Circumventing the mandate from the Department for Education that places systematic synthetic phonics as the primary approach, it is evident that more is needed to effectively teach reading to at least one in four children in the UK, thereby necessitating a more inclusive and varied instructional methodology in Key Stage One (KS1).
Children who read for pleasure at the age of 11 are far more likely to go on to have a positive experience of school and have much improved life chances (Mental wellbeing, reading and writing' Report from The Literacy Trust, October 2018)
Unfortunately 1 in 4 UK children leave primary school unable to read at even minimum expected levels
regardless of how intelligent, and involved and articulate their parents, and how often they were read to.
Anyone exploring words with Ortho-Graphix would have identified Luca's learning needs before the age of 5, and he would have been a skilled reader before the end of Year 1: unfortunately he was taught with only the limited GPCs taught within a specific synthetic phonics program, as directed by the DfE, and his 'catch-up' - intervention- work was more of the same. This is why I urge parents and EY educators to do the Ortho-Graphix Level 1 training and know what to look out for, and how to fill the learning gaps where necessary. It goes without saying that KS1 teachers and TAs who do the training will know how to meet the needs of the 20+% who will never catch up without a different learning experiences: they need this to develop the phonemic and orthographic awareness needed to thrive and to store words in their 'brain word bank'.
I tried to help Luca, who tested at 82 (SATS) but the lack of interest and resistance from those within the education system combined with such a limited time before he started secondary school, made options difficult. I am frustrated by this situation, knowing it is the same for over 170K eleven-year-olds and yet little is being done to prevent this for children in the first place.
Could we offer Monster Mapping to children in the early years, and prevent these issues?
Emma Hartnell-Baker, the Neurodivergent Reading Whisperer
At least 1 in 5 children will fail to read and spell at a functional level without a wider exploration of words and of the Spelling Clouds.
These are the books Luca was being given to 'read' at home. He was rarely exposed to the whole code.
The National Literacy Trust estimated that in 2021, there were 7.1 million functionally illiterate adults in the United Kingdom, who will likely have difficulty reading the front page of a broadsheet newspaper, understanding the instructions on a medicine bottle, sitting a theory test for a driver’s licence, or succeeding in writing a job application.
It does not have to be this way.
Research suggests that there could be a strong link between raising levels of childhood literacy and lowering the risk of offending.
- Nearly half (48%) of young offenders have a reading age below that of an 11-year-old whilst 40% of those in prison have poor reading skills.
OLASS English and Maths assessments, (2018)
-Sadly 57% of people entering the prison system have literacy skills lower than those expected of an 11-year-old.
Prison education: a review of reading education in prisons (2022)
It does not have to be this way.
Become an Ortho-Graphix Coach and change lives!
To the Literacy Education Community,
I wish to shed light on a noteworthy trend in literacy education that appears to have been largely overlooked by the reading research community. Data from the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach, especially from reception teachers, provides persuasive evidence supporting the delayed – rather than immediate – introduction of levelled readers like PM or F&P in the early stages of literacy development.
This data demonstrates a clear pattern: Prep (Reception) aged children who are introduced to levelled readers only after they have mastered the SSP's Yellow Code Level typically achieve benchmarks around PM 10 - 12, markedly higher than those achieved through traditional methods. Furthermore, those mastering the SSP Blue Code Level often reach even loftier benchmarks, around PM 20, elevating the average benchmark for Prep children to at least PM 16. It is important to note the variance in expectations across Australia, with benchmarks in SA at 5, and in QLD at 9.
This trend is more than a statistical anomaly; it highlights the significance of learning sequence and preparation in reading readiness and challenges existing paradigms in literacy education. It necessitates a re-evaluation of the timing and methodology used in introducing reading materials to young learners and challenges the prevailing 'phonics versus three cueing/whole language' debate, often referred to as 'The Reading Wars'. Instead of choosing a 'side', it appears that the focus should be on 'what and when'.
Ortho-Graphix thus represents an innovative approach to teaching reading, blending the strengths of visual and linguistic phonics with the structured progression of levelled reading. This approach is designed to effectively bridge the gaps identified in traditional synthetic phonics methods while also aligning with the objectives of established tools such as Accelerated Reader and myON.
Despite the importance of these findings and their widespread dissemination on social media and the previous SSP website, there is a notable lack of engagement from the reading research community. This raises critical questions:
Are these findings being overlooked due to prevailing biases in literacy education research?
Is there a reluctance within the field to explore approaches that challenge established beliefs?
What barriers are preventing this data from being rigorously examined and integrated into academic discourse?
The purpose of this message is not merely to highlight these findings but to initiate a dialogue and encourage a deeper exploration into the experiences and challenges faced during the launch of the Speech Sound Pics SSP Approach. This approach, at one point widely adopted across Australia was often obstructed by various groups or ignored by organisations claiming to seek 'evidence-based' strategies, especially for children with learning differences such as dyslexia, merits more attention. Regrettably, many teachers – despite their results – were instructed to use synthetic phonics programmes instead, as implemented school-wide. There is now a strong push for the government to abandon the use of levelled readers altogether.
Levelled reading programmes emphasise matching students with books that are appropriate for their reading level, which aids in building fluency and comprehension skills. By introducing levelled readers at the 'right time' in their journey towards orthographic mapping, we foster a love of reading and self-directed learning. This approach allows students to apply their phonics skills in real reading situations, far earlier, enhancing their understanding and enjoyment of reading.
My efforts in Australia uncovered systemic barriers and vested interests, including the dominance of commercial interests in decodable readers and synthetic phonics, coupled with professional egos, which significantly impede effective literacy teaching for the majority of children by Year 2. Teachers consistently reported that children develop orthographic knowledge more effectively using this learning sequence: most schools had been using currently validated synthetic phonics programs, in particular Letterland and Jolly Phonics. The Speech Sound Pics approach, encompassing both 'speech-to-print' and 'print-to-speech' activities, targets early orthographic knowledge and could be described as 'linguistic' and 'visual' phonics. Although 1 in 4 children in the UK cannot read when they transition to secondary school, one must also wonder how many children who do manage to read early actually choose to. Various groups and organisations shed light on the reading habits of children and are worthy of consideration.
Ortho-Graphix is an innovative approach designed to accelerate the development of orthographic knowledge in children, facilitating their entry into the self-teaching phase of reading development. This approach is grounded in the principles established by Share (1995) and further supported by Ehri's research on sight word reading. Rather than removing 'levelled readers' and 'book bands', we better prepare ALL children to be able to read them!
The Speech Sound Pics Approach is evolving into a 'Neuro-Inclusive' site dedicated to professionals assisting these children, focusing on 'Ortho-Graphix' and the development of innovative technology that appeals to and includes a broader range of learners. While I remain emotionally invested in early intervention, it saddens me to see AU policymakers following the UK's path in promoting whole-class 'synthetic phonics'. I hope my work in Australia continues to make a difference, but I have decided that my time and efforts are more impactful when supporting parents and tutors. I am also seeking to launch 'Wings', aiming to better protect UK children who will be taught using synthetic phonics when they start school and the Neuro-Nest online school as a place where children who are already struggling can receive the support they need: within the existing system it is likely they will simply receive more synthetic phonics!
The only thing worse than failing to teach at least one in four UK children to read before they leave primary school is the refusal to acknowledge that persisting with the same instructional methods that led to these failures is misguided at best. As a neurodivergent learner, I strongly advocate for policy change to address this critical issue
Emma Hartnell-Baker MA SEN