The fight for phonics in early years reading

One of the most important things a child will do at school is learn to read, but there are few battlefields in educational discourse as contested as how to best teach it. Here, Jennifer Buckingham outlines the evidence base for systematic synthetic phonics as the most reliable method we have – and also why so many find it hard to accept.

There is extensive research on how children learn to read and how best to teach them. One of the most consistent findings from methodologically sound scientific research is that learning to decode words using phonics is an essential element of early reading instruction.1 Language comprehension (vocabulary and understanding of semantics, syntax, and so on) is also essential to gain meaning from reading, of course. But children must first be able to accurately identify the words on the page or screen before they can bring meaning to what they are reading.2

Many high-quality studies over the last two decades in particular, including systematic reviews, have shown that classroom programmes and interventions with an explicit, systematic phonics instruction component are more effective in teaching children to read than those without such a component.3 More recently, a teaching method called systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) has garnered strong evidence in its favour.4 In synthetic phonics, teaching starts with a sequence of simple letter-sound correspondences, building to the more complex code as children master the skills of blending and segmenting.5

Systematic synthetic phonics is well-researched in school classrooms and in clinical settings. It is also supported by cognitive science research on the processes that take place in the brain when children learn to read. This research shows that reading is not like speaking: the human brain is not innately wired for reading to develop automatically with exposure to print. Making the cognitive connections between print, sound and meaning requires making physical neurological connections between three distinct areas of the brain.6 Some children create these neural connections relatively quickly but others require methodical, repeated and explicit teaching.7 This is particularly true for a complex language like English where the relationships between letters and sounds is not uniform in all words.

Despite the clear evidence supporting systematic phonics instruction, there is still debate about the role of phonics in learning to read and how to teach it effectively. The reasons for this are many, and interrelated. While the points listed here are drawn from the Australian context and experience (particularly in the state of New South Wales), they are also relevant in other countries.

  • Many teachers do not have sound knowledge of language constructs and the most effective ways to teach reading, and generally overestimate what they know.8 A recent study of prep teachers (first year of formal schooling), found that only 53% could correctly define a morpheme and only 38% could correctly define phonemic awareness.9 The latter is a powerful predictor of reading ability and a critical element of initial reading instruction.10
  • Initial Teacher Education courses do not consistently provide graduate teachers with evidence-based reading instruction strategies and this is often compounded by low-quality professional learning.11
  • Contradictions within one department lead to teachers being given strongly conflicting messages.
  • For example, the NSW government reading programme ‘L3’ is inconsistent with a document on effective, evidence-based reading instruction produced by the same government.12
  • Important policy decisions are frequently made by education ministers and department executives who don’t have a good understanding of the evidence and research. They are often guided by people whose knowledge and experience is in literacy more broadly, or even just primary education generally; while early reading instruction and intervention is a highly specialised field of research and expertise. An example of this was the NSW Ministerial Advisory Group on Literacy and Numeracy (MAGLAN), which produced a report that misrepresented important educational strategies such as response to intervention.13
  • Very few literacy teaching programmes and interventions are subjected to rigorous trials or evaluations.14
  • Endorsement of expensive and unproven interventions that invoke neuroscience or involve computers, or both. There are numerous programmes that claim to help children learn to read by doing anything but actually teaching them to read.15

Despite the clear evidence supporting systematic phonics instruction, there is still debate about the role of phonics in learning to read and how to teach it effectively.

  • The influence of people in both the public and private sectors who continue to promote theories of reading that do not reflect current research on effective reading instruction.16
  • Rejection of research-informed policy proposals without careful consideration of the evidence, instead relying on conspiracy theories and ad hominem attacks.17
  • The perception of some programmes and policies as being ‘too big to fail’. It can take years, and sometimes even decades, to replace them even after research has shown them to be ineffective (for example: reading recovery).18
  • Significant investment in resources, buildings and furniture that are connected to outmoded and ineffective ways of teaching. For example:
  • Schools have spent thousands of dollars building up libraries of levelled readers and other resources designed for reading methods based around whole language and ‘three-cueing’ approaches. This makes it difficult for those schools to make dramatic changes to reading instruction.
  • School furniture and buildings are frequently designed in ways that do not accommodate explicit instruction pedagogies. The open classroom is one example of this: research has shown that noise levels in open classrooms are a problem for students.19 Yet many new government and Catholic schools are being built with open classrooms that exacerbate these problems.
  • Widespread misinformation about effective teaching methods, including the misrepresentation of synthetic phonics and the misuse of terms like ‘explicit teaching’.20

Despite all of this, there are reasons for optimism. The NSW government has recently allowed public schools to use funding that was earmarked for the reading recovery programme for other reading interventions; the Australian government is negotiating with the state and territory governments to introduce a Year 1 Phonics Check; and the newest version of the Australian Curriculum has a much greater emphasis on phonemic awareness and phonics. Acknowledgement of the importance of explicit instruction is growing and becoming more accepted, even if it is not always put perfectly into practice. Much has been achieved but there is still much to be done.

Dr Jennifer Buckingham is a senior research fellow and director of the FIVE from FIVE reading project at The Centre for Independent Studies ( Jennifer’s doctoral research was on effective instruction for struggling readers and she has written numerous reports and peer-reviewed articles on reading instruction and literacy policy. She is a board member of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, an Associate Investigator at the Centre for Cognition and Its Disorders at Macquarie University, a member of the Learning Difficulties Australia Council, and recently chaired an Australian Government expert advisory panel on the introduction of a Year 1 literacy and numeracy check.

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Hulme, C. & Snowling, M. J. (2013) ‘Learning to read: what we know and what we need to understand better’, Child Development Perspectives, 7 (1) pp. 1–5.

Stuart, M., Stainthorp, R. & Snowling, M. J. (2008) ‘Literacy as a complex activity: deconstructing the simple view of reading’, Literacy, 42 (2) pp. 59–66.

Ehri, L. C., Nunes, S. R., Stahl, S. A. & Willows, D. M. (2001) ‘Systematic phonics instruction helps students learn to read: evidence from the National Reading Panel’s meta-analysis’, Review of Educational Research, 71 (3) pp. 393–447.

Johnston, R. S., McGeown, S. & Watson, J. E. (2011) ‘Long-term effects of synthetic versus analytic phonics teaching on the reading and spelling ability of 10 year old boys and girls’, Reading and Writing, 25 (6) pp. 1365–1384.; Seidenberg, M. (2017) Language at the speed of sight. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Five from Five (no date) ‘Explicit phonics instruction’.

Wolf, M., Ullman-Shade, C. & Gottwald, S. (2016) ‘Lessons from the reading brain for reading development and dyslexia’, Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 21 (2) 143–156. DOI: 10.1080/19404158.2016.1337364

Rupley, W. H., Blair, T. R. & Nichols, W. D. (2009) ‘Effective reading instruction for struggling readers: the role of direct/explicit teaching’, Reading & Writing Quarterly, 25 (2–3) pp. 125–138. DOI: 10.1080/10573560802683523;

Snow, P. (2016) ‘Elizabeth Usher Memorial Lecture: language is literacy is language – positioning speech-language pathology in education policy, practice, paradigms and polemics’, International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 18 (3) pp. 216–228.

Stark, H. L., Snow, P., Eadie, P. A. & Goldfeld, S. R. (2016) ‘Language and reading instruction in early years’ classrooms: the knowledge and self-rated ability of Australian teachers’, Annals of Dyslexia, 66 (1) pp. 28–54.

Melby-Lervåg, M., Lyster, S. A. & Hulme, C. (2012) ‘Phonological skills and their role in learning to read: a meta-analytic review’, Psychological Bulletin, 138 (2) pp. 322–352.

Meeks, L. J. & Kemp, C. R. (2017) ‘How well prepared are Australian preservice teachers to teach early reading skills?’, Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 42 (11) pp. 1–17.

Neilson, R. & Howell, S. (2015) ‘A critique of the L3 Early Years Literacy Program’, Learning Difficulties Australia Bulletin 47 (2) pp. 7–12; NSW CESE (2017) ‘Effective reading instruction in the early years of school’. Sydney: NSW Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation.

Buckingham, J. (2012) ‘Mistakes writ large if reading goes wrong’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 7 May.; Ministerial Advisory Group on Literacy and Numeracy (2012) ‘Report on the outcomes of consultation: literacy and numeracy action plan – initial framework’.

Meiers, M., Reid, K., McKenzie, P. & Mellor, S. (2013) Literacy and numeracy interventions in the early years of schooling: a literature review: report to the Ministerial Advisory Group on Literacy and Numeracy.

Han, E. (2013) ‘Brain Gym claims challenged’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 January.; Wood, P. (2017) ‘Experts question Arrowsmith program for kids with learning difficulties’, ABC News Online, 21 March

Emmitt, M., Hornsby, D. & Wilson, L. (2013) ‘The place of phonics in learning to read and write.’ Australian Literacy Educators’ Association.

Mulheron, M. (2017) ‘President writes: the darker purpose’, Education NSW Teachers Federation website.

NSW CESE (2015) Reading recovery: a sector-wide analysis. Sydney: NSW Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation.

Mealings, K. (2015) ‘Students struggle to hear in new fad open-plan classrooms’, The Conversation, 10 February.

Adoniou, M. (2017) ‘How the national phonics test is failing England and why it will fail Australia too’, EduResearch Matters, Australian Association for Research in Education.

Battling the Bandwidth of your Brain

Why some people think cognitive load theory might be the most important thing a teacher can understand.

Recently, there has been a surge of interest in cognitive load theory, perhaps aided by comments made by Dylan Wiliam on Twitter that it is ‘the single most important thing for teachers to know’ (Wiliam, 2017). So, what is cognitive load theory, how did it arise and what are the implications for teachers in the classroom?

The origins of cognitive load theory can be traced back to the results of an experiment published by John Sweller and his colleagues in the early 1980s (Sweller, 2016). In this experiment, students were asked to transform a given number into a goal number by using a sequence of two possible moves; they could multiply by 3 or subtract 29. Unknown to the students, the problems had been designed so that they could all be solved by simply alternating the two moves e.g. ×3, –29 or ×3, –29, ×3, –29.

The students who were given these problems were all undergraduates and they solved them relatively easily. However, very few of them figured out the pattern.

By that time, it had been established that people solve novel problems by the process of means-ends analysis: Problem-solvers work backwards, comparing their current state with the goal and looking for moves that will reduce this distance. Sweller wondered whether this process drew so heavily on the mind’s resources that there was nothing left to learn the pattern. In other words, solving problems induces a heavy ‘cognitive load’.

It has been known since the 1950s that our short-term memory is severely limited. In a classic 1956 psychology paper, George Miller argued that the maximum number of items that can be held in memory for a short period is about seven (Millar, 1956). However, an important question arises: what is an ‘item’? One of the tasks Millar examined was reciting a string of random digits, with each digit representing one item. Compare this with a string of digits such as, ‘SPIDERS’ – this is no longer seven items. Instead, it represents a single item because most people already possess a concept of what a spider is. An item is therefore the largest unit of meaning that we are dealing with and this will therefore depend upon what a person already knows. When we gain new knowledge – new meanings – we therefore reduce the number of items that we need to consider, a process known as ‘chunking’.

The concept of working memory is similar to that of short-term memory except that it doesn’t just store information, it also manipulates it. The limitations of working memory are what lead to cognitive overload.

We now know that different kinds of item impose different limits (Shriffin & Nosofsky, 1994). Words are generally more intensive than digits, cutting the short-term capacity further. Many cognitive scientists today accept a model of the mind that includes a ‘working memory’ (e.g., Baddeley, 1992). The concept of working memory is similar to that of short-term memory except that it doesn’t just store information, it also manipulates it. The limitations of working memory are what lead to cognitive overload.

Sweller’s initial experiments did not involve tasks that are educationally relevant and so a natural progression was to examine the kinds of problems that students are asked to solve in real academic courses. Working with Graham Cooper, Sweller tested whether school students and university students learned more by solving simple algebra problems or by studying worked examples. If Sweller’s hunch was correct, students may well be able to solve some of these problems, but the cognitive load imposed by this would lead them to learn little. Conversely, by imposing less cognitive load, the worked examples should lead to more learning. This was confirmed by the research (Sweller & Cooper, 1985) and this finding has now been replicated in many different situations involving a wide variety of subject matter (Sweller, 2016).

However, these results seemed counterintuitive and presented researchers with a conundrum. How is it possible for small children to pick up their mother tongue by simple immersion? Wouldn’t that lead to cognitive overload? If Sweller and colleagues were right, wouldn’t we need to give children worked examples of talking and listening in order for them to learn?

The answer to this problem may be found in the work of David Geary. His suggestion is that some forms of learning are ‘biologically primary’. Humans have presumably been speaking a kind of language for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of years and this is long enough for evolution to have had an impact, equipping babies with a mental module for picking up language without conscious effort. In contrast, reading and writing (and all other academic subjects, for that matter) have been around for only a few thousand years and for much of that period, only a small elite engaged with them. They therefore cannot have been affected by evolution, rely on repurposing biologically primary mental modules and are therefore known as ‘biologically secondary’ (Geary, 1995).

Cognitive load theory suggests that all biologically secondary knowledge must pass through our limited working memories in order to be stored in long-term memory. For learning new, complex academic concepts such as algebra or grammar or the causes of the First World War – as opposed to learning simple lists – it is probably wise to try to minimise cognitive load by avoiding approaches that look like problem solving and to instead utilise those that provide clear and explicit, step-by-step guidance (Kirschner et al., 2006).

In the process of its development, cognitive load theory has also incorporated a number of learning effects that are related to the load that they impose. For instance, the ‘split-attention effect’ demonstrates that it is better to place labels directly on a diagram rather than provide an adjacent key because this avoids the need to cross-reference, which imposes unnecessary load. Similarly, the ‘redundancy effect’ shows that it is best to avoid adding unnecessary additional information for students to process. For example, if a diagram of the heart clearly shows the direction of blood flow then adding a label saying which way the blood flows is redundant (Sweller, 2016). This has clear implications for teaching – don’t provide lots of text on a PowerPoint slide and simultaneously explain the same concepts verbally. In general, it is best to minimise the number of different things that students have to pay attention to at any one time. Remove those fancy borders, animations and cartoons unless they are fundamental to what is being communicated.

And this is why cognitive load theory is so powerful. Unlike much of what we are told during training and professional development, cognitive load theory has real implications for teachers in the classroom that are based on sound evidence derived from robust research designs. Perhaps Dylan Wiliam is onto something. Perhaps cognitive load theory is an important thing for teachers to know.

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Baddeley, A (1992) ‘Working memory’, Science, 255 (5044) pp. 556–559.

Geary, D. C. (1995) ‘Reflections of evolution and culture in children’s cognition: implications for mathematical development and instruction’, American Psychologist, 50 (1) pp. 24–37.

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006) ‘Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching’, Educational Psychologist, 41 (2) pp. 75–86.

Miller, G. A. (1956) ‘The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information’, Psychological Review, 63 (2) pp. 81–97.

Shiffrin, R. M. & Nosofsky, R. M. (1994) ‘Seven plus or minus two: a commentary on capacity limitations’, Psychological Review, 101 (2) pp. 357–361.

Sweller, J. (2016) ‘Story of a research program’, Education Review, 23.

Sweller, J. & Cooper, G. A. (1985. ‘The use of worked examples as a substitute for problem solving in learning algebra’, Cognition and Instruction, 2 (1) pp. 59–89.

Wiliam, D. (2017) ‘I’ve come to the conclusion Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory is the single most important thing for teachers to know’ [Twitter], 26 January. Retrieved from

Bold beginnings and the importance of reception

In 2018 Ofsted appointed Professor Daniel Muijs to be its new Head of Research. One of his first publications, Bold Beginnings,  proved to be an explosive read. In the report, he made recommendations into how the early years curriculum could be improved. Here, he writes exclusively for researchED magazine, setting out some of the research that informed the piece.

Early years matter. The Effective Provision of Pre-school Education (EPPE) study, in which the impact of the take-up and quality of early years provision in England was tracked over time, showed that good early education had significant lasting effects across primary schooling (Sylva et al., 2004).

Furthermore, there is evidence that children who fall behind in pre-school do not find it easy to catch up later. Early deficits can persist throughout primary education, meaning children who lag behind in reading and numeracy during pre-school will continue to do so for the rest of their schooling (Olofsson & Niedersoe, 1999; Foorman et al., 1997; Sparks et al., 2014).

This is a particularly important issue in terms of social justice, as children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are most likely to lack reading or numeracy skills when they enter primary school (Chatterji, 2006). Promisingly, though, there is evidence that attending high-quality pre-school provision can reduce the effect of social background on a child’s cognitive development (Hall et al., 2013).

In England, the Reception year is pivotal in providing a bridge between pre-school and the start of formal primary education. So it is should come as no surprise that Ofsted chose to take a closer look at this phase, nor that our resulting report, Bold Beginnings, generated widespread interest and indeed some controversy within the sector, not least as we found that the effective Reception providers we visited prioritised reading instruction and early mathematics alongside play-based learning.

One of the criticisms of our report is that it does not take into account the research base on early years education. This is a simplification of the evidence base, which ignores a range of research supporting the balanced approach we advocate in Bold Beginnings. In this article I will look at some of this evidence.

Play matters…but so does the formal teaching of reading and numeracy

Criticisms of Bold Beginnings have emphasised the importance of play for early development, not least in developing dispositions for learning, but also in supporting reading and numeracy (eg Whitebread & Bingham, 2014).

Bold Beginnings clearly acknowledges the importance of play in Reception, as have previous Ofsted reports such as Teaching and play in the early years – a balancing act?

However, there is also clear evidence that, alongside play-based approaches, the formal teaching of reading and numeracy are important, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Programmes aimed at improving early years education can have long-standing effects, not just on educational attainment but on a range of societally desirable outcomes, such as reduced delinquency and higher graduation rates (Barnett, 2011; Kagan and Hallmark, 2001; Stipek and Ogana, 2000).

For example, a large-scale meta-analysis of 123 comparative studies of early childhood interventions in the US found that attending pre-school (defined as prior to Kindergarten) was positively related to cognitive outcomes and social skills. The study also found that within EY interventions, the use of teacher-led instruction was positively related with cognitive gains (Camilli et al., 2010).

The EPPE study I mentioned earlier showed that effective early years pedagogy included direct teacher instruction. This refers to the provision of instructive learning environments and ‘sustained shared thinking’, where the child works with an adult to solve a problem (Sylva et al., 2013).

Looking specifically at reading, it is rather depressing to have to continue making the case for systematic phonics instruction when this is possibly the most extensively researched and solidly supported practice in education. Of course, we need to engender a love of reading and literature in children. And authentic texts are important to this, as is reading to children, which we acknowledge in Bold Beginnings.

However, authentic literature and rich contexts are not a suitable substitute for the explicit teaching of phonics decoding skills. Evidence for this comes from, among many others, the large-scale National Institutes of Health studies in the US, and subsequent evidence reviews from the National Reading Panel (Lyon, 1999; Moats, 1996; NICHD, 2000). These findings replicate across countries, with Hattie (2009), for example, likewise finding strong positive effects of phonics instruction.

There is also evidence that synthetic phonics instruction is particularly effective. In a widely cited study in Scotland, Johnston & Watson (2004) compared the reading skills of children taught using synthetic phonics with those of a group taught using analytic phonics, and found the former to be more effective.

A subsequent study of 10-year-olds whose early literacy programmes had involved either analytic or synthetic phonics methods found that the pupils taught using synthetic phonics had better word reading, spelling, and reading comprehension (Johnston et al., 2012).

Reading instruction should not have to wait until the start of formal schooling. And indeed for many children from middle-class households it doesn’t, which is one of the factors that exacerbates inequality. Early phonemic awareness and decoding skills substantially predict later reading achievement, and interventions aimed at improving them are shown to particularly benefit children who struggle with reading (Kendeou et al., 2009; Ehri et al., 2001; Hatcher et al., 2004).

Similar findings emerge from research on numeracy. Early numeracy skills predict attainment in primary school, and the quality of early years provision is one factor that influences early numeracy, alongside experience of counting and numbers at home (Anders et al., 2013; Aubrey et al., 2006; LeFevre et al., 2009).

Another review of 19 studies showed that both formal instruction and play-based activities led to improved numeracy skills (Mononen et al., 2014).


The Bold Beginnings study did not explicitly set out to confirm the evidence reviewed above, although it had a clear focus on reading and numeracy. The study underlying our report was an empirical analysis of 41 good and outstanding schools, selected because they performed highly against a range of indicators, including EYFS development levels, the Phonics screening check and attainment at Key Stage 1 (for full details see the technical document).

However, in supporting a balanced approach that includes explicit instruction in reading and numeracy alongside play-based learning, Bold Beginnings does corroborate a wealth of research in the field.

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Anders, Y., Grosse, C., Rossbach, H.-G., Ebert, S. & Weinert, S. (2013) ‘Preschool and primary school influences on the development of children’s early numeracy skills between the ages of 3 and 7 years in Germany’, School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 24 (2) pp. 195–211.

Aubrey, C., Godfrey, R. & Dahl, S. (2006) ‘Early mathematics development and later achievement: further evidence’, Mathematics Education Research Journal, 18 (1) pp. 27–46.

Barnett, W. S. (2011) ‘Effectiveness of early educational intervention’, Science, 333 (6045) 975–978.

Camilli, G., Vargas, S., Ryan, S. & Barnett, S. (2010) ‘Meta-analysis of the effects of early education interventions on cognitive and social development’, Teachers College Record, 112 (3) pp. 579–620.

Chatterji, M. (2006) ‘Reading achievement gaps, correlates, and moderators of early reading achievement: evidence from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) kindergarten to first grade sample’, Journal of Educational Psychology, 98 (3) pp. 489–507.

Ehri, L., Nunes, S., Willows, D., Schuster, B., Yaghoub-Zadeh, Z. & Shanahan, T. (2001) ‘Phonemic awareness instruction helps children learn to read: evidence from the National Reading Panel’s meta-analysis’, Reading Research Quarterly, 36 (3) pp. 250–287.

Foorman, B. R., Francis, D. J., Shaywitz, S. E., Shaywitz, B. A., & Fletcher, J. M. (1997) ‘The case for early reading intervention’ in Blachman, B. A. (ed.) Foundations of reading acquisition and dyslexia: implications for early intervention. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 243–264.

Hall, J., Sylva, K., Sammons, P., Melhuish, E., Siraj-Blatchford, I. & Taggart, B. (2013) ‘Can preschool protect young children’s cognitive and social development? Variation by center quality and duration of attendance’, School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 24 (2) pp. 155–176.

Hatcher, P., Hulme, C. & Snowling, M. (2004) ‘Explicit phoneme training combined with phonic reading instruction helps young children at risk of reading failure’, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45 (2) pp. 338–358.

Hattie, J. (2009) Visible learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York, NY: Routledge.

Johnston, R. S. & Watson, J. (2004) ‘Accelerating the development of reading, spelling and phonemic awareness skills in initial readers’, Reading and Writing, 17 (4) pp. 327–357.

Johnston, R. S., McGeown, S. & Watson, J. E. (2012) ‘Long-term effects of synthetic versus analytic phonics teaching on the reading and spelling ability of 10 year old boys and girls’, Reading and Writing, 25 (6) pp. 1365–1384.

Kagan, S. L. and Hallmark, L. G. (2001) ‘Early care and education policies in Sweden: implications for the United States’, Phi Delta Kappan, 83 (3) pp. 237–245, 254.

Kendeou, P., van den Broek, P., White, M. J. & Lynch, J. S. (2009) ‘Predicting reading comprehension in early elementary school: the independent contributions of oral language and decoding skills’, Journal of Educational Psychology, 101 (4) pp. 765–778.

LeFevre, J.-A., Skwarchuk, S.-L., Smith-Chant, B. L., Fast, L., Kamawar, D., & Bisanz, J. (2009) ‘Home numeracy experiences and children’s math performance in the early school years’, Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 41 (2) pp. 55–66.

Lyon, G. R. (1999) The NICHD research program in reading development, reading disorders and reading instruction. NICHD: Keys to Successful Learning Summit.

Moats, L. C. (1996) ‘Neither/nor: resolving the debate between whole language and phonics.’ Lecture given at the 1996 Washington Summit Conference of Learning Disabilities.

Mononen, R., Aunio, P., Koponen, T. & Aro, M. (2014) ‘A review of early numeracy interventions for children at risk in mathematics’, International Journal of Early Childhood Special Education, 6 (1) pp. 25–54.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) (2000) Report of the national reading panel: teaching children to read: an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction: reports of the subgroups. Washington, DC: NIH.

Olofsson, A. & Niedersoe, J. (1999) ‘Early language development and kindergarten phonological awareness as predictors of reading problems’, Journal of Learning Disabilities, 32 (5) pp. 464–472.

Sparks, R., Patton, J. & Murdoch, A. (2014) ‘Early reading success and its relationship to reading achievement and reading volume: replication of “10 years later”’, Reading and Writing, 27 (1) pp. 189–211.

Stipek, D. & Ogawa, T. (2000) ‘Early childhood education’ in Halfon, N., Shulman, E. & Shannon, M. (eds) Building community systems for young children. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Center for Healthier Children, Families and Communities.

Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I. & Taggart, B. (2004) The effective provision of pre-school education (EPPE) project. Nottingham: Department for Education and Skills.

Whitebread, D. & Bingham, S. (2014) ‘School readiness: starting age, cohorts and transitions in the early years’ in Moyles, J., Georgeson, J. and Payler, J. (eds) Early years foundations: critical issues. 2nd edn. Maidenhead: Open University Press, pp. 179–191.

researchED Birmingham: an unexpected journey

Why and how I set up #rEDBrum, February 2018

I began to understand the world of edu-Twitter about 18 months ago. I had no idea what a hashtag was. Twitter handles were an alien concept. I was oblivious to arguments about whether pupils should face boards or windows; I was puzzled about what gazing at trees could teach my kids about symbolism in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or the nuances of monosyllabic metre in Shakespeare unless Ents were rapping at the panes. And even then, I wasn’t sure their explanations would be clear enough. Such was the influence of Twitter. So it wasn’t just me who thought pupils should face the board! Huzzah! Suddenly I’d found comrades-in-arms, like Rebecca Foster (@TLPMsF).

Now my emergent understanding of Twitter meant that I became more familiar with the ‘ED’ noun-into-verb suffixes that punctuated Twitter. These ED groups and opinions are prolific, and full of strong opinions. Opinions and experiences are important, but sometimes we wander into the apple-bobbing land of Teaching Folklore. This can often be a wonderful place to be, but a tricky place to navigate. Folklore, though pretty, can trip you up.

And, Twitter, with great power comes great responsibility. In navigating the waves of voices and choppy opinions in my exciting ‘Twitter Voyage’ for the Holy Grail of understanding, I found one welcoming community of people, not all of whom agreed with each other, but with a common purpose: researchED.

I began with a small team of researchED enthusiasts at my school. They devoured research, attended as many researchEDs as they could, even Skyped with the ‘Master Magician of Visualising Teaching Concepts’, Oliver Caviglioli. Momentum grew. And with that, so did the outcomes of our pupils. Our English results in 2017 were the best they’d ever been; our history results improved twofold. This wasn’t a happy accident. Those heads of faculty had engaged with research, and had tailored teaching in their faculties in response to this. I salute you, Rekha Dhinsa, Rachael Atton, Tom Hutton.

So to the ‘how’. Much as I like maypoles and bunting, the Fayre of Teaching Folklore didn’t appeal. What did, though, was establishing the first-ever researchED Brum. There’d been one a few years back in the outskirts in Solihull, but never one here, in Middle Earth itself. I put it to Tom Bennett, who let me run with it.

I was incredibly grateful for the ‘been there, done that’ wisdom of other researchED organisers, like #rEDRugby’s sagacious Jude Hunton. Ever-patient with my frantic DMs at 11pm (‘How do I make Eventbrite do this?’), along with providing an immense #rEDRugby model to work from, his researchED cup runneth over. I had a model, and like any Rosenshine disciple knows, this is a Good Thing.

I got stuck in. First thing was to arrange a date. I did that with Tom, and with my headteacher. This was back in the hazy days of July 2017. We agreed February 2018. It was only in the December snow days that I started to lose sleep about it. Would it be snowed off? Too late, it was happening. I’d booked lunch, I’d booked site team for the day, but I hadn’t booked snow ploughs. Gutted.

I began booking speakers in August. For researchED, the work presented has to be grounded in evidence, from published work to case studies. This made sense. Everyone was unquestionably generous. researchED is grass roots. One way we try to keep ticket costs as low as possible is by speakers not being paid a penny; some even contribute their travel expenses – amazing really. And democratising, too: it means you can access fantastic professional development without forking out a fortune. It’s accessible, and it’s cheap. Another Very Good Thing.

When organising researchED, there are a few things you have to remember. Things like getting the space right, like having good IT support, like a supportive SLT who can calm your rattled nerves. Even whether or not you have enough toilet paper. That was a last-minute thing I had to rectify on the day!

We were grateful at #rEDBrum to have primary, secondary, and ITT colleagues presenting, as well as researchers and other educators. For #rEDBrum19, I’d like governors presenting too; in #rEDBrum they were well-represented as delegates. #rEDBrum was a mix of altruistic, open-minded people. Nearly 70% of ticket buyers were female – researchED is clearly perceived as a supportive space for all. It was important to us that #rEDBrum was accessible to those on parental leave. We encouraged #MTPT colleagues to come along; it was fab to see teachers and toddlers enjoying the ‘live lesson’!

Miraculously, things just seemed to work on the day. But this wasn’t by chance. I tried to ensure our speakers had everything they needed beforehand, that our IT network manager had everything he needed beforehand so his life was as easy as possible, that our fabulous prefects knew exactly what to do (I am indebted to our other deputy headteacher, Waris Ali, for this), and that I had a support network of people just to check I was OK. What I didn’t expect were so many generous-hearted delegates and presenters making a point of telling me what a great day they’d had. The vast majority of these people didn’t know me personally, or recognise me from Twitter, but they were kind enough to find me and tell me. This typifies everyone I have met that is involved with researchED: kind, thoughtful, generous. I am very proud to be one small part of such a community.

Claire Stoneman


Claire is deputy headteacher for curriculum, assessment, and standards of teaching at Dame Elizabeth Cadbury School, Birmingham. She also line manages English, humanities, a large pastoral house and the lead practitioner team. Claire teaches English and loves it. She is a blogger (, a writer, and occasionally an opera singer. Claire’s interests in education include narratives around teacher wellbeing and the concept of ‘authenticity’, curriculum development, and the development of middle leaders.

If you have been inspired by Claire’s story and want to host a researchED event of your own, get in touch with us at

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The one thing you need to read

For teachers or educators who want to get more evidence-informed, one of the most daunting things can simply be knowing where to start.