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.
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.