Our whizzpopping phonics revolution is transforming literacy in schools

Nick Gibb writes in The Telegraph. “Words,” said The BFG, “Is oh such a twitch-tickling problem to me all my life.” Roald Dahl’s much-loved creation has an exotic vocabulary: one that encompasses whizzpopping, whopsywhiffling, snapperwhippers and snozzcumbers, and one that is designed to challenge the mind of every six-year-old reader it is aimed at. 

In an international survey of the reading abilities of nine-year-olds, England leapfrogged up the rankings last year after decades of falling standards, going from 19th out of 50 countries to eighth. A key reason is phonics. Before 2010, children were taught to read using the “progressive” method. With this approach, children repeat words until they remember them (“Look John look. Look Janet look”) and from this are expected to absorb the full alphabetic code.

This method assumed that pupils would start school with a certain level of understanding of how letters and sounds come together to form words. But we know that many children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, do not always have this knowledge.

Children need to be explicitly taught the alphabetic code, the sounds each letter and groups of letters make and how to blend those sounds into words, so D-O-G means dog. This approach is known as phonics and it works.

In 2012, just 58 per cent of six-year-olds in England could read at least 32 of the 40 words in the 40 word phonics check correctly. Last year that had risen to 81 per cent and I hope to see further progress in the statistics released today. This is a tremendous achievement, and testimony to the skill of the teachers who have brought it about. Hundreds of thousands of children are reading better than they otherwise would have done.

And yet, I worry about the 19 per cent who didn’t reach the standard and for whom The BFG’s linguistic contortions will remain a mystery. Only 70 per cent of children eligible for free school meals reached the expected standard. But phonics is not dependent on the background of a child, or on their cultural knowledge or vocabulary. It is a mechanical skill. If taught properly, every child should be able to perfect it.

What this gap in performance reveals is that, in some schools, phonics is not being taught as effectively as it should be and that a school’s overall score in the phonics check might be masking poor phonics teaching. Many of the children at that school will be taught to read at home, leaving children without that advantage struggling.

That is why we are continuing to fund the successful Phonics Roadshows into 2018-19, investing a further £100,000 in 24 roadshows. These events are designed to promote effective teaching of systematic synthetic phonics in reception and key stage 1.

Read more Our whizzpopping phonics revolution is transforming literacy in schools

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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