How to make everyone a phonics expert

I saw this article on the TES website and it piqued my interest.

Effective teaching of reading and writing means effective phonics teaching. Indeed, phonics enthusiasts such as Debbie Hepplewhite have dedicated their careers to ensuring high quality phonics instruction is delivered in schools. In England, we are leading where others are following with regard to phonics instruction. Australia is currently launching a phonics drive with an assessment not too dissimilar from the phonics screening check.

From my own experience, I can see where this statistic comes from. In many schools I’ve worked in, phonics has been seen as the job of the EYFS and Year 1 teacher. As long as they pass the phonics screening, they don’t need to learn phonics anymore.

Phonics is the responsibility of every member of staff. Phonics goes far beyond Year 1; particularly in a language that has 44 phonemes represented by around 250 graphemes.

So how do you get every member of staff onboard with phonics instruction?

You need to support your colleagues to overcome the fear, uncertainty and doubt they have regarding phonics. This includes SLT. As a phonics leader, you need to be able to answer the following questions:

If you are clear on the answers to these questions, then you can convey your reasoning effectively.

Appeal to their frustrations. I know that the KS2 staff are frustrated because they don’t know how to support their weaker readers. They don’t know phonics (or are out of practise) and it’s an alien language to them. The key is to empower them. Break the vocabulary down for them without being patronising. It was new to you too once.

I’ve found that short, focused sessions have worked best with practical takeaways that can be used in classrooms straightaway. Suggesting that you will come and observe puts barriers up, but offering to work alongside and share the responsibility allows you to get into the classroom and tailor your coaching to support the teacher at the same time as supporting the child.

There will be experts in your school – use them.

Sometimes TAs can be overlooked but quite often they are fantastic phonics practitioners and can be used to support other members of staff.

I’ll post some follow up blogs around the implementation and monitoring of phonics alongside the resources I use.

But remember: phonics is not difficult. We expect 4 and 5 year olds to be able to do this – and they can.

3 Elements of Reading

When I joined the school, they were using a carousel or Daily 5 approach to reading that we are all familiar with. The teacher was reading with a group, the TA would hear individual children read and the other groups would be listening to reading, working on writing or word work. These independent groups were difficult to manage, particularly lower down the school, but the children working with an adult made progress. However, the teachers were finding this ever more difficult to manage and had become disaffected with the teaching of reading. There were murmurs of wanting whole class reading, but rather than jump in, I read as much as I could on blogs, in books and on Twitter. If we were going to break away from the Daily 5 set up, then I needed to ensure the following 3 elements were in place:

Everyone signed up to this new approach but we needed a framework for the whole class reading element. For this, I implemented elements from Jane Considine’s Book Talk.

Already in our school, we had stem sentences for maths, so it made sense to use stem sentences in our reading too. For those that don’t know, the Reading Rainbow has 3 layers with 9 lenses (or reasons to read) in each layer. Each lens has stem sentences to frame our talk about a text. We don’t follow the system religiously; we trialled and found out what works for us. Currently, we read a book (or part of a book) with the class; allowing the words to wash over the children as they hear a book read as it should be. We then pick a lens from each layer and use them to frame our discussions about the text. In each year group, it looks likes this:

The impact of this has been huge. Children are discussing books with their peers at much deeper levels than before. Reading comprehension sheets haven’t been seen. Teachers are engaged in the teaching of reading because they can focus on choosing good books rather than planning a carousel of activities. Speaking and listening has improved as the children are orally rehearsing all of the time. Something that I’m most proud of though is that in our reading journals, we have a detailed analysis of novels considering a range of lenses. Our children are more articulate than they once were.

I’m sure there are things to tweak and we still need to get the balance right with 1-1 reading, but using this approach has definitely improved our outcomes.

The importance of vocabulary

So I’ve read Alex Quigley’s ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’ and it makes for grim reading. There is a real case of word poverty linked to external factors that impacts on children’s learning. Put plainly, if they can’t understand what they’re hearing or reading, they can’t participate. As teachers, we choose high quality texts to improve vocabulary exposure, but if we don’t break down the meaning of the words it’s like inviting the children to a party and leaving them looking through the window. Understanding helps them get involved and apply their thinking.

Step forward the Vocabulary Ninja! I was lucky enough to receive a personalised copy of Andrew Jennings’ book about how to embed vocabulary teaching in all year groups and help to close the gap for the word poor children in our classes.

The book, along with the helpful resources on the website, explain that there’s two types of vocabulary teaching: explicit and in the moment. We already know this to be true of phonics teaching and the book explains how to maximise every moment of the day to deepen the vocabulary of the children (and probably ourselves too).

The Ninja knows that there is barely any time in the day to fit in vocabulary teacher, so his short, consistent approach can easily be slotted in to the day.

The website ( has free downloadable resources – including the word of the day resources – as well as topic and book related vocabulary packs to buy. I highly recommend buying the book because lots of the words lists are included.

You can follow the Vocabulary Ninja on Twitter and see examples of classroom practice. @VocabularyNinja

There are also apps to explore, which I will be doing shortly and feeding back soon!