HMI: The Teaching and Learning of Reading in Primary Schools (1990)

Based on a survey of 120 schools, and informed by evidence from visits to 3,000 schools undertaken by HMI in the previous year, this report concluded that there had been no fall in reading standards since the 1978 National Primary Survey but that there was still a need to raise standards of achievement 'beyond their current levels'.

The text of The Teaching and Learning of Reading in Primary Schools was prepared by Derek Gillard and uploaded on 6 March 2022.

The Teaching and Learning of Reading in Primary Schools
A Report by HM Inspectorate

London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office 1990
Crown copyright material is reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO and the Queen's Printer for Scotland.


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This Report may be reproduced in whole, or in part, provided that the source and its date are stated. However, it may not be used in, or in connection with, a prospectus or an advertisement or for any commercial purpose.

Copies of this Report may be obtained from the Department of Education and Science, Publications Despatch Centre, Honeypot Lane, Stanmore, Middlesex HA7 1AZ


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    Reading Standards of Children in Particular Year Groups

    The Quality of Teaching
    Managing the Work
    The Breadth and Coherence of Reading Experience
    Teaching Methods and Reading Skills
    Continuity and Progression in Reading
        The Reception Year
        Years 1 and 2
        Year 3
        Year 6


    The General Characteristics of the Schools
    Parental Support


Appendix      The Views of Headteachers

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1. The findings of this survey are consistent with those of 3000 inspection visits to primary schools carried out over the last year. Briefly stated, the schools gave a high priority to the teaching of reading and devoted considerable time and effort to it. In 80% of the schools the standards of reading were satisfactory or better and in about 30% of those the standards of reading were high. There was no evidence to show that a single method was overwhelming the teaching of reading. The vast majority of teachers used a blend of methods to match the children's developing abilities in reading. The survey points to about 20% of the schools where for one reason or another the work in reading was judged to be poor and required urgent attention. But, serious as that level of poor teaching and learning is, the broad picture has changed little since the findings of the 1978 HMI National Primary Survey (1). That does not suggest that there has been a fall in the overall standards of reading in primary schools. Nor does it suggest that all is well, rather that we have the longstanding task of raising standards of achievement beyond their current levels.


2. Following recent and widespread expressions of concern about reading standards and teaching methods in primary schools, the Secretary of State asked HMI to take particular account of these issues in their inspections of primary schools in the Autumn term 1990. This report records and comments upon the findings of those inspections. It draws from a survey of 120 primary schools which had been planned for the summer term of 1991, but which was brought forward to the autumn term of 1990. The findings are also informed by evidence from visits to 3,000 primary schools undertaken by HMI since September 1989. At the same time the Schools Examination and Assessment Council was asked by the Secretary of State to conduct a survey of Local Education Authorities' (LEA) arrangements for monitoring the standards of reading.

3. The survey of 120 primary schools included schools of different types, size and location in all parts of the country. The teaching and learning of reading were observed in 470 classes and over 2,000 children read aloud to HMI as part of the evidence upon which judgements of standards and of the effectiveness of teaching were formed. In assembling a picture of standards, particular attention was paid to the children's ability to read fluently, accurately and with understanding (2).

4. Headteachers were asked to supply information about their policy and practice for the teaching of reading and upon school policies for such matters as the assessment of children's progress. HMI looked carefully at the methods of teaching reading advocated by the school and the effectiveness of them in practice. Account was also taken of the suitability and supply of resources and of the context in which reading was taught.

5. This report:

  • describes the existing situation in the survey schools including matters of policy, practice and provision with regard to the teaching and learning of reading;
  • offers judgements, on the basis of a structured sample of pupils, on the standards of attainment achieved;
(1) Primary Education in England A Survey of HMl, DES September 1978

(2) Although used to judge standards of reading for some time these criteria now form part of the attainment target for reading in the Statutory Orders for English in the National Curriculum.

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  • comments on the effectiveness with which the schools were matching their policies. practices and materials to the developing abilities and needs of individual children.

6. The survey revealed that:

i the primary schools gave a high priority to teaching children to read in Key Stage 1 (5 to 7 year olds);

ii reading standards were satisfactory or better in 80% of the schools and poor in 20%. In about 30% standards were high. That is not a picture of falling standards. However it does show that our standards are not as high as they need or ought to be;

iii in Key Stage 1 the teaching of reading received consistent attention and was supported by adequate resources in nearly all the schools. By the age of 7 almost three-quarters of the children assessed could read with accuracy and understanding and about half had progressed to become fluent readers;

iv in Key Stage 2 (7 to 11 year olds) reading received less systematic attention as the children grew older and other demands arose from the widening curriculum. By Year 6 three-quarters of the children assessed were reading widely on their own but the majority were not being challenged to develop advanced reading skills, some children were making less progress than they should, and a very small but significant number were virtually non-readers;

v there is no evidence of teachers and schools rushing into a single method of teaching reading. The great majority of the teachers, almost 85%, used a blend of methods to teach initial reading skills. In less than 18% of classes was a single method - phonics, look and say, or 'real books' - used exclusively or even predominantly. There was clear evidence that adherence to a single approach, whatever the particular method, hindered the children's reading development;

vi phonic skills were taught almost universally and usually to beneficial effect. Published schemes of graded reading books were used in more than 95% of the classes;

vii most of the schools enlisted parental help in some form or other. Strong and close parental support was associated with higher reading standards;

viii most teachers made accurate assessments of the children's overall reading ability, but often these were too generalised to diagnose the difficulties of individual children and pinpoint the help they needed;

ix nine out of ten of the schools used reading tests to measure the attainment of their pupils. Test results were used mainly to identify children with reading difficulties and to help LEAs allocate resources;

x record-keeping was adequate or better in about two-thirds of the schools but less satisfactory towards the end of Key Stage 2;

xi in 25% of the schools the turnover of teachers was high with more than 50% of teachers leaving in the past three years. Only one of these schools was achieving better than satisfactory standards and in 50% the standards of reading were poor;

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xii those schools achieving high standards of reading shared a number of common characteristics:
  • firm leadership by the head and often the co-ordinator for the work in English as a whole established reading as a high priority throughout the school;
  • the reading policy was clear, comprehensive, well-documented, provided for a balance of teaching methods and was well understood by all the staff;
  • practice at the classroom level reflected the school policy, was well managed and addressed the needs of individual pupils;
  • a wide variety of appropriate books and other materials was available, effectively organised and matched to individual needs;
xiii poor standards were associated with the absence of many of these characteristics. Such factors as the socio-economic background of the pupils, teacher turnover and resources did not hinder progress with anything like the same force as weaknesses in the management and organisation of reading within the class and within the school as a whole.

7. Despite the widespread standardised testing of reading in primary schools, disparity in the types of tests used and inconsistencies in the way the results are collected over time mean that the evidence from such testing cannot contribute to a reliable national picture of reading standards; or the direction in which they are moving or if they are moving at all.

8. Overall standards of reading in the 120 schools visited in this survey were high in 30%, satisfactory in 50% and poor in 20%. From the evidence of HMI inspection since and including the National Primary Survey of 1978 it is possible to say with some confidence that reading has continued to receive consistently high attention in primary schools. Over that period inspection findings have pointed to satisfactory or better standards in the teaching and learning of reading in the large majority of primary schools. Comparisons of earlier findings with those from the schools in this survey do not support the view that there has been an overall decline in the standards of reading.

9. Despite that broadly favourable picture all is not well in every aspect of the work in reading in all primary schools. HMI reports over time have commented upon a small, but worryingly stubborn proportion of the work in reading which is poor. There is certainly no cause for complacency in addressing the need to improve those aspects of the work and the conditions which are associated with them.

10. In the 120 schools the children varied greatly in their starting points on the road to reading. For example in the large group of schools achieving satisfactory standards of reading were some where the great majority of children entered with a wide experience of books and print and whose families gave strong support to reading so that the children were well prepared to begin, or were already reading. In other schools, however, the children were not so well ahead and the teacher's task was much more of an uphill struggle; in short although these schools often achieved satisfactory and sometimes good standards it was at the cost of much greater effort.

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11. Predictably, the schools that achieved well had consistently high standards in most of their classes, though a minority of these schools had one or two weaker classes. The pattern in the remaining 70% of the schools, however, was not consistent. In some schools the older children achieved poorly while the younger ones did better, but there were some other schools where the opposite was the case. In some schools the standards of reading were satisfactory in most classes with one particularly strong or weak class, in other schools satisfactory overall standards masked wide variations from class to class as children moved through the school. Such inconsistencies were more often a feature of the 20% of schools where standards were poor. It is crucial for these schools to overcome such inconsistencies so that good practice in one class does not have to start by having to overcome earlier poor practice, or have its gains dissipated by the poor practice which follows.

Reading Standards or Children in Particular Year Groups

12. The sample of pupils whose reading was assessed closely was chosen by the teacher to reflect the full ability range in the class. HMI listened to over 2,000 children read and their reading was judged in terms of fluency, accuracy and understanding. Although the sample was not statistically random and therefore not necessarily representative of all the children in the year groups assessed (Y1, Y2, Y3 and Y6 (3)), it did yield a substantial volume of data which accorded with the broader judgements of reading standards in the 3,000 schools visited during the preceding year.

13. About one hundred of the children that HMI heard read were in their Reception Year. They came from approximately 40 classes. Although they were in their first year, a third were already well launched into reading simple and familiar books accurately and with understanding. Almost all the children had made a significant start on reading, were able to talk about books, tell stories and were beginning to discriminate critical features of the print.

14. By the beginning of year 1, almost a fifth of the children assessed were achieving high standards for their age, reading familiar material well and gaining confidence with unfamiliar texts. These children could read silently and talk in some detail about their books. A few of them were very able indeed, already functioning at the level of a fluent 11 year old.

15. A further four out of every 10 Year 1 children were making good progress; they read familiar books with some independence, used relevant skills to decode print and were beginning to correct their own mistakes. For some of these children, concentrating on deciphering the text sometimes slowed their pace unduly, especially with unfamiliar material, and their reading, though accurate, was poorly understood.

16. A similar proportion of Year 1 children still needed substantial initial teaching support. They had too few strategies to tackle print independently, relied heavily upon adult help when reading. and could cope with only the simplest reading demands of the classroom.

17. By the beginning of Year 2, the proportion of children in the high achieving group had risen to just over a third of those assessed. The proportion of children still in need of concentrated support to get them started on reading was about a quarter.

(3) The agreed nomenclature for describing particular age groups is: R (reception): age 4-5; Y1: age 5-6; Y2: age 6-7; Y3: age 7-8; Y6: age 10-11.

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18. At the start of Year 3, the beginning of KS2, the range of reading ability was substantially wider. Seventy per cent of the pupils assessed could read accurately and with understanding; half were fluent and well on the way to reading independently. Of this group, almost one in five were high achievers. A further one in three children were making satisfactory progress but still needed some adult support when they read. Rather less than a fifth of the children were unable to read with any fluency; they had only the most limited strategies and required continued adult support.

19. Three years on, at the beginning of Year 6, three-quarters of those assessed were able to read widely on their own, some were highly fluent and easily able to read at an adult level. Of the Year 6 children assessed, approximately a quarter were functioning at a fairly low level for their age including a very small but significant proportion, approximately one in twenty, who were hardly able to read at all.


The Quality of Teaching

20. Standards of reading were influenced by a range of factors, some of which were beyond the control of the teacher. However, evidence from inspection since September 1989 and in particular from the survey schools, suggested that the quality of teaching was the most important factor. The evidence of variation in reading standards between classes in the same school was one clear indicator of this. Effective leadership by the head and a clear policy for the teaching of reading in the school as a whole were also important factors.

21. Good teaching owed much to the ways in which the teachers managed the work to match the children's reading needs. In the survey schools as elsewhere it was commonly the case that the class teachers taught all subjects, including reading, to mixed ability and sometimes mixed-age classes. It is unsurprising that good teaching in these circumstances demonstrated classroom planning and management skills of a high order.

Managing the Work

22. The most effective teachers regarded the children's success in reading as a key objective that required thorough planning and entailed the careful organisation and management of classwork, groupwork and the teaching of individuals. Getting that balance right was no easy matter and often taxed the ingenuity and skill of the most experienced teachers particularly where the class was large and the range of ability had been widened owing to a mix of year groups and the presence of children with special educational needs. Nor was a high priority afforded to the teaching of reading always translated into effective practice. A common characteristic of the classes where standards were poor, was a weakness in the management and organisation of the work.

23. In the successful classes teachers insisted firmly, but kindly, on the completion of reading assignments. The teaching and learning were intensive and based on well-planned progressive reading activities. The children learned to handle books with care and respect, to concentrate on the task in hand, to co-operate and help each other, to work without disturbing the rest of the class and generally to take some responsibility for organising aspects of their work. The time given to reading varied according to the differing needs of the children but it was never less than adequate and allocated usually on a daily basis.

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24. By contrast, in many of the poorer 20% of classes the children were not encouraged to take responsibility or show initiative. Noise levels were sometimes unacceptable and the teacher was often distracted from teaching groups, or individuals to deal with requests from children to be told what to do next. The way time was allocated in these classes often marginalised reading. In some, the children read only when other work was finished. For many, their principal experience of sharing books with the teacher was to recite the text between the interruptions of other children. Sometimes this experience was not with the teacher but with other adults, for example, parents, paid helpers or volunteers and was insufficiently co-ordinated or monitored. The children's reading easily became fragmented when they read only a page or short passage at a time. In those circumstances, it was often impossible for a child to get the sense of a text or for the adult to assess and support the reading adequately. In the least successful classes those weaknesses in organising and managing the work were major obstacles to the children's progress.

The Breadth and Coherence of Reading Experience

25. The teachers of classes achieving high standards generally ensured that the children had a wide variety of good reading material in addition to any published scheme or schemes adopted by the school. Moreover the breadth of reading material in these classes was not left to chance. The teachers planned children's reading activities so that they encountered, for example, a good variety of fiction and poetry, read for information from book and non-book sources, read their own and other children's writing, read instructions, signs, maps, lists, indexes, directories, newspapers, magazines, advertisements and read out loud to address others in such gatherings as school assemblies.

26. Although the majority of classes were offered something of this range, it was not always thoroughly planned and in some schools the programme was too tightly tied to a single published reading scheme. Consequently, many children who were confident within the reading scheme were less secure when challenged to use their reading skills more widely. For example, reading difficulties commonly arose in mathematics when the children were unable to solve problems because they could not read the text with sufficient understanding.

27. In many of the poorer 20% of classes, the link between reading and writing was weak. Many younger children had difficulty reading their own writing. By contrast, in more successful classes writing was frequently used to stimulate reading, especially in the earliest years. For example, young children often made books with their teachers; sometimes the children wrote their own sentences and in other cases the teachers recorded them. These home-made books usually went into class libraries alongside published books.

Teaching Methods and Reading Skills

28. The current concerns about standards have led to much debate about the merits and demerits of different methods of teaching reading. Briefly stated, the methods commonly found in primary schools include: 'phonic' teaching which aims to equip children with the skills of analysing and building words by sounding out letters and combinations of letters; 'look-and-say' teaching which relies upon children learning to recognise whole words and sentences by their shape and pattern; and teaching children to compose their own words and sentences from banks of letters and words. More recently, some schools have adopted what is often described as a 'real books' approach. This attempts to move away from published schemes in favour of motivating children to understand and take a strong interest in reading by teaching them from an early stage from attractively presented children's literature.

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29. In the survey, less than 18% of classes concentrated exclusively, or even predominantly, on a single identifiable method of teaching reading. For example, phonic approaches were used almost exclusively in only three per cent of the classes and look-and-say methods were used predominantly in less than 10%. Five per cent of teachers described their approach as 'real books'. The great majority of teachers, over 80%, used a variety of approaches to teach reading. Within this broader framework, the teaching of essential skills for deciphering print was widespread. More than 95% of the classes used graded reading schemes usually supplemented by other fiction or non-fiction books.

30. Only one in 10 teachers did not teach phonics in some form or other and of these most taught classes of older pupils who already possessed such skills. In approximately two-thirds of the classes the phonics teaching was satisfactory or good. It was also clear that these skills were best learned when they were embedded in activities that were relevant and enjoyable and, particularly, where children were helped to put them to use in writing and in making sense of texts they wanted to read.

31. There was a clear link between higher standards and systematic phonic teaching. Phonic skills invariably formed part of the repertoire of those children who showed early success in reading. However, while the value of teaching these skills was rarely disputed, how and how often to teach phonics were more controversial issues. Some schools adopted popular published schemes for teaching phonic skills; others advocated a phonic approach as the teacher judged appropriate for individual children; some schools taught phonic skills incidentally or as an adjunct to an existing reading scheme which was not necessarily designed to promote such skills.

32. The teaching of phonics was often more prominent when children showed signs of reading failure. The approach was commonly used for 'remedial' groups and by peripatetic teachers of reading. Sometimes a concentration on phonics was seen as the last resort 'when all else had failed' in teaching children experiencing long term difficulty with reading. A balanced approach which included more systematic phonic work from an early stage might well have benefited these children. Children with severe reading difficulties. though a small proportion, were a major concern to the schools. The availability of effective specialist support on a consistent basis, for example, from LEA advisory and schools psychological services was reported by most schools as very difficult to arrange.

33. The five per cent of teachers who described their approach as 'real books' gave too little attention to the systematic teaching of skills for tackling print. Many simply assumed that the children's repeated experiences of hearing stories and sharing books would enable them to gain independence and discern essential patterns in the print with minimal help from the teacher. While there was evidence of a growing interest in books among these children in the early stages, their progress was often poor. They were able to tell stories but relied heavily on pictures and had minimal decoding strategies. Because the books were usually familiar, they could also recall the sense of the story satisfactorily. However, their reading accuracy was too limited because they had too few skills in decoding print. For this reason they were ill-equipped to move on to unfamiliar material, for example non-fiction texts. Moreover they were weak readers of instructions and questions in subjects such as mathematics.

34. At another extreme, about three per cent of teachers concentrated too narrowly on the teaching of phonics. Children in these classes also had too few strategies to tackle unknown words. Some, knowing only how to sound out letters, spent too long trying and failing to put the sounds together. These children easily lost the pace and sense of their reading and, even when they read the text

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accurately, tended to recite as though reading a list rather than reading for meaning and with expression.

35. In just under ten per cent of the classes there was a concentration on 'look-and-say' methods. The children were able to make a start on the early books of the reading scheme and could often read the text accurately by recalling words they had learnt by heart. While some of them made satisfactory progress beyond this, others, often the less able, did not understand what they read and when they carne to unknown words either gave up or made random guesses from their limited repertoire. The children's understanding of their reading was further inhibited in some cases because of the tightly limited vocabulary in their initial readers. The text was often dull and repetitive and did little to engage the children's interest for more than a brief amount of time.

36. Although the focus of all these methods is upon reading they are also closely associated with the teaching of writing. In the great majority of primary schools the acquisition of reading and writing skills is achieved through complementary activities in which one set of skills reinforces the other. Moreover, the language policies and guidelines of the most successful schools referred to the development of the children's skills and abilities in speaking and listening and in reading and writing. They recognised the importance of relating these aspects of language to the daily work of the children but saw the need for focused teaching to ensure that the skills were mastered in each mode of language.

37. Where the teachers had a clear idea about the reading skills they wanted the children to acquire they were generally better at adapting their teaching methods to individual pupils and groups with similar but changing needs. Dependence entirely on one method or graded reading scheme in the expectation that progress on that method or through the scheme was sufficient to secure all the reading skills needed by the children was misplaced and led to difficulties. For example, some children had worked through a graded scheme without mastering important skills and were discouraged by their inability to cope with simple reading material outside the scheme.

38. Children who gained early fluency had been taught to read for meaning and to use a variety of skills. They were able simultaneously to use a wide range of strategies including word attack skills. clues from the meaning of the text and expectations derived from their knowledge of language to decipher print with accuracy and speed. Equally important was their ability to identify and self-correct their errors by checking the text for sense.

39. During the early stages of most of the reading programmes listening to individual children read on a regular daily basis was seen as a crucially important activity by most teachers. In a routine of listening to reading which attempted to give 'fair shares for all', this sometimes meant that very little time could be given to each child. The problem of shortage of time was obviously most marked in large classes where the organisational and management skills of the teacher were tested to the full. In the successful classes effective groupwork sometimes helped to overcome these difficulties. Moreover the support of another adult, such as a parent, to help with hearing children read was also valuable where the person concerned had been well briefed and was carefully supervised by the teacher.

40. It was not simply a mixture of methods that made for success; the mixed economy contained both high and low achieving schools. In some the mixture was idiosyncratic and ad hoc, while in the more successful schools it was systematic and based on agreed policy and practice. It was the

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organisation, timing and relevance of a variety of approaches to the differing abilities of the children that characterised the work of the best schools.

Continuity and Progression in Reading

41. Based on the evidence of the classes achieving satisfactory or better standards it is possible to describe how reading was taught in each of the year groups assessed and to discern continuity and progression in the teaching though these were not so evident at Year 6.

The Reception Year

42. In the earliest stages most teachers concentrated on introducing books through story reading; sharing books in small groups; and making group or class books about children's interests and experiences, recorded by the teacher or sometimes written by the children, and used as early reading material.

43. Later, often in the first term, word recognition work was introduced, sometimes by labelling or writing captions for things around the room, sometimes by reference to the books being read. Often words were taught explicitly using cards with printed words related to familiar objects, children' s names, stories, or in preparation for starting a particular reading scheme. Letter names and sounds were also introduced, using alphabets, language play which focused on speech patterns, jingles and rhymes, commercially produced phonic schemes and work books. Most of this work highlighted initial letter sounds.

44. By the end of the reception year most of the children had started on their own reading book, chosen by the teacher or under the teacher's close supervision from the selection provided within the school's reading programme.

Years 1 and 2

45. In almost all the schools progression in reading was structured through the use of books which had been graded into levels of difficulty, usually with a range of readers from different published reading schemes available at each stage. Often these levels were supplemented with non-scheme books to widen the choice. Children read at the level judged appropriate by the teacher and, as their reading improved, they worked through the various levels.

46. During Years 1 and 2 much of the children's reading was centred on these books. Often there was associated work in the form of work books, games, practice sheets, or activities planned to reinforce particular skills. Teachers listened to the children reading in order to support, correct and assess them and to guide their choice of books. The books read by each child were carefully recorded. Teachers also read stories to the class regularly; this introduced the children to longer books. The children also contributed to group and class books related to their current work.

47. As the children's sight vocabulary increased, they began to use word banks, dictionaries and sentence building. Phonic work focused more on combinations of letters, irregularities and word building, often also helping to develop spelling. All of this was practised orally in classes or groups and individually through written work.

48. Reading was increasingly used in other areas of work, frequently to give directions or instructions in place of the teacher. Information books were introduced in connection with topic work

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as the children became more fluent. The children had specific reading times and regular, though not always frequent, individual attention. They had access to class library collections as well as their own reading books and often used non-fiction reading from the school library. They regularly took books home.

Year 3

49. At the start of Year 3 the range of reading ability was wide. In mixed age classes, this range was often wider still. In an effort to cater for these differences able children were increasingly encouraged to read independently, though usually from the school reading programme. Because they were becoming more skilled at handling the reading demands of the curriculum, the children used textbooks, work-cards and other written exercise material more often. Textbook work in English usually involved comprehension, prediction or spelling exercises, sometimes related to the reading schemes. Such work was often routine and insufficiently challenging. Regular class or group spelling work was also common; sounds, sound blends and word building were practised.

50. As in Years 1 and 2, children read individually to the teacher but a greater proportion of the teacher's time was devoted to the less able. The children were read to as a whole class, often had regular silent reading sessions at least once a week, had access to other books as well as those from the reading scheme, and frequently took books home.

51. Most teachers were keenly aware of the slower readers but in some schools there was uncertainty about how to meet their needs. Faced with the increasing demands of the curriculum, the needs of a widening ability range and concern about the slower readers, the main focus of teaching reading shifted towards remedial support. For many teachers their only strategy was to press ahead with the reading scheme, listening to children read and trying to encourage them. Such strategies. however, only met some of the slower readers' needs. Those children whose progress towards fluency was faster were monitored, encouraged and used reading in other areas of their work but they had fewer opportunities than their younger counterparts to discuss and extend their reading with the teacher.

Year 6

52. At the start of the last year in Key Stage 2 the pattern of teaching mirrored that emerging at Year 3. The majority of children, having achieved at least a satisfactory level of fluency, had left the reading programme to be 'free readers'. Most of their reading experience was from books which they selected from class libraries, read on their own in school and at home, and sometimes evaluated in the form of book reviews or diaries. The teachers monitored the children's reading, but too infrequently discussed books with them and for the majority, reading was individual and inadequate guidance was given on which books to read. The children were able to work from textbooks and to use non-fiction books related to other areas of work. However, in the majority of schools, extension of work beyond this to develop more discriminating choices and to use reference books effectively depended on the interest and expertise of individual teachers. There was a widespread assumption that once children had become fluent readers the primary school had done its job and that the main task thereafter was to provide opportunities for children to read individually for their own interest enabling the teacher to spend more time with the slower readers.

53. Almost all the Year 6 classes contained some children who were not reading satisfactorily. These children usually had support, either from their class teacher, or a visiting teacher and frequently

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were working from graded reading schemes, often with some associated skills practice. Some teachers were ill-equipped to provide for these less able readers, many of whom would have benefited from access to the wider range of reading support available in the best of the Key Stage 1 classes. For some, their reading experience had been too confined to a reading scheme throughout their school career and this had not advanced either their confidence or their motivation to read.


54. All the teachers made assessments of the children's reading. Most had an accurate picture of the range of ability in the class, particularly of those children most in need of support. Able children were recognised but in some cases their abilities were under-estimated. The range of assessment techniques included observation, analysis of reading strategies and discussions about current reading. They were concerned with interests, attitudes and skills and led teachers to enter the results on lists of skills, developmental scales, and diary notes. Sometimes parents contributed information and older children were encouraged to make self-assessments and complete personal reading diaries and book reviews.

55. For the majority of teachers the process of assessment was continuous and largely intuitive. Even for the most successful teachers constraints on time limited what could be recorded. In the classes achieving high standards, assessment was an integrated part of the teaching process and used to plan future work. The role which assessment played in informing teaching was strongly affected by the teacher's knowledge about reading, the quality of planning and the requirements of the school's reading policy.

56. In most classes assessment was too generalised to be of diagnostic help for individual children. Overall, assessment was sharper at Key Stage 1 than at Key Stage 2; this reflected the teachers' uncertainty about standards, objectives and priorities for the older fluent readers.

57. Testing was used extensively; approximately nine out of 10 schools used standardised tests. As many as 35 different tests were administered in the survey schools as a whole. Half of these were required by local education authorities (LEAs) and half were used for the schools' own purposes. Testing occurred most often in Year 2 and most of this was required for LEA screening purposes. Results were used mainly to identify children with reading difficulties and to help LEAs to allocate resources, for example, specialist teachers' time. Schools used the results to monitor individual progress, to provide information at transfer times and to monitor overall class or school performance.

58. The heads of 82 of the survey schools provided a comparison of test results over the past three years but trends were discernible in only a minority of schools: 11 with a slight upward movement, three with a slight downward movement. In every case, the head was able to provide explanations for changes, for example, a markedly different ability range in a particular year group, the introduction of a new reading profile with a strong priority for reading over the period, or the loss of a key member of staff. No comparison of test results between schools was possible because of the variety of tests used, the different age groups tested and the various ways used to record results.

59. Reading records were satisfactory or better in two out of three schools, though the quality of the records was higher at Key Stage 1 than at Key Stage 2. Records were kept in almost all classes. These ranged from rudimentary lists of books read by the children with no other supporting information to sophisticated reading profiles, sometimes common to all schools in an LEA, containing detailed term by term commentary, parental contributions and statements about how to meet the

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reading needs of individual children. Effective assessment procedures were not always under-pinned by good record-keeping but where they were, the standards of reading were invariably high.


The General Characteristics of the Schools

60. Of the 20% of schools where reading was less than satisfactory, two-thirds were in areas suffering various degrees of disadvantage. However, the wider picture was mixed: schools serving disadvantaged areas also featured significantly among those whose standards of teaching and learning were high. Plainly, the policies and practices of these schools were powerful in mitigating the effects of disadvantage and the generally satisfactory overall standards which prevailed, especially at Key Stage 1, suggested substantial achievements and dedication in schools with disadvantaged intakes. By contrast, a few of the least effective schools were in 'advantaged' areas and their underachievement must be a cause for concern.

61. Among other contextual factors, overall school size was not associated with reading standards; in both the low and high achieving categories, sizes ranged from 100 to 300 and were roughly equally distributed. Similarly, both categories contained all types of school: primary, infant, first schools and a wide range of class sizes and composition, mixed or single age group. Pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds were present in schools throughout the sample.

Parental Support

62. The quality and extent of parents' support for children's reading had a positive effect on their standards of reading. In just over half the schools where standards were satisfactory or better there was strong parental interest in reading and close co-operation between the home and the school.

63. About two-fifths of the schools had successfully developed home-school co-operation to an impressive level. Parents were well briefed about the school's aims and teaching approaches. Their ready co-operation had been enlisted through a wide range of activities such as curriculum meetings, home visits, booklets, videos, demonstrations of reading approaches, open days, book weeks, book fairs, school book shops and parent lending libraries with books about reading. Many teachers maintained a written dialogue with parents about children's progress which formed part of the child's reading record.

64. Although all the schools arranged for the children to take books home to share with their parents, in a minority these arrangements were of little help especially to the children most in need. In some the scheme was voluntary and tended only to be taken up by keen or over-anxious parents. In other schools, teachers had a formidable task overcoming lack of interest on the part of parents. Sometimes schemes began well in the nursery or reception class but petered out too quickly as parents or teachers found the continuing commitment irksome.


65. As with other work the quality of leadership by the head had a major influence on the quality of classroom teaching and the reading standards achieved. Reading was well managed by head teachers in a quarter of the schools and satisfactorily in a further half. Where there was effective leadership:

  • heads were knowledgeable about reading and used this understanding to help teachers in the classroom. They initiated change and communicated enthusiasm and knowledge to staff and parents;

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  • the head had a clear policy for reading development which informed the planning and teaching of all the classes;
  • the head delegated responsibilities for reading to a language co-ordinator but roles and accountabilities were clear to the head, the co-ordinator and the rest of the staff. The head gave clear practical backing as well as advice to the co-ordinator, for example by making funds available, providing non-contact time for specific tasks wherever possible, consulting over management decisions that affected reading and facilitating professional development;
  • the head was in close touch with teachers, visited classes regularly, heard children read, informally moderated teachers' assessments and was systematically involved in the school's reading programme;
  • the head or the co-ordinator ensured that appropriate resources were organised consistently from class to class and in the school generally, for example the library, and that as far as possible, practices and procedures were common throughout the school to maintain continuity.
66. Clear well-formulated policies for reading were strongly associated with good standards. In the majority of schools, policies covered essential matters of principle and most had been written in consultation with the staff. Many were not complemented by statements about expected standards or by guidance on ways and means of planning the work.

67. Almost all the schools had one or more teachers with special responsibility for English. In a few schools, responsibility was assumed directly by the head though this was usually a temporary arrangement to cover a vacancy.

68. The co-ordinator was often effective in helping the school to achieve satisfactory or better standards. In some they consulted and advised their colleagues and helped to train non-teaching staff and parents. Where possible, they worked alongside colleagues in the classroom to support both teaching and assessment. For many, lack of non-contact time ruled out any but the most infrequent visits. Co-ordinators often played an important part in liaising with parents and offering advice or support for slower readers.


69. The great majority of teachers had been trained for the primary phase. Teachers in almost all of the schools had attended LEA in-service courses or school-based workshops involving the teaching of reading. Most of the courses had a wider focus than reading alone, for example English in the National Curriculum. These had helped the teachers to a better understanding of general principles of the teaching of reading but some teachers said they had been less helpful on the details of classroom practice. A majority of schools felt that local authority in-service training for Key Stage 1 had devoted too little time to English and, in particular, to the teaching of reading. The need for urgent training in other areas, for example science, had meant a lower priority for reading and it was often too readily assumed that all teachers were sufficiently skilled in teaching reading.

70. Approximately a quarter of the schools were experiencing problems of high teacher-turnover (more than 50% of teachers in the past three years). Only one of those schools was achieving better than satisfactory standards and in half the standards of reading were poor.

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71. Almost all the classrooms had reading areas but their quality varied widely. In Key Stage 1 classes these areas were usually carpeted and had bookshelves and often, comfortable seating. For the older classes in Key Stage 2 classroom areas designated for reading were much less common. Limited space often meant that book areas had multiple uses as group and class teaching spaces, for floor work with construction materials or as additional quiet working areas. The value of these areas for reading depended on how well they were organised and maintained. Some teachers successfully enlisted the help of the children in keeping the book areas in good order by establishing a rota of monitors. This enabled the children to take responsibility for the book collections and learn simple procedures, for example, grouping books for reference purposes.

72. Two-thirds of the schools had central library areas with a satisfactory amount of space and reasonable access. A minority of these libraries were in dedicated rooms; most were in corridors, halls, entrances, or converted cloakroom areas. Sometimes book stocks had to be dispersed to several areas because of insufficient space thus making classification and systematic use by the children more difficult. Many teachers, faced with problems of timetabling, access and supervision chose to bring collections of books into their classrooms for specific topics and used the school library more as a bank than as a means for teaching the children how to use a library.

73. In the remaining third of schools, although most had done the best they could with very limited space, library problems were more severe. Only 4 schools had no libraries at all; most had libraries that were too small or poorly sited to be of significant value. A few schools had relinquished library areas to accommodate additional children in the past few years. In the schools where the library space, whether centralised or dispersed, was very limited, or difficult to use, the range of reading opportunities was often constrained, especially for the older children, who needed access to a good range of reference books.


74. Books, materials and equipment for the teaching of reading were in satisfactory supply, or better, in 85% of the classes. In many schools, however, this would not have obtained without additional LEA support, including from the Schools Library Service, and parental funding. Additional parental contributions, expressed as a percentage of the school's capitation allowance, ranged from 0 to 33.3%. Of the school's capitation allowance available for resources, the percentage spent on books and other reading resources in the past year varied from less than 1% to 30% with an average expenditure of 8.5%. Expenditure varied according to the school's curricular priorities and also with the extent of support from other sources, for example library services, parental contributions or special funding from local authorities. In one school, 20% of the capitation was spent with the LEA contributing as much again to bring a very poor quality book stock to a satisfactory standard. Elsewhere, an unusually high expenditure was due to the planned introduction of a new reading programme throughout the school.

75. Nearly all the schools had at least one computer with word processing facilities, though this was not sufficient to raise word processing to the level of a normal classroom activity for most pupils. Most of the schools had a supply of audio-visual equipment for teaching reading such as cassette tape recorders, often with sufficient headsets for group listening. However, too few teachers realised the potential of concentrated listening to a well read text that was able to be tracked by a group or an

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individual pupil and followed by discussion and writing activities. This meant that the audio equipment was not used as often or as well as it could have been.


76. The findings of the Survey confirm two well known features of the teaching and learning of reading in primary schools. First, success in learning to read is achievable by the great majority of seven year olds irrespective of their home background and the location, type or size of their school. Second, a major determinant of that success is what the teacher and the school bring to the situation. The effective teaching of reading calls for skill and knowledge to be applied consistently and with sufficient flexibility to ensure that children benefit from the appropriate method at the right time. Successful teachers of reading and the majority of schools used a mix of methods each reinforcing the other as the children's reading developed. The most successful schools were those that developed, sustained and made best use of their teachers' skills. In such schools the teaching of reading was characterised by robust leadership from heads; clearly defined reading policies; stated responsibilities and accountabilities; and effective classroom management of teaching and learning.

77. There is no evidence from the survey, or from HMI's visits to schools over the last year, that the so-called 'real books' approach or any other single approach to teaching reading is taking the country by storm. It is important to note, however, that in the minority of schools which were wedded to a single method of teaching reading, including devotees of 'real books' and phonics, failure was more prevalent than in schools using a combination of methods.

78. The majority of teachers of children in Key Stage 1 devoted a good deal of time to teaching reading. They set great store by hearing children read regularly and made continuous judgements about the most appropriate next steps in learning to read for individual pupils. In planning the reading programme and matching the work to the developing abilities of the children, the assessment and recording of each child's progress were regarded as crucially important but were not as thorough as they should have been in many schools, often because of constraints on the teachers' time.

79. In broad terms the work in Key Stage 2 was not as satisfactory as that in Key Stage 1. Most of the schools need to review their reading programmes to ensure that the careful attention given to the younger children does not peter out too quickly and that the more advanced reading skills and the extended range of reading required towards the end of Key Stage 2 are being widely secured.

80. In more of the schools heads need to develop clear, well-formulated policies which are subscribed to by the whole staff and which form the basis of a planned programme for reading. Those policies and related action need to go well beyond an adherence to graded reading schemes followed by 'free reading' for fluent pupils. The practice of hearing children read regularly is an important element in the teaching of reading. But it must not become unduly dominating. In some schools, the discussion of the text, the teaching of specific skills and the diagnosis of reading difficulties needed to play a greater part in the process.

81. Some of the poorest work in reading occurred where the organisation and management of the class were weak. Examples included too many groups of activities running at the same time and an emphasis on individual work which could not be sustained in sufficient depth for all the children in the class. Teachers caught up with these problems need urgent guidance from heads and more experienced colleagues. There is also a clear need for professional training to address issues of class organisation and management not least because they affect standards of work other than in reading.

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82. It is widely agreed, and the findings of the survey confirm, that primary teachers have faced an increasingly complex set of issues concerning class management in recent years. Not only do they have to teach all, or nearly all the curriculum, they commonly do so to widely mixed classes in age and ability. The curriculum which primary teachers are required to teach has also expanded, not only to include more subjects such as science and technology, but also more elements within the traditional range of a single subject such as mathematics. In recent years, too, more children with special educational needs have been retained or taken into ordinary classes. All these factors place an even higher premium on effective classroom organisation and management.

83. The teachers were concerned about how best to help the minority of children with severe reading difficulties. Teachers and heads reported problems in getting prompt and sufficient specialist help for these children, for example, from LEA advisory and schools' psychological services. These issues could not be followed up by HMI during the course of this survey but they deserve to be taken seriously and considered by LEAs in the formulation of policy and reviews of support services.

84. Many of the schools demonstrated the benefits of enlisting the support of parents in helping the children to learn to read. However valuable that help may be, it cannot be assumed that all parents are well-placed or inclined to help their child with reading at home. The onus is upon the school to ensure that reading is taught effectively with or without the help of parents. For schools where, for one reason or another, parental support is lacking, particular attention and extra effort often have to be given to reading. Moreover, where parents assist with the reading, vigilance is needed to ensure that the programme does not rely too heavily on their help and unduly reduce the input of teachers.

85. The comparative smallness of primary schools can make their work particularly vulnerable to change in matters such as teacher turnover. In the 25% of the schools in the survey where teacher turnover was high, securing continuity and achieving progression in the teaching of reading were frequently serious problems. Sadly, a high degree of teacher turnover seems likely to remain a difficulty for some schools for some time to come. As was shown by those schools experiencing such turnover where the work was of better quality, the effects of discontinuity and lack of progression can be greatly ameliorated by a thoroughly planned and well resourced reading programme which the head ensures is consistently applied. Improving the ratio of teachers to classes, the deployment of peripatetic teachers and a rapid and effective induction of teachers new to the school, especially those recently trained, are also ways in which LEAs and schools are attempting to overcome such problems.

86. Good standards of reading cannot be achieved without adequate and suitable material resources. While it was clearly much more of a struggle for some schools than others to keep their book stocks up to strength, few schools were short of books for the teaching of reading. Most of the schools also provided attractive reading material of other kinds, both fiction and non-fiction. Such supplies were nearly always boosted by additional funding or outside help, from parents or the LEA Schools Library Services. Most of the schools invested heavily in published reading schemes of one kind or another. It is clear from this survey that graded reading schemes were still much in evidence in the schools and were often used very effectively.

87. Over the last two years primary schools have been at the forefront of the curricular changes introduced by the 1988 Education Reform Act. Inevitably this has caused some disturbance to the pattern of their work, particularly in Key Stage 1, as teachers have undergone training and adjusted to the new statutory requirements for the core subjects of English, mathematics and science. The majority of primary schools have coped well with those changes. They are already showing

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improvements in the planning and preparation of a broader range of work within those subjects and have maintained at least satisfactory standards of reading. Clear national attainment targets and assessment procedures are important in raising reading standards across the board in all schools, especially the poorer ones. In doing that, action will be needed to bring about improvements in the management and organisation of reading at all levels. Particular care will be needed to maintain the central importance of the teaching of reading during the present period of change. Teachers are now familiar and coping with the core subjects but other demands will press on them as other subjects of the National Curriculum come on stream. As teachers give time and energy to those demands they must ensure that the teaching of reading receives the attention needed for it to be effective.

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The Views of Headteachers

Headteachers were asked for their views on the influences upon reading standards in their schools.

Positive Influences on Reading Standards:

  • a clear priority for reading that is acknowledged by all the teachers and reflected in the ethos of the school through the value placed on books; the determination of the staff to make reading an important, worthwhile and pleasurable experience and the quality of the context in which reading was taught ie, the attractiveness of the provision; and access to books in all areas of the curriculum;
  • an enthusiastic and committed staff with a low rate of turnover enabling effective changes to be introduced and sustained over time; many heads wrote of teachers using their own time to work with children after school and in the lunch hour;
  • experienced, well-informed co-ordinators able to communicate with and inspire colleagues;
  • good parental support was seen as invaluable. Particular strengths were the enrichment and support from parents for their children's reading outside school, financial contributions to boost the school's resources and practical help from parents in the school for example, running bookshops, libraries or working with children. Children with a strong background of reading in the home were reported to be significantly advantaged;
  • the quality of resources was seen as a special strength. Heads commented on the value of a wide range of books, especially where non-reading scheme fiction and reference book collections had been expanded. School libraries were highly valued where they could be well sited and accessible;
  • a sound policy for reading linked to clear guidelines strongly influenced the quality of the work. Constructing an effective policy and guidelines for English was seen as a powerful vehicle for engaging the staff in reviewing the reading curriculum and was a means for promoting valuable in-service training;
  • the importance of a balanced approach to the teaching of reading was stressed;
  • great value was attached to monitoring pupils' progress especially for the slower readers.
Negative Influences Upon Reading Standards:
  • most heads commented on a substantial increase in demands for change and development across the curriculum. These were reported as growing pressures limiting time and attention for the teaching of reading and for in-service training. Most heads saw the demands of the National Curriculum encroaching on the priority traditionally given to reading with new requirements deflecting attention to other areas, particularly science and technology. Reading had not been given a sufficiently high priority in training for the National Curriculum;
  • heads of small schools were particularly concerned about the "overload" of curriculum responsibilities on a small staff especially where the head had a substantial teaching commitment;

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  • lack of non-contact time for teachers, but particularly for co-ordinators to support colleagues was seen as a major frustration by many heads. Increased administrative responsibilities to meet new requirements had reduced the involvement of heads in the school's reading programme;
  • many heads identified parental indifference and sometimes hostility as an issue. Some put this down to working parents not having time or energy to take an interest, some to parental over-anxiety about their children's progress. Most cited excessive television watching as an obstacle to progress in reading at home. Parental illiteracy or very limited reading ability and the problems of non-English speaking parents were also highlighted as needing skilled, sensitive and specialist attention;
  • staff turnover was commented on more frequently among heads of schools achieving lower standards. A few of these schools had benefited from recent staffing changes but, for most, there were difficulties of instability and of the quality of replacement teachers who, in schools with the higher turnovers, were more likely to be temporary, inexperienced or to lack commitment;
  • some heads felt some frustration at limitations on book-spending especially in schools with little or no support from parents. In these schools the need to widen the range of reading and the cost of replacing lost or damaged books were seen as major problems. Newly appointed heads were also experiencing frustration in not having sufficient money to update and expand reading resources. Most identified a need for more spending on non-fiction books especially to meet the requirements of the National Curriculum;
  • class sizes and mixed age classes were a major worry, making the organisation of reading and hearing children a problem in many schools, especially in the early stages where some classes had as many as 35 children. These difficulties were compounded by the high turnover of teachers in some schools;
  • in some cases summer born children were seen to be disadvantaged where they were admitted later in the school year when classes were reaching their maximum size;
  • a few heads commented on the lack of under-fives provision in the local area which could provide vital early literacy experience;
  • support services were valued and a number of heads felt disadvantaged by recent cut-backs for example, the loss of visiting specialists to support slow learners or bilingual children, problems of delay in getting assessment through the Schools Psychological services, loss or shortage of classroom ancillaries;
  • some heads identified accommodation difficulties, for example shortage of adequate library space, poor siting and inaccessibility of the library and the absence of quiet areas for reading or focused group work.