Improving literacy through research-based reading instruction
In August 2017, a petition filed by Anne Glennie – literacy consultant, editor and former teacher – was submitted, under the title “Improving literacy standards in schools through research-based reading instruction”.
However, last week on May 4, 2022, the petition was closed by the Scottish Parliament Committee for Education, Children and Youth.
The last two and a half years have been extraordinary in Scottish education, and the resumption of Covid-19 education is now a priority. This includes optimally supporting children’s literacy and learning and reducing the inequalities that have been magnified as a result of the pandemic.
In this context, the closure of petition PE01668 could not have come at a worse time. It represented a real opportunity to improve children’s literacy skills and experiences and improve equity.
At present, there is considerable variation in the provision of initial teacher education in Scotland in terms of access to knowledge about research-based reading instruction. Additionally, there is a lack of guidance and support for experienced teachers to engage in ongoing professional learning to support their practice.
The petition was filed to ensure that all teachers have access to the latest scientific research, in particular Systematic Synthetic Phonics: an approach to the initial teaching of reading, which explicitly teaches children about the relationship between letters and sounds. and encourages children to shuffle letter-sound matches to read new words.
There is a considerable body of research supporting systematic phonetics, with synthetic approaches offering clear advantages in terms of optimizing the order of letter sounds taught (for a review, see Castles et al, 2018) .
The importance of getting it right from the start cannot be underestimated. Children who become successful independent readers early are more likely to be motivated to read, enjoy reading, and read frequently (Toste et al, 2020; van Bergen et al, 2018) and have better reading skills in reading throughout school and later in life (Castles et al, 2018). Therefore, it is essential to provide children with an optimal start in their journey as readers.
This petition was closed, in my opinion, following a misunderstanding of what it represented. First, the petition did not ask for a single, mandated approach to teaching reading in Scottish primary schools. Instead, he called for all new and experienced teachers to have access to research (especially the contribution that psychological science has made to understanding how children learn to read) so that they can apply it in their own class context.
Second, the idea that “all children learn differently” and therefore teachers should use a variety of approaches to teach reading, unfortunately, often disadvantages the very children this argument is supposed to support.
It’s hard to know what could or should happen next with the priorities of this petition, but I believe everyone working in Scottish education shares the same goal. We are all committed to improving children’s literacy experiences and outcomes, ensuring children get the best possible start in their reading and feel positive, confident and successful as readers.
We need to find better ways to communicate with each other so that we can work collectively to achieve these goals, leveraging the breadth of research and pedagogical knowledge available to us. – the cost of miscommunication and misunderstanding is just too high.
Dr Sarah McGeown is a Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology at the University of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education and Sport.