Phonics from Reception to Year 6

I was recently asked to deliver some training to colleagues from a range of schools on phonics. I’ve taught in KS1 for a long time and I’ve seen a range of programmes from Letters and Sounds to Read Write Inc to Jolly Phonics to Phonics International (my personal favourite). But what were the clear messages that I wanted to get across to my colleagues? What frustrates EYFS and KS1 members of staff about phonics? What frustrates KS2 members of staff about phonics. Rather than deliver a session going through key vocabulary and what an effective phonics lesson looks like (we did do this anyway), I wanted to focus on key messages and try to build a sense of community amongst the staff. Phonics has the ability to polarise people. There are many myths surrounding it and poor subject knowledge perpetuates this. So my key messages are:

1. ‘Phonics belongs to the school, not the talent of one teacher.’ Debbie Hepplewhite

We tend to put our strongest phonics teachers in Reception and Year 1. They know phonics inside out, they know how to use it to support independent reading and spelling. But this expertise needs to be shared across the school. There needs to be an agreement about what good phonics teaching is and all members of staff need to be on board with it and support it.

2. They passed the phonics screening test.

I hear this a lot from members of staff in Year 2 and beyond. It takes at least three years to master the English alphabetic code. That’s three years of consistent teaching and learning, and we know how life can get in the way of that. There are over 170 different graphemes in English. That’s an awful lot to learn, but it is possible with consistent teaching throughout the school.

3. Phonetically plausible spelling.

This is one of the main issues KS2 members of staff have with phonics. They make the link that teaching phonics leads to phonetically plausible spelling. It does, but you don’t have to accept it. Instead of accepting a spelling with the wrong graphemes, talk to the child about how to use an alphabetic code chart to select the right graphemes. This is a learning moment. If you accept phonetically plausible spellings then the child doesn’t know that they are wrong and this misconception becomes embedded. It’s far harder to rectify this years down the line, so have high standards and expect to discuss spelling every day with children. This myth is perpetuated by the meme ‘ghoti’ being a phonetically plausible spelling of ‘fish’ because the gh is from enough; the o is from women and the ti is from nation. This is an extreme example and any child that knows how to use an alphabetic code chart would know that this is not an accurate spelling.

4. Resources are too babyish to continue into KS2.

Phonics tends to stop in KS1 when puppets, sand and shaving foam are used exclusively in the teaching of phonics. Children know when they struggle with reading and writing; particularly in KS2 so the thought of being supported by using a puppet and sorting trash and treasure words is going to switch off any learner that sees this as babyish. Phonics is important business and a whole life skill. This is one of the reasons why I favour the Phonics International resources – they are appropriate for all ages and focus on dedicated independent practice.

This is also true of the term ‘multi-sensory’ as used in the Rose report. It wasn’t intended to mean using shaving foam and sand or taking part in activities that are in fact extraneous. It meant using auditory, visual and kinaesthetic approaches to teaching and learning in phonics. Hearing and saying the sound, recognising the sound, forming the letter shapes – this is the multi-sensory approach and therefore suitable for all age groups.

5. Phonics doesn’t work for some children.

If you feel that phonics isn’t working for the children in your school, it’s time to take a close look at the teaching and learning that is happening. It’s time to look at the program your school uses and truly evaluate it. Debbie Hepplewhite has lots of resources to support with this on the Phonics International website. A successful phonics programme needs to be well resourced (not a mismatch of resources), everyone needs to have the same high quality training and everyone needs to be committed.

6. Phonics only supports reading and my class need spelling support.

I think that it’s often forgotten that phonics supports reading and spelling – it’s a reversible skill. Again, accepting phonetically plausible spelling has an impact on spelling success later on so addressing this can have a huge impact. The code is so complex that it’s vital to continue with the systematic teaching of phonics throughout primary and into secondary.

7. Phonics is slow. My class need to know a particular phoneme-grapheme correspondence now.

It’s vital to use a two-pronged approach. The steady systematic pace where you plan to cover the alphabetic code in a logical order and then the incidental teaching where you teach in the moment as the need arises. I’ve seen teachers keep children in a group because they haven’t mastered SATPIN, but there’s a child that really wants to write about his new bike. He doesn’t know any of the code for ‘bike’ so he’s completely switched off from writing. Instead of disengaging this child, incidental teaching would have shown him the code for /b/ and opened up his whole world. It might have made the difference to him being engaged in writing. Incidental teaching is personalised and necessary for the child in that moment.

8. They’re making progress but they’re not catching up with their peers.

Grouping children by ability stifles their ability to catch up with their peers. Yes they make progress but so do their peers. Therefore the gap never closes. Whole class teaching is essential. Yes, there are those children that need additional support and will need to revisit what has been taught. But it is every child’s right to be exposed to the whole alphabetic code – as evident in the previous point.

My Top Tips

1. Make phonics a priority for the whole school.
2. Evaluate the current teaching and learning.
3. Invest in a program that meets the needs of all stakeholders.
4. Ensure phonics is taught whole class with additional support for those that need it.
5. Continue phonics throughout the whole school.
6. Stop accepting phonetically plausible spelling.

And finally, take a look at Debbie Hepplewhite’s Phonics International website. I use the resources every day and it has changed the way we approach phonics in our school.

*This blog post is not affiliated with Debbie Hepplewhite or Phonics International. It is recommending a resource that has been used in the writer’s school successfully.