Writing – special issue of English in Education, Spring 2019


from the Editorial by Jenifer Smith and Mari Cruice:

Attempting to understand how a teacher enables a student to transform thoughts into words on a page – in different genres, styles and tones – is a complex enough endeavour in its own right. Trying to develop excellent writing pedagogy in a system dominated by standardised, politicised assessments makes the task even more challenging.

In 1989, Michael Armstrong judged the conceptualisation of writing and its assessment in England’s new National Curriculum to be a gross betrayal of children’s intellectual interests. Tests, he argued, ‘measure no more than the shadow of achievement.’

Armstrong was speaking out against the possible perils of the assessment tail wagging the curriculum dog. However, the version of the National Curriculum that he was talking about still recognised the language that children brought with them to school, accepted the importance of attending to what children have to say and acknowledged the multifaceted nature of writing.  It insisted on the primacy of meaning and recognised that not everything that is of value can be measured:

The best writing is vigorous, committed, honest and interesting. We have not included these qualities in our attainment targets because they cannot be mapped onto levels. (DES 1989)

The National Curriculum working party may not have foretold the consequences of their removal of such vital elements of writing from assessment.

Thirty years on, these themes – the importance of meaning; the perils of reductive writing pedagogy in the face of high stakes tests – echo through the contributions to this Special Edition. Gordon Pradl celebrates the life and work of David Holbrook and James Britton, who, following active duty in the Second World War, were fearless advocates of an expansive view of English. Both had the clear aim of helping students to make sense of their subjective experiences. Helena Thomas writes powerfully of the role that the imagination can and should play in the teaching of writing, arriving at a philosophical standpoint that defines the teacher as artist both in terms of pedagogy and in terms of reading and writing themselves.

Myra Barrs turns her attention to current practice. She carefully analyses the possible causes of ‘bad writing’ in schools and explores the circumstances that disempower teachers, locking them into a metaphor of delivery rather than artistry. Simon Gibbons also looks at questionable practice as he describes the ubiquity of ‘PEEL’ paragraphs. He glances backwards to gain some perspective and sounds a note of optimism that English teachers are collectively capable of loosening the stranglehold of formulaic pedagogy.

To do this, as Whitney et al. argue in Coaching Teacher-Writers (reviewed in this issue), we need activists to write about poor policy and practice. We need to build on and publicise the substantial knowledge base that already exists to support the teaching of writing. When teachers write reflectively and write together, they develop an understanding of what it means to write – the difficulty of it, the vulnerability it brings and ultimately the clarity, the empowerment and satisfaction it engenders. Nikki Aharonion and Pauline McNamee reflect insightfully on this. The vignettes of children’s writing and Emma Exelby’s letter to a Year 11 student are reminders of the young people with whom we work and of observation as a professional practice. The artist teacher, for whom improvisation is a vital skill (see Holbrook, Thompson) stands back, looks carefully, and – drawing on personal knowledge of teaching, learning and writing – is then able to think about how to respond.

Perhaps, in the absence of clear lines of communication into policymakers, English teachers are increasingly putting their energy into and drawing inspiration from what Kevin McDermott calls ‘the margins’. Writing flourishes beyond the school walls. In 2018, the Foyle Young Poet competition received almost 11,000 poems. Theresa Gooda’s article explores and exemplifies writing outside the classroom; Kevin McDermott describes the enlivening approaches to teaching writing he used in Dublin schools as a writer in residence, freed from the obligation to meet targets.

Meanwhile, back in mainstream classrooms, the dead weight of a prescriptive and reductionist viewpoint is hard to shift. And yet individuals, especially amongst the young, have learned somewhere that writing is a vital human activity and that it works for us in many different ways. It has a moral and humane heft, it underpins criticality, it is inventive and visionary, it can anchor us. Of course, writing resists ‘mapping onto levels’, but the failure to take writing seriously as a fundamental element of human growth has become a failure to take responsibility for children’s intellectual growth and moral becoming.

Collectively, we would do well to remember the words of Harold Rosen:

[English is]nothing less than a different model of education: knowledge to be made, not given; knowledge comprising more than can be discursively stated; learning as a diverse range of processes, including affective ones; educational processes to be embarked on with outcomes unpredictable; students’ perceptions, experiences, imaginings and unsystematically acquired knowledge admitted as legitimate curricular content. (in Eaglestone, 2000)

Rosen and his generation defended the discipline of English bravely and eloquently. Beyond the classroom walls, echoes of their ideas are getting louder.


Armstrong, M (1989) Popular Education and the National Curriculum. Forum Vol 30, No 3. pp 74 -76.

DES (1989) English for ages 5 – 11. London: Department of Education and Science and the Welsh Office.

Eaglestone, R. (2000) Doing English: A Guide for Literature Students. London: Routledge.



This special issue of English in Education will be published online and in print early this year.   Members of NATE will have online access and receive print copies.   To join NATE, please see links to the right. 


Reading in the reception classroom

Ofsted’s 2017 review of the Reception year curriculum asserts that reading is the core purpose of the Reception year, and advocates “systematic systematic phonics” as the teaching method. This precept disregards research into the nature of reading in the early years and the professional wisdom of early years teachers.   This paper is published in FORUM Vol 60 Issue 3 (November 2018).


1. Introduction

Ofsted’s (2017) recent review of the reception year curriculum, Bold Beginnings, refers approvingly to the practices of “a sample of good and outstanding primary schools”. The review describes the reception year, although not compulsory, as “the start of school”. Most parents, it says, decide to send their child to Reception, and, for most schools, it is the start of the national curriculum (p.8). “The basics” – the ability to read, write and use numbers – “need to be taught – and learned – well, from the start (p.10).” Reading, moreover, is “at the heart of the curriculum” (p.5). The review recommends (p.7) that all primary schools “should make sure that the teaching of reading, including systematic synthetic phonics, is the core purpose of the Reception Year.”

2. A too simple view of reading

Nearly half a century after the dawn of post-modern consciousness, this precept suggests a disturbing pursuit of “abstract, theoretical and doctrinaire ideals” (Venturi et al 1972). It is disturbing on two counts. Firstly, every reception class will contain up to 30 or more individuals with heterogeneous purposes and needs. A few may already read silently and with some fluency. To subject either such fully-fledged readers, or those who are well on their way, to a rigid diet of intensive phonics is an affront to their emerging identities as persons (Davis 2013:30). Others may exhibit social or behavioural difficulties that will impede their reading and require attention. Secondly, the teaching of reading, as described in the report, has a highly dubious theoretical basis in that it prioritises one method: “systematic synthetic phonics”. This method requires children to “apply phonic knowledge and skills to decode unfamiliar words fluently and accurately, before trying to understand them” (emphasis added) (p.22). In other words, the review apparently endorses the Simple View of Reading (SVR) (Rose 2006), which separates phonic “decoding” from comprehension of meaning. The schools visited, the report asserts, taught children to “apply phonic knowledge and skills as the route to decode words” (emphasis in the original) (p.21). Bold Beginnings (2017) thus echoes the view that has imbued DfE reports on literacy over the last decade: that the key to reading is to learn “grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs)” (p.21). The DfE (2011) report The Importance of Phonics: Securing Confident Reading has an almost messianic fervour, claiming that synthetic phonics is the solution to educational failure and thus to high levels of youth unemployment. Bold Beginnings (Ofsted 2017) is more measured in tone, but conveys the same message:

In the schools that devoted considerable time and resources to letting children practise blending sounds into words, the children made the strongest progress in reading. Focused time during formal teaching, as well as an expectation that phonic books would be read and practised at home, gave children frequent opportunities to develop their fluency so that decoding of the words on the page became automatic – a critical foundation for independent reading. (p.22)

Ofsted (2011) claim that synthetic phonics can enable “the one in six children who were once destined to struggle reading essential text [to] fully participate in their studies and the world of literature” (DfE 2011). If this were indeed the case, Ofsted’s (2017) strong emphasis on SSP in the reception year might be justified. However, this simple view fails to understand the nature of reading and the way children learn in the reception class of a primary school. This paper will examine these issues by reference to recent research, including a large-scale survey of early years practitioners conducted by the National Association for the Teaching of English (Hodgson et al 2013).

3. The rise of synthetic phonics

In recent years, government in the UK and several other English-speaking countries has promoted the teaching of “synthetic phonics” as the key to success in training young readers. In this approach (sometimes known also as “systematic phonics”), the pupil is supposed to learn the correspondences between sounds (phonemes) and letters: for example, pronouncing each phoneme in shop /sh/-/o/-/p/ and then blending those phonemes to produce the word (DfE 2011). The 2006 Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading recommended that synthetic phonics should be taught “discretely” and as the “prime approach” (Rose 2006). As this paper will show, this policy has met detailed and cogent opposition from both researchers and classroom teachers; but the Ofsted (2017) report states that “leaders [in the schools visited] were passionate about the place of systematic synthetic phonics as part of a rich and varied reading programme” (Ofsted 2017: 21). In these schools, we are told, “systematic synthetic phonics played a critical role in teaching [reception year] children the alphabetic code,” and reception teachers passed on to year 1 teachers checks of children’s phonics knowledge (p.4). “Children read out loud frequently from carefully selected books that closely matched their phonic knowledge” (p.5).

4. Reading English

English spelling is governed as much by meaning and word origin as it is by regular “phoneme-grapheme correspondences”. The quotation marks indicate that the concept of phoneme is debated, but it is not equivalent to letter sounds (Port 2011). Ofsted and the DfE appear confused here, their documents interchangeably using the terms “phonemes” and “letter sounds”. Leaving aside this important theoretical distinction, the relationship between letter sounds and their written representations in English is complex and inconsistent. Few if any letters are tied to the “same” sound, and some (“b”, “p” and “l”) suffer sound death in such words as “lamb”, “receipt” and “psalm” (Davis 2013:22). Many common words are heteronyms, where the pronunciation of letter sounds depends on context: “tear”, “wind”, “row”, “lead”, “minute”, and so on. Despite these common irregularities, synthetic phonics teaches children to “build up” words, through sounding them out, one grapheme at a time. As Dombey (2018) explains: This works well for languages such as Spanish and Finnish. But it simply does not work for many of the commonest words of English”:

Given this complexity, the term ‘decoding’, when applied to reading English, must be taken to mean more than synthetic phonics. (Dombey 2018)

Children learning to read make use not only of “grapheme-phoneme correspondences” but also of semantic (meaning) and syntactic (grammar) cues from the surrounding text (Goodman et al.2005). Kidd (2013) gives an example of a young reader who had to switch from a phonic to a grammatical approach to decoding:

[Hobie] comes across a word – ‘going’ – and his phonics knowledge initially tells him that the word is /g/oi/ng/ – like boing … He hesitates: he has pre-existing knowledge of vocabulary and he self corrects – going. This is not a decoding skill; it is a vocabulary skill. He goes a step further. Writing the word down, he recognises a morphemic pattern – a base and a suffix – and draws a line between the two. This is a whole lot more sophisticated than implementing a decoding skill. Phonics alone would not have got him to the correct pronunciation of the word.

One might add that Hobie’s pre-existing knowledge of vocabulary has a contextual element: his recognition of the word “going” strongly suggests that he knows what it means.

5. Teaching (very) young readers

Davis (2012) argues that the case for synthetic phonics (SP) depends on “fantasies of research-based teaching”. He claims that the case has never been made because a discrete method of teaching synthetic phonics cannot be identified and measured. Studies allegedly showing that intensive discrete SP lessons improve reading achievement in comparison with control groups of similar pupils rarely if ever indicate the exact nature of the lessons concerned (Davis 2013:16). They cannot do so, because no classroom teacher would conform to the narrow method of decoding apparently required; to do so would be to abdicate their role as teachers (Davis (2013:6). Competent teachers will always want pupils to develop “relational understanding”, where they can place their new knowledge on an existing cognitive map. For this reason, teachers will naturally view words as units of meaning rather than merely as units for grapheme-phonic decoding. Even if a teacher attempts to implement systematic synthetic phonics as recommended by the DfE, focusing children’s attention solely on “phoneme-grapheme correspondences”, her professional judgment is likely to inflect the way in which she actually interacts with children, especially in the reception class.

In fact, no DfE, Ofsted, or other reputable report produced during the last decade claims that “systematic, synthetic phonics” alone are sufficient to establish successful early readers. Rose (2006) recommends that synthetic phonics should be taught “discretely” and as the “prime approach”; but this recommendation is preceded by a call for the priority provision of guidance on “developing children’s speaking and listening skills”; and it is followed by a further recommendation that:

Phonic work should be set within a broad and rich language curriculum that takes full account of developing the four interdependent strands of language: speaking, listening, reading and writing and enlarging children’s stock of words.

Ofsted’s (2010) accounts of the phonic methods adopted by 12 exemplary primary schools also acknowledge the importance of complementary strategies. The reported view of one school is that “children do not become fluent readers by using one skill alone”. This school, we are informed, supplements phonic instruction by guided reading and “real books” to take home. Another provides boxes of books in every class and uses an unusually long lunch period for individual and guided reading. A third (nursery) school places “great emphasis on story time”:

The children enjoy listening to five high-quality books each term from Reception to Year 2 – 15 in the course of a year. Life in the nursery contains a lot of imaginative play, role-play and some practice of phonics.

“Some practice of phonics” is hardly an endorsement of a monocular approach to early reading. The Department for Education’s (2011) “evidence paper”, The Importance of Phonics: Securing Confident Reading, itself states: “Phonics teaching must be embedded in a language-rich curriculum”. The one UK study regularly cited in favour of synthetic phonics (Johnston and Watson 2005) finds a correlation between children’s word reading and spelling in Primary year 7 and the quantity of children’s and adults’ books available in their home. Bold Beginnings (Ofsted 2017) also acknowledges the importance of a “rich and varied reading programme” (p.21) – but its constant line is that knowledge of phonic “decoding” must precede other kinds of reading (p.22).

6. Professional views from the classroom: the NATE survey

Davis (2012:7) has emphasised the importance of professional judgment when teaching reading in the early years. The vast majority of early years teachers, he writes, handle this challenge with professionalism, and will continue to do so if they are not troubled by rigid prescriptions from policy makers. How, then, do teachers actually work with early readers? In 2013, the National Association for the Teaching of English conducted an on-line survey of teachers’ views and practices in relation to the teaching and assessment of early reading (Hodgson et al 2013). The full results of the survey can be found at http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/35641/.

Of the 445 individuals who completed the survey, more than half taught in infant schools (Hodgson et al, 2013, p. 4). A majority of these (203, or 68.4%) claimed that phonics was a high priority in their school or department; however, a similar number (200, or 67.3%) said that their school devoted fewer than five hours a week to the teaching of phonics (p.5). Nearly all infant teachers (272, or 91.6%) used a scheme or programme to teach phonics, Letters and Sounds being the most popular scheme (p.6).

No respondent to the survey regarded phonics instruction in early years education as unnecessary, and there was significant support for the view that phonics should be the prime focus of teaching beginning readers (Hodgson et al, 2013, p. 9). Several people agreed with the assertion of the DfE evidence paper (DfE 2011) that the ability to decode “grapheme/phoneme correspondences” is the first requirement for success in reading (Hodgson et al, 2013, p.10). Some respondents who worked with children with special learning difficulties believed that early phonic instruction is particularly important for the progress of such children (p.10). A majority of both infant and junior teachers reported positive effects on their pupils’ writing and spelling, and about a third of each group reported positive effects on pupils’ comprehension and higher reading skills (p.8). But the view of more than two-thirds of respondents was that, while phonic decoding is an important part of learning to read, other strategies are also vital (p.10). More than a quarter of respondents emphasised the importance of reading for meaning, and there was much concern that an overemphasis on phonics leads to an unbalanced reading curriculum in which other reading skills such as prediction and contextual information are not taken into account. In the view of many, a phonics approach leads to less able children “barking at print” while good readers lose motivation and fail to achieve appropriate assessment results. Some children, it was alleged, develop a style of “reading” that consists merely of phonic decoding. There is less time for reading stories and for listening to young readers, and more time is taken up by “teaching to the test” (the national phonics “check” at the end of year 1). In such classrooms, respondents argue, the overall quality of pupils’ literacy experience declines (Hodgson et al, 2013, p.14).

More than a quarter of respondents were concerned that an over-emphasis on phonics teaching and testing failed to take into account the needs and capacities of particular children (Hodgson et al, 2013, p.10). Children for whom English is a second language require an emphasis on textual understanding; phonics approaches fail to provide visual scaffolding to support their learning and these children find it hard to progress under such a regime, which occupies the greater amount of classroom time because of the phonics “check”. Many respondents expressed concern that systematic phonics instruction creates more problems for struggling readers, as their cognitive energies are spent trying to sound out words, and they therefore miss the meaning of the text. Several commentators believed that such children need a variety of different strategies in order to progress. Many teachers observed that children of all abilities are less motivated by reading schemes than by real books, as the latter encourage reading for interest and enjoyment (p.14). A teacher of deaf children pointed out (p.11) that her pupils cannot hear phonemes; yet they go on to become fluent readers.

A university researcher took the opportunity (Hodgson et al, 2013, p.15) presented by the survey to set out a summary case against an exclusively phonic approach to early reading:

English is not a phonetically regular language. It does not have a single letter/sound correlation. The teaching of phonics in a systematic way often, therefore, creates more problems for struggling readers. Much of their cognitive energies are spent trying to sound out words, apply phonics rules that are not applicable, and generally misdirect their focus from the true act of reading – constructing meaning. Readers construct meaning from text by employing several cuing systems. When phonics becomes the centre of reading instruction, those other cuing systems are often neglected. Children learn to read by engaging in texts that are read aloud to them, that they can read on their own and with the help of others. Over-complicating the act of reading and reading instruction fails to work. Assessments of phonemic awareness and phonics eat time, misplace instruction, and set fragile readers further behind.

7. Conclusion

As professionals in teaching young children to read, assessing their progress, and making strategic interventions where required, many respondents to the NATE survey resented that their judgment and knowledge were not recognised. They were outraged not only by the simple-minded analysis of early reading offered but also by the way in which a limited pedagogical practice has been inscribed in the school curriculum, backed by the authority of the school inspectorate, and made subject to nationally imposed testing. Some pointed out that a single approach to the teaching of reading has commercial advantages for publishers who follow the official line. Many challenged the imposition of an expensive, time-consuming and disruptive “phonics check” on year 1 pupils. Taking a wider view, some respondents pointed out that phonics instruction is not an answer to all social ills, and suggested that those in power see it as a remedy for the deficiencies of other people’s children.

As Davis (2013:6) has pointed out, competent teachers of early readers will not impose a rigid and inappropriate reading method on actual children. Reading at any level involves a complex set of skills of which phonic awareness is one important element. The responses to the NATE survey demonstrate that most teachers of reading know this, and reject the specious argument that “systematic synthetic phonics” offers a panacea. Ofsted would gain respect from such teachers if it were to recognise the full nature of meaningful reading in the reception classroom.


Davis, A. (2012) A monstrous regimen of Synthetic Phonics: fantasies of research-based teaching methodsversus real teaching. Journal of Philosophy of Education 46 (4), pp.560-573.

Davis, A. (2013) To read or not to read: decoding Synthetic Phonics. Impact 20. London: Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain.

DfE (2011) The Importance of Phonics: Securing Confident Reading. London: Department for Education.

Dombey, H. (2018) The Simple View of Reading. https://www.teachingtimes.com/news/the-simple.htm (accessed 5 August 2018)

Goodman, Y.M., Watson, D.J. and Burke, C.L. (2005) Reading Miscue Inventory: From evaluation to instruction. Katonah NY: Richard C. Owen

Hodgson, J., Buttle, H., Conridge, B., Gibbons, D. and Robinson, J. (2013) Phonics and Early Reading: professional views from the classroom. National Association for the Teaching of English. http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/35641/ (accessed 8 August 2018)

Johnston, R. and Watson, J. (2005) The Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment: a Seven Year Longitudinal Study. http://www.scotland.gov.uk/library5/education/sptrs.pdf (accessed 3 January 2016).

Kidd, D. (2013) Phlipping Phonics. Love Learning. http://bit.ly/H1y74P (accessed 15 October 2013).

Ofsted (2010) Reading by six: how the best schools do it. London: Office for Standards in Education.

Ofsted (2017) Bold Beginnings: the reception curriculum in a sample of good and outstanding primary schools. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/reception-curriculum-in-good-and-outstanding-primary-schools-bold-beginnings (accessed 6 August 2018)

Port, Robert F. (2011)  Phones and phonemes are conceptual blends, not cognitive letters. Accepted for presentation at the Cognitive Science Soc. Annual Meeting, July, 2011, Boston.

Rose, J. (2006) Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading: Final Report. London: Department for Education.

Venturi, R., Scott Brown, D. & Izenour, S. (1972) Learning from Las Vegas. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Assessing Primary Literacy


There has been much concern about the new grammar, punctuation and spelling (GPS) tests for primary school pupils. Parents, teachers, academics and other commentators claim that the tests are inappropriate for primary pupils and that these high stakes assessments have a deleterious effect on teaching and learning.

Part of the problem lies in terminology. Children have to spot examples of grammatical constructions such as “fronted adverbials”. This term has become notorious as it has not previously been used in grammatical descriptions and seems sometimes to apply to phrases that are essentially “adjectival”. The deeper problem is that the label becomes more important than the underlying reality. It is obviously good to teach children the structures of language, particularly if such knowledge helps to express themselves more accurately. But testing a knowledge of labels is very different from testing an understanding of language structures.

Such understanding requires a connection between children’s everyday understanding of language and the grammar they have to grasp. Linguists such as Halliday have developed a functional approach to language that gives meaning to everyday interactions. However, GPS relies on ‘ideal’ forms of language that contradict everyday experience. The Oxford or ‘serial’ comma is outlawed when it is in fact common and correct usage. GPS requires that ‘exclamations’ must begin with ‘How’ or ‘What’ and include a finite verb – which is not the case in real language use. Terms like ‘command’ or ‘exclamation’, which have a social function, refer in GPS only to specific grammatical structures.

This context-free view of grammar implies that children’s language is either right or wrong. Lord Bew’s review (2011) of Key Stage 2 testing, assessment and accountability seized (p.60) upon “spelling, grammar, punctuation, vocabulary” as elements of writing “where there are clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers, which lend themselves to externally-marked testing”. GPS performance thus becomes a key indicator of a school’s success or failure – even though the view inscribed in the tests is so limited.

Checking phonics

Phonics-shoot-089A guest post by Jonathan Glazzard

The teaching of systematic synthetic phonics in school has been a political focus since the publication of the Rose Review back in 2006 (Rose, 2006). It is a priority for both schools and providers of Initial Teacher Education, and over the last decade it has been given prominence in inspection frameworks. The Rose Review emphasised that the teaching of phonics is time-limited.  The National Curriculum requires children to be secure in the skill of word recognition by the end of Year 1 so that they can focus on developing fluency in reading in Year 2.  The aim is to ensure that children are secure in the skill of blending phonemes so that they can read words.

In 2012, the UK government introduced a phonics screening check to assess children’s skills in decoding. Four years later, Nicky Morgan, then Secretary of State for Education,  declared: ‘Since the introduction of the phonics reading check in 2012, 120,000 more children are now on track to become excellent readers’ (DfE, 2016, para 1.5, p.5). However, whilst most people would not dispute the need to assess children’s reading development, the phonics screening check is problematic on several levels.

Firstly, the ‘check’ introduces children to both real words and pseudo words. There is a  rationale for introducing children to pseudo words, because these are words which children have not seen before and therefore they can only be read through the blending the phonemes. However, as the process of reading is about eliciting meaning from text, the value of pseudo words can be questioned.

Secondly, advanced readers do not rely on blending phonemes (decoding) for the skill of word recognition. Word recognition becomes increasingly automatic and the emphasis shifts from word recognition to developing fluency and reading for meaning. Phonics is a time-limited skill. For advanced readers, an assessment of their phonic knowledge in Year 1 is not an accurate predictor of their skill in reading but we do need to know more about how to support their comprehension skills. Whilst the phonics screening check may be a useful assessment for less skilled readers, we need various forms of assessment to support pupils working at different stages of development in reading.

Thirdly, teachers will already know, through regular formative assessment, whether children are secure in the skill of blending. The screening check adds no further value because it does not inform teaching. For weaker readers, the skill of blending at the level of the phoneme is an advanced skill which comes after blending at the level of the whole word (tooth+ brush = toothbrush), blending at the level of the syllable and blending at the level of onset and rime (c-oat / r-ain). It is not sufficient to know whether children can decode or not: we need to know more about the stage of development at which they are operating. If children are struggling to blend phonemes, then it is important to know about their other phonemic skills such as phoneme addition, phoneme deletion and phoneme substitution. We need to know about the component skills of phonemic and phonological awareness and not just whether a child can blend sounds to read words.

Fourthly, the process of reading is not solely an auditory process but also a visual process. Children may well have mastered the skill of blending sounds, but their reading development can be hampered by poor visual skills.  For children to become good readers, the skills of visual attention, visual discrimination, visual memory and visual sequential memory need to be secure. For weaker readers, teachers need to know about children’s development in visual skills and phonological skills. It is insufficient to know that children cannot decode; we need to know about their development in other skills which contribute to reading development.

Finally, reading is not just a process of word recognition. It is a process which requires linguistic comprehension. If, as a result of limited exposure to spoken language, children do not have a good vocabulary, or if their vocabulary lacks depth, this will impede their reading development.  This is particularly the case for those who have advanced beyond the skill of blending phonemes.  For this reason, play-based learning is critical in the early years so that children develop their vocabulary through interaction with peers and adults. Within language development, there is a hierarchy of skills whose development which should be assessed, particularly in weaker readers.

The key issue is the way in which the phonics screening check is used to regulate schools and teachers. It has become part of the machinery of performativity which is used to assess school and teacher performance. It is ‘high-stakes’ and results in children’s being categorised into achievers or failures at a very early stage of their development. The fact that children are subjected to re-taking the test in Year 2 if they do not pass serves to further marginalise them through the process of segregation.

Reading development is complex, but the phonics screening check reduces the complex nature of reading development to a single skill. The check does not provide teachers with additional information that they have not already gleaned from their formative assessments. Neither does it inform teachers about what they need to do next to support children’s development in reading. It is a mechanism of surveillance which serves very little educational purpose.

The government’s stance is clear. Back in 2016, Nicky Morgan claimed that:

Despite decades of research showing its positive effects, systematic synthetic phonics had been disregarded by many schools, local authorities, and university education faculties. Growing support within the teaching profession led to a number of new synthetic phonics reading schemes. In 2012, we introduced the phonics reading check at the end of Year 1 and three years on, the proportion of 6-year-olds achieving the expected standard in the check has risen by 19 percentage points to 77%, equivalent to 120,000 more children on track to become excellent readers.

(DfE, 2016, para. 2.56, p.38)

It is interesting to note that the Coalition government in 2010 discarded all aspects of Labour’s education policies with one exception: synthetic phonics. This policy has been continued by the Conservatives when they re-gained power in 2015. While phonics is an important tool is the teacher’s toolkit, we need a range of methods to assess reading development. This should include the assessment of auditory and visual skills as well as children’s awareness of rhyme. The assessment battery should reflect the sequential development of skills which contribute to phonemic and phonological awareness and visual skills development. Unless we base assessment on a developmental approach to learning, teachers will not be able to diagnose children’s reading difficulties.


DfE (2016) Educational Excellence Everywhere: Assessment of Impact. London:  DfE.

Rose, J. (2006) Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading. Nottingham, DfES Publications.


English in Education, Spring 2017: Assessment and Learning

Are all thy conquests, glories, spoils, Shrunk to this little measure?

Julius Caesar, Act III, scene I

Annie Harris, Guest Editor

Associate Dean, School of Education & Professional Development, University of Huddersfield

What is assessment andAnnie_Huddersfield_1 how can we, as educators, ensure assessment of learning, and perhaps more particularly assessment for learning?   During the last thirty years, in many English-speaking countries, change has been endemic in the teaching and assessment of English. Some developments have been based on research related to key issues such as linguistic deprivation (Bernstein 1971), teaching language (Kingman 1988) or early reading (Rose 2006). Others, such as the recent curtailment (in the UK and elsewhere) of coursework, seem motivated more by political partisanship. The effects of such changes in assessment and public examining practice are documented in several papers in this issue, most explicitly in Bethan Marshall’s The Politics of Testing.

Debates around assessment in English have included the nature of assessment and what it measures, as well as debates around validity and reliability, ‘subjective’ or impression marking, and notions of a more ‘objective’ professional judgment. Accountability has also been prominent, especially for stakeholders, since public examining, particularly in the later stages of schooling, represents ‘high stakes’ assessment. Yet where does that leave learning? How can we best judge whether learning has taken place and if credit is due? Do we need base-line assessment to determine whether learning has occurred or value has been added? How is familiarity with testing regimes likely to affect the way in which we teach and what learners learn? This special edition takes on some of these debates and examines them in a contemporary context.

The distinction between assessment of learning (summative) and assessment for learning (formative) has been well rehearsed, but the more recent assessment as learning focuses where we might locate more recent, 21st century development.   This implies the need for pupils to be active in both learning and assessment. Some of these ideas will not be new to English teachers, for whom the pragmatics of a creative and critical classroom have often demanded the involvement of the student in the process of pedagogy. Each of the articles in this special edition challenges ideas of assessment and learning, presenting alternative perspectives on how one might accommodate both,  from primary schooling through to post-sixteen senior secondary studies.

Nerida Spina’s article, Governing by numbers, offers a detailed analysis of the impact of the Australian national testing programme, NAPLAN, undertaken at grades 3, 5, 7 and 9, which assesses literacy in terms of spelling, grammar, punctuation, reading and writing. Spina’s institutional ethnographic study indicates how this emphasis on examining with its concomitant pressure on schools has undermined both the curriculum and opportunities for classroom creativity.

Bethan Marshall’s account of The Politics of Testing picks up this argument, initially by looking back fondly to a time in the UK when teachers and educators could comment on the examining system ‘and the exam boards listened’. Her article then goes on to address in turn the phonics screening test, key stage 2 literacy and GCSE English, and the effect of ‘politics, even party politics’ on assessment processes.

Tony Hall and Eilis Flanagan’s article on Digital Ensemble presents an innovative approach to English assessment through the integration of drama pedagogy and mobile computing with senior students. Those of us outside the Republic of Ireland are left to speculate, given its value and significance, what scope, if any, there might be for us to do something equally creative in assessment and learning.

Jonathan Glazzard gives us an account of synthetic phonics and the impact of the phonics screening test in relation to models and theories of reading development in UK primary schools. Glazzard’s account questions the compartmentalisation of reading skills, and he argues for a developmental framework which recognises the phases and stages in sequential reading skills development.

Victoria Elliott’s paper What does a good one look like? takes us behind closed doors to observe two examiner training meetings. The training deemed to take place through these meetings is evaluated through the interaction and notions of compliance with the mark scheme, standardisation, representativeness, and cognition. Examining, the article reveals, is a process fraught with challenges and contradictions as well as with significance.

John Hodgson’s article with Bill Greenwell, The work of the course: validity and reliability in assessing English Literature, describes an ‘alternative’ UK English literature syllabus from the 20th century where informed response to literature was encouraged. Students genuinely did their coursework throughout the course, and teachers, who were familiar with their students’ work, were cradled within the developmental context of a consensual and supportive moderation process.

The book reviews in this special edition focus not so much on assessment as on learning, yet in doing so they offer thoughtful comments on where we place value and significance. Marcello Giovanelli discusses The Discourse of Reading Groups: Integrating Cognitive and Sociocultural Perspectives (2016) by David Peplow, Joan Swann, Paola Trimarco and Sara Whiteley.   Andrew Burn looks at James Gee’s Literacy and Education (2015), a book by an author familiar with the field and one which provides lively examples as well as revisiting his ‘Big D’ notion of discourses. .

Jo Carrington’s poem Remember me reminds us of the implications of and the responsibility that comes with teaching and learning within a curriculum that at times might appear neither to permit flexibility in its assessment nor fully to acknowledge individual needs. Hopefully, the articles in this special edition will remind us that knowledge and understanding of process and of practice as well as creativity and professionalism are fundamental to ensuring that our pupils and students, whoever they are, are given a fair chance to succeed through the learning and assessment they experience.

This special issue is now available online and print subscribers will receive their copy shortly.   If you are a NATE member and cannot access the online publication, please email membership@nate.org.uk with your name and membership number to receive a unique code.