More than words can say


How synthetic phonics can help learners with SEN to overcome difficulties with reading

As a publisher of educational materials, I am lucky to work closely with SENCOs, teachers and researchers who share my enthusiasm for synthetic phonics. I see and hear, on an almost daily basis, the argument for using synthetic phonics programmes that provide a strategic and interactive course of study. However, it wasn’t always this way.

Prior to 2007, when it became an integral part of the National Curriculum, you had to be careful who you uttered the words “synthetic phonics” to because there was an emotional debate raging as to whether we were right to state that this was the best way to teach all our children to read and write.

There are still some who argue against phonics, although the phonics screening check undertaken last year in an attempt to monitor how children were progressing, suggested that children were showing improvement in reading and writing.   A good synthetic phonics programme can nurture key literacy skills by teaching children that words are made up from sounds. Children are taught the 42 letter sounds of English as well as being introduced to the alternative vowels and tricky words.  The word “synthetic” refers to the act of synthesising and blending letter sounds together to work out unknown words. In school, children are taught the letter sounds and are immediately encouraged to blend words using these sounds: for example, s-a-t (sat) or p-i-n (pin).

Literacy and SEN

The Rose report of 2006 acknowledged the importance of targeted interventions for pupils with significant literacy difficulties. In its wake, the Labour Government introduced the policy of Letters and Sounds, which placed synthetic phonics at the heart of teaching reading and writing in early years. Synthetic phonics was taken up by teachers and parents across the UK and implemented in schools.

There have been various studies, including a seven year study in Clackmannanshire carried out by Professor Johnston and Dr Watson which concluded that the use of synthetic phonics helped children to learn to read and spell faster than those not on the programme. In 1997, Marilynn Grant, a SENCO at a mainstream primary school, started to collaborate on developing a synthetic phonics system of teaching which aimed to improve the literacy standards of all pupils. The results showed a marked improvement in the reading skills of both mainstream pupils and those with SEN. Ms Grant said: “We did not think that these children needed a different form of teaching or programme, but rather that they needed a little bit more teaching a little more frequently.”

Multi-sensory learning helps pupils retain information.Recognising that there is a problem is the first step on the road to helping children who struggle to read and write. If you are teaching a whole-language approach, you may not recognise quickly that children are struggling, whereas if you are asking a child to do something specific with a synthetic phonics programme, it is more immediately apparent when there are problems.
When you find that children are struggling, it is important not to panic and throw lots of different strategies at the problem. Children who are having difficulties learning to read need more of the same; they need repetition. It is not a trendy concept, but repetition works. Children with SEN often have problems with short term memory, so dodging from one thing to another doesn’t help; it merely adds to the confusion and frustration.

Some children find it hard to grasp a new concept and it is often best to teach the letter sounds before sending children home with books. This approach often elicits strong feelings from the parents who want to see their children coming home with reading books. However, if you send a child with SEN home with a reading book, it can look too hard for him and you risk losing him. If you teach the child the sounds first, then give him the book, you may find that he is more successful at blending.

Multi-sensory learning

Memory is a huge problem for struggling readers and the act of reinforcing is the greatest tool we have when addressing SEN.

A multi-sensory approach really helps to reinforce a programme and makes the act of learning fun. Songs, activities, rhymes, dancing and colouring can all be harnessed as part of a multi-sensory approach.

If you have your small group listening, singing, doing actions with their fingers and sounding out the letters, then you have more opportunities to keep their attention. A teacher told me recently of a child with autism in her care who has problems engaging. She cannot get him to look at her but he responds very well to the laptop. In a group, he will wriggle and move around and won’t look at his teacher, but if he has control of the laptop, he will sit still and will sound out the letters and read. The laptop, for him, creates a non-threatening situation, and one he is enthusiastic to engage in. In the past, his teacher and parent may have been told that “he’ll never read”, but teachers now know that there are different tools – different methods that can be used to help engage children who aren’t engaged in a traditional “look and say” setting.

Teaching synthetic phonics at pace is also very important. With mainstream learners, I would usually advocate the one-letter-a-day strategy. However, if a child has not grasped the letter, there is no point carrying on blindly and hoping that things will fall into place. If you are leading a group of struggling readers, it is important to go at a pace that has meaning to them as individuals. You may need to slow it down from one letter a day, to three a week, but it is important to have pace in mind because if a child only knows five sounds, he can only read words with those five sounds; you need to find a pace that is worthwhile so that the children have access to reading books that are interesting to them. Pace is rewarding too. When the letters are learned at pace, the children begin to build confidence; they start to see their own progress and begin to believe that they can do this.

If children need extra help with reading, it makes sense to teach a programme systematically. You can then come back and revisit it when necessary and parents can reinforce it at home.

Continuous assessment of the pupils is essential in order to track their progress and to help move them into the appropriate group. Quite often, children with SEN are left with the teaching assistant (TA). Many TAs are brilliant, but it is essential that schools ensure that TAs are assessed properly to make sure that they understand the letter sounds themselves.

In my opinion, making synthetic phonics mandatory in 2007 wasn’t just a great step forward, it was a revolution. Prior to this, teachers and SENCOs were left to their own devices; many didn’t know which sounds to teach first, many were confused, some were scared to teach using synthetic phonics and others were overwhelmed by the task they faced. Six years on, we are beginning to see the difference we can make when we teach using a systematic approach. I hope that we can all continue to pool our resources, working with SENCOs, teachers and parents to further benefit children with SEN.

Phonics in action

By Adam Saye: Assistant Headteacher, Thomas Buxton Primary School, Tower Hamlets

When I joined the school two years ago, we didn’t have a phonics programme, so I introduced one in the nursery and reception. I split the classes into three groupings (high, middle and lower ability) and streamed the children according to their phonics ability. This provided the opportunity to work intensively at the particular group’s required pace.

In early years, we have a number of children on the SEN register; we have children with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia, as well as those with speech and language difficulties who receive help from a speech therapist. We also have a large number of children with English as an additional language (EAL). Children with EAL are not statemented but they do need help when they enter nursery. Typically, 95 per cent of our children enter nursery achieving below age-expected. We teach intensively using synthetic phonics and track the children twice a term. By the time children leave us to go into Year 1, 80 per cent are at age-expected levels and above.

We use a target tracker to track pupils every half term, so we’re very aware of the progress they’re making. Monitoring progress is a great way of recognising the children’s individual needs. If someone is making good progress in the lower group, then we move him up.

When I have a child with a statement, I know I need to make the phonics more interactive; in fact, I make it as interactive as possible. I use games such as What’s in the bag? I use a bag that contains objects, sing songs about the objects and ask what noises they make.

I sing a lot of songs with the children, as this makes things easier. The children may just think that you are singing them a song, but we sing particular songs with letters embedded in them. We always teach the songs first in nursery, then we introduce flash cards afterwards that correspond with the letters from the songs, and then we put the two together. We sing a song about ants, with the sound “a” emphasised within the song. Then, when the children see the “a/ant” flashcard, they already know the sound from the song. We’ll say: “We know a song about ants/a, don’t we?” and launch into the song. This enjoyable and repetitive way of learning really helps the children to remember their letters and sounds.

We send home a special book which contains the letters the children have learned that day. We include letter sound sheets within the book so that parents can go over what the children have learned that day. We also provide the curriculum map for parents so that they know what we’re doing that term. Revisiting what the children are doing is the best way to help them, especially for children with SEN.

Further information

Chris Jolly is the owner of Jolly Learning Ltd, producers of the Jolly Phonics series. Chris was at the forefront of the argument to include phonics in the National Curriculum. Today, he is heavily involved in providing phonics books, materials and training in developing countries:


Chris Jolly
Author: Chris Jolly

literacy/phonics Jolly Phonics

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