The government recently announced that it will be spending £26.3 million to fund 32 new Primary English Hubs that will build ‘a network of excellent phonics teaching in every region’. That means that money from the education budget will once again be spent on a single aspect of teaching reading, to the detriment of a wider reading experience during the primary phase.
While phonics is an essential part of becoming an independent reader, equally important is developing the motivation to read through and enjoy high quality texts, leading to a lifelong desire to read for purpose and fulfilment. That £26.3 million would be better spent on books for schools and public libraries, rather than yet more training for teachers about phonics.
This isn’t the place to argue about the limitations of synthetic phonics (though the UK Literacy Association has published comprehensive and convincing evidence of what those are). However, it’s worth asking who’ll benefit from the vast amount of money allocated to phonics hubs. It’s unlikely to be children or schools.
There’s ample evidence that the phonics check puts pressure on already stretched schools and headteachers – and for what? Recent research by academics Margaret M Clark OBE and Jonathan Glazzard reveals that 89% of headteachers and 94% of teachers don’t think that the phonics check provides any more information about children’s reading than they already have. But hand-wringing gets us nowhere.
Teachers themselves have found that creating professional networks can be a powerful antidote to narrow policymaking. UKLA’s awards and reading groups, for example, represent a groundswell of support for exposing children to recently published high quality literature by reading aloud. Groups of teachers all over the UK, who regularly read and avidly discuss children’s books, find such experiences transformational for children, and a good way of encouraging professional development.
UKLA’s joint action research with the Open University has meant that over 80 Reading for Pleasure groups are now responding to the needs in their respective schools for a richer, wider and more enduring children’s reading experience. Those involved will even fund books out of their own pockets, seeing it as a moral and social responsibility to spend their own time fostering readers for life.
These reading communities tempt children into reading for pleasure though encouraging them to talk about reading, providing space for texts to be explored in greater depth and allowing favourites to be shared. The result is tangible delight and engagement, raised motivations – and, of course, a secure grasp of phonics!
Authors, publishers and librarians generously lend their support to such initiatives, which are based around networks to which teachers willingly give their time – because they know this is more effective in creating enthusiastic young readers than detecting non-words. The proposed funding for phonics hubs would buy more than 4 million books. How many more children could be set on the path of becoming lifelong readers with that kind of money? Far more than will be created by the government’s current plans.