It’s never too late for phonics

Teacher Showing Flash Cards To Elementary School Class

Sheila Mulvenney lays out the many advantages of teaching phonics at all stages of schooling.

However skilled we are as readers, even as adults we will occasionally find we have to rely on our phonic skills and knowledge to decode or encode a particularly unusual or unfamiliar word. In fact, we probably decode a large number of words, scanning the words with our eyes but at such speed we think we are reading the whole word. Thus, phonics remain essential to our literary experience throughout our lives.

In many schools phonics are taught, with varying degrees of expertise, fidelity and success, throughout key stage 1. However, as children progress through school the emphasis on phonic skills and knowledge reduces to the detriment of all learners but often with the most severe impact on those with special educational needs and disabilities. When dealing with spelling longer words teachers will often go back to the ‘look cover write check’ approach which encourages learners to rely on memory rather than the phonic skills they have spent previous years practicing. A foolish practice, and one which is unhelpful for many, particularly to those who need frequent rehearsal to embed learning.

A myth seems to perpetuate within schools that some children cannot read because they lack the cognitive skills to do so. Research suggests that this is only true in a very small number of cases. I have trained teachers and staff working with students with cognitive impairment. These students have successfully learned to read, although they need a slower pace, a structured systematic programme used by all staff and more opportunities for repetition.

Decades of research have shown that explicit phonics instruction benefits early readers, but particularly those who struggle to read. But despite a weight of evidence and government direction (see below) many have been resistant to ensuring teachers actually deliver effective, high quality systematic phonics, and are trained adequately to do this. An review of the primary curriculum by Education England notes that “Primary schools should continue to build on the commendable progress many have made in teaching decoding and encoding skills for reading and spelling through high quality, systematic phonic work, as advocated by the 2006 reading review as the prime approach for teaching beginner readers”

Sadly, not all do. Those who bear the brunt of this discrepancy and difference in early reading instruction are those students we might describe as vulnerable in some way, those with special educational needs or and disabilities (SEND), those who may be looked after, miss large amounts of school or have social, emotional, mental health or other issues which get in the way of their learning.

These struggling students progress into key stage 2, whatever their reading ability, where the number of teachers trained to deliver phonics reduces markedly. So, their struggle continues with a growing impact on learning in other areas and on their own self esteem. When students reach secondary school there are even fewer staff who have been trained in delivering phonics. Other aspects of literacy are also important but if a student cannot decode the sounds and corresponding letter in a word to read it and encode to spell or write it then every aspect of school life becomes increasingly difficult.

The attainment gap widens and while there may be a number of reasons for this, failure to teach students to read effectively (at whatever age and stage they need this instruction) is part of this picture. Many students will eventually come to the realisation that sounds are represented by letters, and they will often know that a sound may be represented by more than one letter. They may well establish there are different ways of spelling a particular sound, the /oe/ sound can be spelled <ow> as in tow or <oe> as in toe, plus many other ways. It’s the same sound but different spellings.

Similarly, one spelling can represent many different sounds <a> can represent /a/ in cat but /ae/ in paper and <ow> can represent /oe/ in tow or /ow/ in cow. It’s the same spelling but different sounds. However, not all students come to this conclusion independently, and it would be much easier if this was taught in a systematic way whenever they are able to access that learning by staff trained to deliver quality phonics instruction. As an 11 year old, who was failing to read and spell well at school despite obvious cognitive ability, said to me when I showed eight ways of spelling the sound /oe/ “Why on earth has no one told me this before?” I really wish I knew!

The purpose of systematic phonics is to provide a framework for teaching the 44 common sounds of our language, represented by the 26 letters of our alphabet either singly or as two, three or four letter combinations.

All children need to learn how to decode/encode simple words first to develop the skills they need of blending and segmenting. Then they need to be explicitly taught the way we represent our common spellings. When they come to longer, polysyllabic words, they need to keep practicing these skills adding in the additional element of breaking a word into syllables and then sounds.

The problem is that a huge number of teachers, even those in reception and key Stage 1 have not been trained to deliver phonics systematically and effectively. The students this disadvantages the most are those who already have challenges, yet so often they are the ones removed from class to work with someone with little relevant training to address one of the most fundamental areas of their learning and in fact wellbeing. Literacy is not just about accessing the curriculum, it is also about being able to fully access society and live a healthy fulfilling and long life. The answer is shockingly simple – ensure every adult who works in school, primary, secondary but also alternative provisions and specialist settings are trained to deliver high quality systematic phonics instruction. There will be a cost, but not a massive one; four days training can provide in- depth knowledge and practice but even one or two days would be useful. However, unless we ensure staff are trained and equipped the cost in terms of future employment, happiness, equity of society and personal happiness and fulfilment will be extremely high. If we continue to expect adults in schools to support our most vulnerable students with a fundamental area of learning without adequate training we are setting millions of already disadvantaged students up for further failure.


  • report.pdf
  • Trust_-_Literacy_and_life_expectancy_report.pdf
  • Trust_-_Literacy_and_life_expectancy_report.pdf
  • widens-disadvantaged-gcse-pupils-study

About the author
Sheila Mulvenney is an experienced English teacher and phonics trainer who worked in a variety of SEND settings and local authorities with vulnerable students. She is the author of ‘Overcoming Barriers to Learning’ and passionate about inclusion.

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