Teacher takes campaign to improve literacy to the Scottish Parliament

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A former primary teacher from the Hebrides will be giving evidence at the Scottish Parliament on Thursday (November 9) as the Public Petitions Committee consider her call to provide national guidance and professional learning for teachers in how to teach children to read.

Anne Glennie from the Isle of Lewis, who has worked for a literacy consultant for the last seven years, has become increasingly concerned about the decline in literacy standards in Scotland and the lack of knowledge within the teaching profession about current international research on reading instruction.

Anne, who has trained more than 10,000 teachers in all aspects of literacy across Scotland, said it was “deeply shocking” that teachers in training were not being taught how to teach children to read – and is campaigning for the Scottish Government to include the Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) system in the curriculum.

All alphabetic languages are built of phonemes – the smallest units of sound in speech — and phonics focuses on the relationship between sounds and letters or groups of letters. With the SSP method, the learning becomes increasingly complex. Children learn knowledge of the letters and sounds, they then learn to sound out and blend these letter sounds together. Ultimately, they are then able to decode whole words, sentences and texts independently. What’s more, the same letter-sound knowledge that is used for reading, is used for spelling too – reading is referred to as decoding, while spelling is encoding.

However, despite widespread international recognition of the importance of using phonics in teaching reading skills, and even the fact that a seminal piece of research into phonics was carried out in Clackmannanshire, the Scottish Government has no policy on teaching SSP as part of literacy.

That research was carried out 12 years ago and Systematic Synthetic Phonics was mandated as the sole method for beginning reading instruction in England in 2014, following The Rose Review (Independent review of the teaching of early reading, Final Report, Jim Rose, March 2006).

Anne’s petition (PE01668: Improving literacy standards in schools through research-informed reading instruction) has already been signed by many leading international academics, professors and researchers in the field, including Sir Jim Rose.

Explaining why she petitioned the Parliament, Anne Glennie said: “It is a surprising, and deeply shocking, fact that many teachers, working in primary or secondary schools in Scotland today, have had no formal input or training on ‘how to teach children to read’, either as part of their degree, post-graduate teaching qualification or career-long professional learning.”

Anne is at pains to point out that this is not the fault of teachers, explaining: “The truth is that most people – even most teachers – are not experts in the pedagogy of reading. However, the research is out there. Three major international inquiries into the teaching of reading concluded that systematic phonics is the most effective way to teach children to read. (The National Reading Panel, 2000, USA; National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy, 2005, Australia; Independent review of the teaching of early reading, Final Report, Jim Rose, 2006, England.)

“Ironically, the seminal piece of research that is internationally-renowned, was actually carried out in Clackmannanshire. Twelve years on we have not learned the lessons from our own research here in Scotland. Systematic synthetic phonics works, for everyone, but especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. If we are serious about closing the attainment gap, we cannot afford to ignore this any longer. When it comes to the teaching of beginning readers, we’re still doing what we did in the 70s – and it’s not working. Reading research has moved on; Scotland has not.”

Literacy standards have been falling in Scotland since 2006. This downturn is evidenced by previous Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rounds, but is also confirmed in the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy data, as well as recent teacher judgement data. Last December, Scotland’s OECD rank went from 6th in 2000 to 23rd in 2015 in reading, and is now behind both England and Northern Ireland.

Having campaigned for almost three years, Anne is desperate for Scotland to follow the rest of the world and take the guesswork out of learning to read by giving children the knowledge and skills to read (and spell) effectively.

She described her petition as a last resort.

She said: “Despite writing opinion pieces for TESS, writing emails to MSPs, Angela Constance, John Swinney, Education Scotland, the GTCS and others – there has been little interest in the evidence – indeed it is dismissed entirely out of hand. But if we want to improve attainment in reading and writing then we must listen to the evidence and improve teaching and learning in the classroom. Anyone waiting for literacy standards to change because of ‘standardised testing’ and ‘literacy benchmarks’ or structural changes to how authorities are run, will be sorely disappointed.”

Anne challenged the widespread assumption that children in Scots schools are being taught to read using the best methods and resources — and said there was “very little guidance in Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) itself on beginning reading instruction”.

International research, she said, indicates that the best way to meet the needs of all children and young people, when it comes to underpinning the beginnings of reading, spelling and writing, is through explicit and direct teaching. However, a look at the ‘Experiences and Outcomes’ which should be attained through the early primary stages of CfE appear to advocate ‘discovery learning’.

Citing a range of Experiences and Outcomes from CfE, she said: “Within the Experiences and Outcomes, ‘strategies’ is mentioned six times with reference to reading and spelling. It is at no point made clear what these ‘strategies’ are, but it could easily be thought to be referring to multi-cueing strategies, which amount to word guessing.

“There is no reference to the alphabet, the alphabetic code, (the very basis of our reading and writing system), all-through-the-word sounding out and blending, oral segmenting (or identifying the sounds in words) for all-through-the-word spelling.

“Within the Experiences and Outcomes the two distinct components of reading – word reading/decoding and comprehension are muddled together. The Simple View of Reading (Gough and Tunmer, 1986) outlines the two elements of reading: word reading (decoding) and comprehension. It is important that teachers can differentiate between these two elements, in order to correctly identify which aspect a child may be struggling with.”

Anne said most people, especially parents, would assume that children were being taught to read using the best methods and resources. However, she believes this is not the case due to the embedding of multi-cueing word-guessing strategies within the curriculum.

“Scottish classrooms are suffocating in mixed methods,” she said. “They are stuck in a time-warp of useless, out-dated strategies such as sight words, repetitive and predictable reading books, miscue analysis, running records, Reading Recovery, and multi-cueing word-guessing. Many children learn to read despite this approach, but crucially, for those that struggle, this exacerbates their problems. We need to use a methodology that works for every child, not just for some. We should be aiming for 100% of our children reading in Scotland – and using research-informed methods – we should expect to get very close.’

The Public Petitions Committee will meet to discuss the petition on Thursday morning at 10am.

Anne Glennie will be joined by Gordon Askew MBE, former Literacy and Phonics Adviser to the Department for Education for England, and Dr Sarah McGeown, Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology, Edinburgh University, who will provide robust evidence and credible testimonies with regards to research, policy and practice in reading to support her petition.