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The importance of phonics

Ofsted expects all primaries to have in place a programme of systematic synthetic phonics. John Viner outlines what schools need to know

The new phonics check (not reading test!) is a reminder that a programme of systematic synthetic phonics is an expectation of all schools. Such is the importance that Ofsted places on phonics that all inspectors are receiving intensive training in this method of teaching reading and writing and will have to pass an assessment before they can inspect in early years and primary settings.

Some school leaders may have missed the significance of phonics and may not be as inspection-ready as they think. For example, those of us who lead junior schools may consider that phonics is something for the infants. But it's not - there is a definite government expectation that the focus on phonics should continue throughout Key Stage 2 and beyond to Key Stage 3 for those pupils who need it. The key documents that lie beneath DfE thinking are Reading by Six: how the best schools do it, published in November 2010, and Removing Barriers to Literacy, published in January 2011.

Reading by Six

Reading by Six was based on a sample of 12 primary schools considered by Ofsted to be among the best in Britain. These schools are demonstrating a ‘determination that every child will learn to read, together with a very rigorous and sequential approach to developing speaking and listening and teaching reading, writing and spelling through systematic [synthetic] phonics'. Probably the most telling phrase in the whole report is, ‘if some schools can do this, it should be a moral imperative for all schools'.

Reading by Six emphasises the holistic approach to reading that is found in the best schools. In nurseries ‘there is a strong focus on developing the children's capacity to listen, concentrate and discriminate between sounds. In Key Stage 1, pupils are given time ‘to apply what they have learnt through reading... writing and comprehension'. And the strategy of reading to adults is reinforced. All children, says the report, should be reading at Level 1A/2C when they are six. Children not at this level should have ‘individual support which is carefully attuned to overcoming barriers to their phonological development'.

Removing Barriers to Literacy

Removing Barriers to Literacy is an important publication for understanding the expectations that have been placed on schools. Teasing out its key recommendations reveals that expected good practice for all primary schools would be:

  • a teacher charged with the responsibility of coordinating phonics teaching across the school; this teacher should be the ‘resident expert' in synthetic phonics
  • all classroom staff - teachers and teaching assistants (TAs) - to be trained in phonics ‘regularly'; what ‘regularly' means is not set down but it would seem sensible to have regular training with a rolling catch-up programme over a two-year cycle
  • testing of phonics that is diagnostic and therefore informs interventions.

Make no mistake, the synthetic phonics method is the golden calf in the reading process. We may understand that it would be peremptory to discard previous good practice because we know that dyslexic children need a whole-word (look-say) approach every bit as much as a segment-and-blend one, but we ignore the importance of phonics at our peril.

Pace and structure

The DfE has a real and determined expectation of pace to the way in which phonics are presented and learned. Reading by Six points out that ‘the best phonics teaching is characterised by planned structure, fast pace, praise and reinforcement... active participation... and evidence of progress'. The pace is set by the planned progression of the preferred scheme, Letters and Sounds.

  • Phase 1, which marks the beginning of segmenting and blending, provides a continuing foundation.
  • Phase 2, which introduces decoding and encoding as reversible processes, is designed to take just six weeks
  • Phase 3 (two-syllable words) is designed to take 12 weeks. Children should be firmly in Phase 3 by the end of Year R. 
  • Phase 4, which introduces polysyllabic words, and Phase 5, which introduces alternative graphemes for spelling and alternative pronunciations for reading, take pupils to the end of Year 1. 
  • Phase 6 is for pupils in Year 2 and beyond.

Schools that use other synthetic phonics schemes, such as Read Write Inc., would do well to match their delivery against the expectations of Letters and Sounds.

Beyond Year 2

It is Phase 6 that we are likely to have underestimated. When we say ‘Year 2 and beyond', that ‘beyond' means right through into Key Stage 3 for those students who need it. There is a document, published in 2009, called CLLD Phonics at Key Stage 2, which Key Stage 2 leaders ought to be aware of and using. This offers a set of materials designed to guide teachers and TAs in supporting those pupils who did not make the expected learning in Key Stage 1 and it would be sensible for Key Stage 2 colleagues to be aware of them.

Throughout the school, teachers and TAs should be using the proper language of phonics, so it is important that teachers in upper Key Stage 2 who think that we still speak of ‘onset and rime' (we don't!) get to grips with it. We should expect pupils coming into Key Stage 2 to have a well-developed phonics vocabulary.

The phonics check for Year 1 pupils will be introduced this year. It will be divided into two sections: graphic-phoneme correspondences (GPCs) with simple word structures and more complex word structures, including two-syllable words. It will be important that schools use the diagnosis it offers to devise interventions for the appropriate pupils in Year 2. However, schools should certainly ensure that they know the phonics abilities of pupils joining Year 3 so that they can target them with support that meets their needs. The Lancashire Grid for Learning offers a range of excellent support materials, including the documents mentioned in this article.

19 terms we should know and use with the pupils
 alphabetic code  phoneme  grapheme
 digraph  trigraph  split digraph
 vowel digraph  VC word  blend in order to read
 segment in order to spell  CCVC word  CVCC word
 GPC  encode  syllable
 cluster  homographs  ‘tricky' words
 fidelity