Are all young readers well-served by the design of schools?

If you are involved in any aspect of the design or refurbishment of schools for young children, you will inevitably be designing spaces where children will learn to read. This is because the formal teaching of reading in schools in England happens two or three years earlier than in many other countries, from the age of four and five. And when children have difficulties with learning to read after their first year of formal teaching in the classroom, they will be taken by school staff to read in other spaces beyond their classroom. 

Reading is a priority at this stage of schooling in England because the ability to read fluently has become an essential gateway to many of the other subjects that are taught from the age of 6. This means that the stakes are high for these young readers since they will need to be relatively accomplished readers to access the taught curriculum that they are expected to follow from the end of Year 1. 

This post argues that the design of the school building is crucial in supporting young readers for whom the prescribed method used to teach reading hasn’t proved successful. I begin, however, by contextualising the the teaching of reading in schools and suggest why some children might struggle to learn to read at an early age within this model.  

What is reading and how is it taught in schools? 

Reading is a ‘human, ideological construct with no correct answers about what it comprises’ (Cliff Hodges, 2015 p xx). It’s crucial to remember this when we think about reading because as fluent, expert readers, it is easy to forget that reading can be learned in many different ways; that there isn’t a right way to teach or learn; and there certainly isn’t one single approach that works for everyone. Academics who write about reading have identified a multitude of theories about what it means to read and to learn to read1. In English schools today, a single method for teaching reading has been nationally mandated, as directed by the Department for education (DfE). This approach might be explained by the way in which cohorts of chidlren in schools are organised (into classes of around 30 children) and how the curriculum is designed (to ensure that all children acquire the same skills by the same stage up and down the country). 

The style of reading teaching that is currently mandated by the English government could be described as a cognitive-psychological approach2. This approach uses systematic, synthetic phonics as a primary tool3.  Schools must use an approved systematic synthetic phonics programme to teach reading and children’s progress is monitored through a statutory, national phonics screening test that every child sits at the end of Year 1, when they are five or six years old4.  By the end of Year 1, children are expected to be able to read fluently enough to understand quite complex texts and to access the rest of the curriculum through reading. The uniformity and regulation of this approach might lead one to believe that this was the only way of teaching reading. It isn’t. 

Even phonics experts recognise that this teaching method will not work for everyone, and figures published by the government to demonstrate its success show that 18% of children were not able to demonstrate success in reading by passing this test5. Even if we were to take this as a conservative estimate, it would mean that close to six children in a class of 30 are likely to need extra support to learn to read: not an insignificant number.

Why doesn’t a single approach to reading work for everyone? 

There are practical reasons why children don’t find it easy to learn to read in English and to make ‘expected levels of progress’. The first is that they don’t all start from the same place. When they first come to school, children will have had varied experiences of stories and books or even of speaking and listening in English. Some may have hearing issues or special educational needs (SEN), others might already be reading fluently. Their relative age within their cohort can also play a part. Children who are born at the end of the school year in August are nearly a year behind those born in the early autumn and this may play a part in their readiness to read in terms of co-ordination, processing capabilities or life-experiences. 

Another reason is that learning to read is an extraordinarily individual process for each reader. A  programme of reading that can be delivered to all children in the same way at the same time is unlikely to recognise the individual strengths and needs of each student.  The adoption of systematic, synthetics phonics in schools is an attempt to standardise reading teaching and to deliver a programme that will succeed with the greatest number of children at once. But it doesn’t work for every child.  For the 71% of ‘disadvantaged children’ who do not pass the phonics test or the 43% of children with SEN, the advice given by the DfE  is to teach them ‘urgently through a rigorous and systematic phonics programme so that they catch up rapidly’(8)  i.e. to teach the same thing again but with more urgency and rigor. In practice, teaching staff will use a variety of strategies beyond phonics to support their comprehension as well as their ability to apply the alphabetic system in reading and spelling. Teachers will do this because they know that if the original approach to teaching reading doesn’t work the first time, teaching it again in the exactly same way is unlikely to produce better results.   

How does school design disadvantage some young readers?

Having discussed the reading programme for children in England in the broadest terms and recognised that this standardised, national approach is deeply embedded, let’s think about those readers for whom the programme hasn’t been successful.

It’s likely these children are likely to benefit from individualised teaching. This is not likely to happen inside their classroom as they will need to practice aloud and this can be noisy. It also forces novice readers to practice in front of their peers, which can feel like a performative challenge and consequently hold them back. So these children often learn to read outside their classroom, sometimes in small group rooms, sometimes in corridors and halls. Learning to read when the reader is not yet secure in their practice is vulnerable to interruption and to noise. This is where an understanding of reading is helpful to designers. Once you know that reading is taught through phonics (by rote) en masse in schools, you understand that this style of teaching doesn’t work for all readers. And if it doesn’t work, the children who need more support will need a quiet place to learn 1:1 or in a very small group with others.

However, many schools are designed with a similar footprint: classrooms leading to corridors which join in turn to a larger space such as an assembly hall. This design prioritises the teaching of what has come to be seen as an acceptable number of children at once in a classroom space: groups of around 30. The design doesn’t recognise the need for smaller, protected spaces where children can learn to read.

Thoughtful design, however, can prioritise protected environments, such as small rooms, to shield readers from being overheard or seen by others when they practise reading with an adult to improve their chances of learning. 

Providing spaces outside the classroom that are suitable for learning to read could make a substantial difference to those children for whom the programme of learning to read in the classroom hasn’t been wholly successful. Many schools already have some small group rooms but the demand on these rooms is high, not only for reading but for other tuition and for therapies. This can mean that many of the children who are taken out of the classroom for extra reading tuition are having to learn to read in unsuitable, sometimes noisy places. Once children can read well, the classroom model for the delivery of learning fits better. But before that happens, beginner readers who struggle to learn are often additionally disadvantaged by the way in which school buildings are typically organised, with the few small, protected rooms in heavy demand. 

If you are involved in designing for reading in schools, an understanding of how reading is taught and the knowledge that this method doesn’t work for all readers can be powerful. Readers who are identified as not having made ‘expected progress’, need safe, protected places to learn with their teachers and classroom assistants so that they aren’t left behind by their peers. School buildings are not generally designed to facilitate a thoughtful approach for struggling readers, but if more protected spaces existed, perhaps this gap could be closed more quickly. And, as I have already argued, the stakes are extremely high for these young readers. 

Notes

This post is about school buildings in the UK, which share similarities across all four nations but refers specifically to the national curriculum in England. This national curriculum for England only applies to local authority maintained mainstream schools and not to independent, academies or free schools. It is unusual in beginning a formal education rather than one that is play-based before children reach the age of six.

1. Few teachers in England would be familiar with the idea of different paradigms of reading, since this type of theoretical approach is not generally taught in initial teacher training. Kathy Mills recognises an array of “multiple and coexisting” paradigms of reading, including socio-cultural; critical; multimodal; socio-spatial; socio-material and sensory paradigms. Mangen and van der Weel’s analysis of reading paradigms includes “psychological, ergonomic, technological, social, cultural and evolutionary aspects” (2016, p.1).

2. Kathy Hall’s text Listening to Stephen Read (2002), invites teaching professionals to identify their own approach to reading. She calls upon eight reading experts with different perspectives of reading to listen to an audio recording of one child (Stephen) reading aloud. These experts then respond to the same four questions, including one about their own theoretical perspective. Hall identifies and categorises the respondents’ perspectives within four paradigms: cognitive psychological; psycho-linguistic; socio-cultural; and socio-political in a very engaging analysis that is suitable for the general reader. Researchers such as Mills, Mangen and van der Weel (above) have updated this approach in the context of the digital revolution.

3. In my post about Reading and the body I refer to this document from the DfE which says so much about phonics teaching, even though it is directed at the creators of phonics programmes for school.

4. “The phonics screening check is designed to confirm whether pupils have learnt phonic decoding to an appropriate standard. It will identify pupils who need extra help to improve their decoding skills. The check consists of 20 real words and 20 pseudo-words that pupils read aloud to the check administrator.” DfE Key stage 1 assessment and reporting arrangements, December 2020 p.19. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/phonics-teaching-materials-core-criteria-and-self-assessment/validation-of-systematic-synthetic-phonics-programmes-supporting-documentation

Michael Rosen, the former children’s literature laureate, says of phonics teaching and assessment: “reading for pleasure is the most powerful motor for school achievement, rather than a single-minded focus on phonics (…) I would want to know first and foremost how any reading test was carried out. If the sole method used was reading out loud, then we learn virtually nothing either way about the findings other than that phonics teaches phonics.” This is from an article in the Education Guardian (UK) by Sally Weale on Monday 25 April 2016.

5. The DfE in England produces annual results for the phonics tests. This was postponed in 2020 due to Covid-19. In 2019, they found that 82% of pupils “met the expected standard in phonics in Year 1.” You can read the complete document here

References

Cliff Hodges, G. (2015). Researching and teaching reading: developing pedagogy through critical enquiry. Abingdon: Routledge.

Hall, K. (2002). Listening to Stephen read. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Mangen, A. & van der Weel, A. (2016). The evolution of reading in the age of digitization: an integrative framework for reading research. Literacy, 50, 116-124.

Mills, K. (2015). Literacy theories for the digital age: social, critical, multimodal, spatial, material and sensory lenses. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

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