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Background Info

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 our own Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy data, as well as the recent teacher judgement data. Scotland’s OECD rank went from 6th in 2000 to 23rd in 2015 in reading, and we are now behind both England and Northern Ireland.

When it comes to literacy, and in particular beginning reading instruction, other countries are getting better faster than we are. We are ‘doing what we’ve always done’, instead of ensuring our classroom practice and pedagogy is informed by the latest international research. Teachers in the main are unaware of this research because:

• current advice given by Education Scotland through the benchmarks, the experiences and outcomes and the Primary One Literacy Assessment and Action Resource (POLAAR) do not draw on current international research on reading and reinforce the status quo

• reading practice in primary schools is led by resources; any research used is a relic of the past (Multi-cueing, miscue analysis, running records, reading recovery, sight words and guessing, whole-language, old look and say reading books etc.)

• new teachers are not trained in current, evidence-based reading pedagogy.

There is in fact a ‘teaching gap’. Teachers, through no fault of their own, lack the required pedagogical subject knowledge about the most effective way to teach reading, writing and spelling.

I believe there is an obvious and logical solution to Scotland’s literacy woes. To improve reading and writing we must improve teaching and learning in the classroom. There is now ample, secure and compelling evidence available, which shows if children are taught to read, write and spell using a systematic synthetic phonics approach (as opposed to the current ‘mixed methods’ approach in Scottish schools) that the attainment gap and the gender gap can be closed.

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.)

By providing national guidance, support, training and resources, teachers will be able to adapt their classroom practice accordingly to bring it line with research findings. I believe that adopting a systematic synthetic phonics approach for beginning readers would:

• close the gap in the earliest stages of school, even / especially for those children who are considered disadvantaged or who have English as a second language

• ensure all teachers have the professional subject knowledge to teach a child to read (write and spell) including children who may be experiencing difficulties at any school stage

• enable us to aim for 100% of our children reading in Scotland.  (It is only in 2-3% of cases where children will have profound difficulties that will mean this is not possible)

• reduce the number of children being identified as dyslexic and those struggling with literacy

• provide equity and a level playing field where every child can access learning, books and the curriculum.

If there are research-informed methods for the teaching of reading and basic literacy skills that can improve Scotland’s results and, more importantly, children’s lives, I believe we are morally and ethically obliged to explore them.