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28 Oct 2021
“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.
Thanks to changes to the primary curriculum, more children than ever are able to discover Dahl’s peculiar magic for themselves.
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.
Don’t take my word for it. In a landmark study in Clackmannanshire, researchers from the University of St Andrews studied reading levels among 300 children from eight local primary schools. After 16 weeks, the reading and spelling of children on the phonics programme were around seven months above their chronological age.
In 2010, when we came to office, one of the first things we did at the Department for Education was to get primary schools to teach reading using phonics. Then in 2012 we introduced a short 40-word test, the phonics check, to make sure every child had mastered the basic skill of translating letters on the page into words.
In 2012, just 58 per cent of six-year-olds in England could read at least 32 of the 40 words in the 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.
We are determined that every school will be a good school and that every child will have the best start in life. There is no excuse for a school not doing things properly. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds shouldn’t be losing out at this crucial stage.
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.
The brilliance of Dahl should not be a literary legacy that can be passed on to some children but not others.