I hear about the Education Endowment Foundation quite frequently via Twitter but so far I’ve been unimpressed with the organisation – as are a few others out there in bloggersphere. I complained to Nick Gibb, Minister for School Standards about the description of ‘Phonics’ as shown on the EEF website and, to my knowledge, the Department for Education put out feelers to investigate my complaint. Anyone who knows anything about research findings will know that an international body of research, for considerable time, has shown the efficacy of explicit and systematic phonics provision as one of five features listed to be essentials in literacy provision. The review by the National Reading Panel in the United States in 2000 led to a summary of the essentials for literacy known as The Five Pillars of Literacy or The Big Five. These include 1) phonemic awareness, 2) phonics, 3) fluency, 4) vocabulary and 5) comprehension. In England, for a decade or more we have had the promotion of ‘Systematic Synthetic Phonics’ following parliamentary inquiries and Sir Jim Rose’s national review (2006) looking into the research findings and leading-edge practice in schools. In other words, ‘phonics’ is now recognised as being extremely important and a core and essential part of teaching reading – so much so that we have had Systematic Synthetic Phonics embedded in the statutory National Curriculum for English – and various phonics initiatives over the years post the Rose Report. When I first read the description of ‘Phonics’ on the EEF site, however, I could not believe my eyes as to the inaccurate and misleading blurb and therefore how misinformed the author must be. When I at first tweeted about this, someone from the EEF organisation responded and asked if we could speak on the phone – which we subsequently did – but to no avail that I can see. By that I mean, my critique of the description of ‘Phonics’ on the EEF site does not appear to have changed one jot. Does this suggest that the author did not agree with my comments, or are they just too busy, or understaffed at the EEF to look into my review with any degree of seriousness – and to get back to me with their conclusions. Or is the organisation so big, rich and corporate that the personnel can afford to just ignore the criticisms? What’s the score?
As I am genuinely concerned about the EEF description of phonics because I consider it to be so inadequate, I am repeating my review here – especially important as this site is dedicated to ‘intervention’ which is pertinent to learners of 10 and above, not just young beginners who may be slower-to-learn than others or have specific learning difficulties. I shall highlight the EEF text in purple and my responses will be in dark grey:
Phonics is an approach to teaching reading, and some aspects of writing, by developing learners’ phonemic awareness. This involves the skills of hearing, identifying and using phonemes or sound patterns in English. The aim is to systematically teach learners the relationship between these sounds and the written spelling patterns, or graphemes, which represent them. Phonics emphasises the skills of decoding new words by sounding them out and combining or ‘blending’ the sound-spelling patterns.
Debbie: This is a very weak and inadequate description of phonics in relation to what phonics provision should ‘look like’ in schools in England. It fails to mention, for example, that English has the most complex alphabetic code in the world and that a body of international research concluded that this code and phonics skills should be taught explicitly and systematically. Also, to be accurate, ‘blending’ for reading involves spelling to sound patterns (not sound-spelling patterns) and spelling involves sound to print.
EEF: How effective is it?
Phonics approaches have been consistently found to be effective in supporting younger readers to master the basics of reading, with an average impact of an additional four months’ progress. Research suggests that phonics is particularly beneficial for younger learners (4-7 year olds) as they begin to read.
Debbie: The statement above makes no sense. What does the figure ‘four months’ progress’ actually mean – using what assessment/s and relative to what? Compare this ‘four months’ progress’ statement with the progress made according to Dr Marlynne Grant’s report of two studies with pupils of various profiles. Go to pages 6, 7 and 8 in the report below and look at the children’s chronological ages compared to their reading ages (word level) and their spelling ages, using standardised tests, at the end of Reception, Year One and Year Two. I suggest that an analysis of results from phonics provision in the North East should take into account the findings from following a truly systematic synthetic phonics programme such as Dr Marlynne Grant’s shows here:
EEF: Teaching phonics is more effective on average than other approaches to early reading (such as whole language or alphabetic approaches), though it should be emphasised that effective phonics techniques are usually embedded in a rich literacy environment for early readers and are only one part of a successful literacy strategy.
Debbie: What is meant by the ‘alphabetic approaches’? I query this because synthetic phonics as it is known in England is about teaching the letter/s-sound correspondences of the ‘alphabetic code’ and the phonics skills for reading and spelling. This statement is therefore not clear.
EEF: Phonics approaches have been consistently found to be effective in supporting younger readers
For older readers who are still struggling to develop reading skills, phonics approaches may be less successful than other approaches such as Reading comprehension strategies and Meta-cognition and self-regulation. The difference may indicate that children aged 10 or above who have not succeeded using phonics approaches previously require a different approach, or that these students have other difficulties related to vocabulary and comprehension which phonics does not target.
Debbie: This statement above is very misleading which is concerning. The age of the learners does not matter. If they have a weakness in alphabetic code knowledge and/or the blending (synthesising) skill, then that is the knowledge and/or skills gap that must be addressed for the sake of their life-long literacy, learning, job prospects and self-esteem.
When people encounter an unknown word in reading material (unknown because they don’t recognise the word and also it is not in their spoken language), then the only way to come up with a pronunciation for the new word is some form of phonics – that is, translating the letters, letter groups, and/or word chunks into sounds. The person can possibly deduce the meaning of the unknown word when it is presented in context, but without a pronunciation, that word cannot be added to the person’s oral vocabulary. Thus, phonics knowledge is not an either/or scenario. If children have reached the age of 10 and they are struggling with their reading, then the teacher needs to assess whether their stumbling block is language comprehension (spoken language) or technical ability to lift new words off the page, or a combination of both (the Simple View of Reading diagram is very helpful for illustrating the relationship between the technical skills for reading – what ARE the words? and the language comprehension skills – what do the words MEAN?)
Far too many teachers believe that ‘phonics doesn’t suit some children‘ or ‘phonics hasn’t worked so far, therefore let’s try something different‘ and yet this is a fundamentally flawed understanding about the processes involved in teaching reading and learning to read and being a lifelong reader. It may well be that 10+ year old pupils need more intensive practice of reading, or that they need more opportunity for repetition to build up fluency and confidence – but it should never be a case of ‘those who have not succeeded using phonics approaches‘ should therefore ‘get something different‘ and EVERY teacher should know this!
The EEF is also misleading to state, ‘these students have other difficulties related to vocabulary and comprehension which phonics does not target‘ because phonics provision should target vocabulary and comprehension – but a close look at schools in the North East would discover whether phonics provision fails to target vocabulary and comprehension or not. Bring on the report of findings in the schools. In fact, where IS the report of the findings of phonics provision in the schools in the North East where the EEF is funding literacy intervention to the tune of £10million those programmes and projects they have trialled – but what if programmes that the EEF has not trialled are much better still?
For children over 10 ‘who have not succeeded using phonics approaches previously‘, it is plain wrong to suggest that they ‘require a different approach‘ (meaning, not phonics). Further, ‘phonics approaches‘ is a very inadequate way to describe phonics provision and programmes – and implies that it is adequate to consider all ‘phonics approaches’ under the same broad brush stroke. This is not correct. We are in the era of identifying what it means to provide phonics in a rigorous, systematic, explicit and content-rich way. This is why the EEF is entirely misguided to consider that the job of research is over for investigating at least reputable content-rich phonics programmes and looking at whether their variations make a difference to results.
I observe phonics lessons as part of my work, and I can describe first hand that phonics programmes and phonics provision do not look at all the same from school to school or even from class to class in the same school.
EEF: Qualified teachers tend to get better results when delivering phonics interventions (up to twice the effectiveness of other staff), indicating that expertise is a key component of successful teaching of early reading.
DEBBIE: So, again, what is the picture of phonics provision – for first-time and for intervention – in the schools in the North East of England and beyond? I agree that ‘expertise is a key component of successful teaching of early reading‘ but, what is the situation in the schools themselves, where is the official national report of observations? What needs to be addressed in the schools? Does first-time teaching and phonics training need to be fully understood and addressed, for example, before rolling out specific interventions as the answer to weak literacy? The 3-year NFER reports on teachers’ views of phonics provision and the Year One Phonics Screening Check indicated that there could be a very high percentage of teachers still promoting the multi-cueing reading strategies amounting to guessing words from various cues. Should the EEF not investigate this state of affairs considering its mission statement is:
EEF About page
The EEF is an independent grant-making charity dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement, ensuring that children and young people from all backgrounds can fulfil their potential and make the most of their talents. We fund rigorous evaluations of innovative projects aiming to raise pupils’ attainment. We do this to find out what’s most likely to work effectively and cost-effectively, and to put that into action across the country.
Founded by the education charity the Sutton Trust, as lead charity in partnership with Impetus Trust, the EEF received a founding grant of £125m from the Department for Education. With investment and fundraising income, the EEF intends to award as much as £200m over the 15-year life of the Foundation.
Debbie: Click on the word ‘About‘ (above) to read the full mission statement of the EEF. I have to laugh, and cry. Invest that kind of money in top quality foundational literacy training and a good body of work to deliver top quality phonics provision in every schools and we would see a huge improvement for currently poor-attaining children in primary.
EEF: How secure is the evidence?
Overall, the evidence base related to phonics is very secure. There have been a number of studies, reviews and meta-analyses that have consistently found that the systematic teaching of phonics is beneficial. There is some evidence that approaches informed by synthetic phonics (where the emphasis is on sounding out letters and blending sounds to form words) may be more beneficial than analytic approaches (where the sound/symbol relationship is inferred from identifying patterns and similarities by comparing several words). However, the evidence here is less secure and it is probably more important to match the teaching to children’s particular needs and systematically teach the sound patterns with which they are not yet confident.
Debbie: This is nonsense – and, again, a very worrying description. Why would the EEF give any room to the debate about ‘synthetic versus analytic’ approaches? Phonics provision is about teaching the letter/s-sound correspondences of the English alphabetic code comprehensively mainly at the level of the phoneme for all-through-the-word reading and for spelling purposes. The EEF statement simply smacks of archive debate and not leading-edge phonics provision.
EEF: Several robust studies of phonics programmes in English have been published in recent years. The findings show that phonics programmes can be effective in English schools, but also underline the importance of high quality implementation. Recent evaluations of Switch-on Reading, a programme involving phonics components delivered by teaching assistants, and Fresh Start, showed that both had an average impact of three additional months’ progress. However two other programmes, both targeting struggling, older readers, did not improve reading outcomes.
Debbie: Interventions should certainly be focused on children’s needs – but if the mindset and the message of the EEF is that children older than 10 have not succeeded with ‘phonics approaches‘ and need something different (see previous comments) then this is very worrying if phonics alphabetic code knowledge and skills is what the children, or some of the children, do indeed need – regardless of age. Again, what does ‘an average impact of three additional months’ progress’ actually mean?
People in my field, including me, are approached by Secondary school personnel all the time regarding learners of 11+ who are still in great need of high-quality phonics teaching and content. How can it be that such a huge, corporate research organisation such as the EEF is writing such weak statements about phonics, referring to ‘four months’ progress‘ and ‘three months’ progress‘ without any explanation as to what this means, and suggesting that phonics is OK for early reading but that beyond 10, children need something else rather than the phonics approaches which they did not succeed with earlier?
EEF: Please click here for the technical appendix, which includes full references and more detail on the security and cost ratings.
What are the costs?
Overall, the costs are estimated as very low. The costs associated with teaching phonics arise from the need for specific resources and professional training. Evidence suggests that the effectiveness of phonics is related to the pupil’s stage of reading development, so it is also important that teachers have professional development in effective assessment as well as in the use of particular phonic techniques and materials.
Debbie: But the costs for children are very high if those who need the most rigorous phonics provision are not receiving it. If a region in England is looking particularly weak compared to others, then the first port of call would be to examine the phonics provision for reading and spelling instruction of the mainstream teaching and also of the existing intervention provision. What I know of some intervention programmes is extremely worrying – and not at all in line with the mainstream provision as recommended by Sir Jim Rose.
It may well be that the North East region provides high-quality, content-rich phonics provision in every school, and maybe the children are up to speed with their knowledge of the most complex alphabetic code in the world and their blending skills for reading and oral segmenting skills for spelling – such that they now need ‘something else’.
If this is the case, where is the EEF report, or governmental report, of a survey to illustrate this transparently?
EEF: What should I consider?
Before you implement this strategy in your learning environment, consider the following:
1. Phonics can be an important component in the development of early reading skills, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, it is also important that children are successful in making progress in all aspects of reading including vocabulary development, comprehension and spelling, which should be taught separately and explicitly.
Debbie: THIS IS A TOTALLY FLAWED STATEMENT. It’s not that phonics ‘can‘ be an important component in the development of early reading skills, phonics IS an extremely important component in the development of early reading skills – listed in The Five Pillars of Literacy.
Furthermore, if the EEF personnel were knowledgeable, they would know that a high-quality systematic synthetic phonics programme includes vocabulary development, comprehension and spelling. This does not preclude teachers from teaching vocabulary explicitly, and spelling additionally, outside of the main phonics lessons – and language comprehension should be part of every lesson, every day across the curriculum anyway.
It is plain wrong for the EEF to state, however, that the components of ‘vocabulary development, comprehension and spelling….should be taught separately and explicitly’ as if they are not part of phonics provision because they should be – and they certainly are included in all my phonics programmes and guidance! Do the EEF personnel not know this? Are they truly equipped for their roles and responsibilities?
EEF: 2. The teaching of phonics should be explicit and systematic to support children in making connections between the sound patterns they hear in words and the way that these words are written.
3. The teaching of phonics should be matched to children’s current level of skill in terms of their phonemic awareness and their knowledge of letter sounds and patterns (graphemes).
Debbie: Again, this is such an inadequate description or explanation of phonics provision with no reference to the level of content and practice in the phonics Teaching and Learning Cycle.
EEF: 4. Phonics improves the accuracy of the child’s reading but not the comprehension. How are you planning on developing wider literacy skills such as comprehension?
Debbie: This statement above is flawed and, again, misleading. Yes, phonics does improve the accuracy of the child’s reading, and that in itself unlocks the child’s comprehension at the level of oral language – sometimes known as ‘spoken language’ or ‘listening comprehension’. Without being able to decode the sentence, ‘the dog is black’, the child cannot comprehend the sentence. If the child understands about ‘dogs’ and colours, then the relationship for reading is a combination of both technical decoding and existing language comprehension – both required.
Of course teachers need to address children’s language comprehension all the time, and how books ‘work’, but the whole tenor of this description of phonics and its relationship with language comprehension and spelling, and the findings of research, by the EEF is inadequate and misleading. I pity the 10+ year olds with teachers who read this blurb and who may automatically turn away from any notion that the child may be lacking in phonics knowledge and skills, or that the phonics provision – programme and/or teaching – may well have been found wanting to date. EEF you are totally CULPABLE in giving out this seriously damaging misinformation.
So – don’t just take my word for all my criticism above. Below is what DfE advisor and IFERI committee member, Gordon Askew, has to say via his blog about older learners who are not up to speed with their reading. This directly challenges the EEF comments about older readers.
This is a MUST read, please click on the link below to read in full [Gordon’s opening paragraphs in red below]:
“I am often asked about the role of phonics in ‘catch up’. Some learners are in KS2, KS3 or beyond and, sadly, have not yet got very far at all with mastering basic reading. Teachers and parents understandably want to know how best to help them, to start them on the reading journey, or at very least to enable them to become functional readers.
One of the pronouncements I hear most frequently in respect of these learners generally goes along the lines of: ‘They have been doing phonics for years and it hasn’t worked for them. Now they need to try a different approach,’ or ‘Phonics does’t work for everyone. These kids obviously need something else.’
Unfortunately such thinking is a massive red herring, and can have disastrous results, depriving learners of the very teaching they most desperately need to achieve the desired ‘catch up’.
There are two strong reasons for saying this.”
Additional note to this post made by Debbie: 10th February 2017:
I’ve just been reminded about an exchange with Kate Nation back in July 2016 regarding this issue of the EEF description of phonics which I raised on another forum. This is what Kate had to say about the EEF description – confirming my critique:
Kate Nation July 3, 2016 at 12:51 pm
Thank you Debbie for your clear commentary and important reminder that practice varies considerably from school to school. I wasn’t familiar with the EEF’s description of phonics but having checked this morning (https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence/teaching-learning-toolkit/phonics/), I too have concerns. The paragraph:
“For older readers who are still struggling to develop reading skills, phonics approaches may be less successful than other approaches such as Reading comprehension strategies and Meta-cognition and self-regulation. The difference may indicate that children aged 10 or above who have not succeeded using phonics approaches previously require a different approach, or that these students have other difficulties related to vocabulary and comprehension which phonics does not target”
is particularly confused. We know that instruction in addition to phonics is critical for improvements in reading comprehension. Interventions that target oral language and vocabulary lead to meaningful and sustained gains in reading comprehension (for a large scale RCT demonstrating this, see Clarke et al. 2010, reference pasted below, and http://readingformeaning.co.uk). But this is quite different to suggesting that children who are still struggling with basic (word-level) reading skills ‘may’ benefit from metacognition and self-regulation strategies with respect to improving their word-level skills. What evidence is there for this? And yes, some older students who are struggling may well need intervention that targets vocabulary and comprehension, but this is not an alternative to phonics. It is a different kettle of fish altogether. And it is perfectly possible (and surely desirable) to work on oral language skills (targeting vocabulary and linguistic comprehension) at the same time as phonics for word-level reading, whether children are beginning readers in the early years, or older children who are struggling.
Clarke, P., Snowling, M. J., Truelove, E., & Hulme, C. (2010). Ameliorating children’s reading comprehension difficulties: A randomised controlled trial. Psychological Science, 21, 1106-1116. http://pss.sagepub.com/content/21/8/1106.abstract