Reading in Primary Schools: Guide

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Reading in English Primary schools

This section gives a brief history and overview of the key programmes used in Primary schools to promote reading.

National Literacy Strategy (1997+)

The National Literacy Strategy (NLS) was established in 1997 to raise standards of literacy in English primary schools over a ten year period. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland had their own curricula and Education Departments and were not formally affected by the NLS. The Strategy promoted the teaching of reading in its broadest sense from the beginning of a child’s education. This included decoding, comprehension, grammatical understanding and a more general experience of different books and texts. In the NLS scheme, none of these aspects was given priority at any particular time in a child’s acquisition of reading. For example, when a child learning to read encounters a word he or she does not know, the child is encouraged to ‘work out’ the word either by inferring from narrative context or syntax, by sounding out the word or by recognising the shape of the word from a previous encounter. This approach was termed the ‘searchlights’ model. The rationale for this approach was that children will learn to read most effectively by exploiting a diverse range of strategies. It claimed to be more effective for those children who respond better to one particular approach than to others”. The ‘searchlights’ metaphor attempted to describe a methodology for teaching reading which optimises the range of ‘cues’ or inputs for the pupil, enabling them to cross refer between them. The more ‘searchlights’ that are switched on, the less critical it is if one of them fails” (pp.10-11).

House of Commons Education and Skills Committee (2005)

This inquiry focused on the methods used in schools to teach children to read. It acknowledged that reading is the key to educational achievement and without a basic foundation in literacy, children cannot gain access to a rich and diverse curriculum. The Committee recognised factors implicated in underachievement are the early development of literacy, oral and communication skills, as well as a love of literature and reading, and parental involvement in teaching children to read. It took advice from advisors who argued that phonics programmes should have more prominence in the early teaching of reading (i.e. programmes concentrating on establishing an early understanding of sound-letter correspondence). They took evidence from others who questioned the utility of this approach, preferring to focus on the development of vocabulary and the enrichment of linguistic experience, as well as from those who supported the then Government advice in the form of the Primary National Strategy. It concluded that it was unlikely that any one method or set of changes would lead to a complete elimination of underachievement in reading.  Evidence received was in favour of synthetic phonics. This was based on the belief that an early ability to ‘decode’ words was the key to later success in reading. Phonics programmes give children the ability to ‘sound out’ words on a page, even if they do not always understand the meaning of all those words. Phonics programmes emphasise the importance of establishing a secure correspondence between written letters and the sounds of language in the learner’s mind. The Government accepted that phonics was an essential methodology in teaching children to read. It also confirmed that enjoyment of reading should be a key objective and one endangered both by an overly formal approach in the early years and by a failure to teach decoding.

The Independent review of the teaching of early reading (2006)

The remit for this review was to report on best practice in the teaching of synthetic phonics and early reading; how to close the achievement gap in literacy; discover how targeted interventions programmes align with synthetic phonics teaching and how leadership and management in schools can support the teaching of reading, as well as practitioners’ subject knowledge and skills. The Review made a number of recommendations. Early Years Foundation Stage and the renewed Primary National Strategy Framework for teaching literacy should provide, as a priority, clear guidance on developing children’s speaking and listening skills. High quality, systematic phonic work as defined by the review should be taught discretely. Knowledge, skills and understanding that constitute high quality phonic work should be taught as the prime approach in learning to decode. Phonic work should be set within a broad and rich language curriculum that takes full account of developing the four interdependent strands of language: speaking, listening, reading and writing and enlarging children’s stock of words. The Primary National Strategy should continue to exemplify ‘quality first teaching’. For most children, high quality, systematic phonic work should start by the age of five, taking full account of professional judgments of children’s developing abilities and the need to embed this work within a broad and rich curriculum. Headteachers and managers of settings should make sure that phonic work is given appropriate priority in the teaching of beginner readers and this is reflected in decisions about training and professional development for their staff. Settings and schools should make sure that at least one member of staff is fully able to lead on literacy, especially phonic work.

The Cambridge Primary Review (2009) was an independent enquiry into the state and future of primary education in England. The final report, Children, their World, their Education, is the most comprehensive investigation of English primary education in 40 years. The Review was required to ‘identify the purposes which the primary phase of education should serve, the values which it should espouse, the curriculum and learning environment which it should provide, and the conditions which are necessary in order to ensure both that these are of the highest and most consistent quality possible, and that they address the needs of children and society over the coming decades’. The Review reported 75 recommendations, drawn from detailed analysis of the evidence and based on a comprehensive set of conclusions. Amongst these and relevant to this Guide were to intervene quickly and effectively to help disadvantaged and vulnerable children. A new curriculum should be introduced in primary schools that is firmly aligned with the Review’s aims, values and principles; guarantees children’s entitlement to breadth, depth and balance, and to high standards in all the proposed domains and ensures that language literacy and oracy are paramount. Advice was that teachers should work towards a pedagogy of repertoire rather than a recipe and of principle rather than prescription. They should ensure that teaching and learning approaches are properly informed by research.  Teachers were advised to avoid pedagogical fads and fashions and act instead on those aspects of learning and teaching, notably spoken language, where research evidence converges.

The Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum (2009) was a review of the curriculum rather than the whole of primary education. The central questions were, ‘ what should the curriculum contain and how should the content and the teaching of it change to foster children’s different and developing abilities during primary years?’ It stated that “the curriculum that primary children are offered must enable them to enjoy this unique stage of childhood, inspire learning and develop the essential knowledge, skills and understanding which are the building blocks for secondary education and later life” (page 9). The Review asserted that it tried to capture the distinctiveness of the primary phase and ensure it is recognised as more than a postscript to the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) and a prelude to secondary education.  Recommendation 8 was that ‘Literacy, numeracy and ICT should form the new core of the primary curriculum’. Schools should continue to prioritise literacy, numeracy and ICT as the foundational knowledge, skills and understanding of the primary curriculum, the content of which should be clearly defined, taught discretely, and used and applied extensively in each area of learning. Recommendation 9 was that ‘Primary schools should make sure that children’s spoken communication is developed intensively within all subjects and for learning across the curriculum’. Recommendation 10 stated, ‘Primary schools should continue to build on the commendable progress many have made in teaching decoding and encoding skills for reading and spelling through high quality, systematic phonic work as advocated by the 2006 reading review as the prime approach for teaching beginner readers’ (Page 21).

Reading by six. How the best schools do it (2010)

The Standards regulator, Ofsted, made its recommendations in this report. It was stated that too many children in England do not read or write well enough by the time they leave primary school. The best primary schools in England teach virtually every child to read, regardless of the social and economic circumstances of their neighbourhoods, the ethnicity of their pupils, the language spoken at home and most special educational needs or disabilities. Diligent, concentrated and systematic teaching of phonics is central to the success of all the schools that achieve high reading standards in Key Stage 1. Effective teachers are highly trained to instil the principles of phonics, can identify the learning needs of young children, and recognise and overcome the barriers that impede learning. The assessment of individual pupils’ progress, phonic knowledge and skills is sufficiently frequent and detailed to identify quickly the pupils who are failing, or in danger of failing, to keep up with their peers. All children should be reading at age appropriate standards when they are six, by the end of Year 1. Children at this stage who are still struggling to read should have individual support which is carefully attuned to overcoming barriers to their phonological development.

Reading: The Next Steps. Supporting higher standards in schools (2015)

The government’s plan for education again recognised the vital importance of reading and prioritised raising standards of literacy in schools. Since 2010, the focus has been upon improving reading overall, and narrowing the attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their peers. Funded early education is essential in securing high quality early years provision that helps support young children’s language development. The new English national curriculum, introduced in September 2014, includes a strong emphasis upon phonic knowledge, teaching young pupils to decode the words. Funding was made available through the Pupil Premium to help disadvantaged learners. It claimed that children learn to read best when they are taught using a robust programme of systematic synthetic phonics. To help schools choose a high quality phonics programme a core criteria that defined the key features of an effective programme was published. A statutory phonics screening check for pupils at the end of Year 1 in primary school was introduced in 2012.

At the core of the government plan for English education has been the focus on raising standards in literacy. At the time of writing this guide, Key Stage 2 National SATs results from 2019 showed that 65% of pupils met the expected standard in reading, writing and maths combined. An increase of 1%.   73% of pupils achieved the expected standard in reading which is 2% down from 2018. The full results can be seen here.


Alexander, R. et al., (2009) The Cambridge Primary Review. Children, their world, their education. University of Cambridge: Esmee Fairbairn Foundation.

Department for Education and Employment (1998) The National Literacy Strategy: Framework for Teaching.  London: DfEE.

Department for Education (2015) Reading: The Next Steps. Supporting higher standards in schools.  London: HMSO.

House of Commons Education and Skills Committee (2005) Teaching Children to Read. London: The Stationary Office.

Ofsted (2010) Reading by six. How the best schools do it.  Manchester: Ofsted.

Rose, J. (2006) Independent review of the teaching of early reading. Nottingham: DFES Publications.

Rose, J. (2009) Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum: Final Report. Nottingham: DFES Publications