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Abigail Steel provides five steps to improve phonics inclusivity in mainstream classrooms

I was working with a mainstream school recently to review their phonics provision. One afternoon, I had a meeting with two teaching assistants (TAs) who were responsible for supporting individual Key Stage 2 children with SEN and also for running small intervention groups, mostly on the theme of phonics and basic literacy skills. 

The children in question were also withdrawn from lessons for half an hour each week to receive intervention support from a local authority service, delivering specialist intervention programmes tailored to their individual needs. 

The TAs explained to me the techniques and resources they were using to support the children. They felt anxious and unsure about whether their methods were “right” and whether the children’s progress was “good enough”.

On paper, everything that was in place for these children was great. They had caring, capable class teachers, received regular support from dedicated and competent TAs and participated in weekly intervention sessions delivered by outside specialists. But something niggled at those TAs. They weren’t ready to accept that the children’s apparent lack of progress and low self-esteem was simply “because of the children’s difficulties”. 

So we started looking in more depth at what the children could and couldn’t yet do, talking about them in a holistic, whole-child centred way, exploring their personalities, their classwork, and investigating what actually took place in the classroom, during TA intervention and during  LA intervention. What we discovered, in a nutshell, is that everybody’s finest attempts to provide the teaching the children needed were resulting in a fragmented and disjointed experience for the children.  

We concluded that a “joined-up thinking” approach might bridge the gaps. Here are the points we decided to address to make the children’s phonics provision more inclusive.

1) Think from the perspective of the child

A great starting point is to really imagine stepping into the shoes of a specific child. In your mind, take yourself through their day in detail. Reflect on each lesson or activity they will be participating in and question – what resources do they have to help them succeed? Ask yourself honestly how the experience of being withdrawn from class affects them – is it a welcome relief or does it disrupt the lesson they were enjoying? Ask yourself how the interventions they participate in differ from classroom teaching – do different methods and approaches offer an alternative way to access the learning or do they confuse and conflict? 

2) Address the perception of phonics as “baby stuff”

Phonics is not “baby stuff” and yet everywhere I go I still encounter teachers and children who think of phonics as something you do in the infants. Published phonics resources don’t often help this perception – many of them are designed specifically to appeal to younger children only. It’s really important that all children and teachers understand that the need for phonics knowledge and skills apply at any age.

In today’s classrooms, at Key Stage 2 and 3, the range of diversity and differentiation is vast and there are bound to be several children who need to develop their phonics knowledge and skills at multiple levels. If phonics is perceived as “babyish” by children and teachers, and resources are used that appear infantile, imagine how individual children’s self-esteem is destroyed before they’ve even got started.

3) Check that phonics teaching across the school is compatible

The systematic synthetic phonics endorsed by today’s curriculum is a different type of phonics from many older intervention programmes. Imagine how confusing it is for children if the phonics teaching they receive in the classroom is different from the phonics teaching they experience in an intervention group. 

Systematic synthetic phonics teaching involves breaking down the English Alphabetic Code into its smallest parts. It does not include the explicit teaching of onset and rhyme, nor consonant clusters or “chunks”. It might be that the individual child does need additional practise in using, for example, consonant clusters, and you therefore decide to use different materials but you should have an awareness of this and make it a conscious decision to use those particular resources.  

4) Consider the individual phonics resources available to the child

When children involved in intervention come back to the classroom, what resources do they bring with them? What can they see or use in the mainstream class that support their additional needs? Review your classroom displays and think about what children can see from their desks that support them. Think about the support resources that each child has available on their desk, in their tray, or in a box/folder that they can refer to during a lesson, and how these resources can be transferred for intervention sessions.

5) Understand how phonics breaks down into smaller sub-skills

Your own professional development and understanding of phonics plays a crucial part in being able to support and develop individual children’s phonic needs. The synthetic phonics teaching principles break down into much smaller sub-skills and recognising this can help to identify areas of strength, weakness and progress. A key question when working with children with SEN is: are they making progress? The progress may happen slowly, inconsistently and in much smaller steps than peers but by looking at phonics in smaller steps we can acknowledge these successes more confidently. 

Synthetic phonics sub-skills

For blending:

  • without print, be able to aurally discern the whole word when the adult says the separate sounds
  • with print, be able to see a letter or letter group and say the sound with the support of a mnemonic or prompt, such as a picture or action clue 
  • with print, be able to see a letter or letter group and say the sound as an automatic response without prompt
  • scan through a whole printed word and recognise any letter groups
  • say sounds for graphemes from left to right and “hear” the whole word
  • modify the pronunciation of the target word where necessary.

For segmenting:

  • the adult says the whole word and the child hears and says the individual sounds through the word
  • the adult says a sound and the child points to, or selects, the letter or letter groups on a poster or card
  • the adult says a sound and the child is able to write the letter shape/s.

Further information

Abigail Steel is an education consultant and writer. She trains teachers across the world in synthetic phonics and other literacy areas. She is also a mother of children with a range of SEN:
www.blackberryphonicstraining.com 

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