May 10th, 2021

Dear First Minister,

Congratulations to you and Welsh Labour on your successful Senedd election campaign and winning another five years in government.  No doubt you are already considering who your next cabinet members will be, and with our new curriculum in Wales just three school terms away from being implemented, few positions are going to be more important than that of our next Education Minister. 

Therefore, I politely request that when you make your decision for our new Education Minister, you appoint someone who is fully aware of what is needed to ensure that all children are able to read fluently by the time they leave primary school. Something that still isn’t happening despite it being Core Recommendation 1 of the National Behaviour and Attendance Review, 13 years ago, in 2008:

 “The Welsh Assembly Government should, through implementing the revised curriculum and assessment arrangements from September 2008 in schools in Wales, provide a clear lead that no child (within the mainstream ability range) should leave primary school without the functional ability to read and write.”  

It is shocking that we don’t have any objective data to show how well children are learning to read throughout their primary schooling, and we know from secondary schools that there are many children starting in Year 7 unable to access the curriculum due to very low reading abilities.  Estyn reported in 2012 that, “Around 40% of learners enter secondary schools in Year 7 with reading ages significantly (at least six months) below their chronological age. Around 20% of these learners are not functionally literate, with reading ages of below nine and a half years.”

This just shouldn’t be happening. The ability to read is a fundamental right for every child; reading is the most researched area in all of education; world-wide research on the teaching of reading, over many decades, has identified the most effective and efficient ways of teaching reading – including practices that damage children’s reading profiles; there really are no excuses.  Our next Education Minister urgently needs to ensure that our children are taught to read through the use of high quality and well-resourced Systematic Synthetic Phonics provision that leaves nothing to chance. Following a parliamentary inquiry in 2005, this approach was recognised by Sir Jim Rose’s Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading (2006) as being the best way to ensure all children learn to read.

Unfortunately, the ideology of many in educational leadership in Wales, this includes Estyn, is acting as a barrier to children being taught using synthetic systematic phonics: they believe that children will develop and learn to read in their own time when they are ready.  They also seem to believe that reading is a skill that we have evolved to learn naturally, with little instruction, in the same way as we learn to talk. The ‘mixed methods’ approaches they endorse, such as learning sight words, and using multi-cueing to guess words, can be hugely detrimental to children learning to read, and even more so for those who find learning to read more difficult.

Our writing system is an invention, based on the logic of having the smallest units of sounds in our speech (phonemes) being represented by an alphabetic code using letters and letter groups (graphemes).  The writing systems in both Welsh and English are based on this same alphabetic principle. The English language itself has the most complex alphabetic code in the world, with 44 sounds that are represented in different ways using around 175 spellings, using the 26 letters of the English alphabet (capital and lower case). Therefore, reading requires a high level of professional knowledge and understanding to provide explicit and systematic, cumulative instruction. As a result, quality instruction in English requires more time, in lessons which begin earlier, than is often required for reading and writing in the Welsh language. Both languages, however, require carefully sequenced lessons and explicit teaching of their respective alphabetic code and phonics skills for reading and spelling.

Teachers need to be trained and competent in assessing early reading (and spelling) as a continuum to identify those children that need extra support early on. In addition, Wales should introduce an objective national Phonics Screening Check to enable teachers to evaluate how effective their reading programmes and teaching methods are compared to schools in like circumstances. In England’s 2011 pilot Phonics Screening Check, only 32% of children reached or exceeded the benchmark in the check. This has risen on a national scale to 82% for several years and despite this significant rise in decoding outcomes, England is still striving to promote higher standards still through various phonics and early reading initiatives and some government funding. Teachers should be professionally curious and want to know this comparative information and how they can raise their own teaching standards further. Official Phonics Screening Checks and the information these provide have been recently introduced and welcomed in New South Wales, Australia and Tasmania. In the United States, regional States are legislating to have reading instruction in their schools informed by the Science of Reading.

To conclude, the following steps need to be taken in order to address the variation in reading instruction throughout Welsh primary schools and to ensure that all children receive what they are entitled to: the ability to read well. 

  1. All headteachers, teachers, and teaching assistants to be trained in the Science of Reading.
  2. Mandate the teaching of Systematic Synthetic Phonics and ensure all statements in the Curriculum for Wales documentation align with this approach.
  3. Have criteria for what is required in effective Systematic Synthetic Phonics programmes and a validated list of programmes that schools can use. 
  4. Introduce a Phonics Screening Check in Y1, and a further check in Y3 that includes more complex code, in order to recognise pupils who may need extra support and for schools to be able to evaluate their efficacy in teaching early reading (and spelling).

I hope this letter draws attention to the issues that our previous Education Ministers have failed to address.  The next Education Minister, from the Labour Party, has an opportunity for these failings to be rectified. I urge you to consider what has been written when you make your decision. Can we really have any more years of Wales being so far behind other nations, as shown by PISA, when it comes to reading? Can we really have children starting secondary school at a disadvantage because they have not received effective reading instruction? 

Let’s get reading instruction right. 

Kind regards,

Rob Randel 

(on behalf of the UK Reading Reform Foundation committee)

Primary Teacher in Wales

Committee Member of the UK Reading Reform Foundation

Advisory Member of the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction

Developments internationally in the Science of Reading:

CC:  Andrew RT Davies MS – Leader of Welsh Conservative Party

        Adam Price MS – Leader of Plaid Cymru

        Rebecca Evans MS – Member of Senedd for Gower

        The Public Domain

Read the reply from the Welsh Government to Rob Randel’s email here

A Letter to the First Minister of Wales