Focussing on phonics


Debbie Hepplewhite offers some practical ideas to support the evaluation of phonics provision in class

Do you have children who cannot keep up with learning the large number of letter(s)/sound correspondences of the alphabetic code and phonics skills as well as other children in the class? Is this just one or two individuals with very obvious learning difficulties or is this a significant number of children in your class? 

In this article, I will suggest ways in which you can evaluate your phonics provision, based on my observations in schools where staff are seeking to achieve greater consistency and continuity of phonics provision and higher literacy results.

When I meet teachers who are very enthusiastic about phonics and are clearly working very hard using materials and providing activities that are commonly used for young children’s phonics experience, it is very tempting to attribute the poorer progress of some of their children to issues relating to the specific child or their home environment. Of course, every class will include children with a variety of disadvantages of one kind or another. It doesn’t necessarily occur to these dedicated teachers that with a change of their provision, perhaps they could become more effective teachers with the same children. 

Thanks to the findings of the Year One Phonics Screening Check from 2012 to 2017, we know that there are schools in challenging circumstances in which virtually every Year 1 child reaches or exceeds the benchmark in the check – and this happens year after year with successive cohorts. Although the phonics check is a simple word-level check that remains controversial in some quarters, nevertheless, it is terrific for providing us with evidence about the notion of “teaching effectiveness” when it comes to phonics provision, and we need this for national understanding – our continuing professional development.

20 minute phonics sessions

Many teachers have been led to believe that their discrete phonics lesson should be around 20 minutes. Did you know that many phonics programme authors suggest at least 30 to 40 minutes? A longer timescale is far more realistic for quality delivery providing sufficient learning and application and following up on children’s individual needs – especially if attempting to deliver a complete “phonics teaching and learning cycle” for one new (or focus) letter(s)/sound correspondence within a lesson.

Classroom display

Nearly all classrooms are remarkably word-rich when it comes to wall display, but are your words printed in a clear, black font, without distractions of objects like teddy bears, trains and butterflies? Are they dangling in the air? Take a look at your walls from the perspective of a little child trying to learn a lot of letters, including links with sounds and letter formation and how letters sit on writing lines. Can the child clearly see tricky words for reading and spelling? Does the child get a notion of an alphabetic code, an alphabet, tricky words, spelling word banks of various spelling alternatives – clearly displayed and referred to routinely – to support teaching and learning? Have you thought carefully about which display material needs to be permanent, which added to cumulatively and which you need to quickly make as required? Do you have a good progression of purpose-designed information from Reception to Year 1 and Year 2? Do you have the same content-rich support material in all your break-out areas where intervention takes place (for example, the corridors, the hall, the IT suite and the staff room)? Is your teacher’s whiteboard clear and clean like a page, or do you have resources stuck all the way around it, and written on it, so that you have an odd shape in the middle to write on and you cannot model work on the board from top left, and in a way to demonstrate to children how they can write in their writing books? Do you and your colleagues write neatly with the school’s print-style for Reception children or do you confuse print letter formation by adding “leaders” from the line with future joined writing in mind?

The phonics teaching and learning cycle

Teachers everywhere are familiar with the notion of a teaching and learning cycle for their discrete phonics provision, starting with “revisit and review” past content, then a “teacher-led” introduction of the new (or focus) letter(s)/sound correspondence, followed by “pupil-practice” at code and word level activities – then “apply and extend” to cumulative sentences or texts. Seriously though, is it realistic to pack in all these steps in one lesson for children of differing learning capacities to learn effectively and then be ready to move on to a different letter(s)/sound correspondence the next day? This was never a realistic structure either to deliver well, or for all children to learn equally well, in the time frame of one discrete 20 minute lesson. It is important to realistically evaluate what you cover in one phonics lesson and reconsider your pace of introducing the code if necessary.

The maths of the phonics (tracking individuals)

Observe some phonics lessons across the school – whether they are organised as group work or whole class – and track some individuals with different learning profiles. Literally count how many letter(s)/sound correspondences they practise as individuals (that is, not just following the crowd calling out) from print-to-sound (a decoding sub-skill) and from sound-to-print (a spelling sub-skill); how many new printed words featuring the focus letter(s)/sound correspondence did each child get to sound out and blend independently (before it was modelled and not during modelling or collectively sounding out) and how many spoken words are provided for each child to spell with handwriting? Were printed sentences or texts without pictures provided to “apply and extend” the focus code for reading, spelling and writing activities? Do you support the children with their understanding of new words and texts through a vocabulary-enrichment and language comprehension component? This tracking process often shocks teachers because they discover that, for many if not all the children, there is very little by way of rich content and deep learning during a phonics lesson. Then, if this is a typical phonics lesson (which it often is), multiply that by lesson after lesson and week after week of “shallow” lessons. It’s not that children aren’t learning, or can’t learn, in a range of typical phonics lessons, it’s that they could be learning so much more with some changes.

Resources and activities

There are a range of typical resources and activities commonly associated with phonics provision such as use of interactive whiteboards, flash cards, manipulative games, and phonics mixed with sport, art, singing and IT games. I note, however, there is often a lack of permanent, tangible, paper-based resources belonging to each child with rich code, word and text level content. Could your aim to provide entertaining activities that are generally considered age-appropriate actually detract from, or dilute, focused, core learning?

Sir Jim Rose’s Independent review of the teaching of early reading (Final Report, 2006) is world renowned. Sir Jim noted in his report that multi-sensory activities enabled young children to access and enjoy explicit teaching of phonics but he also warned about extraneous activities. Many teachers’ provision borders on extraneous – that is, activities that are too far removed from effective and core teaching and learning, and activities that take up too much time for their relative gains. This state of affairs can be exacerbated by the prevailing ethos in the early years of child-initiated, play-based learning, and the notion of “developmental readiness” which can, inadvertently, disadvantage children with many challenges even further; this issue is at the heart of the Bold Beginnings Ofsted report that I featured in my article in the previous edition of this Magazine (SEN95, July/Aug 2018). In observing current practice, the “maths of the phonics provision” and “tracking individuals” will help to indicate whether children are getting sufficient content, practice and materials which “belong to them” so that they can independently revise them, and take them home to inform parents and carers as a minimum, and ideally to revise them at home too. This may well more than double the learning opportunities for some children. Flash cards are often unwieldy and in school, games and activities on the interactive whiteboard are switched off, cards and games get packed away, and mini whiteboards are wiped at the end of the session. So what is to show for the lesson? How can the teacher follow-up, particularly for slower-to-learn children? Too much of current phonics provision and too many phonics resources do not target and belong to the individual child for their self-assessment and ongoing formative assessment, and do not have a visual permanence – all of which would also enable them to gain that extra practice that can make the difference and tangibly raise standards and close the gaps so often worried about in the teaching profession.


Sir Jim Rose also pointed out the need for any intervention practices to be in line with mainstream provision. This can be achieved very readily indeed when each child has ownership of the phonics content from code to text level material, on paper, enabling extra little-and-often practice in the school and, ideally, at home.

Children who struggle to learn need the strongest routines and visual printed content, not a plethora of apparently “engaging” fun games and activities delivered by different adults. Are your weakest children with the greatest challenges sent to adults using different programmes and routines from the mainstream class? Imagine what it is like for those children; are they getting too much of a mix that is inconsistent and not what they really need? How responsible is the class teacher for the progress of those children and how aware is the teacher of what the children are doing with someone else?

Mindset – what do you believe?
I often have to spend some time persuading some teachers that it is not inappropriate for four- to six-year-olds to sit at desks to practise their handwriting, to write on paper with writing lines to guide them (position on a writing line is part of learning about the alphabet letter shapes), to experience their core phonics provision as paper-based activities that belong to them – that they can interact with as well as their teachers and that give them a true sense of their own learning and that they can include in their “book-bag routine” to inform and share with parents and carers. This is not “formal” provision, it is merely phonics provision in a very tangible, fit-for-purpose and accountable format, and – most importantly of all – a memorable format. Often teachers wax lyrical about how much their children love their routine activities – they are not bored and they make excellent progress. And this has surprised the teachers, as many advisors have led them to believe that this type of provision is not age-appropriate, when it clearly is judging by engagement, enjoyment and success.

By now, however, 12 years after the Rose Report and 11 years after the publication of Letters and Sounds, many schools are equipped with a plethora of games and activities – some free, some expensive and some taking considerable time to make – that I suggest do not need to go to waste. Teachers can provide them as “continuous provision”, “child-initiated activities”, “wet play games”, “games for home use” and so on. In other words, let’s consider them as enrichment activities to complement the core phonics provision. The core phonics provision should be a substantial body of work, much of which is available on paper to collate for the child’s benefit for practice and as a permanent and ongoing record.

Further information

Debbie Hepplewhite MBE campaigned over many years for national, evidence-based, systematic synthetic phonics teaching in primary schools. As a representative of the UK Reading Reform Foundation, she advised the Government for the parliamentary inquiry Teaching Children to Read (March 2005) and she helped to inform Sir Jim Rose’s’ Independent review of the teaching of early reading (2006). Debbie is the author of the Phonics International programme:

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