A literacy challenge


When pupils reach secondary school still unable to read or write properly, we know traditional approaches are not working. Speech and language therapist Jules Clarke discusses the approaches she uses when faced with these challenges.

So the best predictor of juvenile delinquency is literacy; you are disenfranchised from society and condemned to a life on the margins if you are unable to read. A true statement or just scare-mongering tactics delivered via the media by politicians?

As well as my work in the UK as a qualified speech and language therapist, I have also had the opportunity to work on the other side of the world in Australia.

Interestingly, in Australia just as in the UK, barely a week goes by without some commentary on falling literacy standards (Adoniou, October 2013); most recently by MP Alannah MacTiernan, who asked the question: “Of those who light fires, express themselves with angry actions, take drugs or try suicide, how many are unable to read?”

I spent 12 months working in a medium secure unit that was filled with angry young men who were at her Majesty’s pleasure for a variety of offences. They ranged from 18 to 30-years-old and most were deemed to have a mental illness of some sort and, of those I assessed, their language and literacy skills were roughly equivalent to that of a 12-year-old.

Family connections

So what happened? Why did their learning stop? I hear some of you asking “parents?”, and yes they are often an issue; poor literacy skills and less than desirable attitudes to education do run in families.

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, has argued that socio-economic backgrounds should be taken into account when discussing and evaluating findings such as those recently released by PISA. However, in Australia, Jennifer Buckingham, a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, argues that with exemplary teaching, timely and effective intervention, students can achieve higher levels of reading achievement and fewer will fail to learn to read, irrespective of family background.

New approaches needed?

What is certain is that if a pupil has made it to 11 and hasn’t picked up reading and writing skills through the whole language approach then that’s a good indicator that the approach will not work for them.

Remedial literacy programmes have cost governments across the world millions, but have reaped little in terms of improvement. In England, following the Rose Review in 2006, which concluded that explicit, highly structured teaching of sounds and syllables is the most effective method of teaching literacy to all, an approved list of reading programmes was distributed. Sales of phonics software and materials increased dramatically, but those selling the materials openly admit that to work well, the programmes must be used well by someone who knows what they are doing.

In their recently published paper, Why Jaydon Can’t Read, Ms Buckingham et al explain how ideology has infected reading instruction and may well be the single, huge contributing factor behind the poor literacy standards we see today. 

Since the Rose Review, UK policy has dictated a highly prescriptive approach to reading instruction and there are indications of slightly improved reading levels. 

However, Sir Michael Barber, chief education advisor to Pearson, has suggested there has been a watering down in the focus on literacy, with current favour being placed on behaviour, ICT and science initiatives (2013). 

I agree with some of Sir Michael’s views – literacy does need to be a high priority, and the drive should begin at preschool. 

However, he also said that the drive should be on phonics (letter to sound relationships). This is where I beg to differ – the letter to sound relationship is all well and good but don’t forget that the layer before phonics, phonological awareness skills, forms the foundation blocks for literacy skills. 

If a pupil has gaps here, the foundations will be unreliable and as he tries to expand and build on existing skills, he will crumble and fall, leaving him frustrated at his failed attempts and the only thing that will expand and grow is low self-confidence and a huge dislike for anything written.

I can almost predict the results of the 11 to 15-year-olds who are referred to me before I even assess their literacy skills. I know instinctively where they will fail and what I will need to teach them. I see this pattern in pupils here and in Australia.

Are your pupils struggling?

Check if pupils who are struggling with reading, writing and spelling perform poorly with these seemingly easy tasks:

  • Segment two/three syllable words (give them words like exercise or elephant and ask them to break the word into syllables).

  • Delete syllables from words of three or more syllables (ask the pupil to say the word minus the first or last syllable).

  • Segment CCVC words (consonant, consonant, vowel, consonant – a common pattern in English) into phonemes. They’ll often say the consonant blend as one sound or say the letters rather than the phonemes. So the word “creep” equals four sounds – k/r/e/p.

If they do struggle, you will probably also notice that in their writing and speaking they will omit the longer syllabic words. In fact, in spelling multi-syllabic words, pupils often have no idea where to begin and their attempt will be a combination of sounds they manage to pick out when they say their version of the word out loud.

I find that phonics, taught too early, gets in the way of phonological skills; instead of focusing on the sounds, saying the sounds and working out how words are formed, they get hung up on letter-matching – this is disastrous when trying to read or spell new words.

Take the word “girl” for example. The ones who have only had phonics work will say “g-i-r-ul”. Once they have had some proper training, they will tell me that there are three sounds – g-ir-l – and they learn which combination of vowels, or vowel and consonant, form the long vowel sound.

Have you ever tried to read by just sounding out letters? It’s difficult. You really need to know the sounds of written language in order to play around and develop reading and spelling skills.


So who can carry out the highly structured sequential and explicit teaching methods from the smallest phonemes to the most complex grammatically correct sentences?

What can schools do with year 7 students who arrive on their doorstep with little or no ability to read, write and spell? They may send them to the SEN department or the Literacy Acceleration Centre. There, they might test reading comprehension and accuracy. This will give the pupil a reading score and will definitely be a great baseline to measure progress.

A really good SEN department will also check verbal comprehension (using the same stories and questions the student failed to read) so that they can rule out any general problems in the understanding of language.

So what then? As a specialist speech and language therapist, the first thing I do is rule out physical or perceptual factors; an occupational therapist will assess any problems in gross or fine motor and perceptual or visual disturbances related to forming letters and reading words. 

When these two possibilities have been eliminated, I settle into assessing phonological awareness skills, get a reading and spelling age and then crack on with the basics through highly structured weekly therapy sessions, followed up with homework and where possible, daily sessions of around 30 minutes with an education assistant (following activities that are demonstrated and adapted as progress is made).

Many of the pupils I have worked with are often like hard cliff faces when I first meet them; they’ve had no end of 1:1 or small group teaching before and dread the thought of more.

You have to be creative to ensure they don’t go into auto switch-off mode, but very quickly the down-trodden, unconfident pupil with low self-esteem, turns into a happy, eager pupil who realises for the first time, that they can grasp what has eluded them for what must seem like an eternity. They even start to enjoy literacy as much as PE and science.

  • Jules Clarke is a qualified speech and language therapist who has 16 years’ experience in providing direct therapy to children and training for professionals.

  • Adoniou M (2013) Lost for Words: Why the best literacy approaches are not reaching the classroom. http://bit.ly/1dgiOkN (Accessed December 2013)
  • Barber M (2013) Universal Literacy: The unfinished agenda. www.literacytrust.org.uk/news/5692 (Accessed November 2013)
  • Blower C (2013) PISA Results – Press release. www.teachers.org.uk/node/20039 (Accessed December 2013)
  • Buckingham J, Wheldall, K & Beaman-Wheldall, R (2013) Why Jaydon Can’t Read: The triumph of ideology over evidence in teaching reading. http://bit.ly/1eNvBwH (Accessed November 2013)
  • The Rose Report: Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading Skills. http://bit.ly/1eV1j9g (Accessed November 2013)


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