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Thoughts on the inspection of early reading

Caroline Whiting, Bath Spa University Emily Asbury, Bath Spa University

Providers of initial teacher training (ITT) in England are inspected by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted). As members of a university ITT primary English team, we were prompted to reflect on our teaching of early reading following concern about the wording in the ‘good’ descriptor in the current inspection framework (Ofsted, 2020):

‘In primary phase programmes, training ensures that trainees learn to teach early reading using systematic synthetic phonics as outlined in the ITT core content framework, and that trainees are not taught to teach competing approaches to early reading’ (Ofsted, 2020, p. 38).

Did we need to worry? Our trainees learn to teach early reading using systematic synthetic phonics (SSP), but our programme sets this within a broader perspective, distinguishing between word reading (largely decoding, taught through SSP) and comprehension as outlined by the ‘Simple View of Reading’ in a recent government publication, the Reading Framework (DfE, 2021a).

In addition to the Reading Framework, we explored the following current statutory and non-statutory documents for ITT and primary schools, which demonstrate official support for our approach: the Core Content Framework for ITT (DfE, 2019), the Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) (DfE, 2021b), EYFS guidance Development Matters (DfE, 2021c), and the National Curriculum in England (DfE, 2014).

The ITT document links phonics firmly to decoding:

‘Reading comprises two elements: word reading and language comprehension; systematic synthetic phonics is the most effective approach for teaching pupils to decode’ (DfE, 2019, p. 14).

The EYFS framework expands:

‘It is crucial for children to develop a life-long love of reading. Reading consists of two dimensions: language comprehension and word reading. Language comprehension … develops when adults talk with children about the world around them and the books … they read with them, and enjoy rhymes, poems and songs together. Skilled word reading, taught later, involves decoding and the speedy recognition of familiar printed words (DfE, 2021b, p. 9).

Comprehension is further emphasised in Development Matters. Children at the end of the EYFS (aged 5) must

demonstrate understanding of what has been read to them [and] use and understand recently introduced vocabulary’ (DfE, 2021c, p. 13).

The National Curriculum in England says ‘it is essential’ that teaching ensures both aspects are developed; phonics should simply ‘be emphasised’ for beginning readers (p. 1). In year 1 (p. 9) and key stage 2 (p. 23) phonics is linked to decoding and spelling specifically. Further, it echoes the EYFS:

‘Pupils must be encouraged to read widely across both fiction and non-fiction to develop their knowledge of themselves and the world in which they live, to establish an appreciation and love of reading, and to gain knowledge across the curriculum. Reading widely and often increases pupils’ vocabulary because they encounter words they would rarely hear or use in everyday speech. Reading also feeds pupils’ imagination and opens up a treasure-house of wonder and joy for curious young minds’ (DfE, 2014, p. 4).

The listening to, and discussing of, a wide range of books and reading for pleasure, alongside strategies for understanding what they read, and understanding how texts ‘work’ is clearly outlined in the English programmes of study. In year 1, for example, it includes rhyme, ‘checking that the text makes sense to them as they read and correcting inaccurate reading’, and bringing their own experiences to what they read, or hear read (p. 11). Pupils who are still at the early stages of learning, the guidance continues, should have ‘ample practice in reading books that are closely matched to their developing phonic knowledge and knowledge of common exception words’, but this does not imply that this is a complete reading diet (p. 17).

The Reading Framework, while emphasising the importance of using ‘decodable books’, again links decoding with SSP and advocates wider, holistic approaches to engendering a love of reading; reading for pleasure and the importance of book talk to support vocabulary development.

Reassured, we further noted the three instances where the Ofsted inspection document (2020) refers to inspecting early reading ‘including phonics’ (pp. 16, 19, 20). Phonics is absent in the outstanding descriptor. Furthermore, the inadequate descriptor reads:
‘Training does not ensure that trainees only learn to teach decoding using systematic synthetic phonics as part of early reading’ (p. 6).

Exploring these documents generated a re-examination of our programme, and confirmed that we were not at odds with current policy. As an academic institution we look further than government publications to form our programme. However, it is reassuring to see that our discussions with the inspectorate can be based on a shared view of early reading.


Department for Education [DfE]. (2014). National curriculum in England: English programmes of study.

Department for Education [DfE]. (2019). Initial teacher training (ITT): core content framework.

Department for Education [DfE]. (2021a). The reading framework.

Department for Education [DfE]. (2021b). Early years foundation stage (EYFS) statutory. framework–2

Department for Education [DfE]. (2021c). Development matters: Non-statutory curriculum guidance for the early years foundation stage.

Office for Standards in Education [Ofsted]. (2020). Initial teacher education inspection framework and handbook.