Posts Tagged ‘phonics’


A Response about the Implementation of Phonics

April 7, 2013

I showed the email which featured in my last blogpost to another experienced primary teacher, one who I knew to be a vocal supporter of phonics. This is the response. Again, although the author has agreed to let me use it, it was not written as a blogpost or necessarily for publication, and any mistakes should be blamed on me, not the author.

Oh God, where to begin!

Letters and Sounds is just “guidance”. Where the flipping heck is the common sense of some headteachers?

I do have some sympathy with the writer if they were implementing Jolly Phonics well and then the school panicked and went OTT when Letters and Sounds came out. But come on, most schools said they did phonics but were mixing it with guessing and learning loads of sight words.

My school follows Ruth Miskin’s programme. The kids get 60 minutes every morning doing it and they are setted, but moved frequently if they put on a spurt of progress. Reception children start off with 30 minutes and build up as they can cope with more. We implemented this programme years ago before the government made it mandatory. We get 98% level 4 for reading, and tons at level 5, in KS2 SATs.

I agree that the phonics check is to force schools to teach phonics. It’s sad that they have to but they’ve had bloody long enough to get their fingers out voluntarily. Telling a child’s parents whether they passed or failed is not an issue; certainly 6 year olds can be labelled failures but only if all the adults involved are totally inept. It wasn’t an issue in my school. Any child that missed the pass mark is not SEN, they just hadn’t covered all the programme yet and will pass the resit in Y2.

There is a discussion to be had about setting. Jolly Phonics is a very good programme and doesn’t set, Ruth Miskin’s is equally good and does. A good focus for some research.

Letters and Sounds was designed to give schools that had no clue about phonics a free guide, an order to do things in. It’s not perfect. With the matched funding of up to £6,000 to buy in materials including complete schemes with detailed guidance, no school can have the excuse that they don’t know what to do. Some headteachers panicked; some delegated to staff who panicked. I guess the only thing you can’t legislate for is common sense.

And you do need to teach children more than one way to spell a sound ee y ea  and ay ai a-e. How else do you make sense of our spelling system?

Again there’s a debate about how many of these different ways need to be taught. Some programmes might go further than the Letters and Sounds higher phases. It is not an issue for the children if introduced logically as part of a systematic programme.

Ruth Miskin is the only literacy teaching we do in KS1 but we do do 30 minutes of guided reading every day too. Personally, I’d rather do whole class reading “for pleasure” (sorry) and practise letter formation with all students together, rather than a carousel of ” independent activities.”

But then I’m an unreconstructed sage on the stage.

I hope this helps.

At this point I’m just going to leave everything open for comments. I’d particularly like to hear from primary school teachers whose experiences match one of the two contributions or are entirely different. I might come back to this if anything interesting comes up in the comments. Thanks to both of the two contributors.



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.


A Very Short Summary of the Phonics Debate

April 7, 2013

I have a couple of contributions from primary school teachers about how phonics is being taught at the moment, which I will be sharing in two blogposts later today. However, it is probably worth giving a bit of background to phonics first. This is meant to be a quick summary, not a researched article, and I have neither tried to make it neutral, nor tried to include arguments for my opinions here. If this means the comments section turns into an argument about phonics, then so be it.

Although I think this is my first blogpost about phonics, I often end up sidetracked into discussions of phonics. This is not because of any direct professional involvement in early literacy but because of my interest in education research. In a discipline where there is hardly any good evidence of anything, this area stands out as having overwhelming evidence of a simple proposition: beginning readers learn best by learning phonics (i.e. through being taught the relationship between letter combinations and sounds). Additionally, the evidence that this should be taught systematically and deliberately is also overwhelming. The argument that the best way to do this is through what is known as “synthetic phonics” (a way of blending sounds together in order to form words) is also remarkably strong for education research (although it helps that once you have accepted that the systematic learning of phonics is the first priority there are not really any attractive alternatives).

Because the evidence in this area stands out in educational research (and, as far as I can tell, research in any area of social science) and yet phonics denialism is incredibly common among educationalists and teachers, it is hard to avoid discussing this area when discussing evidence-based practice. Anyone who opposes phonics will, if consistent, refuse to accept the validity of empirical education research in general. Anyone who claims to support evidence-based practice, but gives credence to phonics denialism, can be ignored as a charlatan. If you want to see how education as a field ignores inconvenient evidence, this is your best starting point.

If ignoring evidence wasn’t enough, this is also a field where you can study how pseudo-science works. Because the evidence is so clear the priority is always to muddy the water.  Phonics denialists will argue over definitions (even words such as “reading”) . They will claim that they hold some middle position which accepts the research but looks to combine it with other positions (phrases like “mixed methods” or “balanced literacy” are used). Methods that stand in contradiction to the evidence will be presented as a useful supplement to phonics (in much the same way as magical methods of healing were rebranded as “complementary medicine”). Conspiracy theories are presented as facts, the most common one at the moment is that companies that provide phonics resources are somehow behind the government’s support for phonics. Quotations are cherry-picked from research (and from sources that sound like research but aren’t) with even the slightest qualification being interpreted as grounds for rejecting the evidence. Even the theoretical possibility of phonics not working immediately with even one child will be given as a reason for using other methods. Denialists will always be bringing up their qualifications or their positions. Anyone who sticks with the evidence will be accused of being “ideological”. Anything that raises any doubt will be treated as firm evidence against the effectiveness of phonics. Really blatant lies are told, and they will even get printed in sympathetic academic journals. One day I will try to blog about this in detail but the sheer amount of research to be done to cover both the scale of the evidence for phonics and the extent and influence of denialism is astounding.

If you are interested in the battles over phonics, veterans of the battle, along with lots of good practice, can be found on the Reading Reform Foundation website. It is also worth looking at the information on

These battles have raged on in the US since at least the 50s and here since at least the 80s. They can easily be found elsewhere in the English-speaking world. As far as I can tell the usual pattern is a strong, ideologically-driven attempt to eliminate phonics completely, followed by a backlash, followed by a government report endorsing phonics, followed by attempts to rehabilitate denialism by stealth or by pushing for “mixed methods”. In this country, the government discovered the evidence for phonics around 2006. There then followed attempts to sneak in non-phonic methods through schemes such as “Reading Recovery”. Since 2010 the government have been advocating phonics very explicitly and have funded phonics-based schemes and introduced the phonics-screening check, a pass/fail test of phonetic decoding ability.

I would hope that this is enough background information for understanding the next two blogposts which will be appearing shortly.

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