Skip to main content

Sound Reading System and Literacy

Volume 642: debated on Thursday 14 June 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Paul Maynard.)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to discuss in the House the sound reading system and describe its promise for improving literacy. The sound reading system was developed in my constituency of Oxford East, and it has shown remarkable results when it comes to enabling children and adults to read, often for the first time. However, its sustainability is in doubt, which is why I am so grateful to the Minister for lending her ear to this Adjournment debate.

There are still worrying levels of illiteracy in Britain and worldwide. Because of the central position of English as a lingua franca, difficulties with literacy in this country are exported beyond our shores. Globally, one in five people cannot read enough to understand a bus timetable or a recipe. Literacy is not only a problem for developing countries: in England, one in seven adults lacks basic literacy skills. Worryingly, the problem appears to be getting worse. A 2016 OECD report indicated that England is the only developed country where late-middle-aged adults perform better in literacy than young adults. In addition, the gap between the highest and lowest-performing readers in England is stark, and the eighth worst of the OECD countries.

I am sure we all know of friends or acquaintances who are clever people but who, for whatever reason, never learned properly to read and have gone to great lengths to try to conceal that in adulthood. Illiteracy imposes a huge cost on society; indeed, it has been estimated that low levels of literacy cost the UK public purse £2.5 billion every year. Of course, the most significant impact is on those who are not fully literate. Language really is power, and those who cannot read properly cannot participate properly in society. It is therefore essential that we take every opportunity to ensure that everyone gets the chance to learn to read and that we do not squander chances to build literacy.

That is where the sound reading system comes in. Remarkably, it has a 100% success rate. That’s right—100%. There are surely very few educational interventions that have had such a proven impact. Children and young people make, on average, two years’ worth of gain in three to four months of tuition under the sound reading system. That is enough catch-up to get back on to the literacy track.

The sound reading system stems from a very simple insight: that written language is confusing to those who are learning how to read and write it. It then develops a straightforward, logical system to ensure that learners are fully conversant with all different variations of language sounds, what they look like on paper and therefore how they can be written, at every single stage of the learning journey.

That appears very obvious, but it actually contradicts how phonics are often taught, which can lead to the phonic system often causing confusion rather than illumination. Fiona Nevola developed the sound reading system in Oxford with Professor Diane McGuinness, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Florida University and author of much academic research into reading. Fiona showed me the detailed progress that just one child in Oxford had made with the sound reading system, which highlighted how and why they had previously been struggling at school. One very simple example is the confusion that so many children, and indeed adults, have between letters that look very similar—such as b, d and p. Just that type of confusion often leads to labelling children as having problems, rather than ensuring that these letters and their sounds, in different contexts, are fully understood and shifting too quickly on to other sounds. That can begin a downward spiral for many children.

Current systems, whether they use un-contextualised sound cards, memorising whole words, or exposing children to reading texts without specific sounds having been taught and understood already, go directly against the grain of how human beings actually learn. It is for that and other reasons that the philosopher Steven Pinker stated that McGuinness’s work was “part of the solution” to that

“story of needless misery and waste”

that is modern illiteracy. Similarly, the Dyslexia-Specific Learning Difficulties Trust calls the method “remarkable”.

As I mentioned, the success rate of the sound reading system has been total because it builds understanding from the very beginning and therefore it also works fast. It has been used to teach people to read who were previously believed to be unteachable in primary schools, prisons and community education, in Scotland, England, Namibia and Israel. Teachers who have been trained in the sound reading system have testified to its enormous impact on their pupils’ reading and writing abilities. After being trained in the approach, one teacher with 20 years’ experience said:

“My practice has changed forever...In my experience the strugglers complete other phonic programmes with significant barriers because much of the code has not been adequately revealed or mastered. I also believe that if the whole alphabet code is not revealed, rote learning is inadvertently encouraged. This programme ensures vital knowledge of the code is fixed into memory and strugglers are taught effective strategies to ensure success”.

Many parents have also noted the impact of the programme on their children. One Oxford parent wrote last week that her young son was now learning to read using the sound reading system after having had many previous difficulties, which included anxiety after finding that the phonics programme at his school “didn’t make sense”. The sound reading system programme has helped him immensely, his mother said. There are many other testimonies that I could mention here, but I will not owing to the pressure of time.

Despite the very strong success of the sound reading system, its use is at risk of decline for one simple reason—it is not commercial. Many of us will be aware of different approaches to phonics, which rest on the sale of different materials. Indeed, as a parent of young children, I have used some of them myself. The founders of the sound reading system took a totally different approach. They felt that pushing particular materials would only lead to confusion if it were not backed up with intensive training for the teachers who were going to use these materials with learners. Despite the simplicity of actually teaching the method, the attention to detail is crucial. It is that detail, based on proven research, that matters. The method cannot be fudged and combined with opposite approaches.

Although hundreds of teachers have been trained in the sound reading system, and continue to be trained in it, its continuation rests pretty much on a shoestring. It is supported only by a small trust. That trust, Our Right to Read, was initially managed by Diane McGuinness and Fiona Nevola, but it is now largely driven by Fiona Nevola, my constituent.

There has been a lot of political support for the use of the sound reading system. David Cameron expressed interest in the model when he met those involved in it. Insights from it appear to have informed reviews of how to build literacy. For example, I note that the Rose report, published in 2006, states:

“It is no surprise to find that the main ingredients for success in the teaching of beginner readers are: a well trained teaching force; well designed, systematic programmes of work that are implemented thoroughly”.

However, that commitment to systematic programmes has not translated into practice in many British schools and other educational settings, where a hotch-potch of different approaches is often used, leading learners into confusion and disillusionment. That disillusionment affects learners’ confidence and abilities, and holds many back into adulthood.

The parallels between the sound reading system and another innovation—the daily mile—are striking. Both are inexpensive, non-commercial innovations, both have extremely positive outcomes and both are impelled through the enthusiasm of their founders. But in both cases, although politicians have expressed strong support, that has rarely been translated into concrete action. That action now has to come from central Government. In my experience—and, I am sure, the experience of other Members in this Chamber—local authorities often lack the tools and resources to ensure appropriate training for teachers and the diffusion of innovation. Of course, the system has become much more fragmented with the development of academies, academy chains and so forth. We need action from central Government to ensure that the approach is disseminated. The sound reading system could have a radical impact on British children’s ability to read and write, but its dissemination and diffusion will not just occur on the wind; it will happen only if it is backed up with proper resources.

I understand that the letters and sounds programme was developed by the Department for Education and Skills, and put into all schools in 2007, but it is unclear exactly what the future of this programme is and whether the Department envisages properly supporting more encompassing programmes such as the sound reading system to ensure that children have the benefits of its much more holistic approach. I hope that the Minister will inform us about the future of these phonic approaches and will explain what we can do properly to back the sound reading system—an impressive literacy programme from Oxford—so that we can get to grips with eradicating the scourge of illiteracy from our country. I thank her for listening to my argument.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate.

English—literacy, in particular—is an essential foundation for success in education. I am very happy to lend my ear to this critical subject. The hon. Lady rightly pointed out that the literacy rates in this country are not as good as they should be. I think that slightly less than 25% of adults have the literacy skills of an 11-year-old or below. As the hon. Lady said, it is important to consider the impact of that. People who do not have literacy skills are excluded from so much of the world around them. In fact, all the important messages that we want to get to people about a huge number of things, including health and jobs, are simply lost.

It is vital that children learn to read from an early age. This is the key to understanding the rest of the curriculum. Children who struggle with language at the age of five are about six times less likely to reach the expected standard in English at age 11 than children who had good language skills at the age of five, and they are about 11 times less likely to reach the expected standard in maths. For that reason, we have strengthened the national curriculum to focus on developing reading and writing ability and put phonics at its heart. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards, who is passionate about this and has done so much work and driven through so much change.

Phonics is an important approach to the teaching of reading and some aspects of writing. It involves developing phonemic awareness by connecting the sounds of spoken English with letters or groups of letters. I am sure that the hon. Lady knows much of this, but it is important to put it on the record. Synthetic phonics taught in a systematic way is the most effective method of teaching reading to all children. Combined with a language-rich curriculum, synthetic phonics has been shown to develop positive attitudes towards literacy, which is so important for children. The national curriculum requires the teaching of systematic phonics alongside pupils developing a wide vocabulary, speaking and listening competently and reading widely and often.

I think it is fair to say that since 2010, the Government have turbo-charged the effective teaching of phonics. We have placed it at the heart of the curriculum, and we introduced the annual phonics screening check in 2012 for pupils at the end of year 1. Pupils have been doing the 2018 check this week. We provided £23.7 million of match funding for resources and training for 14,000 schools between 2011 and 2013—the hon. Lady rightly pointed out the importance of training teachers to do this—and we have incorporated phonics into the teachers’ standards, which are the baseline expectation for teachers’ professional practice.

In “Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential”, published in December 2017, we set out our key ambitions for improving social mobility, including closing the word gap in early language and literacy. By the age of three, disadvantaged children are on average already almost a full year and a half behind those from a more affluent background in their early language development. We have made a good start: by 2020 we will be spending around £6 billion on free entitlements, tax-free childcare and childcare support, which is more than any previous Government.

We have already seen progress, with those labours coming to fruition. For example, there is near universal take-up of the 15 hours for all three and four-year-olds; 71%—just short of three quarters—of eligible two-year-olds now take up the entitlement, up from 58% in 2015; 71% of children achieve a good level of development, up from 60% in 2014; and we have closed the gap between children in receipt of free school meals and their peers by two percentage points since 2014.

This week, pupils across England will be taking the light-touch phonics screening check, and we have used that check to measure the improvement over time in pupils’ phonics success. Since its introduction, the proportion of pupils meeting the expected standard in the phonics screening check at the end of year 1 has steadily increased, with 81% of pupils meeting the expected standard in 2017, up from 58% in 2012. I am giving the hon. Lady a lot of figures, but I think they are important because they show that progress is being made. It has to be said that all this is delivered through the very hard work of our good teachers.

An additional 154,000 children are on track to become fluent readers. In 2017, the great majority—89%—of pupils who met the expected standard in the phonics screening check at the end of year 1 went on to reach the expected standard in reading at the end of key stage 1. Getting those fundamentals right at an early age is critical for progressing to reading fluently and for pleasure, which is particularly important to me. Reading well is a good indicator of success in later life.

The results of the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study—PIRLS—put the success of our increased emphasis on phonics and our continued focus on raising education standards on a global scale. England’s nine-year-old pupils achieved their highest average score since PIRLS began, and we rose up the rankings from joint tenth in 2011 to joint eighth. That is to be commended. The pupils who took part in the study are the first to be assessed since Government education reforms in 2010 that saw the introduction of the more rigorous, knowledge-rich primary school curriculum introduced in 2014.

However, despite the very real and measurable progress, more must be done and, backed by a £26.3 million investment, we are creating a national network of 35 English hubs, and a centre of excellence for literacy teaching to improve literacy across England. It is up to schools to choose the approach and programme that is right for them and their pupils within this framework. I understand that the sound reading system, the programme championed by the hon. Lady, incorporates training alongside its teaching materials, as she described so well. This is good, and indeed, a number of the more widely used phonics programmes do this. A wide range of commercial products is available, and schools should choose the product that best meets their needs and those of their pupils.

I am grateful to the Minister for her very helpful remarks. However, the point I was trying to make about the sound reading system is precisely that it is not commercial. It does not have the commercial firepower behind it that is needed for its dissemination, yet it produces incredibly strong results. What more can we do to promote not-for-profit approaches, such as the sound reading system?

There are a number of imaginative ways of promoting the success of not-for-profit systems, and in holding this debate the hon. Lady has taken one of the first steps. There are 650 Members in the House, and as I always say when talking about apprenticeships and skills, those 650 people can spread good practice and good work. Members of Parliament have good access to their local schools—we all enjoy going into our primary schools—so that is an opportunity to promote the sort of products the hon. Lady is talking about.

As I was saying, there is wide range of commercial products, but I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards is very happy to meet the hon. Lady’s constituent to discuss her phonics programme. I am sure he will be extremely interested to do that. The Government have to be careful not to endorse specific publishers or products, but as long as this programme meets the core criteria, there will be plenty of opportunities for the hon. Lady to promote its benefits.

I mentioned earlier that we initially turbo-charged phonics with over £23 million of funding between 2011 and 2013, but let me add a word about resources. This tends to be rather sterile ground, but it is important to say that a number of initiatives are going on. We provide funding to make sure that schools across England are supported to teach phonics. In response to the 2015 screening check results, the Government have since funded Ruth Miskin Training and the University of Reading to deliver 36 events to share best practice in the teaching of phonics.

The most recent roadshows—late last year and early this year—were held in areas where the results in the phonics screening check were low and in the 12 opportunity areas. The roadshows incorporated practical observations of phonics lessons, and the provision of theory and advice about how best to organise, structure and approach teaching systematic synthetic phonics most effectively. This is very important in areas—the opportunity areas—where there are more children from disadvantaged backgrounds, because if we do not get this right at an early age, all we will do is embed the inequalities we are seeing not only in schools, but in communities, and which children take with them throughout the rest of their lives.

In 2017, we funded nine phonics partnerships, where schools excelling in systematic phonics teaching work with partner schools to spread good practice. These funded partnerships showed an improvement in nearly 80% of the schools that were supported. We are currently inviting applications from eligible schools for them to apply to lead phonics partnerships for this financial year to support effective phonics teaching in schools. We also plan to fund another 20 partnerships during this financial year.

In addition, funding for improving the teaching of phonics has been made available through the teaching and leadership innovation fund and the strategic school improvement fund. Ruth Miskin Training, through a project worth £1 million, is delivering a whole-school literacy professional development programme to support systemic synthetic phonics teaching in priority schools over the next three financial years.

To date, we have also funded a total of 17 strategic school improvement fund projects that include phonics. These projects have been awarded nearly £6 million in grant funding. For example, since December 2017, the Excalibur Teaching Schools Alliance has upskilled 22 teachers to become specialist leaders of education in phonics who have been matched to support 104 phonics champions in 52 schools. As a result, it is expected that, by June 2019, 85% of reception and year 1 children in the supported schools will achieve the expected standard in phonics.

As I say, the Government do not endorse specific products. My main responsibilities are apprenticeships and skills, and I am also involved in the introduction of the T-levels. I have seen a lot of young people who need to be given a second, a third, sometimes a fourth, sometimes a fifth chance, and it is not just young people; it is young and older adults for whom school simply passed them by, in large part, in my view, because they missed out on those critical early phases in their education. It did not matter what history, geography or science they were taught—if they could not understand, if they did not have those basic literacy skills, everything someone attempted to teach them thereafter was completely lost.

For me, this is definitely about social mobility. Learning to read and write is probably the best springboard from which to launch a successful career and open up opportunities that perhaps a person’s family and those living around them did not have. My right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards is doing his bit at his end to make sure that in 16 years the Apprenticeships and Skills Minister—it is unlikely I will still be in that position, but you never know—will have a much easier job and will be able simply to pick up these excellent young people who have achieved at school and understand the world around them. I was previously public health Minister, and I remember negotiating at the Health Council of the European Union on front-of-pack food labelling. We have an obesity problem in this country, and all that information is utterly lost to far more adults than it should be simply because they cannot read the information on the pack in front of them.

In conclusion, our support for the effective teaching of phonics in early-years settings and schools is based on a firm body of evidence, and it is working, as is shown by the phonics screening check and the PIRLS results, but there is more work to be done. That is why we are setting up a national network of English hubs supported by a new centre of excellence. This will enable schools that need support to get it in a way that works for them, complementing the national funding I have described. Schools can work collaboratively, sharing experience, knowledge and expertise with the support of high-quality, evidence-based resources. That is key to improving pupils’ literacy and enjoyment of reading across the whole of their school careers, from early years into adulthood.

Finally, I congratulate the hon. Lady on raising an issue that possibly does not get as much attention as it should in the House. The impact of being unable to read and write is perhaps lost on many Members as we talk about the sort of subjects we have discussed at length this week, but it is critical if we want to make sure that, whoever you are, whatever your background, wherever you come from, wherever you were born, whoever you know, you have the same opportunities in life as those of us who have possibly been more privileged.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.