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Ofsted: Six key findings from its English subject report

Debating should be encouraged to boost pupils’ oracy and steps should be taken to ensure exam preparation does not “distort” the English curriculum, Ofsted has said.

The findings form part of the inspectorate’s latest subject report, which evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of how English is taught in schools across the country. 

The watchdog visited 50 schools in England to inform the report and said its evidence for early reading was from trips to 25 schools as part of “routine inspection activities”.

The teaching of reading has “improved markedly” but the curriculum for writing and spoken language is “less effective”, it concluded. 

Ofsted found external assessments “unhelpfully shape the curriculum”, while schools are “sometimes confused about the purposed of English”.

Sir Martyn Oliver, Ofsted’s chief inspector, said the focus on teaching phonics meant more pupils are “leaving primary school able to read”.

But “there is more work to be done to improve children’s writing and language comprehension.”

Sir Martyn Oliver

Here’s what you need to know…

1. ‘The teaching of reading has improved markedly’

Schools prioritise reading, ensure the curriculum develops this skill and have invested in phonics programmes and training so teachers can teach pupils to read, Ofsted found. 

They are “less clear about how to build fluency and comprehension” once pupils read accurately, and some secondaries don’t do enough to help “weaker readers catch up”.

Ofsted said schools should encourage pupils to read a wide range of books once they are fluent readers, to make it a habit. 

It recommended schools do more to “help pupils who enter key stages 2 or 3 unable to read fluently to catch up quickly” such as by filling “specific gaps” in phonics knowledge. 

In secondary schools, “staff who support the weakest readers” must know how to identify whether they need help with decoding or reading fluency, and act on it”.

2. The writing curriculum is ‘less effective’

The writing curriculum often introduces tricky tasks too soon and primary pupils are not given enough teaching and practice to become “fluent with transcription early enough”.

In primary schools, grammar, sentence structure and punctuation was taught “explicitly” but pupils did “not always get enough practice to secure this knowledge”. 

Most primaries visited did not give pupils “enough teaching and practice to gain high degrees of fluency in spelling and handwriting”. In many schools, pupils were “expected to carry out extended writing tasks before they have the required knowledge and skills”.

In some schools, “spelling needs are left for teachers to determine and address at an individual or class level. It is not uncommon to see the same inaccuracies repeated in books, including the basics, such as capital letters and full stops”.

Schools are “often unsure how to help pupils who arrive at secondary school unable to read and write fluently” and  “sometimes activities given to pupils mask, rather than address, skills they need to improve and practise”.

3. Pupils need support to ‘become competent speakers

Schools “often do not consider spoken language well in their English curriculum”, Ofsted said.

It found schools were “not always clear about how to teach the conventions of spoken language that enable pupils to speak competently in a range of contexts”.

Teachers often put a pupil’s weakness in speaking down to a “lack of confidence” instead of realising they have not been taught enough to “articulate worthwhile contributions”.

Ofsted recommended schools “make sure the national curriculum requirements for spoken language are translated into practice”, so “pupils learn how to become competent speakers”.

“This should include opportunities to teach the conventions of spoken language, for example how to present, to debate and to explain their thinking,” it said. 

4. English as a subject in its own right

English is “not always seen as a valued subject in its own right” and schools “sometimes focus on its supporting role”, leading to a “weaker and less coherent curriculum”. 

Ofsted said primary schools “too often” chose texts to study in English lessons based on their link to other curriculum areas, “rather than on how they might advance pupils’ knowledge of English language and understanding of literature”.

Despite schools allocating “significant time to the subject”, in some, “most commonly” in key stage 1, “this time is not always used productively” and “pupils carry out time-filling activities that lack purpose and do not help them to make progress in English”.

Ofsted said primary schools should choose texts for study in English “first and foremost on literary merit”.

5. Exams ‘unhelpfully shape the curriculum

Schools “expect pupils to repeatedly attempt complex tasks that replicate national curriculum tests and exams”, which comes “at the expense of first making sure that pupils are taught, and securely know, the underlying knowledge they need”.

In some schools, “completing national curriculum test and exam-style questions is the main, extremely limited, method of improving pupils’ reading fluency and comprehension”, Ofsted noted.

Ofsted found that, in some primary and secondary schools, preparation for external assessments distorted the curriculum.

For example, at key stage 3, schools often encourage excessive practice of a narrow range of writing structures to prepare pupils for GCSEs.”

Ofsted recommended schools “ensure that statutory tests and exams do not disproportionately influence decisions about curriculum and pedagogy”.

6. Teachers need ‘high-quality’ professional development

Some teachers have “a disjointed and narrow understanding of the subject” due to their CPD focusing “mainly on assessment and moderation practices”.

And “beyond phonics, there is little training for primary teachers to build their professional knowledge about English literature and language”.  

Schools should  also “ensure teachers have high-quality professional development in English literature and language with time to develop subject knowledge beyond exam specifications” and “understand what pupils need to learn to be successful in English and how to teach and assess this”.

They should also plan a reading curriculum that “does not limit them to responding to exam-style questions”.

The report follows Ofsted’s English research review published in 2022. 

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