the debate is that the relevant research findings can be interpreted in different ways. McGuinness is entitled to her interpretation but it’s disingenuous in a book aimed at a general readership not to tell readers that other researchers would disagree.

Research evidence suggests that the natural/unnatural skills model has got it wrong. The same natural/unnatural distinction was made recently in the case of part of the brain called the fusiform gyrus. In the fusiform gyrus, visual information about objects is categorised. Different types of objects, such as faces, places and small items like tools, have their own dedicated locations. Because those types of objects are naturally occurring, researchers initially thought their dedicated locations might be hard-wired.

But there’s also word recognition area. And in experts, the faces area is also used for cars, chess positions, and specially invented items called greebles. To become an expert in any of those things you require some instruction – you’d need to learn the rules of chess or the names of cars or greebles. But your visual system can still learn to accurately recognise, discriminate between and categorise many thousands of items like faces, places, tools, cars, chess positions and greebles simply through hours and hours of visual exposure.

Practice makes perfect

What claimants for ‘natural’ skills also tend to overlook is how much rehearsal goes into them. Most parents don’t actively teach children to talk, but babies hear and rehearse speech for many months before they can say recognisable words. Most parents don’t teach toddlers to walk, but it takes young children years to become fully stable on their feet despite hours of daily practice.

There’s no evidence that as far as the brain is concerned there’s any difference between ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ knowledge and skills. How much instruction and practice knowledge or skills require will depend on their transparency and complexity. Walking and bike-riding are pretty transparent; you can see what’s involved by watching other people. But they take a while to learn because of the complexity of the motor-co-ordination and balance involved. Speech and reading are less transparent and more complex than walking and bike-riding, so take much longer to master. But some children require intensive instruction in order to learn to speak, and many children learn to read with minimal input from adults. The natural/unnatural distinction is a false one and it’s as unhelpful as assuming that reading difficulties are caused by ‘dyslexia’.

Multiple causes

What underpins SP proponents’ reluctance to admit biological factors as causes for reading difficulties is, I suspect, an error often made when assessing cause and effect. It’s an easy one to make, but one that people advocating changes to public policy need to be aware of.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that we know, for sure, that reading difficulties have three major causes, A, B and C. The one that occurs most often is A. We can confidently predict that children showing A will have reading difficulties. What we can’t say, without further investigation, is whether a particular child’s reading difficulties are due to A. Or if A is involved, that it’s the only cause.

We know that poor phonological awareness is frequently associated with reading difficulties. Because SP trains children to be aware of phonological features in speech, and because that training improves word reading and spelling, it’s a safe bet that poor phonological awareness is also a cause of reading difficulties. But because reading is a complex skill, there are many possible causes for reading difficulties. We can’t assume that poor phonological awareness is the only cause, or that it’s a cause in all cases.

The evidence that SP improves children’s decoding ability is persuasive. However, the evidence also suggests that 12% – 15% of children will still struggle to learn to decode using SP. And that around 15% of children will struggle with reading comprehension. Having a method of reading instruction that works for most children is great, but education should benefit all children, and since the minority of children who struggle are the ones people keep complaining about, we need to pay attention to what causes reading difficulties for those children – as individuals. In education, one size might fit most, but it doesn’t fit all.


McGuinness, D. (1998). Why Children Can’t Read and What We Can Do About It. Penguin.

synthetic phonics and functional literacy: the missing link

According to Diane McGuinness in Why Can’t Children Read, first published in 1997, California’s low 4th grade reading scores prompted it in 1996 to revert to using phonics rather than ‘real books’ for teaching reading. McGuinness, like the legislators in California, clearly expected phonics to make a difference to reading levels. It appears to have had little impact (NCES, 2013). McGuinness would doubtless point out that ‘phonics’ isn’t systematic synthetic phonics, and that might have made a big difference. Indeed it might. We don’t know.

Synthetic phonics and functional literacy

Synthetic phonics is important because it can break a link in a casual chain that leads to functional illiteracy:

• poor phonological awareness ->
• poor decoding ->
• poor reading comprehension ->
• functional illiteracy and low educational attainment

The association between phonological awareness and reading difficulties is well established. And obviously if you can’t decode text you won’t understand it and if you can’t understand text your educational attainment won’t be very high.

SP involves training children to detect, recognise and discriminate between phonemes, so we’d expect it to improve phonological awareness and decoding skills, and that’s exactly what studies have shown. But as far as I can tell, we don’t know what impact SP has on the rest of the causal chain; on functional literacy rates in school leavers or on overall educational attainment.

This is puzzling. The whole point of teaching children to read is so they can be functionally literate. The SP programmes McGuinness advocates have been available for at least a couple of decades, so there’s been plenty of time to assess their impact on functional literacy. One of them, Phono-graphix (developed by a former student of McGuinness’s, now her daughter-in-law), has been the focus of several peer-reviewed studies all of which report improvements, but none of which appears to have assessed the impact on functional literacy by school leaving age. SP proponents have pointed out that might be because they’ve had enough difficulty getting policy-makers to take SP seriously, let alone fund long-term pilot studies.

The Clackmannanshire study

One study that did involve SP and followed the development of literacy skills over time was carried out in Clackmannanshire in Scotland by Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson, then based at the University of Hull and the University of St Andrews respectively.

They compared three reading instruction approaches implemented in Primary 1 and tracked children’s performance in word reading, spelling and reading comprehension up to Primary 7. The study found very large gains in word reading (3y 6m; fig 1) and spelling (1y 9m; fig 2) for the group of children who’d had the SP intervention. The report describes reading comprehension as “significantly above chronological age throughout”. What it’s referring to is a 7-month advantage in P1 that had reduced to a 3.5-month advantage by P7.

A noticeable feature of the Clackmannanshire study is that scores were presented as group means, although boys’ and girls’ scores and those of advantaged and disadvantaged children were differentiated. One drawback of aggregating scores this way is that it can mask effects within the groups. So an intervention might be followed by a statistically significant average improvement that’s caused by some children performing much better than others.

This is exactly what we see in the data on ‘underachievers’ (fig 9). Despite large improvements at the group level, by P7 5% of children were more than two years behind their chronological age norm for word reading, 10% for spelling and 15% for reading comprehension. The improvements in group scores on word reading and spelling increased with age – but so did the proportion of children who were more than two years behind. This is an example of the ‘Matthew effect’ that Keith Stanovich refers to; children who can decode read more so their reading improves, whereas children who can’t decode don’t read so don’t improve. For the children in the Clackmannanshire study as a group, SP significantly improved word reading and spelling and slightly improved their comprehension, but it didn’t eliminate the Matthew effect.

The phonics check

There’s a similar within-group variation in the English KS1 phonics check, introduced in 2012. Ignoring the strange shape of the graph in 2012 and 2013 (though Dorothy Bishop’s observations are worth reading), the percentage of Year 2 children who scored below the expected standard was 15% in 2013 and 12% in 2014. The sharp increase at the cut-off point suggests that there are two populations of children – those who grasp phonics and those who don’t. Or that most children have been taught phonics properly but some haven’t. There’s also a spike at the end of the long tail of children who don’t quite ‘get’ phonics for whatever reason, representing the 5783 children who scored 0.

It’s clear that SP significantly improves children’s ability to decode and spell – at the group level. But we don’t appear to know whether that improvement is due to children who can already decode a bit getting much better at it, or to children who previously couldn’t decode learning to do it, or both, or if there are some children for whom SP has no impact.

And I have yet to find evidence showing that SP reduces the rates of functional illiteracy that McGuinness, politicians and the press complain about. The proportion of school leavers who have difficulty with reading comprehension has hovered around 17% for decades in the US (NCES, 2013) and in the UK (Rashid & Brooks, 2010). A similar proportion of children in the US and the UK populations have some kind of learning difficulty. And according to the Warnock report that figure appears to have been stable in the UK since mass education was introduced.

The magical number 17 plus or minus 2

There’s a likely explanation for that 17% (or thereabouts). In a large population, some features (such as height, weight, IQ or reading ability) are the outcome of what are essentially random variables. If you measure one of those features across the population and plot a graph of your measurements, they will form what’s commonly referred to as a normal distribution – with the familiar bell curve shape. The curve will be symmetrical around the mean (average) score. Not only does that tell you that 50% of your population will score above the mean and 50% below it, it also enables you to predict what proportion of the population will be significantly taller/shorter, lighter/heavier, more/less intelligent or better/worse at reading than average. Statistically, around 16% of the population will score more than one standard deviation below the mean. Those people will be significantly shorter/lighter/less intelligent or have more difficulties with reading than the rest of the population.

Bell curves tend to ring alarm bells so I need to make it clear what I am not saying. I’m not saying that problems with reading are due to a ‘reading gene’ or to biology or IQ and that we can’t do anything about them. What I am saying is that if reading ability in a large population is the outcome of not just one factor, but many factors that are to all intents and purposes random, then it’s a pretty safe bet that around 16% of children will have a significant problem with it. What’s important for that 16% is figuring out what factors are causing reading problems for individual children within that group. There are likely to be several different causes, as the NCES (1993) study found. So a child might have reading difficulties due to persistent glue ear as an infant, an undiagnosed developmental disorder, having a mother with mental health problems who hardly speaks to them, having no books at home or because their family dismisses reading as pointless. Or all of the above. SP might help, but is unlikely to address all of the obstacles to word reading, spelling and comprehension that child faces.

The data show that SP enables 11 year-olds as a group to make huge gains in their word reading and spelling skills. That’s brilliant. Let’s use synthetic phonics.

The data also show that SP doesn’t eliminate reading comprehension problems for at least 15% of 11 year-olds – or the word reading problems of around 15% of 6-7 year-olds. That could be due to some SP programmes not being taught systematically enough, intensively enough or for long enough. But it could be due to other causes. If so, those causes need to be identified and addressed or the child’s functional literacy will remain at risk.

I can see why the Clackmannanshire study convinced the UK government to recommend then mandate the use of SP for reading instruction in English schools (things are different in Scotland), but I haven’t yet found a follow-up study that measured literacy levels at 16, or the later impact on educational attainment; and the children involved in the study would now be in their early 20s.

What concerns me is that if more is being implicitly claimed for SP than it can actually deliver or if it fails to deliver a substantial improvement in the functional literacy of school leavers in a decade’s time, then it’s likely to be seen as yet another educational ‘fad’ and abandoned, regardless of the gains it brings in decoding and spelling. Meanwhile, the many other factors involved in reading comprehension are at risk of being marginalised if policy-makers pin their hopes on SP alone. Which just goes to show why nationally mandated educational policies should be thoroughly piloted and evaluated before they are foisted on schools.


McGuinness, D. (1998). Why Children Can’t Read and What We Can Do About It. Penguin.
NCES (1993). Adult Literacy in America. National Center for Educational Statistics.
NCES (2013). Trends in Academic Progress. National Center for Educational Statistics.
Rashid, S & Brooks, G (2010). The levels of attainment in literacy and numeracy of 13- to 19-year-olds in England, 1948–2009. National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy.