Getting forensic with phonics: Ofsted’s focus on the early stages of reading

    Published: 10 September 2019
    Open book


    No one would deny that ‘there is more to reading than phonics’. So much more. Without the ‘thrill’ and the ‘will’, the ‘skill’ is pretty much pointless…a child may be able to read but without wanting to, this doesn’t get them very far. That said, the skill of decoding the words on the page is a pretty vital part of that. Have you ever seen a child literally climbing out of their seat to climb into the world offered up by their book? A world that provides new possibilities, new horizons, new reasons to keep working hard at school and blow everyone’s expectations of them? That’s just not possible without the ability to decode the words on the page.

    Ofsted have an even bigger focus on the early stages of reading, including phonics, now. This was always there, if the school’s inspection trail led there, but it is now a compulsory area to be looked into. This is because there are children still slipping through the net and the longer that persists, the bigger the gaps and the harder it is to reverse them. This of course means children will struggle to access the wider curriculum, their vocabulary acquisition suffers and it all becomes a vicious circle. Projecting forwards, we know too that social mobility is very much affected by poorer literacy skills. There is a high proportion of people (especially men) in the criminal justice system with literacy difficulties and so this has now become a huge priority for the government.

    The good news is that some of this is preventable. There is now an overwhelming amount of evidence to show that some literacy difficulties can be traced back to gaps forming early on, lack of school attendance, lack of mileage of text-reading etc, resulting in some children’s difficulties becoming entrenched confusions. Giving all children a systematic hit of synthetic phonics means all children are ‘immunised’ from an early age. Any other reasons for falling behind (e.g. developmental language disorder, hearing impairment, neuro-diversity etc) can then be investigated and provision appropriately mapped. But preventative immunisation must be given before it is ruled out. This is not to say schools are not trying hard – this renewed focus is aiming to help schools fine-tune where they focus their efforts most of all, especially for the lowest attaining 20% of readers.

    We have collated in this downloadable document some key ‘frequently asked questions’ and our responses, relating to the early stages of reading and phonics, which we hope you will find useful and maybe stimulate discussion in your school teams. Please continue to send us your feedback and queries as we are keen to respond and support.

    You asked, we did…

    In response to previous feedback from schools, we are pleased to announce a comprehensive programme of CPD on reading coming up in the academic year 2019-20. Further information will be released shortly in the form of a digestible brochure aligned with the academic year. In the meantime, do browse our Hub booking pages and have a look at our transformative projects which help address the above areas, on these project pages: Reception Early Reading Project (Primary English with Early Years).

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