Responses to article in Nursery World: 'Focus on phonics criticised in new survey'

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Responses to article in Nursery World: 'Focus on phonics criticised in new survey'

Postby Debbie_Hepplewhite » Fri Oct 19, 2018 12:27 pm

Vociferous critic of Minister Nick Gibb's promotion of systematic synthetic phonics and the advent of the statutory Year One Phonics Screening Check, Margaret Clark, heads up a survey about the phonics check. The results are described in 'Nursery World'. The phonics check is incredibly important in a number of ways - and IFERI promotes universal uptake not least because it is a simple way of teachers getting an indication of their phonics teaching effectiveness - it is essential, therefore, that responses to critics of the check continue to be provided and that both the article and survey must not serve to mislead.

We have already featured some of the work of Margaret Clark via the IFERI forum which provides the background to her strength of feeling against the official promotion of phonics, see here:


Here is the article about the survey in 'Nursery World':

Focus on phonics criticised in new survey

15 October 2018
by Annette Rawstrone

The majority of head teachers, teachers and parents disagree with the Government’s policy of prioritising synthetic phonics over other approaches to teaching children to read, according to a new survey. ... new-survey
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Re: Responses to article in Nursery World: 'Focus on phonics criticised in new survey'

Postby Debbie_Hepplewhite » Fri Oct 19, 2018 1:58 pm

Here are some responses in red - the content of the article is in black:

Focus on phonics criticised in new survey

*Prioritising synthetic phonics to teach reading unpopular with most schools and parents

*Survey coincides with the release of the latest screening results

The majority of head teachers, teachers and parents disagree with the Government’s policy of prioritising synthetic phonics over other approaches to teaching children to read, according to a new survey.

There are two main points to be made in response to the above statements: Firstly, keep in mind that this survey involves a very small percentage of the teachers, headteachers and parents in England and, secondly, that respondees are largely expressing their opinions and beliefs rather than reflecting an understanding of the objective findings of research and the significance of the phonics assessment itself.

Karen Wespieser, researcher for the Driver Youth Trust said in response to the survey: ''the self selecting sample used in this survey is more akin to a grumpy trip advisor rating than robust research. We mustn't let stories like this distract us from the real evidence around phonics'' ... -everyone/

Karen writes this about the survey: "Contrast this with a new report from Leeds Beckett University. This research into the phonics screening check (PSC) also sought to focus on parents. It made the bold claims in the research press release that the PSC is “pointless”. It cited parents, teacher and school leader’s views on the PCS as fact. Yet when you look at the methodology behind the research, you find that it is based on a self-selecting sample. While they have gathered data from a large number of people, these are only the views of those that felt they had something to say on the topic. A more representative sample might have provided a very different perspective and researchers should be aware of how different methodologies can introduce bias to their work. This is more akin to a trip advisor rating – where only those most irate take the time to feedback – than research which is both robust and significant, which furthers our understanding of this important debate.

Literacy in the early years is an emotive topic, and therefore difficult for policy makers and researchers alike. Yet it’s because, and not despite, of this that we need to ensure that the work we do is the most significant and robust. Anything else is simply doing young people, their parents and their schools a disservice."

Not only do they challenge the current literacy policy in England, but respondents to the independent survey expressed concerns about the ‘high stakes’ of the Phonics Screening Check that was originally introduced in 2012 as a ‘light’ touch’ assessment. It involves children at the end of Year 1 reading a list of 40 words aloud, half of which are nonsense. The survey publication coincides with the latest screening results (see box).

The phonics screening check IS a 'light touch' assessment in the sense that it is not onerous or lengthy for each child. Children at the end of Year 1 in England should have been reading lists of new words routinely consisting of the alphabetic code they have been taught for nearly two years by the time they undertake the phonics screener. It is also child-friendly in the sense that the font is large and infant-friendly, and modern, colourful pictures of creatures/aliens are provided alongside the pseudo words to add emphasis to the fact that these words are not meaning-related. Children are actually told that the words are nonsense words and that they do not need to turn them into real words.

The check itself is indeed 'high stakes' - but for the children themselves. Getting the children off to the best possible start in literacy is potentially about their life-chances. For some children, it may only be their levels of stronger literacy that give them a chance in future education and life. Much is written about the levels of weak literacy linked to low self-esteem, disaffection, poor behaviour, truancy, delinquency and criminality. This does not mean it is inevitable that people with poor literacy will display anti-social behaviour but the link between weak literacy and these issues is very strong including noted in the body of research.

Many respondents felt that the phonics screening is undermining the way literacy is taught in schools and questioned the pressure the test puts on six-year-olds. One head teacher commented, ‘They are not ready emotionally to be sitting statutory tests, however informally you are able to dress them up.’

If children are pressurised in any way whatsoever, then arguably this is the consequence of the adults' approach to the check. Children do not even have to know it is a 'check' as such.

Jennifer Chew, co-author of 'Letters and Sounds' (DfES, 2007), had this to say about the adults' conduct:

"If the Phonics Screening Check causes stress for children, surely the fault lies with the way that teachers are administering it rather than with the check itself. Many teachers obviously manage to conduct the check in a way that means that the children really enjoy doing it, so it is possible."

The Phonics Screening Check 2012-2017: An independent enquiry into the views of Head Teachers, teachers and parents was edited by Margaret Clark, visiting professor at Newman University, Birmingham and Jonathan Glazzard, professor of teacher education in the Carnegie School of Education at Leeds Beckett University. It surveyed 230 head teachers, 1,348 teachers involved in administering the check, and 419 parents whose children have been assessed.

Key findings included:

*More than 70 per cent of head teachers believe the phonics check affects the way they teach children to read. Heads reported more pre-check testing and ‘teaching to the test’ to ensure children were prepared for the check. Comments included that it has an adverse impact on the time given to teaching comprehension skills.

With regard to 'teaching to the test', if this has ensured higher quality phonics teaching and plenty of application of 'blending' new words to decode them, then this can be a very good thing. There are valid concerns, however, by the increase of practice with nonsense words rather than with real words. To address this state of affairs, I welcomed a podcast interview to urge teachers to use cumulative, decodable real words for practice in place of using nonsense words. Words that are 'new' to the children in the sense of reading them for the first time, or when they are new to children's spoken language, are the equivalent of practising with nonsense words. For anyone who is interested in this issue, this is the podcast:


The advent of the statutory phonics screening check in England has indeed focused teachers' minds and enhanced their phonics provision as can be seen by the year-on-year improvement in the results. If this has led to weaker provision regarding comprehension in some schools - that is, providing a literature-rich and language-rich experience for children - then this needs to be addressed where there are particular concerns. This should be an evaluation on a school by school basis rather than a criticism of the check itself.

*The majority of head teachers (89 per cent) and teachers (94 per cent) do not think the phonics check provides them with new information on individual children.

Sadly, the issue of weak literacy for so many children in English-speaking contexts is of long-standing grave concern and whilst teachers may think that the phonics check does not provide them with 'new information on individual children', nevertheless it is important that there is national 'bigger picture' information about phonics and teaching effectiveness (which also informs teachers for their professional development).

In any event, the government itself is accountable for methods and materials it promotes and pays for with public money!

In other words, we are all accountable for literacy standards and we all need to know about teaching and learning standards in schools in something so fundamentally important as foundational knowledge and skills in literacy.

Furthermore, the very diversity of responses to the phonics check generally (some positive and some negative) include the surprise of many teachers who report that some of their 'stronger readers' fare less well in the check than their 'weaker readers'. This actually indicates poor professional knowledge and understanding about the role of phonics decoding as the apparent 'stronger readers' should be able to decode accurately any words new to them - whether real or 'nonsense' words - as well, or better than, the 'weaker readers'.

*Many heads challenge the notion that phonics should be the only strategy to teach reading. They add that the use of other strategies such as ‘picture cues, context cues, reading on’ should be taught to enable pupils to choose the correct strategy to solve an unknown word. One respondent said, ‘Using phonics to the exclusion of other pedagogy impedes understanding and the development of inference skills.’

There is masses of research noting the dangers of teaching children the flawed approach of multi-cueing word-guessing strategies, as listed above, 'to solve an unknown word' - whether intentionally or by default (that is, giving beginners and strugglers reading material to decode independently where children have to resort to word-guessing as they are ill-equipped to decode any unknown words effortlessly).

Jennifer Chew had this to say about non-phonic strategies for word-identification:

It’s useful, but very depressing, to have more evidence that teachers (with the approval of Clark and Glazzard?) still believe in encouraging children to use non-phonic strategies for word-identification - e.g., in the words of one respondent, ‘picture cues, context cues, reading on’. 11 years ago, the Letters and Sounds Notes of Guidance pointed out that children who routinely rely on such strategies can ‘find themselves stranded when texts become more demanding and meanings less predictable’ (p. 12). In my 17 years of voluntary work, I saw many worrying cases of children aged 7 or 8 who were stuck on very simple books and couldn’t read well enough to read on or use context, so could rely only on pictures for help. It would have been far better for them to have been taught, from Reception, in a way that meant that they knew how to use the letters on the page to work out what the words were. They might then have been able, by Year 3, to use context and reading on for their proper purpose – i.e. to aid comprehension rather than word-identification.

What do teachers expect children to do when, in their normal text-reading, they come across words which are, in effect, ‘alien’ to them? – e.g. real words that they don’t know in their spoken form, including unusual names. If words are unfamiliar in this sense, cues from context, pictures etc. won't help – the only possibility is to work out a spoken form from the letters. That gives the children an opportunity to add new words to their vocabulary.

Please note that multi-cueing reading strategies for comprehension purposes, rather than for lifting unknown words off the page (word-guessing or word identification), are valid and helpful. Unfortunately, many teachers are not trained well enough, or knowledgeable about the findings of research, to distinguish the difference between word identification and comprehension. All teachers should know and understand the Simple View of Reading model as suggested by Sir Jim Rose in his Final Report (2006).

*Eighty per cent of both head teachers and teachers think it is unhelpful to include nonsense words in the check. Some commented that these ‘alien’ words confused even fluent readers. One respondent said, ‘Our children who were reading for meaning would try to make sense of the nonsense word on the test and therefore failed the test.’

*Nearly 63 per cent of teachers had observed some children being detrimentally affected by the check, including more-able children. Comments included, ‘Children are stressed. Some cry. It also results in an over use of phonics when reading.’

Despite the children of 75 per cent of parents surveyed having passed the check, 93 of the 419 parents polled expressed concern about the negative effect on their child. ‘Anxiety’, ‘stress’ and ‘worry’ were frequently cited.

These same comments were made at the roll-out of the phonics check and back in 2013 I addressed them in a 'debate' with David Reedy of the United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA). It is extraordinary that we are still seeing such lack of appreciation and understanding of these commonly expressed issue five years later in England especially where a well-known literacy organisation is concerned. Some people might find my comments in the brief document below helpful when they, too, hear similar protestations to the advent of a national phonics check - for example in Australia where some people are even resorting to petitioning for the roll-out of a national phonics check:

When asked whether the phonics check should remain statutory for all children in Year 1, the majority of head teachers, almost 85 per cent, said it should not. As a result of the survey, the authors are calling on policy-makers to discontinue the phonics check or make it voluntary, and that the Government should consider a broader repertoire of approaches for teaching children to read.

They state, ‘The Teachers’ Standards in England currently require all trainee teachers and teachers to “demonstrate a clear understanding of systematic synthetic phonics”. The inclusion of synthetics phonics within the Teachers’ Standards makes this method of teaching reading mandatory. In the light of these results, Government should consider amending this so that it emphasises the role of synthetic phonics within a broad range of approaches for teaching children to read rather than as the only method of teaching reading to all children.’

The comment above that 'the Government should consider a broader repertoire of approaches for teaching children to read' illustrates considerable lack of knowledge (I wanted to write 'ignorance') about reading instruction and is simply disingenuous with regard to the entirety of the Government's official guidance. If by a 'broader repertoire of approaches' this refers to the multi-cueing word-guessing strategies such as: 'picture cues, context cues, reading on’ should be taught to enable pupils to choose the correct strategy to solve an unknown word' then this requires serious re-training as it is misguided, flawed, and not at all in line with the findings of research.

The Department for Education in England has gone to great lengths, thanks to the action of successive governments, to investigate the findings of research and to embody them in the statutory National Curriculum (2104) based on the Simple View of Reading that was officially adopted since it was recommended in Sir Jim Rose's Final Report (2006).

Here is a link to the inquiries in England:

Furthermore, mindful of the criticism that phonics might be over-emphasised to the detriment of language comprehension, rich literature and the vocabulary-gap, Minister Nick Gibb and the Department for Education have made considerable efforts to promote these additional aspects to acquiring high-standards of literacy and to promote a 'love of reading' - efforts which are noted in various threads via the IFERI forum.

Additional concerns:

*The use of a percentage pass mark on the Phonics Screening Check as a benchmark to measure school improvement and the emphasis given to the pass rates in Ofsted inspections.

Good. This is important for the national picture and continuing professional development to indicate schools where more training and support may be needed.

*The money spent by the Government and schools on phonics programmes and training courses, especially synthetic phonics – £46 million from 2011 to 2013.

This official 'phonics match-funded initiative referred to above was an historic and important step to high-profile the need to improve phonics provision and to support teaching and learning. Sadly, mistakes were made at that time including fudging that the publication 'Letters and Sounds' (DfES, 2007) was more akin to a phonics framework than its description 'high-quality six phase phonics programme'. I say this because 'Letters and Sounds' included no actual teaching and learning resources and therefore it was necessary to source resources to make it into a phonics 'programme' and teachers did this very differently according to their own interpretation. The official catalogue for the 'phonics match-funded initiative' did indeed include high-quality, fully scrutinised systematic synthetic phonics programmes based on the official 'Core Criteria' (for evaluating a phonics programme); also cumulative decodable reading book schemes; and high-quality training options - but also a plethora of manipulative 'games and activities' which were in danger of leading to 'extraneous' phonics provision as warned about in the Rose Report and DfE guidance (taking phonics provision through a 'circuitous route'). This meant that some of the investment was well-spent but, arguably, some schools were misled about what a core phonics programme should really look like. So, no doubt some of the money invested was put to very good use but some of it one could suggest was squandered. Some schools did not take advantage of the phonics match-funded initiative at all.

*The difference in failure rate between the oldest and youngest children. In 2018, 89 per cent of the oldest pupils passed the check, and only 75 per cent of the youngest children.

Ah yes, but don't forget there are schools where virtually all the children reach or exceed the benchmark in the check regardless of their age or socio-economic circumstances. People need to know what is possible with high-quality phonics provision and the check is providing this very important information.

Writing in the Education Journal, Professor Clark states, ‘This statutory assessment on all children at the end of Year 1, when they are not yet six years of age, means that around 7,000 boys and 5,500 girls born in August have been recorded as failures on a test whose reliability and validity have been questioned and which many teachers claim gives little evidence they did not already have.’

Professor Clark is simply resorting to emotive language such as 'recorded as failures'. This is her interpretation without, apparently, paying regard to the year-on-year improvements in teaching effectiveness, including for younger children in some schools, most likely as a consequence of the statutory check resulting in increasing numbers of children on the road to reading. In any event, no matter how much the validity of the check is questioned, it doesn't mean the check is not valid.

Commenting on the survey findings, Wendy Scott, honourary president of TACTYC, questioned school standards minister Nick Gibb’s approach: ‘His claims for the effectiveness of systematic synthetic phonics reveal a worrying lack of understanding of early literacy development and of rigorous academic research.’

While learning phonics is ‘part of the repertoire of teaching reading’, she believes it is not enough and children need to experience meaningful, enjoyable text. Ms Scott adds, ‘Teachers and parents are right to distrust a reliance on the ability to decode non-words as a valid measure of literacy: these confuse able readers, who expect text to make sense, and bewilder children who are in the early stages of linking print to meaning. It is disheartening that a restricted method of teaching based on flawed evidence is being imposed when we have a sophisticated understanding of how best to support early literacy.’

Oh my goodness, the lack of knowledge and understanding demonstrated by Wendy Scott in numerous articles is seriously worrying - indeed, shocking. She is completely wrong to suggest that Nick Gibb lacks understanding about his claims for systematic synthetic phonics based on 'rigorous academic research'.

Phonics Screening Check 2018 results

*82 per cent of children reached the expected standard in phonics in Year 1, an increase of 1 percentage point on last year and up 25 percentage points since 2012.

*1,268 schools had at least 95 per cent of children achieving the phonics standard in Year 1 in 2018, up from 1,076 in 2017.

*When results are broken down by ethnic group, gender and free school meal (FSM) eligibility, white boys on FSM are the lowest-attaining group, with only 62 per cent meeting the required standard.

*Fewer than half of children (44 per cent) with special educational needs (SEN) reached the pass mark, compared with 89 per cent of children with no identified SEN.

The statistics above show that some schools are teaching phonics rigorously and effectively for all children whilst other schools may be in danger of being less than rigorous - noting, for example, their lower figures for 'white boys on FSM'.

School standards minister Nick Gibb said, ‘This is a huge achievement, improving the lives and education of hundreds of thousands of children, but we remain determined to make sure not just most children but every single child is able to meet their potential.’

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said, ‘The Government continues to confuse accuracy in decoding words with fluency in reading. They are not the same thing, and Nick Gibb’s claim that synthetic phonics is putting children on track to be fluent readers has no basis in research.’

Well, Mary Bousted needs to explain, then, how she expects children who are less able to lift the words off the page effortlessly will be on track to be 'fluent readers'. Like Wendy Scott, she is showing lack of knowledge and understanding about the research on reading instruction but also a considerable lack of sheer logic!!!

An NAHT spokesperson added, ‘The phonics check does not in itself guarantee standards. It is the teaching and learning that happens continuously in the classroom that really matters. Unfortunately, because the data from the phonics check is used for accountability purposes, it becomes not just a check but another high-stakes test.’

The phonics check is a truly important way of raising professional knowledge as well as ensuring more children are taught the complex English alphabetic code and how to apply it for reading (and in England, for spelling too).
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Re: Responses to article in Nursery World: 'Focus on phonics criticised in new survey'

Postby Debbie_Hepplewhite » Sat Oct 20, 2018 1:15 pm

Oh my goodness, what a great surprise - 248 visits just 'overnight' for this thread - and so many 'likes' and 'retweets' and appreciative comments via Twitter. Thank you so much folks! It was well worth my effort then!

And, best of all, here is a tweet that speaks volumes"

Today my daughter’s class trialled the phonics check. She was telling me all about it tonight
- “it didn’t take very long”
- “it was fun reading the not real words”
- “I was really good at it”.
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Re: Responses to article in Nursery World: 'Focus on phonics criticised in new survey'

Postby Debbie_Hepplewhite » Mon Oct 22, 2018 12:25 pm

With regard to people's views, this figure was flagged up via Twitter - a far greater number of people saying 'Yes' to the phonics check in Australia thus far than the people with negative views taking part in the phonics survey in England:


5000 people say YES to the #phonicscheck ❤️ keep campaigning!
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Re: Responses to article in Nursery World: 'Focus on phonics criticised in new survey'

Postby Debbie_Hepplewhite » Mon Oct 22, 2018 8:57 pm

I feel privileged to have learnt about Professor Anne Castles' 'manuscript in preparation' ahead of its publication. The paper is entirely relevant to the issue of whether assessing the 'better readers' with pseudo words as part of a phonics check is unjust and inaccurate on the basis that better readers will try to turn the words into 'real' words - as often suggested by various phonics check critics.

Professor Castles and colleagues tested this claim with a large group of Year 2 children and found that stronger word readers were less likely to make a word error response than weaker word readers - thus showing that pseudo word reading measures, as in England's phonics check, do not disadvantage children who are already reading words well.

This is an invaluable finding and should be well-circulated in the teaching profession in English-speaking countries and contexts particularly where critics make serious attempts to undermine the use of objective phonics assessment utilising pseudo words (nonwords).

I very much look forward to the full publication of this new manuscript and appreciate learning about it in order to support my critique of the article and survey featured in Nursery World.

Update - links to publication in post below:
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Re: Responses to article in Nursery World: 'Focus on phonics criticised in new survey'

Postby Debbie_Hepplewhite » Tue Nov 27, 2018 4:56 pm

Jennifer Chew, advisor to the UK Reading Reform Foundation, posted this comment via the RRF forum with regard to this issue of children who are 'good readers' turning the nonsense words into real words 'to make sense' of them:

In my earlier post on the Clark-Glazzard survey I didn’t mention the following comment from one respondent: ‘Our children who were reading for meaning would try to make sense of the nonsense word on the test and therefore failed the test’.

This sort of complaint has been quite common, but I found no evidence to support it in my voluntary work – and the final NFER report on the first 3 years of the PSC has this on p. 25: 'Overall, then, there is no identifiable pattern of poorer performance on the PSC than expected in those children who are already fluent readers'.

Jenny C.

In a later post on the same thread, Jenny provides a direct link to relevant research:

I said I'd give publication details for the article by Prof. Anne Castles and others which had been accepted by the Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties. It has now been published, but most people will probably have to pay to access it in that form. Prof. Castles has kindly provided a link to a preprint copy, however:

This article provides strong evidence against the argument that the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check disadvantages good readers because they are so used to reading for meaning that they read the pseudo-words as real words.

Jenny C.

This is an abstract of this important and very topical research: ... ode=rald20

Do nonword reading tests for children measure what we want them to? An analysis of year 2 error responses

Anne Castles, Vince Polito, Stephen Pritchard, Thushara Anandakumar & Max Coltheart


Nonword reading measures are widely used to index children’s phonics knowledge, and are included in the Phonics Screening Check currently implemented in England and under consideration in Australia. However, critics have argued that the use of nonword measures disadvantages good readers, as they will be influenced by their strong lexical knowledge and err by making word errors (e.g. reading flarm as “farm”). We tested this claim by examining the errors made by a group of 64 Year 2 children when reading aloud a set of simple nonwords. We found that stronger word readers were less likely to make a word error response than weaker word readers, with their most prevalent type of error being another nonword that was highly similar to the target. We conclude that nonword reading measures are a valid index of phonics knowledge, and that these tests do not disadvantage children who are already reading words well.

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Re: Responses to article in Nursery World: 'Focus on phonics criticised in new survey'

Postby Debbie_Hepplewhite » Mon Dec 03, 2018 4:45 pm

Further to the research paper mentioned above, here is an article featuring the issue of teachers' unions undermining the adoption of the phonics check in Australia - but this is exactly what has happened in England too:

Unions' phonics check objections 'proven to be nonsense'

by Rebecca Urban ... 18-002.jpg
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Re: Responses to article in Nursery World: 'Focus on phonics criticised in new survey'

Postby Debbie_Hepplewhite » Thu Dec 06, 2018 7:39 pm

Yet another member of the United Kingdom's Literacy Association (UKLA) challenges the Government's focus on improving phonics provision in schools in England:

Why the Government’s Latest Phonics Funding Could Be Better Used Elsewhere ... =hootsuite

Eve Bearne of the UK Literacy Association explains why the government’s latest round of spending on phonics ought to be directed elsewhere

Eve refers to Margaret Clark's SURVEY of opinions and beliefs about the phonics check as 'Recent Research'. This failure to distinguish between a 'survey' and 'research' we know is commonplace. Eve writes:

There’s ample evidence that the phonics check puts pressure on already stretched schools and headteachers – and for what? Recent research by academics Margaret M Clark OBE and Jonathan Glazzard reveals that 89% of headteachers and 94% of teachers don’t think that the phonics check provides any more information about children’s reading than they already have. But hand-wringing gets us nowhere.

In response to Eve's article, however, a UK Reading Reform Foundation committee member noted this:

Oh dear. Of course we want adults to read and share lots of high quality literature with children – so we totally agree with the UKLA about that.


"The proposed funding for phonics hubs would buy more than 4 million books. How many more children could be set on the path of becoming lifelong readers with that kind of money?"

… is straight out of the 1980’s whole language 'take' on teaching children to read. Schools were awash with gorgeous books but illiteracy rates soared, Dyslexia Centres flourished and dyslexia assessments took off!

Here is the site of the UK Reading Reform Foundation where the archived RRF Newsletters track the challenges to the multi-cueing word-guessing 'Searchlights' reading strategies and where there is a wealth of information in the long-standing message forum:

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