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Policy and tools to improve early reading in England

12 December 2014

UCL research has influenced how children are taught to read through national programmes in England on early reading, dyslexia and spoken language, and speech, language and communication needs.

Literacy and language work reciprocally to support children's learning and attainment. Professor Morag Stuart, of the UCL Institute of Education, studies this relationship, focusing in particular on early learners.

Since the 1970s, the place of phonics in the teaching of early reading has been hotly contested. Professor Stuart has played a significant role in establishing a research-informed approach to phonics teaching for all children in England. This is underpinned by an intervention study in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, in which she showed that after 12 weeks of systematic phonics teaching, Reception children made significant and long-lasting gains in word reading and spelling. Based on this, she was invited to advise the Rose Report on early reading (2006), and proposed, on  the basis of her research, that the existing Searchlights model of early reading be replaced with the evidence-based 'Simple View' framework. She subsequently advised the Rose Review on Dyslexia in 2008 on the responsibilities and training of dyslexia teachers, and worked with Rea Reason (University of Manchester) to develop a Department for Education training resource, which situated dyslexia along the continuum of normal development, and embedded the Simple View in a whole-school approach.

In 2007-08, the National Literacy Strategy introduced Simple View to schools across England, and Stuart developed resources and training to support this, including Letters and Sounds, a free phonics teaching programme distributed to all primary schools, and training DVDs for Primary National Strategy literacy consultants. As a consultant for the 2014 revision of the national curriculum, she helped ensure that Simple View formed the framework for the teaching of reading, and was extended also to writing.

Professor Stuart's research has benefited all the children learning to read in English schools. In addition to influencing national policy, her research was responsible for the development of an online resource to help teachers and researchers evaluate books suitable for young children. Her research has shown that beginner readers need many more exposures to printed words before they can reliably read them; this underpinned the development of the Children's Printed Word Database, an interactive online word frequency count for children's books in schools. This was used in developing national curricula and assessments, as well as training resources for teachers. Professor Stuart also helped design a reading test using the database, published by GL Assessment in 2012. The first normative test diagnosing different types of word reading problems, it garnered more than £40,000 in sales by mid- 2013.

Working with Professor Julie Dockrell, also at the UCL IOE, Professor Stuart helped shape, design and disseminate the Every Child a Talker (ECAT) programme (2008) and teaching materials which were adopted in all 152 local authorities in England. Informed by their 'Talking Time' research on the importance of good spoken language for reading comprehension, and the resource developed to support this, the programme led to large reductions in the number of children with language delays. Talking Time was one of only five universal interventions included on the What Works database produced by the Department for Education's Better Communication Research Programme, and had a direct influence on the Communication Trust's Talk of the Town programme to help children and young people with speech, language and communication needs in disadvantaged areas.