Part 1 – Two changes in the method of teaching

Information is provided about two radical changes that were made to the way the children were taught to read and write, which resulted in much higher results on standardized reading tests.

Part 1: Two changes in the method of teaching


During my early teaching career I saw how huge improvements could be achieved when changes were made to the way reading and writing was taught. It made me realise that methods of teaching could make all the difference between success and failure for many children. This understanding developed after two major alterations to our teaching, which took us from a ‘look and say’ approach to a synthetic phonics one.


There were three classes of four- to five-year-old children in our large primary school and all the teachers noticed the amazing improvements. Later these improvements were reflected on standardised reading tests. All the children were more successful but, best of all, most of the below-average children now moved up into the average or above-average ability.


The first change of method


Joan Dorr, our Head of Department at the primary school where I was teaching, was curious to know why some children struggled and did not do well. Our school was as good as the other schools, in fact considerably better than some of them. Even so, virtually all the schools had at least 20% of the children struggling to read and spell well.


Joan was well aware that there was always a group of children who found it very difficult to remember words by ‘look and say’. In an effort to try and solve the problem, Joan looked at the children further up in the school. She noticed that when the good readers came to a word that they had not read before, they worked it out by blending the sounds linked to the letters, but the poor readers did not do that. These children tended to guess, look up for help or just stop reading. Then she looked more closely at the poor readers and realised that their letter-sound knowledge was very weak, especially the vowel digraphs. This was when the first change in method took place. Instead of teaching the children to memorise whole words, the first 10 weeks were devoted to learning letter sounds and how to blend and write words that used those letter sounds.


By the end of the year, we realised that the children were much further ahead than before. Two years later they were tested on a standardised reading test, which was administered to all the children in the county. The test used at that time was Young’s Reading Test. Our children had improved from an average quotient of 102.8 to 108.1, which is a highly significant improvement. It is usually quite difficult to improve by one quotient point, but to go up six points was remarkable.


The second change of method


A few years later we were asked to take part in a research project. The philosophy of the researcher, Dr Douglas Pidgeon, was that the children should be taught to hear the sounds in words before being taught to read and write.


Although the project was very impractical, and had to be abandoned after three months, it did show us that it was important to teach the children to hear the sounds in words. We noticed that some children could hear the sounds easily, even without any teaching, and others found it difficult and definitely needed to be taught. In hindsight, I look back and wonder why we had not realised this before. The English writing system is based on the sounds in words. If the sounds cannot be heard, then it is impossible to make that link between the letters and the sounds and crack the alphabetic code.


In the end, we simplified the way we taught the children to hear the sounds in words. We would call out a few simple words every day and, altogether, say the sounds in the words, holding up a finger for each sound: for example, cat /c-a-t/ and pot /p-o-t/, as explained in Step 1. Once again, there was a marked improvement and this, too, was reflected in the Young’s Reading Test. The quotients went up, especially for struggling readers, and the average was now between 110 and 113 each year.


Unfortunately, at the same time as we achieved our much higher results, the teaching of phonics went out of fashion. Phonics was no longer considered important, and starting with phonics was totally unacceptable. Some authorities even went as far as stopping children from sounding out the words, which was completely the wrong advice, especially for children who had weak visual memories and poor auditory skills. As a consequence, these children were unable to crack the code by themselves and never mastered reading well enough to cope with their secondary education.