More OFSTED Good Practice that isn’t

June 2, 2013

I have blogged before about the OFSTED good practice videos and how they, at best, show a very limited range of often mediocre practice, and at worst, show some really trendy rubbish (flip cameras are “essential in all English departments”). In the guestpost below, Elizabeth, an independent consultant for the teaching of reading, whose synthetic phonics based training has been approved by the DfE for match-funding writes about a couple of films I haven’t mentioned so far.

Dear Andrew

A couple of people have suggested I contact you about some films on the Ofsted website that I and others are concerned about, in case you can help. We have tried to get them removed since January. They disappeared for a few weeks after that, but now they are back again. Ofsted officials have been polite and offered further discussion in the autumn, but that is too late.

The films are called, Literacy: a non-negotiable, and you can find them if you go to http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/literacy-non-negotiable-introduction and http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/literacy-non-negotiable-learning-through-play-and-establishing-foundations [see below]

These are my concerns:

  1. Teachers will think that these films show the sort of lessons Ofsted inspectors would like to see when they look at phonics teaching in schools.
  2. They do not show rigorous teaching as promoted in the programmes and training approved by the DfE for match-funding.
  3. There are incidences in all of them that show poor practice.

It is frustrating that the DfE are providing match-funding for programmes and training and then undermining the guidance in these programmes and training sessions. I don’t know about the content of all the training approved for match-funding. However, I do know that every mainstream programme and the training that goes with the programme, approved for match-funding, promotes rigorous teaching with core activities. In contrast, these films promote peripheral activities and include poor practice. I believe the schools involved achieve good results, but I do not believe they achieve them through the activities in the films. I suspect the activities in the films were planned mainly to entertain the inspectors.

I have written a detailed description of what is wrong with the films below.

You will find more discussion about this on the RRF website message board.

If you agree with me, please will you do what you can to put pressure on Ofsted to remove the films?

Thank you


The videos can be watched here.

Elizabeth’s more detailed criticisms are below.

Details of concerns about the films

The lessons in these films are promoted on the Ofsted website as though they should be imitated by teachers. In fact, they show lessons which include peripheral activities and some of the results of good teaching. They do not show the sort of phonics lessons with core activities that teachers should aim to provide regularly in order to achieve good results.

The lessons include some examples of good practice, and some of the details that follow may seem trivial enough to be ignored. However, they are important and should not be ignored, because the films are sure to be watched by teachers who assume they illustrate best practice. Although some synthetic phonics experts might dispute a few of the points I have made, I know they would agree with nearly all of them.

A well-structured routine phonics lesson includes the following core activities:

  • revision
  • learning letter-sound correspondences
  • reading
  • spelling
  • and handwriting

It is fast-paced, because both teachers and children are familiar with the routine, so no time is wasted on remembering or explaining what to do next. Children love routine and are able to learn more, when they are not distracted by peripheral activities and trying to understand what is wanted. Not only are new activities usually slower, but they take too much time to prepare; it would be unreasonable to expect teachers to prepare lessons like the ones on the films on a daily basis.

The films all begin with the title, “Literacy: a non-negotiable”, but they show many activities that are negotiable and are likely to take time away from activities that are essential.

I liked the way the nursery children knew simple letter-sound correspondences and read words, but the film did not show how they were taught to do this. The children were out of doors, but phonics lessons should normally take place indoors, where we normally read and write. When children are outside, they should usually be involved in activities such as independent play, physical education and observing nature.

A lesson with a parachute in the playground was described as “a discrete phonics lesson”, but it was neither an exemplary discrete phonics lesson nor an exemplary parachute lesson. For a lot of the time, the children appeared to be concentrating on holding down the parachute and waiting for their turn to choose a toy or card, one at a time. They were not all taking part in core activities for learning phonics all the time. The teacher had to raise her voice to get above the noise of the wind and the rustling parachute. It would have been better if the phonics lesson had been indoors, routine and interactive, with every child responding to the teacher most of the time. On the other hand, parachute games are valuable and fun for teaching co-operation and providing physical education, without the distraction of phonics.

In another lesson, the children were asked to find toys, when the aim of the lesson was to learn to spell words with “oa”. Spelling is based on sounds. All the children needed was to hear the sound of the word before spelling it. Finding toys is a distraction, and naming a toy might result in a correct but unwanted response. For example, when a child found a toy boat, he might have described it as “a toy” or “a canoe” or “a ship”, when the teacher wanted him to say “boat”.

Right at the beginning in the title, we see plastic letters in many, apparently random, colours. This is distracting; schools should use letters in only one colour.

The nursery teacher asked children to use “phonics fingers” after seeing and reading a word. She said, “We use our phonics fingers to blend the sounds.” This is not good practice, because the aim of using “phonics fingers” is to identify the sounds in unseen spoken words before spelling them.

A teaching assistant was shown working with a lower ability group. This is common practice and sometimes works well. However, it needs challenging. In a film to show good practice, the adult with the most training should work with the lower ability group. The one with the most training is usually the teacher, and not the teaching assistant.

Teachers asked children to think of words with specific phonemes or graphemes. This is not good practice. If the aim is to teach reading and spelling, teachers should provide words for children to read and spell and not ask children to think of them. It is difficult and time-consuming to think of words in this way. However, if the aim is for children to compose a sentence, the children should be asked to compose something related to their experiences or a topic or a story and not something with a specific phoneme or grapheme in it. It is not a good idea to mix teaching of phonics with teaching of composition in this way.

The films showed children sitting on the carpet and standing to write. This is okay occasionally, but as a film to promote good practice, children should be seen only sitting on chairs at tables for writing.

There was no straightforward dictation, although dictation is important.

With the Year 2 class, there was some good analysis of a text for comprehension, but I found the lesson rather laboured. Some of the children were still struggling too much with reading the words to be asked to analyse the meaning of the text in such detail. On the other hand, able children were probably frustrated by waiting for slower children to read words. Comprehension and word reading should not be mixed in this way for children who struggle to read the words. If the aim is comprehension, the text should be read to these children. Once children can read the words in a text easily, word reading and comprehension can be combined as reading comprehension. This is an activity where I would support more differentiation, either in differentiated ability groups, or with targeted activities and questions that individual children could respond to faster and more successfully in a whole class situation.

I tell teachers never to model a word with the wrong spelling, because some of the children are likely to  have good visual memories and may reproduce the wrong spelling later, because they have a picture of it in their minds. It may be that it was all right in the film, because of the way the teacher immediately corrected the spelling (“snoa” for “snow”). However, teachers watching the film may be misled into thinking this is good practice generally.

One teacher said, “The key is to tap into exactly what the children like, what makes them tap into the lesson.” This is true sometimes, but a phonics lesson should be teacher-led, and then the teacher should make it interesting for the children. Children love a sense of achievement and the result of a well-taught teacher-led phonics lesson is children who are inspired because they can decode and write words.

I am also concerned about several incidents where language was used wrongly:

  • Two of the teachers used phonemes to name letters, confusing phonemes, graphemes and letter names. From my experience with muddled older children, this really matters.  The reception teacher said of “have”, “It’s got an /e/ at the end,” using the sound. To be correct, she should have said either, “It’s got an ‘e’ at the end”, using the letter name, or, “In this word, we write /v/ with these letters,” pointing at “ve”. The Year 1 teacher said, “/k/ and /h/ together makes /ch/”, using sounds. This is wrong because “c”, “h” (letter names) in /ch/ is not /k/, /h/ (separate sounds); it is either /ch/ (sound) or it is “c”, “h” (letter names for grapheme). Later /oe/, spelt with a split digraph, was described as /o/ and /e/ (two sounds).
  • The inspector said, “Every time a child’s encountered an unfamiliar word, they’ve got really clear strategies”, but by using the plural word, “strategies”, he suggested that the children used more than one strategy. With synthetic phonics, we teach young children to use only one strategy to read words, that is saying the sounds and blending them. In contrast, the old literacy strategy promoted a range of strategies for reading words (context, graphics, syntax, phonics) and these usually amounted to guessing strategies. It is important to make it clear to teachers that they should not encourage a range of strategies.
  • The inspector said, “She broke down a sound”. With synthetic phonics, children are taught to identify the separate sounds in words for spelling, which could be described as breaking down words, but not as breaking down sounds.

The schools where the films were made are described in the introduction on the Ofsted website as “outstanding”. Teachers will deduce that Ofsted considers the lessons shown in the films to be “outstanding” and would like other schools to provide similar lessons. But the lessons shown in the films are not the sort of lessons that synthetic phonic experts, whose training has been approved by the DfE, recommend. Sir Jim Rose warned about the dangers of “extraneous activities” in his independent review of the teaching of early reading (p. 66). The Ofsted films are very misleading.


  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. the videos are all about ‘fun’, kids being ‘independent’, technology being ‘integrated’. Pretty images. More akin to teacher recruitment marketing than rigorous precise effective teaching. of course, in observations, teachers & SLT have come to see light, frothy, let’s say it – “kinaesthetic” – as synonymous with “outstanding”. Genuine learning, less flash, less brash, less telegenic, that’s got a lot less visual appeal for the observer. Kids listening? Practising? Making mistakes but learning from them? No! Not as ‘fun’ to watch so discounted

  3. I don’t teach in Early Years/Primary. I do have 3 children who went throught the system and I have 2 grandchildren currently in the system and 2 soon to enter the world of “education”.

    As a professional educator myself I tend to use that which I find to work well, that which I am advised by experts should work well and that which I am advised “works well for me”.

    I tend to try things and ditch them if I find them ineffective/inefficient.

    I have just watched these videos (not just the 2 included above) but all in the series. 6 in all that I could see.

    The videos move from very young children to fairly young children and suggest that they go from informal activities to “set the foundations” to more formal activities.

    Those appearing on the videos hold positions that vary in both role and responsibility.

    The schools concerned indicate a range of demographic/social backgrounds current hoe situations for the kids.

    The educational professionals are on record on the videos defending their methods and stating quite clearly that they achieve results that are as good if not better than would be expected in the contexts in which they find each other.

    I fish for european sea bass along the south coast and I have done for some years. When it comes to catching european sea bass from the shore I know what I am doing.

    I laugh when I come across people who tell me that I am using outdated tactics that will “never catch anything” or have I not seen the “latest lure” with it’s 3d flashes down the side.

    I then often walk past these same people on my way home for braekfast/lunch/dinner with my catch of european sea bass ready for the pan. As I pass they say to me “you were lucky, you must have been in the right place at the right time”. “No, not caught anything yet, they aren’t feeding for some reason” they tell me.

    The people who decry the methods of others even in the face of clear evidence that the methods achieve results simply make me laugh much of the time.

    As a parent I would be happy for my young child to be making excellent progress. I wouldn’t be too bothered whether the methods used were those recommended by educational psychologists, cognitive scientists, neurologists or any other “ists”.

    I don’t like wasted time in the classroom and therefore tend to prefer things that work for me, my subject and my kids.

    Having watched all 6 of these videos and followed the themes of the messages, I do find it odd that there would be calls for these to be removed.

    I have no doubt that Elizabeth is correct with every technical point that she raises. I did get a little frustrated when I got as far as the part that said…The inspector said, “Every time a child’s encountered an unfamiliar word, they’ve got really clear strategies”, but by using the plural word, “strategies”, he suggested that the children used more than one strategy.

    I understand that Elizabeth might only use one strategy, percieved wisdom might be to use one strategy, and most teachers may use only one strategy but in my experience this may not make “one stragey” the best approach. There was a time when Brain Gym was felt to be an excellent approach.

    For OA this addition to his Ofsted bad videos collection must be priceless, but having watched all 6 and read the notes on the website I wasn’t convinced these videos are the poor effort that they might seem to some.

    If I were one of those professional educators using those methods, I would say to others what I say when I meet those rather closed minded anglers on the beach….”when you catch as many fish as I do, come back and I may change my methods to yours”.

    And with that I will prepare for a journey to the English Channel.

    • I wish you wouldn’t try to write an essay, when actually your points seem very few and very limited. As far as I can tell you are dressing up the following 2 claims:

      1) The people involved say/think their methods work.
      2) Evidence and contemporary opinion might not be right.

      Is that actually it? Is there something else you are saying? Because without the analogies and misleading comparisons that’s a pretty poor justification for OFSTED promoting these methods.

  4. The irony is that it was clear that lots of very good practice did go on in those schools but it is not showcased by these clips.
    I have no problem with my 5 year old spending quite some time doing playful activities but don’t kid yourself that each individual child got much practice of word reading as they tiptoed round the playground and don’t suggest that these sorts of activites were central to getting those children reading.

  5. I’m intrigued by this. I only watched the first of the videos by the way. I’ve been puzzled many times by Ofsted & other Government agencies putting out ‘examplars’ of good practice which seem to be deliberately illustrating mediocrity – and I’m never quite sure why. However, what concerns me more here, is that the writer appears to be suggesting that we replace what i would consider good practice (but which a few holes could be picked in) with a stilted and dull approach to literacy. These are Nursery aged children – many would argue that it’s not especially helpful to be teaching them to read and write at all at this stage – but what they do learn they will undoubtedly learn via play and exploration, and some times in spite of – rather than because of, the strategies that we put in place.

    If you don’t understand why – then go and read Piaget (which I also think Michael Gove should do as well)

    • ‘These are Nursery aged children – many would argue that it’s not especially helpful to be teaching them to read and write at all at this stage’

      Then those many – evidently including yourself – would be arguing that it is helpful to hold children back. Well done you.

      And no child of that age finds anything dull or stilted unless he or she has an adult telling them that it is dull and stilted. Blight children’s prospects if you want, but please don’t do so by transmitting your own prejudices.

      (And as a tutor once said to me on my PGCE course, ‘It’s easy to spot the teachers who don’t want kids to learn things. They’re always the ones praising Piaget.’ I’m sure Gove has read Piaget, in order to make sure he improves the lives of children by doing the exact opposite.)

  6. Stephen there are a lot of incorrect assumptions in your comments. Those nursery children did not learn the skills they had through the methods illustrated. It is actually quite easy to be sure of this because in the whole exercise which would have taken all the time given over to literacy the children practised reading possibly 8 words maximum and individual children may not have done even that. The methods you assume are dull and stilted most certainly were being used with these children (and they won’t have found them dull) but Ofsted chose to highlight other practices which were peripheral to the progress they made. I agree that nursery age children don’t need to be taught to read but Ofsted is advocating these methods throughout KS1 as the other clips illustrate.

  7. Methods which mean children have little practice of what they are learning cause big inequalities in educational outcomes. In September my son’s reception teacher showed us a chart showing the different level in reading achieved by last year’s children set against how regularly their parents did their reading book. Unsurprisingly the stats made the point entirely clear to the parents in the meeting. If you want your child to make progress in reading you MUST do their reading book very regularly. This is in a school where either the teacher or a TA reads a few pages of his book with my son most days. In very many schools there is no individual book reading and many only do group reading once or twice a week (check out Mumsnet to confirm this). Now if in those schools the rest of the literacy time is spent tiptoeing round the playground reading the odd word (as advocated by Ofsted and widely practised) the children are utterly dependent on what the parents provide to make progress. The children in need of most individual support are almost by definition the ones that won’t receive it from their parents. All my own experience confirms this from 3 different schools. Even in my son’s very middle class infant school parents who begin reception saying that their child is only 4 and shouldn’t be made to read in the evening if tired etc are the same parents getting quite worried by the end of reception as their children end up on the bottom table for literacy and hasn’t really started reading. It isn’t nice for the child either as reading is very effortful for them as they are expected to do something incredibly hard.They have had very little chance to consolidate the foundations of letter sound recognition before being asked to read words as their parents didn’t conscientiously consolidate letter sound learning each evening. That Ofsted clip might show a cute activity and I am perfectly happy for my son to do said activity and it may consolidate recent learning BUT it is in no way best practice if you want to get children reading.

  8. http://debbiehepplewhite.com/?p=48 I agree with Elizabeth’s comments and if you glance at my blog posting regarding some of the phonics practice on the Ofsted videos, you will see that the DfE specifically warns about the ‘circuitous route’ in its ‘core criteria’ for phonics provision. Does Ofsted not know about, understand or agree with this DfE guidance or does Ofsted lack the phonics knowledge and expertise to distinguish between core, deep practice for each learner and pink and fluffy neither-here-nor-there activities?

    The irony is that playing with the parachute in the Reception class could have been a really exciting cooperative activity – but mixing with the phonics activity ruined the parachute game. How boring for the children to sit and wait patiently doing ‘not much’ in reality whilst the teacher called upon individuals to pick a toy in the centre – extremely circuitous! How much ‘progress’ did each child make in this activity – this is something that Ofsted is purportedly looking for during lesson observations is it not!!!

  9. Interesting reading – just wondered though…

    You say that handwriting is part of a well-structured phonics lesson. How so? As a pen retailer, obviously we consider this to be great news – but surely an understanding of the building blocks of sounds and words can just as easily be developed using a keyboard?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: