The Simple View of Reading

This is the winning post-graduate entry in the 2015 Critical Prize for Writing. It was written by Rebecca Green, a post-graduate (PgDipEd Primary) student at the University of Birmingham. Rebecca was nominated by her lecturers Dr Josephine Brady, School of Education and Dr Celia Greenway, School of Education,

In 2006, the Simple View of Reading (SVR) was adopted by the Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading (DfES, 2006) as theoretical grounding for teaching to improve standards in reading in English Primary schools. This was done in light of evidence that the implementation of the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) and the National Curriculum had done little to improve standards in reading; 9 years after the NLS had been introduced 15% of KS1 children and 16% of KS2 children “failed to meet the target levels for their age in reading” (DfES, 2006; p.13). The government acted upon these the recommendations and issued statutory documentation outlining that the teaching of reading must be achieved through “High quality, systematic phonic work that should be taught discretely” (DfES, 2006; p.70) in the first instance, and also that language comprehension processes must also be taught. This essay aims to discuss my experiences of the teaching of these processes during my SE1 placement, with
particular regard to the teaching and acquisition of word recognition processes, the interrelationship between the teaching of the two processes, and the strengths and limitations of the SVR (DfES, 2006) as a model for the teaching of reading. For my SE1 placement I was based in a two form entry Academy school with 350 pupils aged 3 – 11 years. My base class was a year 2 class made up of 23 pupils, though most lessons that I observed relating to reading were with a group of 16 children from year 1 and 2 who were the most advanced readers on the school’s KS1 phonic programme. The school serves a community that has a “well-above average proportion of children who are eligible for pupil premium” and children generally enter the school with skills and abilities “well below those typical of their age” (Ofsted, 2014; p.3). The proportion of pupils that have Special Education Needs is above average. Most pupils at School A are white British, with an “average” proportion of children from an ethnic minority background (Ofsted, 2014; p.3).

A need to raise standards in reading was highlighted in the school’s most recent Ofsted report because “the proportion of Year 1 pupils reaching the required standard in phonics was below average”, with children leaving the school with “broadly average skills in all areas, except for reading” where they fall two terms behind their peers nationally (Ofsted, 2014; p.4). Having recognised the need to raise attainment in reading prior to this inspection the school restructured their literacy and language curriculum in 2013, and began implementing a commercial systematic synthetic phonic programme, Read Write Inc (RWI), to teach early reading in the foundation stage /KS1 and also literacy and language in KS2. Each programme is designed to enable children to meet all of the objectives outlined within the National Curriculum through a daily taught sessions (Ruth Miskin Training; 2014). The school’s recent
implementation of the RWI programme means that it is difficult to assess if these changes have
improved the teaching of reading in this context, but the Ofsted report stated that early indications suggest this programme, in addition to the school’s own strategies for teaching reading, are improving children’s attainment, advising that the school continued to work in this way to raise standards (Ofsted, 2014).

The school’s approach to the teaching of reading is based upon the aforementioned SVR (DfES, 2006) states that reading comprehension is the product of the interdependent skills of word recognition and language comprehension processes. Within the model, decoding refers to the ability for words to be recognised out of context, explaining that in order to develop this skill children learn and apply phonic rules, with the amount of rules and the complexity involved gradually increasing to enable children to decode both familiar and unfamiliar words. The SVR (DfES, 2006) outlines that comprehension refers to how understanding is achieved; “the process by which, given lexical (i.e. word) information, sentences and discourse are interpreted” (DfES, 2006; p86). It is from these definitions that the following discussion is based on, having taken into account the contested nature of how it is believed these processes should be defined (Uppstad & Solheim, 2011), rather that the model itself claims to be a
‘simple’ view of reading and “not a blue print for instruction” (Kirby & Savage 2008; p.1) for
all processes involved in reading.

One way that school A meets a recommendation from the Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading (DfES, 2006) report is that decoding takes place in discrete daily sessions, applied “carefully each day, reinforcing and building on the prior day’s knowledge” (p.21). This is a common sense approach to the teaching of reading and can be praised for its willingness to recognise the need to prioritise reading in schools; this is the case in School A wherein each day children have an hour long phonics session within KS1 in which children develop their phonological awareness and learn grapheme-phoneme correspondences in order to develop a word recognition system. Although there has been debate regarding whether the synthetic phonics approach is more effective than other phonic approaches (Torgerson et al, 2006 in Wyse and Styles, 2007; Lewis & Ellis, 2006), as the Clackmannanshire study (Johnson & Watson, 2005) that was said to prove the worth of synthetic phonics in the teaching of
reading had been widely criticised for its significant methodological flaws (Wyse and Styles, 2007; Hynds, 2007; Wyse and Goswami, 2008), it is generally agreed that the implementation of a systematic system, such as that employed by School A, is key to the success of the teaching of early reading. Ehri et al (2001) championed this view stating that children cannot become skilled readers if they are not instructed on what the system for decoding is and that in order for this to be achieved a sequence must be followed. Not only was the structure of each lesson sequential within my base class, it was evident from carrying out a learning walk of each KS1 phonic group that a consistent approach to phonics lessons was applied across the whole key stage. There were key features in each session that were instantly recognisable across the
school, with the ‘revisit and review, teach, practise and apply’ structure evident that was outlined in the DfES guidance Letters and Sounds (2007). Furthermore, terminology and behaviour management strategies within these lessons were also concurrent across school; verbal cues such as ‘My turn, your turn’ and ‘turn to your partner’ were used by all staff and followed by the children. This organisational routine was key to the children’s learning of reading, and is a benefit generally of using a systematic approach to teach phonics, as it allows lessons to have pace and minimise ‘down time’, which was outlined in the Primary Framework as essential in order to secure progression (DfES, 2006b). Not only this, but these particular structures appear to be designed in a way that encourage collaborative working and interactions in attempt to reflect the social nature of learning; partner work and whole group games were strategies used in each lesson. This approach allows children to gradually extend their understanding, facilitated by the teacher, by working through zones of proximal development
with peers that take them on “a similar journey through a newly created zone” (Vygotsky, 1962
in Pritchard, 2009; p.25), which appeared to enable children to confidently apply decoding skills in this context to help them to develop secure word recognition processes.
A further attribute of the teaching of reading at school A was that children practiced decoding words, and then had the opportunity to immediately apply this knowledge by reading through decodable texts, which Stuart (2006) argues enables children to secure word recognition processes. As recommended in the 2006 DfES report, the texts were matched to the children’s reading ability for “quick wins” (p.86) and it was clear that the children read these books with accuracy, pace and confidence. However, it seemed that out of the context of phonics lessons some children showed a reluctance to apply their decoding skills, and subsequently read with varying degrees of accuracy in other lessons. One reason that children may not decode words by ‘sounding out’ is perhaps that they do not need to; it has been argued that some children are held back by phonics, as this compulsory teaching strategy does not meet the needs of children who enter schooling as skilled readers, particularly if they already have some strategies of their
own for reading (Cunningham & Cunningham 2002, in Farstrup & Samuels, 2002). Another possible reason for children not applying phonic rules is that research has also shown that many children show a reluctance to decode unless directed to do so; Clay (1991, in Watts & Gardner, 2013) studied children’s reading behaviours finding children often will not apply synthetic phonic knowledge to decoding whole words, rather they will use grapho-phonic knowledge to decode initial sounds in words then guess how the rest of word is pronounced, unless a teacher tells them to. Although this study wasn’t focussed specifically on synthetic phonic approach, it is a phenomena that I frequently observed, with teaching staff often reminding children to ‘sound out’ words that they were failing to read accurately. Given both of these examples, which demonstrate that some children (but not all) either choose not to or do not need to
decode words, the validity of teaching word recognition through a single approach is brought into question as it is unable to cater for all children’s needs and preferred reading strategies. Another issue with the SVR (DfES, 2006) is that although the model recognises that word recognition skills alone do not make competent readers, it fails to acknowledge the “complexity and lack of consistency of the relationship between spoken words and their written representations” (Dombey, 2009; p.2) in the English language. Many English words cannot be decoded using phonic rules because of the array of influences that shaped the development of the language which “renders an exclusive synthetic phonic method problematic” (Watts and Gardner, 2013; p.101), and an incomplete strategy through which children learn to recognise words. As such, children have to deploy other strategies to learn to read some words. In school A, words in RWI texts are colour coded and children learn to sight read ‘red’ words (e.g. Mrs, the, was) when words cannot be ‘sounded out’. It is this flaw that has led some to advocate  alternative methods to teach early reading such as analytic phonics, that is, reading through identification of ‘onset’ and ‘rime’ (Goswami and Byrant 1990 in Dombey 2009). Goswami &
Byrant (1990, in Dombey 2009) stated that children found this method easier to achieve because of its acoustic reality in the relationship between written words and sounds. However, this method also encounters the same difficulties that synthetic phonics does in relation to its inability to decode all words in the English language (Johnson and Watson, 2007). This debate highlights the barriers faced by those attempting to learn to word recognition skills through a phonic method and reinforces the SVR’s (DfES, 2006) view that the skill of decoding must be taught via a range of strategies.

Discussion about the teaching of word recognition skills in school A arguably should also take into consideration how the use of a commercial scheme, in this case RWI, effects the teaching of early reading within this context. The Independent Review of Early Reading (DfES, 2006) endorsed the use of such programmes; it stated that on reviewing assessment data from commercial programmes “very substantial, sometimes spectacular, gains” (p.20) were often reported by schools that use them. From a practical point of view it was clear that the programme had benefits for the teaching staff who did not have to plan sessions or create resources as these were provided for by the programme in line with National Curriculum objectives. However, there is an argument that such programmes, and indeed the SVR (DfES, 2006) as a whole, promotes a ‘one size fits all’ approach to the teaching of early reading with
critics suggesting that such programmes fail to accommodate difference, including “culture, interests, readiness or ability” (Wyse and Goswami, 2008; p.20). At times, the children in school A seemed disengaged with their learning because of the content of the books that they were reading as part of the programme. One of the groups spent a week looking at a non fiction book about life cycles; although the children successfully decoded the words, many did not have the assumed background understanding of life cycles to be able to understand the meaning of the text, which the teacher was unable to address because of the time scales allocated within the planning of the lesson. Wolfe (2013) identifies this to be a key issue relating to the teaching of reading, particularly when using a commercial programme, as
teachers’ professional judgement is restricted, despite them having valuable knowledge about the way that individual children learn which could enable them to teach children more effectively.
The SVR (DfES, 2006) has also been criticised for its influence on creating process driven practise rather than allowing children also to enjoy whole texts, with anecdotal evidence being produced to suggest that, for example, “children are being sent home with tins of letters to learn their (alleged) sounds” (Davis, 2012; p.560) before they are allowed to read ‘real’ books. Arguably educational practitioners who teach in this way have misinterpreted the essence of the SVR (DfES, 2006), focussing only on part of the word recognition element of the model and creating a malnourished reading education, when in reality the SVR attempts to represent a “complete interdependence of the two dimensions in skilled reading” (Stuart, Stainthorpe and Snowling, 2008; p.62). Torgerson et al (2006, in Wyse and Styles, 2007) conducted a meta analyses of the teaching of early reading finding that the teaching was most successful where phonics instruction was integrated with text-level learning, which is an attribute true of School
A. The SVR has been praised for its acknowledgement that there is a need to teach comprehension skills (Kirby and Savage, 2007) rather than assuming that they will develop as a product of language acquisition; Pressley (2006 in Kirby and Savage 2007) reported that in schools it was common for children’s comprehension to be tested but that they were rarely ever taught. Within RWI lessons the children read through a text and then complete oral and written tasks relating to it, using a range strategies that encompassed all 4 strands of the National Curriculum for English (DfE, 2013). This demonstrates the school’s commitment to the teaching of both word recognition and language comprehension skills to enable children to read skilfully.

The school also employed a range of other strategies that focussed particularly on the development of comprehension skills. Daily guided reading sessions formed much of this education in School A, and involved groups of 5-6 children reading through texts that they were able to decode confidently, with a discussion around the text to develop understanding being facilitated by the teacher. The Primary Framework outlined that “children gain most from guided reading when they have already developed a sound understanding about how texts work, about the alphabetic code and when they have considerable experience of listening to and talking about texts” (DfES, 2006b; 59). What seemed apparent from observing and teaching these sessions was that the children in my base class had not secured these skills, but that the sessions were acting as a forum through which these skills were being taught at a whole text
level. A noticeable benefit of the way the sessions were structured was that the teacher tailored the approach to the particular needs of the children so that they could discuss texts at an appropriate level (Goouch and Lambrith, 2011). Goouch and Lambrith (2011) suggest that this organisational feature creates a ‘personal learning’ environment which is a “far richer, effective and nuanced form of teaching” (p.87) than is possible in whole class literacy, and encourages positive attitudes towards reading. The benefit of this is twofold in that the National Curriculum (DfES, 2013) states that schools need to promote a love of reading which can only be acquired if children have the skills necessary to do so including the ability to listen to others and make valuable contributions, and also that having a positive attitude toward reading is moderately correlated with reading attainment (Petscher 2010 in Lockwood 2012). Another way that my base class helped children to “develop pleasure in reading and motivation
to read” (DfE, 2013; p.21), extending reading education beyond the processes defined in the SVR (DfES, 2006), was that a ‘culture of reading’ was created within the classroom through physical and organisational means. Gee (2004, in Goouch and Lambrith, 2011; p.52) stated that children who enjoy reading do so “because, for them, learning to read is a cultural and not primarily instructed process”; such a culture is created by helping children to see that reading is valued. Within my base class there was a ‘culture of reading’ created by having a ‘print rich’ physical environment where books were readily available in the book corner and around the classroom, and children’s work relating to books they had read was displayed on the literacy board featured working to create an environment that enabled children to consolidate and extend their reading experiences by drawing upon their surroundings (Goouch and Lambrith, 2011). The school also had organisational features that promoted a love for reading including
the management of time allocated to reading; fifteen minutes at the end of the day was allocated to story time wherein the children would be read a story and had the opportunity also to discuss the text. There is evidence to suggest that being read to is an important feature of learning to read as it gives children experience of texts that they may not be able to access themselves, and provides a social forum wherein children can experience making meaning together (Goouch and Lambrith, 2011; Dombey, 2009). It follows that whilst a love of reading cannot be taught per se, by providing experiences that value the act of reading by creating an enabling reading environment, such as that witnessed within my base class, teachers can promote the skills necessary to read and also the value of reading itself. This essay concludes that the SVR (DfES, 2006) is a useful tool to understand the process of learning to read given that it outlines some key processes involved in reading, but it should not be seen as a complete model for learning to read. On reflection, the methods that School A used in order to teach word recognition seemed successful because of the systematic organisation through which the programme was taught, which created a consistent approach to the teaching of early reading across the school. Additionally, the teaching of word recognition alongside language comprehension processes was also a positive attribute, demonstrating an understanding that both processes are significant, with the RWI programme and guided reading playing a key part in the school’s teaching of comprehension skills. Arguably, the issues faced in the teaching of word recognition were not due to any fault of the school but through the
limitations of the model itself rooted in the model’s inability to teach the skills needed to decode all words and the prescriptive nature of the teaching of synthetic phonics which can fail to account for the needs of all children and that also limits teacher’s professional judgement. In light of this, the school’s implementation of a language rich curriculum, through creating text rich environments where reading is valued, seems a sensible precaution to take and arguably gives children within School A a firm grounding from which to begin to learn the skills needed to read and to read for enjoyment.

References
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