Learning to Read. Are UAE Schools Getting It Right?

Following criticism earlier this year regarding the dominant approach to teaching children to read in England's state schools, parents in the UAE have asked themselves: ‘Are our children receiving anything better?’
Learning to Read. Are UAE Schools Getting It Right?
By Susan Roberts
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Following the publication of a widely discussed “landmark study” from UCL’s Institute of Education earlier this year, which has sparked criticism of the way in which children are taught to read in England's state schools, many parents in the UAE have asked themselves: ‘are our children receiving anything better?’

We’ve called in experts from UAE schools to provide us with an insight on how the experience of our children in the UAE may differ to that of children in England in this regard. Bear with us on this one, parents, we may get a little jargon-y for a moment...

So what has sparked the criticism?

A UCL research report, published on 18 January 2022, concluded that a shift in approach to teaching children to read in England's state schools over the past 10 years, has not been positive. The study refers to the approach as ‘synthetic phonics first and foremost’ and attributes this change to governmental policy geared towards raising education standards, but concludes that the opposite has occurred. This is largely in reference to how teachers are using phonics in the broader task of teaching reading. 

But don't most UAE schools use phonics?

Yes, however this is not the full picture. To understand what we're looking at here, let's first go back to basics...

Most UAE parents of younger children will be familiar with the phonics method as part of early reading development. Schools in the UAE (and in the UK) generally use a synthetic phonics method, i.e. children are first taught the sounds that link to letters. They move on to sounding out the individual broken-up sounds in words and then blend them together to make whole words e.g. c-a-t.

So yes, UAE Schools are largely using phonics as an element of their reading approach. The important distinction here is that phonics, when used as one element in the multifaceted task of teaching children to read, is not under scrutiny. 

Why are schools in England being criticised for using this method? 

The criticism here is of phonics programmes (e.g. Read, Write Inc, Jolly Phonics) being used in isolation from, and at the expense of, other key areas of early reading development, that should be used in conjunction with a phonics programme for children developing skills for reading.

Peter Bonner, Primary Assistant Principal at GEMS World Academy, Dubai:

Phonics is not some sort of magic bullet that will address all aspects of reading instruction. Phonics instruction by itself is not enough, and some schools and educators can fall into the trap of buying an ‘off the shelf’ phonics programme without giving due consideration to all that reading encompasses.

Criticisms are largely around schools failing to provide context for children's reading development, approaching this as a 'de-coding' exercise rather than supporting an understanding of the meaning and use of reading materials, and failing to use engaging whole texts. Children are, in many cases, simply being taught to pass phonics tests, rather than building up the skills to master (and enjoy) the art of reading as a whole. 

As Melissa Phillips, Year 1 Teacher at The Arcadia School, Dubai, tells us:

"Words without context and meaning are like salt without pepper!"

Of course, it is not the case that a limiting and joyless (or pepper-less) approach is encouraged in schools in England, but rather that current government policy has resulted in educators feeling pressured into certain ways of teaching, resulting in this negative trend. There are indeed many high quality exceptions to this within England's schools, and likewise there are a great many schools in the UAE providing a well-rounded learning experience for our young readers. 

So, what approach are UAE primary schools using?

The good news is that UAE schools are not obligated by the sort of education policies that are held responsible for this tendency to surface in England's schools. The usual challenge here is that with the huge variety of schools we have in the UAE, there is bound to be a huge variance in approaches to teaching reading (as there is with almost all educational practices).

Engaging children in reading for enjoyment has been a clear priority in the UAE's government schools in recent years, as the Ministry of Education's 2020 Reading for Pleasure initiative demonstrated. Dubai-based children’s author, Ebtisam Al Beiti, whose children's book was used as part of this initiative, told us:

“We need to be mindful of how we provide opportunities for reading, the content on offer, and how we demonstrate a love of reading.”

And for many UAE private schools, having a balanced approach, that engages children, is clearly a priority. Melissa Phillips, Year 1 Teacher at The Arcadia School, Dubai, passionately provides us with a description of her own classroom:

"As a teacher, educating children, I provide a range of strategies to enable the children to become fluent readers, and develop comprehension skills. Knowing my children well and how they learn best, means I can provide personalised learning for all of them. I select texts based on topics that interest the children, I regularly write new words around my classroom, on the windows, the floor and the tables. Nowhere is out of bounds! The children are excited when they are surrounded in rich vocabulary, and are keen to show me and their peers their developing reading skills."

As we can see from what has been identified in schools in England, it is all too easy for teachers to go down a problematic path when faced with high-pressured testing and problematic directives. With this in mind, it is well worth exploring this topic with your child's school, to better understand the balance of methods being utilised, and the goals set for educators by school leaders.  

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