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  • Writer's pictureAnn Sullivan

10 words in 1971

Updated: Jul 23, 2022

It's a great quote, isn't it? But where does it come from?

I recently found out about its origin and was surprised to find it dates back to the early 1970s, ironically when the use of ‘whole word/whole language strategies’ and outrageous fashions were at their peak here in the UK.

The author was actually using it as an example when he was writing about the power of direct instruction, so it perhaps slipped under the radar of those who focused on children’s reading. I may be being generous here.

Here is the full quote (1):

" A nonstrategic or rote teaching approach would teach students to recognize whole words. In this rote approach, each word would be taught as a separate entity with no system for teaching generalizable strategies for decoding new words. In the rote approach, after the teacher has taught 10 words, students should be able to read (at best) 10 useful words. In contrast, a strategic approach would be to teach ten letter-sound relations and the skill of sounding out words. When students have learned these ten sounds and the sounding-out skill, they can read 720 words made up of three sounds (e.g., cat), 4,320 words of four sounds (e.g., cram), and 21,600 words of five sounds (e.g., scram) for a total of over 25,000 words. Not all of these words would be real words, some would be pseudowords (e.g., blums), but the example illustrates the power of strategic instruction."

Actually we knew way before this that phonics is the best way to teach reading.

Nellie Dale and Walter Crane produced their phonics-based, ‘The Dale Readers' series in 1889. No, you did read that correctly.

The first in the series, ‘Steps to Reading’, was available for the princely sum of 5d. You could even buy a teacher's handbook! That was 2s 6d but what an investment. This was around the time that basic education in the UK opened up to wider range and greater number of children and we went with 'phonics first'. We could say we got it right at the start... but then got lost in the wilderness for 30 years.

The Rose Review in 2006 shook things up and set us on the path to phonics, but are we back on course yet?

Well the answer appears to be… “It’s a bit mixed”.

In England phonics is mandatory in mainstream schools and is delivered R-Y2. The UK as a whole is moving up the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) table for reading which is good going considering that English is recognised as the language with the most opaque orthography - without any doubt. The NFER Key Insights from PISA 2018 (2) for the UK states that “Pupils in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland scored significantly higher than the average score across the OECD. The average score in Wales was similar to the OECD average but significantly lower than England, Scotland and Northern Ireland”.

Phonics is not mandatory in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland and schools appear to use a mixture of approaches. Anne Glennie reports in her TES article (3) that, “most schools in Scotland use some form of phonics, the vast majority also use sight words (memorisation of whole words) and multi-cueing strategies…”. Rob Randel reports that, “'most schools [in Wales] will say they use phonics to some degree — truth is we just don't know how well reading is being taught: no PSC’ and expands on this in his articles: 'Does CfW Leave Reading to Chance?' (4).

That Scotland did much better than Wales could indicate that the proportion of phonics in the mix within the literacy pot is important and that even a partial phonics approach could make a difference to outcomes for children. But we are straying into very, very dangerous statistical territory here and instead of speculating we should set to and carry out some pukka research that compares approaches. Literacy is not pot luck.

However, many specialist teachers and academics feel that more progress could be made.

Firstly, as teachers, we have to be honest with ourselves and ask if we are actually implementing the programme with fidelity? Are we doing what the programme designers and authors intended us to do? If we are letting things slip we may not be best serving our pupils.

Secondly, there is a growing consensus that schools should continue to actively teach reading beyond Y2. This involves making sure that Y3-6 teachers understand and know how to teach phonics but also how to use it as the launchpad into morphology and etymology with teaching time set aside to practice fluency and prosody. Many would argue (and I agree with them) that all teachers should have an understanding of phonics and how to support pupils to use their phonic skills and knowledge to access the curriculum. And, yes, that does apply to secondary PE teachers.

In special schools phonics is not a commonly used approach in any part of the UK but things are starting to change.

In the past 10 years or so academics have turned the spotlight towards how those with SEND learn to read, including those with complex needs. Research indicates that the barriers to phonics previously thought to exist for these pupils may not actually be there. Over 10 years ago Lemons and Fuchs (5) produced a review of studies on phonemic awareness in children with Down Syndrome. “Results from a review of 20 studies indicate that children with DS rely on PA [phonemic awareness] skills in learning to read and suggest that phonics-based reading instruction may be beneficial for at least some of these children”.

Children with a range of conditions and needs, including those with severe and complex needs, can be taught to access and work with phonemes, to crack the alphabetic code, develop key skills and build up a body of knowledge, such that they can make progress and work towards achieving functional literacy.

We know what we need to teach and we even know how.

For Scotland, Wales and Special Schools… it’s time!


1. Becker, W. C. (1971). An empirical basis for change in education. Chicago, Ill: Science Research Associates.

2. NFER Education Briefings: Key Insights from PISA 2018

3. Anne Glennie, ‘Why Scotland is getting it wrong on phonics’ TES, April 2021

4. Rob Randel, ‘Does CfW Leave Reading to Chance? Part 1’ #15MFCYMRU Learning and Teaching, April 2021

Rob Randel, ‘Does CfW Leave Reading to Chance? Part 2’ #15MFCYMRU Learning and Teaching, April 2021

5. Lemons C.J and Fuchs D, ‘Phonological awareness of children with Down syndrome: Its role in learning to read and the effectiveness of related interventions, Research in Developmental Disabilities, Volume 31, Issue 2, March–April 2010, Pages 316-330

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