Is Phonics Being Implemented Correctly?

April 7, 2013

The following was sent to me by a primary teacher after some discussion of phonics on Twitter, with the suggestion that I should be turning my fire on how phonics is currently being implemented, particularly declaring war on the amount of content in “phase 5”. Although the author has agreed to let me use it, it was not written as a blogpost, or necessarily for publication. I, rather than the author, should be blamed for any errors that are in the text.

Hi Andrew,

This is my ‘phonics story’ and the reason why I have changed from being its greatest advocate into someone who activity dislikes it. This is not an argument against phonics but an argument about the way we have to teach it and the content we now have to cover.

When I started at my current school we were taught to teach children to read using ‘spotlights for reading.’ Phonics was one part of this but when I started at my school it was barely used. There was a document called Progression in Phonics (PIP) that was used to inform phonics teaching. I had come from a school that used Jolly Phonics and so I became the Phonics Coordinator and introduced it to my school. Jolly Phonics is a commercial company which works through the sounds in a specific order to allow children to read and write words very quickly. This, as you can imagine, is incredibly motivating for the children and they loved learning the stories that each sound was linked to. You would introduce each sound with a story, for example when you introduce ‘ar’ you make up a story about the boy going to the dentist who has to say ‘ar’ and you hold up the card at the right times for the children to read and say. Each sound had an action and there were simple songs/jingles for the children to learn to go with them. As you can already see, this was the perfect way to teach 4 year olds to read and write. Alongside this the children learnt ‘tricky words.’

When the children started Year 1 there was a book called Jolly Grammar 1. This book provided 1 spelling lesson (phonics) and one grammar lesson each week (see here). We introduced the spelling lesson at the start of the week and then spent 10 mins at the beginning of the other English lessons revising what we had learnt. The grammar lessons were quite detailed and by following Jolly Grammar 1 and 2 the children would be able to identify all words in a sentence (nouns, verbs etc.) and use a variety of punctuation.

This worked. This did not involve ability-setting the children though, of course, you differentiated if needed.

Our school timetable means that in the morning we have one hour before break and then one and a half hours afterwards. Previously, we used the extra 30 minutes in the morning to do something creative: we taught the children Ocarinas; did drawing skills; did silent reading or I read to them; did extra PE etc., and spellings of course.

Then the government introduced Letters and Sounds and with it came certain ‘truths’ that have destroyed phonics teaching.

1. That infant children need 30 minutes of discrete phonics teaching every day. This is in addition to the one hour of English they do. So 5-7 year olds have to do one and a half hours of English every day. They wonder why infant practitioners have a problem with this. I’d be interested in how long secondary school children are expected to concentrate for in English considering we expect that from our youngest pupils.

2. Children need to be in ability groups based upon the ‘Phase’ they are in. This part really annoys me. We don’t ability-set infant children for anything else for very obvious reasons. There is often a large movement in where the children start and finish the infants, in terms of ability groupings. Some children start school with a head start, and at the top of the class, because they have very supportive parents but then fail to match the pace of learning from other children. Some children are so immature that they don’t seem able to take on knowledge until the end of Year 1 and then they often accelerate through Year 2. However, we ability-set them for phonics. As soon as we set them the children have NO chance of ever changing phonics groups. I teach Phase 6 and I can’t have anyone start my group during the year because they would not have covered the content I’d taught earlier in the year. What actually happens is the children in the lowest groups never cover all the content needed and the gap gets wider and wider. In my class I currently have a gap of 2 years for phonics, this is not the same for any other subject. The children in the lower groups are not exposed to the same opportunities to learn as the other children so they can never catch up.

3. The phonics test. Let’s be honest. The phonics test is nothing more than the government forcing teachers to teach phonics. I’m assuming that you don’t think this is a bad thing, but I do. The test takes up so much teaching time. Reporting the results to parents in terms of ‘passing’ and ‘failing’ are cruel. I work in a leafy lane suburb, parents care about their child ‘passing’ and the children get upset about doing the tests. This is wrong.

4. There is too much content, especially in Phase 5. Young children do NOT need to know every way possible to spell the ‘ee’ sound. This is absurd and very confusing for the children. See this for a more detailed comparison. This is where I’d like you to start the war, on the premise that the content in Phase 5 is ridiculous.

I want the government to reduce the content and the time that we are ‘recommended’ to spend on phonics. I want them to get rid of the phonics test. I want ability-setting for 5-7 year olds to be entirely discredited. I want Letters and Sounds rewritten.

I have no doubt that you will disagree with much of this but this is why infant teachers hate teaching phonics. During the NUT Conference I heard from one infant teacher whose Head made her do double phonics every day, in addition to the hour for English. Soul destroying. Where is the ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum? In my opinion, making us do the phonics test and teach all of Letters and Sounds is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. My daughter has just started school and there is no doubt that she would not be able to read and write the way she does without phonics. Phase 3 phonics (Foundation stage) is excellent but after that it’s all downhill.

I look forward to hearing your views.


My personal view is that the evidence on phonics is so strong, and phonics denialism so common, that I have no problem with government promoting phonics in a heavy-handed way in principle. However, not being involved in early literacy, I am not really in a position to judge and have published this mainly so that I can see the debate and to see if other readers had encountered similar responses. My next blogpost will include a contribution from another primary teacher who I showed this to.  Anyone wishing to comment on this post, may wish to wait for that before responding, in order to avoid repetition.



  1. I train teachers to teach children to read using synthetic phonics. I am independent and provide generic training as well as training illustrated by specific programmes, including Letters and Sounds and Jolly Phonics.

    First, Letters and Sounds has never been compulsory.

    Jolly Phonics, mentioned by the teacher who wrote to you, is a super synthetic phonics programme for young children, and there was no need for the school to give it up when Letters and Sounds came along. This is from Letters and Sounds Notes of Guidance, p. 8: “… other programmes may cover the same phonic content in different ways as well as offering a wide range of teaching materials to support the programme … Settings and schools will wish to decide which programme to use, bearing in mind that the most important consideration is whether the programme meets the criteria of high quality phonic work.”

    Now Letters and Sounds has been archived and the government provides match-funding for commercial programmes it has assessed according to the DfE “Criteria for assuring quality phonic work”. I think they have done a good job with their selection, on the whole. However, Letters and Sounds is based on good synthetic phonics principles too and conforms to the criteria. I would be interested to hear where the “certain truths” mentioned come from – certainly not from Letters and Sounds guidance.

    I’ll go through some of the points raised by this teacher.

    1. “… infant children need 30 minutes of discrete phonics teaching every day.” No. Letters and Sounds Guidance is that phonic work “is best taught in short, discrete daily sessions, with ample opportunities for children to use and apply their phonic knowledge and skills throughout the day.” It doesn’t say anything about 30 minutes.

    “This is in addition to the one hour of English they do.” I suspect this comes from the old primary strategy, but that was archived about three years ago.

    “So 5-7 year olds have to do one and a half hours of English every day. ” There’s nothing to suggest this in Letters and Sounds. However, I think one and a half hours is about right as follows:

    1. 10 minutes to half an hour of a discrete phonics lesson
    2. Time throughout the day to practise and apply what has been taught, e.g., following up the lesson with independent work, reading books, handwriting, independent writing and extra phonics support for those who find it difficult to keep up.
    3. About half an hour throughout the day of English topics that don’t require reading or writing, to develop language and appreciation of literature when children can’t read or write much independently, e.g. listening to the teacher reading books, discussion, reciting poems and rhymes, talking about topics before independent writing, role play

    No other specific English is demanded or necessary. Of course, in addition it is important to develop children’s understanding of English and ability to express themselves in English across the curriculum.

    2. Children need to be in ability groups based upon the ‘Phase’ they are in. Absolutely not! The Phases of Letters and Sounds were never meant to be used to group children. They were meant simply as a sensible way of progressing. I am finding this misunderstanding is very wide-spread and I suspect it is due to wrong advice by school advisers. In many cases it is a disastrous way of differentiating as children who don’t pick up phonics easily end up in groups that get further and further behind. This is one important way the Year One Phonics Screening Check is helping. If children are kept in a “Phase 2-4 group”, they have no chance of succeeding in the check. The message is clear: Children who find phonics more difficult should be provided with extra help to make sure they keep up with the others and not put in a get-further-and-further-behind group.

    3. “The phonics test is nothing more than the government forcing teachers to teach phonics.” Well, I am sure this is right in a way, but it’s impossible to read above the level of a young child without phonics, although a small minority of children are able to pick it up without teaching and most can do this to some extent. But doesn’t every child have the right to be taught to read effectively? I understand teachers’ dislike of government interference in what they do, but I am convinced this check is doing good. Have a look at the Power Point I used when I spoke about it at the Education Show recently. http://www.nonweiler.demon.co.uk/Y1_Phonics_Check.pdf

    4. There is too much content, especially in Phase 5. I don’t agree. Young children do need to be able to pronounce words where the /ee/ sound is spelt in different ways, if they are to read a range of texts independently. Knowing which way to use to spell specific words takes longer; they can begin with the most common words and gradually learn which letters to use in specific words as they get older. This teacher liked Jolly Phonics. The timetable for teaching alternative spellings for /ee/ is faster in Jolly Phonics than in Letters and Sounds. In Jolly Phonics the common alternative spellings for vowel sounds are taught by the end of Reception. Then they are revised in Jolly Grammar, with more emphasis on getting the spelling right.

    It is very sad that this teacher has been put under so much pressure needlessly. The problems she faces are not due to Letters and Sounds nor the Year One Phonics Screening Check. They are because of misinformation and poor advice. There are many schools where children enjoy their phonics lessons and almost all of them sail through the Phonics Check.

    • I am a teacher from a leafy suburban school too! In all honestly our phonics provision before the government test was terrible.

      If anything this test (though i hate to admit it) is the best thing to happen to early reading for a long time. It focuses all teachers and in reality takes a morning to complete. Passing and failing is part of life and we shy away too much from it in schools. The cold reality is… either the schools teaching of phonics is not up to scratch or the child is not ready to move on. If the child is not ready this is picked up by the test and more intervention is used in year 2.

      Before these poor children would slip through the net and never get the phonics provision they needed.

      In years to come we will see a big difference in reading (especially for boys).

  2. When I was a child, dyslexia hadn’t yet been discovered. Phonics is not the enemy, although for me-they did or could not help. Thinking I couldn’t learn-was. You cannot repeatedly use the same techniques over-and-over again, but you must find repetition-somewhere.

    Take a simple sound and work on it, then complicate it, step-by-step. Build the student’s confidence. You must somehow prove to the pupil as well as yourself, that the student can perform difficult tasks!

    The worst thing a student can see is a page full of red ink, but do not lie to the pupil. Take five of his or her common spelling mistakes and make them work on it. Keep the work they have worked on then go for the next five, making sure that they are still working on new material. See if the new material has improved, have they learned from their spellings mistakes? If not I’m afraid they must keep going over them-repetition works! Never lose patients, always praise them. I hated to see my new teacher’s disappointed face, we had to build up trust, but that does not mean I should have been left, or given tasks I could easily do. I needed to be challenged! My worst enemy was not the teacher: it was giving up.

  3. I am an English teacher at secondary level, and I am well aware of the importance of phonics as one of a range of strategies which children use to decode a text. My own son who is in year 1, however, has been so battered with phonics every day at an ever increasing level of complexity, that he now tries to ‘sound out’ words he knew by sight before he started school, and thinks reading is a horrible chore. He feels like he ‘can’t do it’ as it’s too difficult to keep trying to remember all those diagraphs and trigraphs.
    My biggest problem is that he has gone from a confident little boy who loved books and was beginning to read with a little bit of simple phonics and look-and-say, to a boy who hates reading with a passion, feels like its ‘hard work’ and has actually unlearned some of what he started with.
    I am aware this is anecdotal evidence, and I also know the way the school approaches must be partly to blame, but I am sure I’m not the only one experiencing this. I am horrified at what the endless hammering home of phonics (to the exclusion of other reading strategies) has done to my son as a reader. It has put him off completely.

  4. As a parent of twins who have just completed their first half term of Year 1, this article worries me. My children are ahead with reading books, in the top four in the class, but I have just been told at parents’ evening that they are in the second from bottom group (out of four) for phonics. The higher ability groups go into Year 2 for phonics to learn at their level. The teacher told me the twins are secure with phase 3 of the Letters and Sounds programme, but my experience at home tells me that they are actually learning within phase 5. However they were born in the summer, they are quite immature compared to others, and quite frankly would be hesitant to sit down and write or might not complete work very quickly, and I think they lack confidence in written work after the unstructured environment of EYFS. Although I support them at home I have not pushed them because they are so tired after school that I let them do what they want to do, which is play, and we read every night and I also read to them. They were not given a head start like many children in their class were because my view was that they were not ready to learn to write, although we read a lot and they can read and recognise even some of the more complex phonics by sight. They can spell all of the 100 commonly used words effortlessly now. Their teacher told me that this is not enough and that they have to use the phase 5 phonics in words. They do attempt to spell words they don’t know using phonic sounds, but at school they are not showing this.
    I have been told they are very bright, but I fear that being in a lower ability set for phonics is going to prevent them from learning at the higher level this year, which I know they are capable of. I am now teaching them phase 5 myself at home, although I am not a teacher and I am not entirely sure that I am doing this right. It seems unfair that my children have not shown what they can do in initial assessments and as a result have been put into a low group which may hinder their progress long term. I believe that this is down to immaturity, and as all the children in the lower phonics groups in their class are summer born children, it may be the case for some of the others. There are three summer born children in the higher groups but I am aware that these were given a head start before reception and are strongly supported at home, doing extra work, pushed to get ahead etc.
    If anyone has any suggestions for teaching phase 5 or any other method at home or keeping my children up with the others I would really appreciate it.

    • Hi Lbzz99, Jolly Learning have an excellent kit for learning phonics at home, although some of it wil be too simple for your kids, however the Jolly Games Computer CD should provide some useful challenges. Give the Jolly Learning office a call and ask them what products might be most appropriate. There are several workbooks , and the advice in them is very straightforward and easy to use. You might also take a look at phonics international which has heaps of downloadable materials you can use. Good luck!

  5. It’s clear from the original post and some of the replies that phonics teaching remains a lottery. Some schools do it effectively and others, like those described, remain pretty clueless, so jump through nonexistent hoops of their own creation in an attempt to be seen to be teaching phonics. Poor subject knowledge is poor teaching.

  6. […] Is Phonics Being Implemented Correctly? […]

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