Monthly Archives: January 2021

***No. 2: Should governments produce educational PROGRAMMES or should they provide INFORMED GUIDANCE? What’s the difference?

This is the second post in a planned series of posts specifically linked to teaching the foundations of literacy and raising standards of literacy for all children.

I hope you’ve managed to read the first post to set the scene, clearly labelled No. 1.

In my first post, I introduced a little history about myself including my self-appointed role in the field of the foundations of literacy and the reading debate in England – particularly the need to challenge the National Literacy Strategy guidance with its flawed ‘Searchlights’ multi-cueing (word-guessing) reading strategies brought out by the, then, Labour Government in 1998.

The first post brings us up to 2006 when Sir Jim Rose produced his world-renowned report and the Government accepted his findings – thus replacing the ‘Searchlights’ with the ‘Simple View of Reading’ (Gough and Tunmer, 1986) and establishing the need for explicit ‘Systematic Synthetic Phonics’ provision for teaching reading and spelling as all children should be taught the alphabetic principle and not be left to “ferret it out” for themselves.

I compiled some particularly relevant extracts from Sir Jim’s Final Report.

I also made it clear in my first post that Minister Nick Gibb really championed the need for Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) provision through a cross-party approach. Indeed, it was not the Conservative Party that Nick belongs to but the Labour Party that was in power during the period of official inquiries and the acceptance of Sir Jim’s recommendations.

Unbeknown to me, governmental plans proceeded behind the scenes to provide all schools with ‘hard copies’ of a Systematic Synthetic Phonics publication entitled and known to this day as ‘Letters and Sounds’ (DfES) published on April 1, 2007. Was that date ironic (that is, ‘April Fools Day’) considering what happened next?

Bear in mind that the Government had already published numerous bodies of work with specific teaching and learning content and guidance under the National Literacy Strategy umbrella – therefore numerous ‘programmes’. Nation-wide training was also rolled out for the National Literacy Strategy. Without knowing the precise figure, a huge amount of public money was spent on these associated National Literacy Strategy ‘programmes’ and training. Shelves in schools were piled high with huge glossy NLS ring binders, box kits, CD ROMS, and mass national training of teachers required funding for mass supply-teacher cover, and salaries for the NLS trainers and managers. We had ‘Progression in Phonics’ superseded by ‘Playing with Sounds’, ‘Early Literacy Support’ for Year 1 intervention, ‘Further Literacy Support’ intervention for upper Key Stage 2 children – you get the picture. Then there were updates/re-writes to at least some of these ‘programmes’ or bodies of work. This list of NLS ‘programmes’ is not definitive.

Following the parliamentary inquiry and the Rose review, the National Literacy Strategy was discredited and eventually died a death.

I don’t deny the intention was good to publish ‘Letters and Sounds’ to promote the uptake of the systematic synthetic phonics teaching principles, I suggest the decision to provide a governmental PROGRAMME was totally wrong.

Could the promotion, knowledge and understanding of the systematic synthetic phonics teaching principles based on the Simple View of Reading (no multi-cueing word-guessing) and leading-edge classroom findings have been delivered through an official guidance document NOT in the guise of a programme? Absolutely. Would this have been the right thing to do? Absolutely.

Surely, the very first point of principle is whether governments should produce ‘programmes’ at all.

Had those in charge not learnt from the mistakes of the National Literacy Strategy roll out of programmes and their training – the huge cost of public funding, constant re-development of any official programmes that became outdated such as ‘Progression in Phonics’ followed by ‘Playing with Sounds’ and now followed by ‘Letters and Sounds’? Clearly not.

Did they not consider that an official SSP programme would undermine and compete with existing, commercial SSP programmes? Clearly not.

It seems that those behind the advent of Letters and Sounds believed that telling teachers they could choose commercial programmes or use in-house programmes would be sufficient for sensible choices. Clearly this was wishful thinking.

Was it not taken into account how many senior managers and teachers fear officials such as Ofsted inspectors with the adage of ‘what would Ofsted want to see‘? Thus ‘The Fear Factor’ is always in danger of skewing teachers’ choices of what they use/follow/do.

And what about the layer of advisors, consultants, local authority personnel, independent trainers and university lecturers all using their roles to influence teachers’ decisions to use the official Letters and Sounds programme? What a complicated state of affairs.

Then as the internet has increasingly become the go-to place for ready-made resources and phonics interactive games, who knows how many teachers, teacher by teacher, provide for their pupils by calling upon the internet freebies to ‘deliver’ Letters and Sounds. We now know this tendency is commonplace to ‘deliver’ Letters and Sounds. But does this lead to the highest quality, fit-for-purpose phonics provision?

Can those in authority address these issues? If all children are to be truly well-served, there needs to be a nation-wide reflection and official impetus for ‘continuing’ professional development on a national scale.

There are further issues to be taken into account:

Did this ‘Letters and Sounds’ (DfES, 2007) publication even qualify for the description of a ‘high quality…phonics programme’?

I wrote about this apparent failure to ‘evaluate’ Letters and Sounds transparently in two previous blog posts in 2013;

Part One

Part Two

Had Letters and Sounds been piloted in a number of schools using existing systematic synthetic phonics programmes available at that time as ‘controls’ such as the Jolly Phonics programme, Read Write Inc and Sound Discovery – all leading programmes known to the government even then?

Lord Jim Prior had supported the UK Reading Reform Foundation by asking a question in the House of Lords (see page 17 of the RRF newsletter) about the piloting of the National Literacy Strategy Early Literacy Support intervention programme for Year One children before its roll-out.

Back in 2007, and to this day, people comment amongst themselves that ‘Letters and Sounds is not a programme, it’s a framework’. Anyone with any amount of common sense could see that.

The fact that Letters and Sounds has continued, virtually unchallenged ‘as a programme’ is a classic case of the Naked Emperor theme is it not?

The advent of a government-generated ‘programme’ enabled many regional and independent literacy advisors and teacher-trainers to base their training provision on the Letters and Sounds guidance especially as it was ‘not commercial’. It became the basis of phonics teacher-training in universities then and now as it is the ‘official’, non-commercial SSP programme.

In reality, Letters and Sounds became the most adopted ‘programme’ in England – and it has had, and continues to have, a significant influence on adoption around the world arguably because of its official status rather than the support it actually provides teachers for teaching and learning provision. It is arguably not supportive of teaching and learning in that it has no supportive teaching and learning resources!

Now, you could say that Letters and Sounds raised awareness of the systematic synthetic phonics teaching principles which was certainly the good-intent of those behind it. Yes, it has established ‘Systematic Synthetic Phonics’ provision across England.

But you should also ask the question as to whether an official GUIDANCE publication, NOT in the guise of a programme, would have been equally effective for informing teachers and promoting the provision of Systematic Synthetic Phonics.

You should also ask the question as to whether a government’s phonics publication described as a ‘high quality phonics programme’ would, in effect, completely undermine and strongly compete with commercial phonics programmes – programmes much more suitable for supporting teachers and teaching children as they are equipped with teaching and learning resources.

Further, if a publication described as a ‘programme’ is not equipped with teaching or learning resources, and is incomplete and not properly tested, whether this will cause hardship for teachers and teaching assistants to equip the programme via their own auspices – school by school, and often teacher by teacher, and I have often observed teaching assistants left to translate and equip Letters and Sounds themselves.

Yes, it does cause hardship – sometimes untold and unrecognised hardship.

It results in lack of consistency from one teaching or supporting adult to another.

It leads to the adoption of a plethora of ‘free’ or ready-made resources from numerous other sources which are not necessarily sufficiently content-rich or fit-for-purpose for plenty of pupil practice.

Because it is ‘official’, it leads teachers to use various resources from commercial SSP programmes but not according to the ‘order’ of introducing the letter/s-sound correspondences or the specific ‘guidance’ of the commercial programme. It is common to see practices and resources in the same school where some teachers use some of Jolly Phonics or Read Write Inc resources such as, the Frieze, the flash cards, the mnemonic system (aids to memory), the letter formation – but laboriously sticking to the ‘order’ of introducing the letter/s-sound correspondences according to the order in Letters and Sounds and adopting the notion of ‘the phases’.

So, whilst it may seem very comforting to consider, as a nation, that thousands of schools are supported by Letters and Sounds and happily providing good quality phonics provision because of the ‘high quality six phase phonics programme’ they’re all identifying with – the reality is very, very different. The translation and equipping of a resource-less, incomplete ‘manual’ (if you like) is that the provision is often closer to what we might describe as ‘bespoke’.

There are patterns of provision. I’ve recognised these patterns from school to school and even class to class. I created a graphic in 2015 to illustrate the variation of phonics provision I observed first hand. I based the graphic on the Simple View of Reading diagram.

Also misleadingly, Letters and Sounds keeps being listed as a ‘DfE validated’ programme along with fully-equipped commercial SSP programmes that have been submitted for the DfE validation process (involving self-assessment according to a ‘core criteria’ and then officially scrutinised) introduced in England a decade ago – a process which has continued to name specific DfE-validated SSP programmes for the latest DfE ‘English Hubs’ initiative and a process that is now about to be re-opened.

As Susan Godsland and I predicted some years ago, national results in the statutory Year One phonics screening check (PSC) have stalled for several years at 82%. To be fair, there are Letters and Sounds schools that have excellent PSC results but remember that these are, in theory, and practice, ‘bespoke’ Letters and Sounds schools – so not necessarily easy to replicate without close scrutiny and a deeper understanding of their provision.

The reality is that phonics provision delivered with rigour, commitment, with plenty of time devoted to pupil practice, will get good results whether the guiding SSP programme would be recognised as a ‘quality’ programme or not. Equally, a ‘good’ SSP programme can be delivered without the rigour, commitment, neglecting to follow the guidance well enough or at all, and results are more likely to be less than they could be.

Generally-speaking, we have made extraordinary, world-leading strides in England over the past 15 years with regard to our understanding of research-informed reading instruction and phonics provision – but what next to raise standards?

Government-produced ‘programmes’ can be seen to skew teachers’ choices of programme simply because they carry the stamp of ‘officialdom’ and may even lead teachers to think they must be the best if published by their government’s Department for Education. They may certainly feel ‘safer’ to be seen to adopt the ‘official’ programme – even if they kind of know it isn’t a programme, but really a framework that they need to equip.

The Letters and Sounds (DfES, 2007) ‘programme’ is a case in point. Did it ever match up to fully-resourced SSP programmes available back in 2007? Could it even be defined as a programme at all?

Will Minister Nick Gibb and his DfE officials learn from the mistakes of the past – or repeat the same mistakes again?

Do investigate the full Phonics International programme which is now available for no charge.

***No. 1: What will Minister Nick Gibb and the Department for Education do next to further raise standards of literacy in England?

As I start to write this post, I hardly know where to begin. The ‘Naked Emperor‘ story theme could not be more apt for the information I am about to relay.

I think a little bit of my history is appropriate to try to set the scene as to who I am and what I do, and why I do what I do – and why I have decided to write a post to reflect on Minister Nick Gibb’s and the Department for Education’s plans for addressing standards of literacy further in England’s context.

I’m guilty of speaking in cliches and ideas all the time to put points across – and central to this is the language and points of principle of my upbringing including this guiding message from my mother:

‘To thine own self be true’

I am highlighting this guiding principle as I am now faced with a serious dilemma. We can do much better to raise standards in the foundations of literacy. For many years I’ve dedicated my life to informing others about research findings, and leading-edge classroom practice, for the teaching of reading. I’ve helped to raise awareness about the intense and protracted reading debate both in England’s context and internationally. I’ve worked with my husband, David, and others, to create content-rich phonics programmes to support training, teaching and learning in the field of foundational literacy. All these activities continue, but the national phonics progress in England has stalled and Minister Nick Gibb’s decision of how to address this is important to raise standards further for all children. Will Minister Nick Gibb listen to the collective group of stalwarts who have pioneered systematic synthetic phonics for the teaching of reading (and spelling) for decades – informed by the findings of research and leading-edge classroom practice?

People can decide for themselves what they think and perhaps, more importantly, what they choose to do in their schools but is it time for new and updated guidance to be provided for teachers, and others, to reflect on their provision?

How did I get into the reading debate and the field of foundational literacy and phonics in the first place as I really did not seek it?

My infant and primary teaching experience began a sustained journey of enquiry. As I had four children of my own, there were times when I taught in many different local schools over a number of years on a part-time and supply basis to fit in with my family life. Every school I worked in had caring, hard-working and competent staff – teachers and assistants. So how could it be that so many children languished in ‘special needs’ groups when they were so bright and sparky – nothing wrong with their general intelligence it seemed to me. Why did their behaviour change when they’d been interested, engaged and excited during the introduction of lessons, but when asked to put pencil to paper, boys kicked off and girls frantically sharpened pencils and worked hard at wasting time.

I did not believe that these children could not be taught to read and write. Some private tutoring also raised questions about this mysterious failure. How could such intelligent and often articulate children struggle so much with basic reading, spelling and writing? Starting off with asking them to write out the alphabet letters in order (however old they were) was an eye-opener – they couldn’t do this simple, basic task. What was going on!!!!

I deliberately headed for an infant teacher’s appointment to find out first-hand about the beginnings of teaching reading and writing – and that was when I started to learn about this approach we now refer to as ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ (SSP) and observed the consequences of ‘mixed methods’ and ‘whole language’ on five to seven years old who had not had the advantage of quality SSP provision.

As an experienced teacher, but novice infant teacher, my five to seven year olds made huge leaps in their literacy ability thanks to SSP and I had tangible evidence of this. At that time, England had statutory, national tests and assessments at the end of Y2. My Y2 pupils came top in reading and writing by far compared to others in my Local Authority. Bar charts provided to all schools by the Local Authority advisors demonstrated this – I had comparative evidence from a national objective assessment.

During my infant teaching years, the Government was rolling out at great expense, and with huge clout, the National Literacy Strategy (1998-2006). From my teaching experience, I recognised it as fundamentally flawed with its promotion of the NLS ‘Searchlights’ multi-cueing reading strategies at the core of its guidance. Readers of this post may be well-aware of this multi-cueing strategy approach: ‘Guess [the printed word] from the picture; guess from the initial letter or letters; read on, go back, what word would make sense?’ [a context cue]. The debate about these multi-cueing word-guessing strategies rages on to this day across the world in English-teaching contexts.

I questioned the guidance of the National Literacy Strategy from the get-go. I asked if there was any research to back up this approach. I wasn’t knowledgeable myself about research findings at that time, but I couldn’t believe that such flawed guidance had validity. After all, it was the very weakest readers in my class (inherited) who tried to guess unknown words from the pictures – and they invariably guessed words incorrectly and then looked up at me with their big eyes for guidance because they KNEW they weren’t guessing the right word more often than not!

I got into a lot of trouble locally over a number of years because I constantly raised my worries during local teacher-training for the National Literacy Strategy. It was not uncommon for two Local Authority advisors to arrive together at my school to take me to task (tell me off). We would now recognise this as bullying. I received a lot of this quite frankly, but that is by-the-by. I wrote copious letters to the Local Authority personnel and to various Government folk and to the leading inspectors of Ofsted.

I made connections with people in the field of phonics including co-authors Sue Lloyd and Sara Wernham, and Managing Director Chris Jolly, of the Jolly Phonics programme; and Educational Psychologist Dr Marlynne Grant, author of Sound Discovery; and Ruth Miskin who went on to create the Read Write Inc programme.

Founder of the UK Reading Reform Foundation, Mona McNee, kept appealing for someone to take over the organisation and write the RRF newsletters. My husband, David, eventually said to me, “It has to be you, Debbie” – so with no writing experience (and with a heavy heart), I became the RRF newsletter editor and started a plan to inform people, draw attention to the findings of research of teaching reading, and to hold the, then, Government to account for the National Literacy Strategy with its flawed multi-cueing ‘Searchlights’ reading strategies.

If of interest, you can see some of my early RRF newsletters and their challenge to the ‘Searchlights’.

And this is where Minister Nick Gibb steps into the backstory. I was invited to meet Nick in London and off I went with several copies of the RRF newsletter tucked under my arm. I told him all about the various schools, using various phonics programmes, who were getting such great results with no multi-cueing word-guessing. By now I had learnt about research findings – particularly from America – and the work of pioneers in America.

Nick listened and no doubt conducted further enquiries and met others who were achieving great things in their schools in England at that time. He worked really hard to keep this as a cross-party issue and enabled a House of Commons parliamentary enquiry into the teaching of reading in 2005. You can see that I was involved as a leading witness providing oral and written evidence for this enquiry in the report, Teaching Children to Read.

This was shortly followed by the Education Secretary commissioning Sir Jim Rose to conduct an independent inquiry culminating in his world-renowned Independent review of the early teaching of reading 2006. I had the honour of meeting with Sir Jim Rose to offer my experiences at that time.

The Government, and subsequent governments, accepted Sir Jim’s recommendations to replace the ‘Searchlights’ professional understanding of reading with the ‘Simple View of Reading‘ (Gough and Tunmer, 1986). This was an exceptionally important outcome and still is to this day. This was a turning point in England – although, tragically, not reflected in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Minister Nick Gibb has continued to champion the ‘Simple View of Reading’ and the need for Systematic Synthetic Phonics with no multi-cueing reading strategies. This has led to official guidance and literature for the National Curriculum for English for key stages 1 and 2, guidance for teaching and teacher-training, and various phonics-based initiatives such as ‘match-funding’ (2011 to 2013), a DfE validation process of SSP programmes which involves self-assessment then subsequent DfE scrutiny, the statutory end of Year 1 ‘phonics screening check’ (2012), ‘Phonics Roadshows’, and the latest ‘English Hubs initiative’.

In short, Minister Nick Gibb has truly been the political champion of Systematic Synthetic Phonics and the raising of standards for foundational literacy. Other politicians from different political parties were also supportive as individuals along the way, but it was Nick who pressed ahead and ensured the national promotion and uptake of research-informed systematic synthetic phonics.

But where next for phonics and the foundations of literacy in England? Is it time to reflect on a national scale and build on our findings to date?

This will be continued in the next post – No. 2…

Click here to investigate free access to the full Phonics International programme.

***I’m HORRIFIED that teachers of 4 and 5 year olds are teaching a form of print with a ‘lead-in’ join – please stick to simple print!!!

I’ve observed the rapid growth of teaching Reception and Year One children (the four and five year olds) a form of font which is neither a simple, sensible ‘print’ nor quality teaching of joined handwriting.

This is instead of teaching a simple print at first.

This really needs to be addressed nationally – I suggest it should STOP.

In my view, and experience, there is no rationale well-founded enough to warrant this practice. I urge everyone promoting this approach, and practising this approach, to please stop and reflect.

Let’s have the discussion.

The rapid growth and uptake of this practice warrants a truly national discussion to prevent a lot of unnecessary hardship for teachers and children themselves.

Some years ago, I was aware that some advisors in the field of ‘dyslexia’ would suggest that it is easier for children with dyslexic tendencies to learn to form letter shapes when every letter starts from exactly the same position – from the ‘writing line’.

[They argued, why not start as you mean to carry on? Why teach a handwriting style that later children will have to change?]

How many teachers when beginning to teach children how to form letter shapes with lead-in joins even use paper with lines?

If you look around, you will note many, many examples of adults themselves (in a teaching capacity) start this ‘lead-in’ join not from a writing line, but somewhat floating in the air – a sort of nebulous position on the board or paper (or in the sand-tray!) – and/or for their labelling round the classrooms and corridors.

Further, this lead-in join often takes the shape of a ski slope or a ‘hairstyle’ with a curvy flick to it. It’s all very haphazard. Try looking at these letter shape examples from the eyes of a child. How consistent are the adults writing this lead-in join? Is this top quality, consistent letter formation?

Then, again to my horror quite frankly, I note labels around virtually all schools using this approach that do not rationalise the joins from letters which, when properly joined, would end with a ‘washing line’ join to the following letter. Thus, the ‘following letter’ would not start from the line when the letters are finally joined in whole words. [The letters that end with ‘washing line’ joins and do not go back down to the writing line are: o, r, v, w, x]

In fact, these lead-in joins should simply NOT be taught as part of print letter shapes. They are JOINS – not letter shapes.

Then, when we teach our four and five year olds phonics and how to decode printed words, much, if not most, if not all print in early reading books is in a simple print font – not quasi joined letter shapes. The print fonts may vary slightly – and we do need to draw attention to this as part of our teaching – but we’re not asking children to write in the various print forms – just one consistent form for handwriting – and linked to the ‘sounds’ as part of the phonics provision.

Here is a resource that can support the teaching of different fonts.

The resource above is from this page of many free resources.

There are many critics of introducing phonics provision for our four year olds in England’s context. People often point out that in Europe and some other countries, ‘formal’ teaching of reading instruction may not start until children are six or seven years of age.

But surely all the more reason in England, and the UK, to introduce phonics with simple print letter shapes – including capital letter shapes (don’t avoid capital letters as they are code for the same sounds as their lower case equivalent letters).

At no point am I saying that teachers can’t teach joined writing successfully when they introduce the print-with-lead-in-joins approach from the outset. But so what? Is it really necessary? And when do the teachers teach print? Do these teachers think that children should not be writing in print when they are older – for example when labelling diagrams?

Shouldn’t all pupils be taught to write in PRINT as well as joined handwriting?

And do we really need to have a one or two-year ‘run in’ using these quasi joined writing letter shapes in order to teach fully joined handwriting well?

Absolutely not.

And do the children themselves need a long ‘run in’ before they can write in joined handwriting competently?

Absolutely not.

I’m going to find some examples of the flawed labelling in schools using this form of print with lead-in joins to illustrate what I mean. I’ve seen this flawed labelling in really good schools – schools that do get good results. I’ll add some screenshots to this post.

Do the ends justify the means in this case?

Again, I think not.

Our four and five years olds have enough to learn when it comes to reading and writing and spelling in the English language. The English alphabetic code is the most complex alphabetic code in the world. It takes years to teach it REALLY well for reading, writing and spelling.

Why make the process more complicated for our little learners than it needs to be?

When the time is right for teaching fully joined handwriting (certainly when ‘print’ is mastered well and around the beginning of Year 2 if the children are well-taught in foundational literacy), then here are some suggestions for teaching fully joined handwriting very quickly and very well – with lots of free alphabet and handwriting resources for support:

Debbie Hepplewhite’s Handwriting Site

And here is an article I’ve written about the teaching of handwriting.

There are plenty of resources featuring handwriting in our FREE Phonics International programme – and a superb tabletop Alphabet near the bottom of the Unit 1 webpage.

We also provide ready-made Alphabet and Alphabetic Code tabletop resources via our No Nonsense Phonics Skills site.

Update April 2021:

The Department for Education in England has just published new core criteria of ‘DfE Validation of Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) Programmes 2021’.

I am delighted to report the ‘Explanatory Notes’ included with the guidance mentions, at note 3, this issue of children being taught print with lead-in joins’. This is what it states:

3. At first, children should not be taught to join letters or to start every letter ‘on the line’ with a ‘lead-in’, because these practices cause unnecessary difficulty for beginners. Children may be taught to join digraphs, but this is optional. (All resources designed for children to read should be in print.)

At last!

I do hope that this message filters into schools and settings where our poor 4 to 6 year olds are being taught print with these unnecessary lead-in joins.

Further, Ofsted first mentioned this issue in the report known as ‘Bold Beginnings‘:

In January 2017, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI) commissioned an Ofsted-wide review of
the curriculum. Its aim was to provide fresh insight into leaders’ curriculum intentions, how these are implemented and the impact on outcomes for pupils. This report shines a spotlight on the Reception Year and the extent to which a school’s curriculum for four- and five-year-olds prepares them for the rest of their education and beyond.

See Page 23, para 59:

Headteachers in the schools visited agreed that children needed to be able to form all letters correctly and consistently before joined-up handwriting was considered. Nearly all were unanimous in their view that they did not teach a cursive or pre-cursive script in Reception. These headteachers believed that it slowed down children’s writing, at a point when they already found manual dexterity tricky and the muscles in their shoulders, arms and hands were still developing.

This illustrates that both the Department for Education and Ofsted have raised concerns about teaching beginners a form of letter shapes with the ‘lead-in’ joins. This would not be the case if there wasn’t good reason for this steer – it is such a specific message.

I go through some ‘pros and cons’ rationale for teaching a print font with lead-in joins in a recorded webinar which you can find at the bottom of this page;

Debbie Hepplewhite Handwriting

I am currently hearing from teachers and literacy advisers – some who describe how pleased they are to have had this steer to move early years teachers away from teaching the infamous ‘lead-in join’ instead of simple print – but also some who are dismayed that their senior managers are not paying regard to this steer from officials who are in the position of observing the bigger picture of teaching handwriting in our schools.

***Supporting teachers, learners and parents/carers with tangible, systematic, cumulative, content-rich, fit-for-purpose resources for home learning!

At the time of writing this post (January 2021), we are in the midst of a pandemic. The UK has gone into yet another ‘lockdown’ and many schools are closed or open only to the children of key workers and vulnerable children. Teachers are instructed to provide remote learning for children at home – as required.

An increasing number of phonics video lessons are being uploaded to youtube (or equivalent) for home-learning – but of those I have watched to date, I suggest they are often not sufficient for learning in the home to be as supportive and effective as it could be. I say this because children and their parents/carers need rich content on paper-based resources (ideally) or rich content on screen which can be copied on to paper, if necessary, for extra practice in the home.

Some background information to the development of Phonics International Limited providing free online informative resources, and high quality training, teaching and learning resources:

Back in 1998 when the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) was rolled out in a mighty way by the, then, Government in England, I felt duty-bound to challenge the ‘searchlights’ multi-cueing reading strategies orthodoxy that was at the heart of the NLS. These reading strategies largely amounted to word-guessing to lift the printed words off the page. Worryingly, looking at the pictures to guess the words or thinking ‘what would make sense’ were tendencies of the weakest readers in my class (children I had inherited who were trying to read books that they could not read). These children never guessed correctly which would skew the meaning of the sentence anyway! So from my teaching experience, I recognised that the multi-cueing reading strategies at the heart of the NLS were fundamentally flawed – and I went on to discover that there was plenty of research (mainly from America) to show this was indeed the case. My personal experience and learning about the research findings led me to challenge the NLS guidance in my local education authority and at a national level.

Eventually I was introduced to the UK Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) which is an organisation founded in 1989 to promote evidence-informed reading instruction including the need for systematic synthetic phonics provision with NO multi-cueing word-guessing. In 2001 I became the hard-copy newsletter editor of the RRF for a while and went on to inform the House of Commons parliamentary enquiry, ‘Teaching Children to Read‘ (2005) followed by Sir Jim Rose’s ‘Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading Final Report‘ (2006). Flawed teacher-training and flawed teaching strategies for teaching reading in the English language are international problems and we have benefitted from the research and work of others in several countries. There have also been national inquiries into the teaching of reading in America and Australia for example. In 2015, I went on to become a founding member of the ‘International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction‘ (IFERI) for which I contribute ongoing information via the ‘Forum‘ for anyone who has an interest in developments in reading instruction around the world.

The Government accepted the recommendations in Sir Jim Rose’s Final Report (2006) which included replacing the NLS ‘searchlights’ multi-cueing reading strategies with the ‘Simple View of Reading‘ model (Gough and Tunmer 1986) which features the two main processes required to be a reader in the full sense. Sir Jim also included the need for the alphabetic code (the letter/s-sound correspondences) and phonics skills (blending for reading and oral segmenting for spelling) to be taught systematically. It was most helpful that Sir Jim pointed out it was the ‘same‘ alphabetic code and phonics skills required by all learners regardless of their individuality. This addressed any criticism that ‘one size does not fit all’ and that ‘children learn in different ways’. These were significant changes in the approach to reading instruction – commonly described in England’s context as ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ (SSP) – changes which are now incorporated in the official guidance for teachers in England and in the 2019 Ofsted inspection handbook for the inspection of schools.

Years ago, it was my very supportive and technologically-knowledgeable husband, David, who pointed out that the internet enabled us to provide a website for the Reading Reform Foundation to inform people of the reading debate – and technology enabled us to provide printable informative resources readily accessible in the public domain. This began a new era of what is possible to provide for others! I was on my own professional learning journey as a teacher – finding out about phonics provision because teacher-training certainly hadn’t provided this; and learning how to use software programmes for creating resources and utilising the internet to communicate via online forums. And so it was David who persuaded me to apply myself to creating informative and supportive resources for other people as these could be provided ‘free’ or at very low cost via the internet. I went on to create a full phonics programme for all ages – the Phonics International programme (2007) – which is a truly comprehensive bank of printable and projectable resources enabling systematic and flexible use for mainstream and/or intervention. I was able to design, trial and continue to develop the resources in my own teaching work in early years and primary education. The annual licence for the full Phonics International programme is only £20 + VAT and it would serve every primary school and tutoring service well to support remote education and content-rich home learning for reading, spelling, handwriting, vocabulary enrichment, language comprehension and building up knowledge of spelling word banks.

Over time, in addition to the Phonics International programme’s resources, we went on to provide of a wide range of free printable Alphabetic Code Charts, free Alphabet and handwriting resources including video explanation, free CPD resources (Continuing Professional Development), a free online audio-visual Alphabetic Code Chart.

In 2010, I was invited to work with Oxford University Press and with an excellent dedicated team, we created a comprehensive, systematic synthetic phonics programme to update the Oxford Reading Tree scheme – Floppy’s Phonics. This is a programme for infants and is ideal for school-use. Like the Phonics International programme, it is designed to inform parents/carers every step of the way through paper-based core resources to be used in school and then immediately shared with ‘home’. Floppy’s Phonics also has online digital interactive resources accessible for use in the home (via the child’s school) – and the programme is designed to work in full partnership with parents/carers. The subscription for the Floppy’s Phonics digital platform is available direct from Oxford University Press.

Fundamental to the rationale of my programme and resource design is rich content at code level (letter/s-sound correspondences), word and text level, with ample fit-for-purpose activities, paper-based tangible resources belonging to each learner – thus putting the content and learning in the hands of the child and the home contextEXACTLY what is needed in times of national lockdown!!! In light of the coronavirus pandemic, we made further resources ‘free’ such as our series of 8 eBooks ‘Alphabetic Code and Phonics Skills’ which are compiled from Phonics International resources including those mentioned in the introductory video below featuring the ‘Early Years Starter Package‘ from the Phonics International suite of resources which is like a ‘programme within a programme’ provided as printable and projectable resources. A free pre-recorded training webinar and full course notes are available via the coronavirus page.

A short video describes the three core phonics routines and their sub-skills for decoding (reading), encoding (spelling) and handwriting using some core resources of the ‘Early Years Starter Package’ provided within the Phonics International programme and compiled in the series of 8 eBooks ‘Alphabetic Code and Phonics Skills’.

In 2015, David and I put together our Phonics Training Online course which has been well-received by people from all over the world who have undertaken this self-study course for their various roles and contexts. We found that many individuals were paying for the course out of their own pockets and so we made the decision to make the course ‘nearly free’ thus more affordable for the individual. We now offer a further 50% discount for universities and other teacher-training establishments booking the course for all their student-teachers (bulk booking) which amounts to £10+ VAT per student. Of course we always welcome feedback from course participants, some of which I add to the Phonics Training Online feedback forum. This course is highly practical, not at all difficult, and does not require a written submission to complete the course.

In 2017, we (Phonics International Limited) provided Raintree (publishers) a developed version of 9 hard copy, pick-up-and-go Pupil Books, parallel Teacher Books, mini Alphabetic Code Charts and printable/projectable resources via a USB stick. This series, branded ‘No Nonsense Phonics Skills‘ is of the suite of the Phonics International programme. No Nonsense Phonics Skills can stand alone as a complete, comprehensive systematic synthetic phonics programme in its own right and also complements the Phonics International body of work if teachers prefer ready-made Pupil Books and Teacher Books. We provide a full information and training page so teachers can evaluate the NNPS series including the rationale of its design and best-use.

The Floppy’s Phonics programme and Phonics International programme (including the No Nonsense Phonics Skills series as part of the suite of PI) are ‘validated’ by the Department for Education in England – as is our phonics training provision. This validation process first took place in 2012 for the DfE ‘phonics match-funded initiative’ and, at the time of writing this post, these programmes and associated training are currently validated and funded for the ‘English Hubs’ initiative in England.

The importance of relevant and rich content in the hands of the learner at home:

I shall be writing further posts to develop this theme of fit-for-purpose phonics and content-rich provision in the hands of the learner and family. Meanwhile, you might enjoy watching four year old Hope showing her Daddy how she can use the No Nonsense Phonics Skills books at home. Hope is using Pupil Book 2!