Author Archives: Debbie

***No. 4: 10th July 2021 – a great day! The DfE and Minister Nick Gibb publish ‘The reading framework: teaching the foundations of literacy’

This is my personal opinion based on my personal experiences, observations and reflections …

At long last, the Department for Education (England) and Minister of State for School Standards, Nick Gibb, have published a substantial guidance document for the teaching of early reading and spelling/handwriting – launched on Saturday 10th July 2021. THIS IS A GREAT DAY!

The reading framework: teaching the foundations of literacy

Tragically, government officials don’t always get the guidance right. They don’t, arguably, always make the right decisions as to what to publish for teachers. And, of great concern, this important framework is not guidance that all the countries of the United Kingdom may take into account and adopt because ‘education’ is devolved in the UK. So the foundations of reading and spelling instruction for children – even in the UK – is still left to chance.

England has been on an incredible journey with regard to the teaching of reading. Successive governments have demonstrated really good intent – significantly from 1998 when the, then, National Literacy Strategy was launched by the Labour Government at huge expense and with much fanfare and teacher-training.

In 1998, the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) did include phonics teaching, but only as part of a mixed methods approach. Multi-cueing word-guessing dominated (guess the printed word you don’t know from the picture, initial letter/s, context cues, whole word shapes) and continued to be promoted as the ‘Searchlights’ reading strategies. Reading books for beginners were designed on the basis of predictable and/or repetitive texts so they were not actually ‘decodable’ for children even if they had been taught some phonics and were making good progress. Then teachers only had reading material that undermined the children’s capacity to decode because the printed words had many letter/s-sound correspondences that the children had not yet been taught.

At that time I was heavily subjected to the NLS initiative as a primary teacher – it was imposed on me. You had to attend the training and you were supposed to deliver literacy teaching according to the NLS. Although the NLS was not ‘statutory’, it may as well have been – such was the climate. Coincidentally, I had deliberately just moved into infant teaching to find out what on earth was going wrong. I was alarmed and perplexed that so many junior-aged children were floundering with the basics of reading and writing. Invariably, their home circumstances or their special needs were considered to be the cause, but I didn’t believe this was the case. In other words, I developed a deep concern and an interest in how reading and writing were taught in the infants – so I set out to be an infant teacher for a while to find out, first hand, all about the teaching of children at the beginning of their school journey.

When I attended various training events delivered by designated NLS advisors, my first thoughts were worries about the prescription of the timescales allotted to all the component parts of an hour’s literacy provision (15 minutes for this, 15 minutes for that and so on – how did this make sense when the powers that be don’t know your circumstances – your pupils, their needs, your teaching style, the challenges you face – this seemed so overly prescriptive to me). Again, this may have just been good intent so that children were guaranteed ‘the literacy hour‘ at least.

But what tipped me over into becoming a challenger of the guidance in the NLS was when the NLS advisors were ‘training’ us to tell children to ‘look at the picture to guess the word’. What?!! Really?!! That’s not reading, that’s pure guessing – and it was my weakest children who resorted to guessing printed words they didn’t know. And as they were slower-to-learn children (inherited from a mixed methods Reception experience), they invariably didn’t recognise many printed words in the first place. So, guess, guess, guess, the words they didn’t know. They really couldn’t read.

NOW BE MORE HORRIFIED: MULTI-CUEING WORD-GUESSING IS STILL THE BASIS OF MUCH GUIDANCE FROM OFFICIALS, TEACHER-TRAINERS AND INFLUENTIAL LITERACY PROGRAMMES PROMOTED BY BIG PUBLISHERS FOR READING INSTRUCTION IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE ACROSS THE WORLD! CHECK OUT THIS FORUM AT THE INTERNATIONAL FOUNDATION FOR EFFECTIVE READING INSTRUCTION.

As I investigated more about reading and spelling instruction, I began to discover that the findings of research (largely from the United States in the 1980s and 1990s) confirmed that multi-cueing word-guessing was not well-founded for teaching beginners – and for many children it could be positively detrimental for causing short and long-term bad reading habits (children’s reading profiles). I was supported in my day-to-day teaching practice and professional understanding by various resources from the following programmes Jolly Phonics (Sue Lloyd and Sara Wernham), Alpha to Omega (Beve Hornsby) and Spelling Made Easy (Violet Brand). My subsequent work has been underpinned by these ladies (and some others) and the work of various researchers internationally – many of whom went on to be pioneers for research-informed reading instruction.

Chris Jolly (Jolly Learning Ltd) connected me to Dr Marlynne Grant (Sound Discovery) and Marlynne connected me to founder of the UK Reading Reform Foundation, Mona McNee. Mona was looking to hand over the reins of the RRF and editorship of its newsletter. So, for a few years I edited the RRF newsletter which we were able to get direct into schools. We also launched a website with a message forum. And, fortuitously, Nick Gibb learned of the work of the RRF and invited me to meet him in London. Off I went with my first few RRF newsletters tucked under my arm to meet Nick. What a day that was!

Challenges from the Reading Reform Foundation and other people involved with reading instruction at that time (linked to research and practice and programmes) led to a DfES Phonics Seminar in 2003. I was invited to attend this seminar and I considered it to be a debacle quite frankly. I wrote about the event and the subsequent report by Professor Greg Brooks in RRF newsletter no. 51: In denial – the NLS whitewash continues

Nick Gibb, however, worked tirelessly (cross party) to champion a parliamentary inquiry Teaching Children to Read (2005) for which I was a witness and gave evidence to challenge the National Literacy Strategy and its ‘searchlights’ reading strategies. Closely following this event, Sir Jim Rose was invited to conduct an independent review and his subsequent report was profoundly important Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading (2006). Sir Jim Rose and his team of inspectors paid due regard not only to the research findings up to that date, but also to what they could see with their own eyes of actual provision in the classroom. This certainly persuaded Rose of the powerful impact of ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ (SSP) provision not only of one particular phonics programme but of various programmes based on the same basic teaching principles. Rose not only commented on the benefits of SSP, but also the helpfulness of the Simple View of Reading (Gough and Tunmer, 1986) which subsequently became the model of professional understanding in England of the two main processes of being a reader in the full sense – word recognition (capacity to lift the words off the page) and language comprehension (the capacity to understand the words that have been lifted off the page). This remains the case to this day in England, and you can see reference and diagrams of the Simple View of Reading (and its parallel rationale for writing) in the new framework launched today (10th July 2021).

I have provided a useful pdf for teachers – for their professional understanding and for use to reflect on actual children (especially if they struggle) of the Simple View of Reading and the Simple View of Writing.

Throughout these years of parliamentary inquiries and developments, I continued to be an infant teacher, then a primary headteacher, then a special needs teacher. This meant I was literally in the thick of teaching children who had already had mixed methods, then who had SSP from the start, then overseeing large-scale teaching failure (at least partially caused by flawed guidance) and what happens to children’s behaviour and self-esteem when they don’t have strong foundational literacy provision. When children get in a muddle and a mess, one could suggest it’s because their provision has been a muddle and a mess. And this can still be the case with strong, competent, dedicated teachers – doing the wrong things with the wrong emphasis and the wrong timing – and this may also be based on the wrong guidance. Of course sometimes teachers are not naturally competent or talented as teachers – so that is always a challenge even with good, supportive materials and guidance designed to achieve quality teaching and learning – and, thankfully, the new reading framework addresses the accountability of senior leaders and the responsibility of all stakeholders to get the best outcomes for children.

The new framework makes reference to other official guidance documents published in England which have incorporated the right kind of information and messages to the teaching profession and teacher-training profession for the past 14 years or so – for example, the 2013 National Curriculum for English for Key Stages 1 and 2, the new Early Years guidance, the 2019 Inspection Handbook for Ofsted inspectors. This illustrates how much of a journey England has travelled to highlight the importance of early language provision and a literature-rich experience, with systematic synthetic phonics provision (with no multi-cueing word-guessing), matched texts for reading and writing – and the benefits of programmes, training and continuous professional development (CPD). There are references to international studies and research findings, a hat tip to some individual international personalities and pioneers such as Maryanne Wolf, Diane McGuinness and the influential Clackmannanshire research of Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson.

Finally,

I suspect that this new framework might be the envy of many poineers for research-informed reading instruction in the English language ‘around the world’. It addresses so much – including issues such as assessment, special needs, choosing a phonics programme (reflecting that even with the same SSP teaching principles, there are differences amongst them), accountability, even how to develop conversations with little children in a practical way both in the classroom and that can be shared with parents.

It signifies the change of approach of governments providing actual ‘programmes’ to government providing ‘informed guidance’ – based on both research findings and classroom findings. Surely this is how it should be. I’m well-known for being critical of the Letters and Sounds (DfES, 2007) publication because I saw dangers and inadequacies of providing something from a government that purported to be a ‘high quality six phase phonics programme’ that I have always argued was not really a programme at all. In effect, it was a resourceless framework that led many thousands of schools to adopt it as it was both official and free – but what cost to equip it with teaching and learning resources – and what cost to those children in schools where teachers have not managed this well enough? But how many teachers’ choices were actually skewed simply because Letters and Sounds was the government programme and perceived to be ‘official’ and ‘safer to be seen to use’ rather than whether it was superior or more sensible to use to support teaching and learning?

In March 2021, the DfE announced that Letters and Sounds (DfES, 2007) would no longer be ‘validated’ by the DfE in its list of validated SSP programmes – acknowledging its lack of resources. Then the DfE decision to ‘revise’ and ‘equip’ the original Letters and Sounds was actually reversed. A new round of SSP programmes applying for DfE validation based on 16 core criteria was opened in June 2021.

And, today, the DfE has also published the list of newly validated SSP programmes (fully equipped this time) to add to the list of SSP programmes previously validated in 2012.

I’m not sure how others might regard the significance of these developments – perhaps not in the same light as me as this has, indeed, been a long and hard personal and professional journey – but I view the advent of this reading framework as a new era for reading and spelling instruction at least in England’s case – and I do wish for officials and people with influence in other countries teaching reading and writing in the English language to hurry up, take note, and even use Nick Gibb’s profoundly important, long-but-very-readable, very good, guidance framework!

***Update on the issue of whether or not to teach four and five year olds a form of print with lead-in joins – the DfE and Ofsted indicate ‘not’!

I wrote about this issue at some length via this blog, and I provided a live webinar which was recorded and is now available to view via my handwriting site.

My original post does not need repeating, but the news that now both Ofsted and the DfE in England have raised their worries and given a steer about this issue is circulating.

Interestingly, perhaps as one might expect, the wider response includes those who are jubilated about this (double) official steer, and those who are, quite frankly, intransigent and resisting it.

We’ll have to see how this develops in the longer run. Thankfully, in at least some schools, the policy of introducing print letters complete with ‘lead-in joins’ has now been reversed!

You can read the original post with all the links and references you need HERE.

***The impact of the Phonics International programme – guest post by Headteacher, Rachel Hornsey

The impact of the Phonics International programme by Rachel Hornsey – June 2021

Our school vision, which is a thread running throughout our curriculum, is: “We work to provide our children with strong foundations on which to build their lives through core values and the love of each other.” Every aspect of our planned curriculum and every resource we choose to implement in the school is seen through this test – is this resource the very best there is available for our children in our context to give them the strongest foundations for their learning? There can be no area in the primary curriculum more important than the establishment of firm foundations for early reading.

I have worked with the Phonics International programme in various different settings over the past twelve years. As an English consultant, leader in school, and for the past five years a headteacher of a school that has made huge strides with data, I can honestly say that there is no better programme available. Not only do I consider that Phonics International is the best, it is also the most cost effective option for schools as its set up costs are minimal. I have seen excellent results when it is used as it is designed in every setting I have worked in, and I continue to recommend it whenever I am asked for advice.

Why?

The guidance for staff is clear. Here is a health warning – it must be used in line with the guidance. The programme is incredibly carefully designed to include huge amounts of interleaving and retrieval practice as the children accumulate knowledge. That said, I have found the key routines to be simple to establish, easy for staff to understand and – providing a robust quality assurance process in in place and teachers are held to account for the way they use it – the teaching fits seamlessly into good practice throughout the primary school.

The pace of introduction can be planned simply as the Alphabetic Code Charts make the order for learning the sounds clear. We like the way that blending is given far more focus than in many other programmes – for example, right from the very start children are encouraged to blend up to five known letter-sound correspondences in printed words rather than just three as is common in most programmes. This has the double effect of forcing more frequent retrieval of sounds and also pushing children to desirable difficulty as they grapple with longer words.

Each letter-sound correspondence has clear teacher guidance for the teaching on the core ‘Sounds Book Activity Sheets’. We particularly like the fact that the resources are relatively plain and focus clearly on the concept of text on a page – there are no extraneous gimmicks and the routines quickly become embedded. After introduction of a new letter-sound correspondence, the key feature is the emphasis on independent practice. The ‘Sounds Book Activity Sheets’ are provided for each letter-sound correspondence which revise previously learned correspondences and the new code introduced in a series of words which also boost vocabulary. The routines ensure every child can practise sounding out and blending with appropriate resources and then move on to practise the skills of encoding and spelling. Handwriting is also practised. The children quickly understand what is expected of them and take responsibility for this, and teaching assistants can easily be skilled to work with the whole class or groups, as is best practice. There is also extended practice for children with huge amounts of cumulative decodable texts in the form of stories and sentences which are used alongside the practice sheets. All of these are printable as booklets and provide plenty of practice material, reducing the need for expensive resources that offer little additional learning benefit.

The organisation of the programme into 12 Units is crystal clear and logical from the start – for example, in the very first unit the children are introduced to the concept that two letters can represent one sound, with the grapheme ‘-ck’. As quickly as the second unit, children are introduced to the idea that one letter can represent more than one sound, such as the letter ‘o’ as the /u/ sound in love and Monday, and ‘-y’ as the /ee/ sound in Mummy and Daddy. Throughout the programme, the units are colour coded so the adult planning the learning can see exactly where each letter-sound correspondence falls in the sequence, and they can be sure that all resources in that unit will deliberately practice the retrieval of previously learned code.

Another massive bonus is that ‘tricky’ words are introduced systematically in line with the units, avoiding the confusion which is common still amongst some teachers and parents that ‘some words in English do not follow the rules.’

The other huge selling point of Phonics International is that it is a whole school programme. The routines establish the basics of effective reading and spelling teaching to the very highest level. For example, with our highest prior attainers, we are still getting value out of it in Year 6. The various sheets for the more complex code introduce wide vocabulary and provide much opportunity for the discussion of word roots and origins. By sticking to the same routines throughout school, we also continue to prepare children to continue learning new spelling and vocabulary as they move into Key Stage 3 – they will know how to split words into phonemes and identify the challenging parts, and they will be fearless to decode new vocabulary.

Catch up intervention is easily delivered as the routines can be used to establish short-burst sessions which are highly focused with minimal additional training required for staff to deliver them to a high standard. It is also simple to set up bespoke programmes where parents can become involved as well, using aspects such as the ‘My Words’ resource and the cumulative decodable (matched) texts to practise. For a minimal cost, work booklets which contain all the resources for intervention focused on a particular unit can be printed out. There are effective, focused assessments to track the letter-sound correspondences children know and the stage of blending they are at. Children can move seamlessly in and out of intervention as they need it throughout Key Stage 1 and 2 – often, for young children, external circumstances can make them fall behind for a short time and so it is vital that intervention is very flexible and can be tailored locally.

As part of a 3-18 Multi Academy Trust, I have also been working with secondary partners to establish best practice for students with low literacy levels in Key Stage 3 using Phonics International.

In my current school, we have taken the decision to delay the start of the programme until Year 1. Our focus in the Foundation Stage (which includes a Nursery class) is on building phonemic awareness, clarity of spoken delivery, and understanding the principles behind reading and writing. We have a high proportion of children who enter with low language levels and our catchment contains between 30-40% disadvantaged children. We use a variety of early language resources including Renfrew assessments to track progress. Phonics and Early Reading is delivered through Jolly Phonics, as we have found that this emphasises the clear pronunciation of the sound through the actions and stories that accompany the learning. Our Foundation Stage children make excellent progress from their starting points.

However, there are a wealth of resources within the Phonics International programme for anyone wishing to start in Reception which are especially designed for this age group, including in the ‘Early Years Starter Package’ which is like a programme-within-a-programme of the Phonics International range of resources.

As our children move into Year 1, we know them really well and are aware of any support they need to start the full Phonics International programme. For example, some children we have identified with poor short term memory benefit from pre-teaching and extra practice. As we start the programme, we encourage children to drop the actions they used in Early Years with Jolly Phonics and focus on the grapheme being the trigger for memory. By starting afresh in Year 1, we can link this development to children’s growing sense of their own maturity. We avoid picture cues from this stage. The routines from this stage are relatively formal and there is a high expectation in terms of the ownership children take of their own learning and their ability to manage the tasks independently. Armed with the knowledge we have about the children from their Foundation Stage Profiles, we are able to move at a rapid pace and keep the class together, including the lowest 20%.

Primary school data should always be viewed cautiously as we are usually talking about low numbers of children which can make statistical comparisons unhelpful However, at the last set of National Data in 2019, our results were as follows:

We track our most vulnerable learners carefully. For example, we can see that in 2019 at Key Stage 1, 63% of disadvantaged children made expected or above expected progress from Reception in reading, and 100% did so in writing.

We have continued to make progress despite the pandemic. The programme has been flexible enough to move easily online using recorded lessons, and parents were quick to support the routines with our youngest children. Whilst in school, the assessment materials and the way intervention can be arranged rapidly in a bespoke way without launching costly and time-consuming new programmes has meant we have been able to support children to catch up quickly. Using past assessment papers, we estimate that we will achieve the following attainment:

This data indicates we have seen almost no learning loss as a result of the disruption.

Summary

Our reading and writing curriculum is rooted in spoken language, vocabulary development, and a love of story and text. Phonics International provides the foundation on which the key element of decoding and encoding text is built.

There can be no doubt that Phonics International is a key programme in the delivery of our school vision to provide children with firm foundations for learning and life for the following reasons:

• Exceptionally clear structure
• A wealth of resources
• Clear routines for staff and children
• Mastery approaches embedded
• Agile intervention
• The basis for a reading and spelling strategy for aged 4+ to adult
(suitable for use in 3-18 MATs)
• High quality online training
• Exceptionally cost effective

Rachel Hornsey
Headteacher
Sutton Courtenay Church of England Primary School
Bradstocks Way
Sutton Courtenay
Abingdon
Oxfordshire
OX14 4DA

Tel: 01235 848 333

***Contact details of some people and schools using – Phonics International, No Nonsense Phonics (Raintree) or Floppy’s Phonics (Oxford University Press) or a combination in some cases!

I’m frequently asked if I can provide the name and contact details of people in schools that are using one (or more) of my systematic synthetic phonics programmes. It may seem strange to refer to using ‘one or more’ of my programmes but all my systematic bodies of work are underpinned by the same rationale, and my recommended teaching and learning ethos. You can hear something about my particular approach via this video discussion with Carl Pattison, Early Reading Lead for the Flying High Trust:

Debbie Hepplewhite and Carl Pattison talk about rich systematic synthetic phonics practice

Some of the testimonials and findings below are from people who have more recently adopted one or more of my phonics programmes, and some are from people who have used my programmes and approach sustained over a number of years. I suggest that hearing from people in different contexts contributes to the bigger picture of informing teachers’ choices for adopting new programmes in their schools.

Floppy’s Phonics (published by Oxford University Press) is designed specifically as an infant programme. The body of work in Phonics International, however, is designed to start from infants (age 4+) but to extend throughout primary (ages 7 to 11) and some secondary schools use Phonics International in the lower years and/or for intervention purposes. Some schools using Floppy’s Phonics in the infants continue with Phonics International in primary with perhaps two lessons per week (Y3/4) or one lesson per week (Y5/6) as required and preferred. Phonics International contributes to children’s spelling, knowledge of spelling word banks, and guards against word-guessing and word-skipping as children get older.

The No Nonsense Phonics (Skills) resources are published collaboratively by Raintree and Phonics International Ltd. These have been developed from the original Phonics International programme but in hard-copy ready-made resources. No Nonsense Phonics starts from age 4+ designed for Reception, Year 1 and Year 2. Some schools use the No Nonsense Phonics Skills Pupil Books in Y3/4 for intervention purposes too – possibly alongside utilising some of the additional Phonics International resources which are complementary (the full Phonics International programme, including the ‘Early Years Starter Package’, is completely FREE – which means you can review it transparently). The No Nonsense Phonics range of resources are so explicit, comprehensive and easy to ‘pick-up-and-go’ that, on request, we have now made the series of 9 Pupil Books available as single copies for use by parents, carers and tutors in the home.

No Nonsense Phonics

Phonics International

Floppy’s Phonics (Oxford University Press)

When asked about ‘nursery’ phonics provision, I suggest that practitioners (and parents or carers) for children aged 3 to 4 (or older EAL children internationally) might also be interested in two bodies of work designed specifically for this age range along with the ethos of ‘experience, exposure but no expectation‘ for learning alphabet letter shapes (lower case and capitals), their associated first sounds, and the full range of phonics skills and their sub-skills. These nursery resources are also FREE. You can visit the site below for more information:

‘Phonics and Talk Time’ and ‘Teeny Reading Seeds’

HOT OFF THE PRESS NEWS: I have been working with a company to create Wand Phonics. This is an online digital interactive body of work with audio throughout which will complement both No Nonsense Phonics and Phonics International. This is a very exciting development as it will provide huge support for new teachers, teachers in contexts of teaching English as an additional language, and for supporting understanding, practice, self-assessment and supplementary teaching direct in the home. Wand Phonics is at the trial stage with the intention of submitting the programme for DfE validation in October 2021.

FURTHER NEWS: Phonics International Ltd is also in the process of publishing a range of cumulative, decodable ‘reading books’ in the order of letter/s-sound correspondences introduced in the No Nonsense Phonics programme and the first half of the Phonics International programme. Bear in mind that an extensive range of ‘plain, cumulative sentences and texts’ [‘MATCHED TEXTS’] are provided already in these programmes for every letter/s-sound correspondence introduced – and these involve not only ‘reading’ but also the full range of phonics skills and sub-skills for writing, spelling, vocabulary enrichment and language comprehension, and building up knowledge of spelling word banks! Wand Phonics also includes 200+ ‘matched texts’ for reading (with the option of audio) throughout the programme.

Suggestions for using ‘books’ to complement Phonics International and No Nonsense Phonics

TESTIMONIALS AND FINDINGS

Carl Pattison writes about his interest in No Nonsense Phonics and Phonics International:

I became interested in Debbie’s programmes in 2020. Having observed numerous phonics lessons, in a range of schools, I wanted to increase my knowledge of phonics programmes as I felt it would enable me to help schools make informed decisions about a change of Systematic Synthetic Phonics programme. NNPS and PI are clearly comprehensive approaches and they both have the capacity to really challenge and support children’s early literacy. In my Academy Trust role, I support schools to implement the No Nonsense Phonics Skills materials and Phonics International resources, as they offer a rigorous and challenging approach to foundational literacy. Early evidence suggests that both bodies of work will have a significant impact in schools and I am privileged to support this journey across a range of schools within our trust.
Carl Pattison
Flying High Trust Early Reading Lead
cpattison@flyinghightrust.co.uk

Gavin Morris, English and Curriculum Lead, is currently leading the adoption of No Nonsense Phonics and Phonics International at Poolsbrook Primary Academy.

We recently adopted No Nonsense Phonics in January 2021 and supplemented this with the resources from Phonics International following close partnership development work with our local English Hub. As a school we had identified that the teaching of phonics using Letters and Sounds had become fragmented and wasn’t providing the children with suitable challenge or academic progress. We adopted NNP and PI for a number of reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, they provided low threat but high rewards for all children. Upon first using the materials it became apparent how much harder the children were working in their phonic lessons – and they loved it! Secondly, we were interested in adopting a systematic synthetic phonics programme which supported children’s early reading but also developed handwriting and spelling – the approach of NNP certainly addresses all of these areas. Finally, for teaching staff, NNP and PI has provided everything they need to deliver high quality and consistent phonic lessons across EYFS and KS1, from textbooks, wall friezes, flash cards and display materials which are used across school to create consistent learning environments and provide support for children’s reading and spelling across the curriculum. KS2 staff have begun to adopt the PI resources as a scheme to support interventions for identified children and for whole class spellings. We have found both NNP and PI easy to pick up and use and a valuable resource during the recent lockdown where staff could easily record teaching videos for the children to access their textbooks at home. Debbie provided three amazing webinars for all staff when we were first adopting her materials and the training ensured all staff had the knowledge, skills and enthusiasm to begin delivering high quality lessons. Since adopting NNP and PI we have seen a significant increase in our children’s phonic scores, moving from 50% passing the PSC in 2019 to now having 89% on track to pass this year. We have also seen a significant increase in many children’s reading ages with an average progress of 5 months in the first 6 weeks of using the programme due to the children reading more quality decodable texts daily. We are thrilled to have worked so closely with Debbie to implement NNP and PI in our school and we know we are now providing the very best early reading teaching for our children.
Gavin Morris
English and Curriculum Lead
Poolsbrook Primary Academy,
Chesterfield
S43 3LF
Gmorris@poolsbrook.Derbyshire.sch.uk

Rachel Field, Headteacher, promotes the use of No Nonsense Phonics at Ashfield Infant and Nursery School:

We are a larger than average Infant and Nursery School and in 2016 began using No Nonsense Phonics initially to support small groups of children requiring additional help in Year 1. I was immediately impressed by the high quality of the resources, and the progress that the children made, which led us to trial the scheme with a whole class in Year 1. Until this point we were a Letters & Sounds school for many years, yet as a new Head I felt that despite good teaching across the school, both phonics delivery and children’s progress were not consistent.
The class teacher trialling the NNP scheme with the whole class became so passionate about the advantages of the NNP scheme that as an SLT we decided to move away from Letters & Sounds altogether. At the start of 2017 we welcomed Debbie into our school to train our staff. The training was both inspirational and transformational. Teachers who felt uncertain about such a change of direction and approach in phonics teaching began to feel empowered and enthused.
A highly skilled and experienced EYFS teacher told me she had ‘fallen in love with phonics teaching again’ after working with Debbie and seeing what it can achieve for children. Our phonics screening check results rose from 78% in 2017 to 94% in 2018.
NNP incorporates not only a systematic approach to teaching phonics that is consistent, precise and effective but it is ambitious in terms of the richness of the language. Our curriculum is inspired by high quality texts and reading for pleasure, and NNP encourages children’s curiosity about new vocabulary. We very soon began to see the impact not only in terms of pupil outcomes in reading and phonics but also improvements in letter formation and the quality of children’s narrative writing.
Our children love their phonics lessons – when asked what they enjoy learning about in Reception and Year 1, ‘phonics’ is the most common response! In terms of day to day teaching, the routines are quickly and easily established and children respond incredibly well to the structure and familiarity of the programme. The visual resources available to support delivery are high quality and appealing, and particularly effective for visual learners. It is also highly inclusive, as children work through the programme as a whole class. The booklets give status to the children’s work, encouraging pride in their achievements and our phonics sessions create happy, motivated and confident learners.
No Nonsense Phonics has transformed the way we teach phonics, and last year we worked hard to align our book band scheme to the programme. I would recommend the scheme wholeheartedly, and visiting colleagues who see the scheme in action have invariably begun their own NNP journey too.
Rachel Field
Headteacher
Ashfield Infant and Nursery School
Newlands Lane
Workington
Cumbria
CA14 3JG
01900 606 30

Liz Day, Senior Leader, describes responses to the use of No Nonsense Phonics in the first two years of adoption at Trefonen CE Primary School:

We have been using No Nonsense Phonics for two years and absolutely love them. The materials are a fantastic, easy to use resource for both adults and children alike. The children thoroughly enjoy using the books and look forward to their daily phonics lesson with great anticipation. We particularly like the focus not only on the sounds but on the handwriting and it has had a dramatic impact on the progress that the children have made this year. The books are easy to follow and are clearly set out. The children’s confidence has soared using No Nonsense Phonics and this can be seen in both their reading and writing.
Liz Day
Senior Leader
Trefonen CE Primary School
School Lane
Trefonen
Oswestry
SY10 9DY
01691 652 960

Sally Hunt, Headteacher of Berry Hill Primary School describes the use of No Nonsense Phonics Skills for intervention.

The No Nonsense Phonics Skills booklets are being used as a really effective phonics intervention with children that are finding it a challenge to develop confidence with phonics for reading and writing. We particularly like the structure to the text, with reading passages of text integral to develop phonemic knowledge, and children really love the bright layout of the booklets. As learning is systematic, it’s also an effective scheme for children to take home to extend their learning.
Sally Hunt
Headteacher
Berry Hill Primary School
Nine Wells Road
Berry Hill
Coleford
GL16 7AT
Tel: 01594 832262

Louisa Mees, Deputy Headteacher, is leading the adoption of Floppy’s Phonics followed by Phonics International at Robin Hood Primary School.

Before the pandemic hit, the English team had identified that the phonics provision across school needed improving. As a school, we were following the DfE’s Letters and Sounds programme using another scheme but how it was being used and delivered was inconsistent. As a school we also wanted to ensure phonics provision continued in KS2. I spent time researching into different phonics schemes and started this journey by referring to the validated list of phonics programmes by the government and instantly liked the process and resources of Floppy Phonics. Alongside this, I came across Debbie Hepplewhite’s detailed Phonics Training Online self-study course and as a school we paid for all staff (Teachers and Teaching Assistants) to do this training. I also reached out to Debbie through Twitter. Debbie has been nothing but supportive and passionate about supporting our school in improving its phonics provision. We have already had great success using the Floppy Phonics programme (this began in September 2020) with children making huge progress in their phonics and even with a global pandemic, over 84% of Year 2 children passed the Phonics Screening Check in December 2020 (both above the National and Local Average score) from using the Floppy Phonics scheme twice a day. We are now working closely with Debbie to implement the Phonics International scheme in KS2 to continue to support children with their phonics, but mainly being used with a spelling focus.
Louisa Mees
Deputy Headteacher
Robin Hood Primary School
Leeds Road
Wakefield
WF3 3BG
0113 282 3444

Jemma Calverly, Assistant Headteacher, is leading phonics provision with Phonics International at the Trumpington Foundation.

Phonics International has provided our children with a rigorous programme and depth of phonetic knowledge which has empowered the children to learn to read and write. It was back in 2017 when our new head teacher introduced Phonics International to the staff as she had successfully used it at a previous school. Debbie’s thorough training has taken place in person, via video conference (long before Covid) and supportive emails and telephone conversations where needed. The resources are comprehensive and easy to use. Teachers engage with the programme, track progress and use the resources to support the needs of individual learners. Parents have positively welcomed the phonics folder moving between home and school daily so that they can engage and support their own child with their learning. Teachers confidently deliver Phonics International giving all the children at the federation a consistent approach in learning phonics.
Jemma Calverly
Assistant Headteacher
The Trumpington Federation
Fawcett Primary School
Alpha Terrace
Trumpington
Cambridge
CB2 9FS

Experience of Assistant Principal, Georgina Rawling, of the self-study Phonics Training Online course and use of the Phonics International programme in different settings:

After taking on the leadership of phonics, I wanted to brush up on my subject knowledge so that I could support my team and ensure the children were receiving high quality phonics instructions. I came across Debbie’s Phonics Training Online and took the online course, which I highly recommend. I was engrossed in what I was learning and this led me to explore the Phonics International program.

Everything just made so much sense. The resources are easily accessible and easy to follow. When I first started trialling the program, the children found the sheets quite demanding. However they quickly got into the routine and their stamina for reading and writing grew. The children were used to reading banks of words everyday, so when it came to the phonics screening check in Year 1, they were no longer fazed by reading the 40 words. The variety of words on the sheets also enables the class to have rich discussions about vocabulary and then apply this in their writing across the curriculum.

I’ve always been concerned about what happens to those children in KS2 that haven’t yet got a secure understanding of phonics, or explored the complex phoneme-grapheme correspondences. The beauty of the Phonics International resources is that they aren’t babyish. There’s no puppets or rhymes, just the serious business of teaching children the code they need to read and write. This means that the children in KS2 aren’t disengaged by the resources. They enjoy the familiarity of the session and continuing to build their knowledge of the alphabetic code.

From a leadership point of view, the biggest challenge was encouraging KS2 staff to continue with phonics. Once they were onboard and understood that it’s impossible to expect seven year olds to have mastered the English alphabetic code, they began to notice the impact on spelling. We ditched the weekly spelling test that had no impact beyond the test and continued looking at GPCs and teaching the children how to use the alphabetic code charts to select the correct grapheme for their spelling. This trickled down into KS1 and we stopped accepting phonetically plausible spelling; improving spelling across the entire school.

From a finance point of view, it’s impossible to put a price on ensuring our children are confident readers and writers. However, Phonics International is so cost effective. I’ve introduced it in two schools and the impact has been phenomenal with above national average phonics scores, but more importantly, confident readers and writers in EYFS, KS1 and beyond.

I highly recommend any of Debbie’s programmes and frequently talk about them on Twitter and on my blog. Feel free to reach out @biscuit_crumbs and ask any questions.

Sam Bailey, Executive Principal of five primary schools in Yorkshire, writes about her experience with Floppy’s Phonics followed by use of Phonics International in KS2:

Having first encountered Floppy’s Phonics in 2011, I have placed my complete faith in the programme for over a decade and in my roles as both Headteacher and Executive Principal I have now introduced the programme in seven different schools. Whilst these schools have all had different contextual challenges and various starting points in terms of both pupil attainment and the level of staff subject knowledge, they have all benefited from the body of work that is condensed into the programme. Floppy’s Phonics is readily accessible to all staff members and I have consistently been able to ensure entire staff teams are quickly enabled to become expert in this critical area, are able to lead their teaching confidently and who have each secured rapid improvements in phonics and reading attainment in their schools. In 2014, having taken on Headship in a school with critically low phonics attainment in KS1 and pupils in years 4 and 5 who had yet to secure a pass mark in the Y1 Phonics Screening Check, I also implemented Phonics International throughout KS2 and have found the programme to have similar impact on staff subject knowledge and attainment in KS2 reading and writing. Through their daily practice, pupils become fluent and expressive readers and accurate and systematic spellers, leading to some staggering improvements in Y6 outcomes (rising from 9% to 80% combined within three years in one context). Our KS2 pupils who have received high quality phonics tuition from EYFS through to UKS2 evidence the impact of a consistent approach which has been enabled by Debbie’s work: I cannot advocate enough for schools to adopt an approach to reading and spelling which is truly ‘phonics first’.
Sam Bailey
Executive Principal
Tel: 07795 366575
The Forest Academy, Thornton Road, Barnsley S70 3NG
Oakhill Primary Academy, Doncaster Road, Barnsley S70 5AG
Oakwell Rise Primary Academy, Doncaster Road, Barnsley S70 1TS
Ebor Garden Primary Academy, Rigton Green, Leeds LS9 7PY
Victoria Primary Academy, Ivy Avenue, Leeds LS9 9ER

Primary Headteacher, Rachel Hornsey, describes her experiences of working with the Phonics International programme – her full report can be read via her guest-post

I have worked with the Phonics International programme in various different settings over the past twelve years. As an English consultant, leader in school, and for the past five years a headteacher of a school that has made huge strides with data, I can honestly say that there is no better programme available. Not only do I consider that Phonics International is the best, it is also the most cost effective option for schools as its set up costs are minimal. I have seen excellent results when it is used as it is designed in every setting I have worked in, and I continue to recommend it whenever I am asked for advice.
Rachel Hornsey
Headteacher
Sutton Courtenay Church of England Primary School
Bradstocks Way
Sutton Courtenay
Abingdon
Oxfordshire
OX14 4DA
Tel: 01235 848 333

This page is in the process of being added to.

See Debbie’s Twitter profile

***The issue of ‘matched texts’ is clearly worrying teachers – what are the practicalities?

In an earlier post (May 2020), I offered suggestions for providing reading material for children that ‘matches’ the letter/sound correspondences they have been systematically taught in their school – and for providing reading material for children at home.

All the phonics programmes I am associated with provide fully matched plain texts for every letter/s-sound correspondence introduced so that children can not only apply and extend their alphabetic code knowledge to reading – but also to writing, spelling and developing their vocabulary and language comprehension – ultimately building up their knowledge of ‘spelling word banks’ (a feature of phonics provision that I’m not convinced is understood or provided well enough).

Thus, the box is well and truly ‘ticked’ with regard to ‘matched texts’.

But what about matched texts for home reading – especially for my No Nonsense Phonics Skills series and the Phonics International programme?

I provide some suggestions in my former blog HERE.

Further news is that Phonics International Ltd is publishing reading books following the specific order of introducing letter/s-sound correspondences in the No Nonsense Phonics Skills series and the Phonics International programme. These will be available as both eBooks and hard copy books and I’ll announce when these are ready.

Meanwhile, Phonics International Ltd has further expanded its range of ready-made NNPS and PI resources for teachers, tutors and parents/carers who may wish to take advantage of ready-made material to support phonics teaching and learning.

Following requests from parents and tutors (even from grandparents!), we now provide the No Nonsense Phonics Skills Pupil Books as ‘singles’ and we’ve put together a ‘home pack’ including items such as the exercise books with lines, word books and so on. We now have a dedicated page for parents, carers and tutors including feedback.

If I say so myself, these really are fabulous ready-made resources – and we continue to provide the Phonics International programme’s printable and projectable resources for no charge at all, along with our amazing range of free Alphabetic Code Charts and handwriting resources!

And on this page we provide a free pre-recorded information and training webinar about my approach to programme-design including full course notes.

And don’t forget our fabulous free resources for nursery-aged children – we’re including feedback on this page too! See our two cumulative Phonics and Talk Time books and our Teeny Reading Seeds resources for your littlies – suitable for use in nurseries and in the home.

What’s not to like!!!

Please do investigate!

—————————————-

This discussion may help people to further understand some of my rationale of programme design and delivery:

Debbie Hepplewhite and Carl Pattison talk about rich systematic synthetic phonics practice

***No. 3: The DfE admits that ‘Letters and Sounds’ (DfES, 2007) “has never been a full Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) programme” 14 years after its publication

After nearly a year of behind-the-scenes debate with the Department for Education in England with regard to whether the DfE should persist with the idea of producing a ‘revised Letters and Sounds’, at last it has been accepted, and indeed stated, that Letters and Sounds has never been a full Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) programme.

Instead of revising and publishing a new version of Letters and Sounds, I suggested that the DfE could produce a new framework (not in the guise of a programme) which provides a steer on research-informed and practice-informed information for the foundations of literacy. This would build on what we have found in England’s context to date – ideally moving on from Letters and Sounds (DfES, 2007).

Minister Nick Gibb liked this idea and work on this new framework is underway as I write this post.

The following is a précised version of the statement sent out by the DfE on March 30th 2021 which references the forthcoming ‘framework’:

Thank you for your interest in the future of Letters and Sounds. We are now able to communicate a final position.

The 2007 Letters and Sounds handbook, published under the previous Government, has never been a full Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) programme. For a number of years, effective teaching using Letters and Sounds has relied on schools themselves building a programme around the handbook. Some schools have done this very successfully, and it was for this reason that schools achieving outstanding results using 2007 Letters and Sounds were included in the English Hubs programme in 2018. The Department recognises, however, that for many schools, especially those who need or want to improve their practice, 2007 Letters and Sounds is not fit for purpose and does not provide the support, guidance, resources or training needed.

The Department considered a variety of options for the future of Letters and Sounds and had originally commissioned a full SSP programme based on the 2007 Letters and Sounds handbook. As you may know from our previous communications, this would have included an updated order of progression addressing some of the flaws in the 2007 Letters and Sounds…..

….After careful consideration, the Department has decided that it should not continue with its involvement in this work. This in no way reflects the quality of the work produced, but the Department’s current policy is that SSP programmes should be created by teachers and phonics experts. This means that the Department will not publish a full Letters and Sounds programme, nor an updated progression.

We will, later this year, be publishing an early reading framework, which will be an important and comprehensive non-statutory guidance document to support the foundations of reading.

When the new framework is finalised and published, I will have more to say about it…..

For years people have muttered that ‘Letters and Sounds is not a programme, it’s a framework’ and yet thousands of schools state it is their SSP programme – and this is the case not only in England but overseas.

Am I the only person that said this openly and wrote about it – a state of affairs that should have been obvious to everyone?

What will happen next I wonder…

18th May 2021 – a significant development…

Word has spread about the Department for Education stating it will no longer ‘validate’ Letters and Sounds (DfES, 2007) having admitted that without teaching and learning resources, it is not a ‘full’ programme (after all). The DfE has further announced a new validation process opportunity.

This has caused some concern for teachers – particularly their position in Letters and Sounds schools. Consequently, the DfE has provided further information: The removal of Letters and Sounds 2007 from the Department’s list of validated phonics programmes – teachers’ questions answered.

This has then led to many headteachers and teachers contacting me to ask about my various phonics programmes when they are considering a change.

As part of addressing questions, here is a recorded video where I discuss the rationale and programme design with Carl Pattison, Early Reading Lead from the Flying High Trust.

***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!

***The Floppy’s Phonics SSP programme post lockdown: Suggestions for teachers, teaching assistants and tutors working with ‘home’ – filling alphabetic code gaps, catching up and intervention as necessary

In England we have a ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19) catch-up premium’ which is Government Funded.

All state-funded schools are eligible for pupils’ catch-up premium from Reception to Y11. Full information is available on the gov.uk page – click HERE

If you are a Floppy’s Phonics School (Oxford Reading Tree Floppy’s Phonics, Oxford University Press), or considering adopting the Floppy’s Phonics systematic synthetic phonics programme in your school, here is some information and suggestions for use of the programme.

Schools that have adopted the Floppy’s Phonics programme should not need ‘another’ programme for some children who may need to catch up with their learning after months of ‘lockdown’ – or for specific intervention (special needs specific to the child).

Teachers can work collaboratively with teaching assistants, special needs teachers, tutors and parents or carers in how to get best use of the Floppy’s Phonics outstanding and varied range of resources for filling alphabetic code gaps, honing the three phonics skills and their sub-skills, and for catching up and intervention. (See Debbie’s training options below the following suggestions.)

The Floppy’s Phonics programme for infants is very comprehensive. The rationale of resource-design and delivery has always been based on establishing active partnerships between school and home. First and foremost teachers discharge their duty to inform parents and carers routinely by sending children’s content-rich paper-based (marked and annotated) work ‘home’ in the schools’ bookbag routines. Teachers can also aspire to work in full partnership – facilitated by the fantastic range of resources in the Floppy’s Phonics programme.

Floppy’s Phonics is underpinned by Debbie’s ‘Two-pronged systematic and incidental phonics teaching and learning’ approach. It has always been the case, then, that the teacher can teach any part of the alphabetic code as required in the wider curriculum, and this approach also provides plenty of ‘over-learning’ and opportunities for differentiation. Floppy’s Phonics teachers, therefore, should be familiar and confident in teaching the alphabetic code when needed, and not just ‘systematically’. This is a very useful and sensible approach in times of children experiencing such a long period away from school for catching up and filling gaps as part of general practice:

https://phonicsinternational.com/Debbie_RRF_Two_pronged_handout.pdf

Floppy’s Phonics Online Digital Platform

Floppy’s Phonics schools subscribe to an Online Digital Platform to introduce systematically the letter/s-sound correspondences of the alphabetic code and to provide appropriate practice of the three core phonics skills and their sub-skills at code and word level. Rich illustrations featuring Oxford Reading Tree characters provide a wide range of themes for both oral language development (comprehension, speaking and listening) and for introducing the focus sounds and words (the phonics).

Schools that subscribe to the Online Digital Platform can provide comprehensive access for home-use. Teachers guide parents and carers to the focus pages and activities for this audio-visual, interactive resource.

Teachers can inform parents and carers of any letter/s-sound correspondences that require extra practice for the individual child as well as the ‘current’ code being studied by the class or group. Any additional practice (and conversations) at home raises the likelihood of children learning, remembering and, if necessary, catching up with lesson content.

Floppy’s Phonics Sounds Books

The Floppy’s Phonics Sounds Books, generally speaking, are intended for use in school – not ‘home’ reading. The Sounds Books’ main content mirrors the content provided on the Online Digital Platform. In some cases, however, teachers may decide that some children at least will benefit from these ‘hard copy’ books at home – and not all homes may be able to access the digital platform content.

Children’s own paper-based resources: Grapheme and Picture Tiles, Activity Sheets, Say the Sounds Posters, Mini Alphabetic Code Charts, Cumulative Texts

These resources are specifically designed to be used in school and, after school-use, also sent home in the school’s ‘bookbag routine’. Every child should be provided with a phonics folder in which to collect the phonics paper-based resources for informing home and revising at home. Teachers should annotate children’s Activity Sheets and Cumulative Texts so that parents and carers can see their children’s progress and show lots of interest. Children also ‘tick’ and ‘circle’ their own work – engaged with a sense of their own learning, understanding that it is OK not to know something, and that their teachers will help them with what they don’t know, teach them again as necessary, and give them extra practice time as required.

Guidance for extra safety measures

Some schools may choose to advise the parents and carers to keep the children’s phonics folders at home rather than returning them routinely to school. The phonics content usually goes back and forth between school and home for revision (overlearning with past content). To avoid worries and ‘quarantine’ practices, however, teachers could instead send home the children’s Activity Sheets and Cumulative Texts, one at a time when they have been fully-used and marked in school, to stay at home – building up content in the phonics folder at home – but still on the basis that children will revisit past learning to improve their phonics sub-skills and skills, and to recall and discuss any new vocabulary as required.

Assessment, grouping and practice arrangements for catch up and for intervention

As for all good teaching practices, when children have had some time away from school (which is for all children in the lockdown scenario), teachers would invariably assess where children are in their learning and then plan their next-steps teaching accordingly. With phonics teaching, this means assessing the alphabetic code knowledge of the children (the letter/s-sound correspondences known to automaticity and any ‘gaps’ in code knowledge) and also their three phonics skills and their sub-skills for reading, spelling and handwriting. Teachers would also decide whether some children require additional speaking and listening intervention which can be provided in the general curriculum and also using the Floppy’s Phonics resources and guidance.

Teachers will find alphabetic code and word level assessments in a printable format via the Online Digital Platform.

These graphics may be useful for considering the ‘Simple View of Reading’ and ‘Simple View of Writing’ of individual children:

https://phonicsinternational.com/The_Simple_View_of_Reading_model.pdf

This may be a useful graphic for noting the three phonics skills and the sub-skills of individuals – name and date per child:

https://phonicsinternational.com/Triangle_sub_core_skills.pdf

When Floppy’s Phonics is launched at the beginning of Reception classes as a new programme, the suggestion is that teachers introduce the focus code to the whole class for ‘session one’ (of the ‘two-session teaching and learning sequence’) using the Flash Cards, the Online Digital Platform and the Frieze. For ‘session two’, teachers may train children in the routines with the Say the Sounds Posters, Activity Sheets and Cumulative Texts in manageable groups across two days with the aim of building up the size of the main group as children becoming increasingly familiar and able to work independently for the routines.

On return to schools after lockdown, some children have notably slipped behind others in their code knowledge and/or phonics skills and sub-skills. Teachers may decide to plan a different pick-up point for these children in an intervention group. It is really important that this group receives ‘little and often’ practice within school, and that teachers inform the parents and carers that any extra practice at home will be very much appreciated and the children will benefit from the interest and extra help at home. Teachers should account for the practice these children receive in school formally – that is, name the children, note what they need, name the adult/s supporting them, ensure any working spaces are fully equipped with visual display and appropriate aids. Note the extra practice time the children receive. Be accountable.

Many children may have remembered much of what they were taught before lockdown but with some code knowledge gaps here and there! For practical reasons, teachers can decide a ‘best fit’ approach that will suit most children as a main group for moving forwards with new code. Then consider providing extra bespoke sessions for any children from this main group who need a bit of extra practice to fill any gaps in code knowledge and/or skills’ weaknesses. As all the children know the routines (for example, how to do the Activity Sheets), you can mix these children with their various different gaps in one group for extra sessions working with different Activity Sheets and Cumulative Texts as required by individuals.

Collective Flash Card Routine – saying the sounds, blending the words, orally segmenting spoken words

It has always been advisable that children do not get over-excited such that they ‘shout’ the sounds in response to the Flash Card routines (the teacher shows the Flash Cards, the children call out the sounds in response). The vowel sounds are generally loud with a similar lowish pitch. The consonant sounds, however, are generally much quieter than the vowel sounds and the pitch varies – sometimes very high indeed like the sound /s/, /sh/ and /ch/ – and sometimes much lower such as /b/ and /g/. It is very hard to say some of the consonant sounds without adding an ‘uh’ to the focus sound such as ‘buh’ and ‘guh’. The quieter these ‘say the sounds’ routines are conducted, however, the more likely the children are to utter a sound close to the natural sounds in speech. Remember, too, not to say the focus sound multiple times. Train the children to say the sound once only exactly as they would when sounding out and blending a new printed word.

Teachers have various techniques for reducing the spread of any viruses in class for this Flash Card Routine such as seating the children well-spaced and facing forwards on the carpet, or at desks or on chairs spaced out and facing forwards. Ask every other child to ‘say the sounds’ at any one time to reduce how many children are calling out – for example, ask the girls, then ask the boys – and so on. Although this routine is generally a whole class routine, in light of the coronavirus this might become a group routine for now.

Handwriting

Teachers have noticed that many children’s handwriting during lockdown has not kept up with their recollection of the letters/s-sound correspondences. Some have started to write their names in capital letters for example. This means it is particularly important to build in a lot of extra practice for handwriting and letter formation. Conduct an assessment of letter formation of any letters of the alphabet that children have been introduced to already. Note the general picture across the whole class, or groups that work together, and re-teach letter formation – linking the letter shapes to their ‘sounds’ not letter names, and not the letter formation ‘patter’. Although you may use a ‘patter’ to teach letter formation, you still need children to ‘say the sound’ when forming the letter shape – this actually helps with both reading and spelling! You also need to address capital letter formation linked to ‘sounds’ and not letter ‘names’ or patter. Provide additional activities where children have to match capital letters and their lower case equivalent letters. My advice is to teach letter formation with simple print in Reception and build on this in Year One. Also provide any labelling in Reception and Year One in simple print – not a quasi-print with lead-in joins. Only teach joined letter writing in Year Two. For additional posters of print and joined writing and video guidance, you may want to take a look at this handwriting site:

https://debbiehepplewhitehandwriting.com

Training for teaching and for tutoring

Just a reminder: England now has a ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19) catch-up premium’ which is Government Funded.

All state-funded schools are eligible for pupils’ catch-up premium from Reception to Y11. Full information is available on the gov.uk page – click HERE

To support Systematic and Incidental Synthetic Phonics provision for Reading, Spelling and Handwriting – and the National Tutoring Initiative (follow above link), Debbie Hepplewhite can provide:

Bespoke ‘Live’ Online Training and Consultancy

Via Zoom or Skype for the teaching/teacher-training profession based on ‘The Five Pillars of Literacy’, ‘The Simple View of Reading’ and her own unique ‘two-pronged systematic and incidental phonics teaching and learning’ for any of the programmes or bodies of work authored by Debbie Hepplewhite. £180 plus VAT per 90 minute session. Full details HERE
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Training to support Catch-up Tutoring for the foundations of literacy

Via Zoom or Skype for those involved in the tutoring of individuals or small groups of children whether as independent tutors or via tutoring arranged through schools. £180 plus VAT per 90 minute session. Full details HERE
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Self-Study Course – Phonics Training Online

An acclaimed comprehensive, highly practical self-study course written by Debbie Hepplewhite and accredited by The University of Cumbria. Over 20 hrs of audio/video content in module/lesson format. Only £20 plus VAT per person. Full details HERE
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Floppy’s Phonics Training (Oxford Reading Tree Floppy’s Phonics – for initial adoption and/or to address staff turnover)

A series of pre-recorded videos to replace the pre-covid Floppy’s Phonics full-day INSET delivered by Debbie Hepplewhite. Can be viewed ‘whole school’ or in groups or as individuals. (The Floppy’s Phonics SSP infant programme and associated training are ‘DfE validated’) Priced at just £300 plus VAT. Full details HERE
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Bespoke Live Training to support Tutoring in Floppy’s Phonics Schools

Via Zoom or Skype for those involved in the tutoring of individuals or small groups of children whether as independent tutors or via tutoring arranged through schools. £180 plus VAT per 90 minute session. Full details HERE

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION ABOUT FLOPPY’S PHONICS, PLUS A WIDE RANGE OF EXCELLENT FREE CPD RESOURCES, AND TO BUY HARD COPY FLOPPY’S PHONICS RESOURCES, SEE:

https://floppysphonics.com

***The Education Endowment Foundation is actively undermining the Government in England and here is an evidence trail to show this

This post is very important indeed.

As anyone who follows me on Twitter may know, I, and others, have been very critical about the work of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) for some considerable time.

The EEF actively undermines the work and conclusions of those involved in the parliamentary and independent inquiries into the teaching of reading in England (2003 to 2006), the Minister of State for Schools Standards the rt hon Nick Gibb, the Government’s Department for Education and Ofsted – the schools’ inspectorate.

Is the Government being duped by this organisation? The EEF projects, online content and guidance seem designed for obfuscation.

And the Government continues to fund the EEF with hundreds of millions of pounds of public money in (what one can only assume) is naivety – ignorant bliss.

Or is it more sinister?

How worried should the teaching profession and the general public be? Very.

The 2020 ‘National Tutoring Programme’ has resulted in hundreds of millions of pounds being handed over to the EEF for perhaps our most needy children’s education in light of the disruption to education of Covid-19.

The EEF guidance, recommendations, and commentary in its accompanying text online, for teachers and parents, however, is the opposite to the Department for Education’s and Minister Nick Gibb’s.

It is also opposite to Ofsted’s direction of travel. It is transparently clear to everyone, teachers and parents, that in the 2019 Ofsted Inspection Handbook, inspectors are to observe whether the staff in early years and infants have great expertise in the systematic synthetic phonics teaching principles with accompanying quality SSP provision for all children.

An observer of this unacceptable set of circumstances has kindly sent me a document illustrating one (currently relevant) evidence trail. Please take a look at this document and note the yellow highlighted parts. A number of such evidence trails could be provided to illustrate that the EEF is arguably not the high-standard research organisation that its corporate image, its professional associations, and recipient of vast amounts of public funding would lead one to believe. I’m not the only one to consider that at least some of the work and guidance of the Education Endowment Foundation for raising standards of literacy is very questionable indeed.

Susan Godsland’s site includes numerous examples of educationalists who are critical of the Education Endowment Foundation.

The government states on its site for the ‘National Tutoring Programme’:

Use of funds

Schools should use this funding for specific activities to support their pupils to catch up for lost teaching over the previous months, in line with the guidance on curriculum expectations for the next academic year.

[My bold.]

We can show, however, that the EEF guidance, comments and recommended programmes and projects are not ‘in line with the guidance on curriculum expectations’ – in fact, they are the opposite.

Notable by their absence, for example, the ‘DfE validated’ systematic synthetic phonics programmes are not on the EEF’s ‘Promising Projects List‘ for intervention.

You will find the EEF recommended programmes for intervention on the ‘evidence trail’ document that was sent to me.

[In the event of any doubt, the ‘DfE validated’ systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) programmes are for all children, not just mainstream and able children. They are also for intervention.]

Further, the EEF actively promotes the Reading Recovery intervention programme. This is not surprising really as Sir Kevan Collins (CEO of the EEF for a number of years and still in the organisation) is Reading Recovery trained. Kevan presided over the National Literacy Strategy ‘Searchlights’ multi-cueing reading strategies (1998 to 2006) that were discredited and discontinued when the, then, government accepted Sir Jim Rose’s recommendations in his ‘Independent Review of the Teaching of Reading, Final Report’ (2006) following the House of Commons parliamentary inquiry ‘Teaching Children to Read’ (2005). Others in the EEF also have very strong Reading Recovery current links and/or histories.

The EEF blurb states:

The resources in Box 9 are a good place to assess the evidence of programmes. Reading Recovery, an intensive teacher-led 1:1 reading programme for KS1 pupils, is highlighted by the EIF guidebook for the positive impacts found in several high-quality evaluations conducted in America.

It’s very important to know that the Education and Skills select committee as long ago as 2009 lambasted the, then, government for rolling out (and funding with public money) the Reading Recovery programme under the ‘Every Child a Reader’ (ECaR) initiative when the recommendations of Sir Jim Rose had already been accepted by the government (in 2006). At that time, it was Nick Gibb who was instrumental in so many of the gains made (cross party) to replace the Reading Recovery-esque ‘Searchlights’ multi-cueing reading strategies.

I wrote about this here:

‘UK Government unaccountable when Reading Recovery rolled-out’

https://phonicsinternational.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=586

With regard to efficacy in the international context (as the EEF refers to ‘several high-quality evaluations conducted in America’), this thread at the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction provides academic reviews of the research of Reading Recovery and describes grave worries about the RR consequences for many children – particularly those with the greatest needs:

‘The Reading Wars and Reading Recovery: What Educators, Families and Taxpayers Should Know’

https://iferi.org/iferi_forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=861

Susan Godsland notes the following about Kevan Collins and his links to the ‘Searchlights’ reading strategies and Reading Recovery via her heavily-referenced and acclaimed site dyslexics.org.uk .

Reading instruction in the National Literacy Strategy (NLS.1998->2006) was based on multi-cueing word-guessing strategies called ‘Searchlights’. NLS directors John Stannard and Laura Huxford suggested that, ”More extreme recommendations from phonics evangelists to teach children not to use other reading strategies alongside phonics, should be treated with great caution” (Stannard/Huxford. The Literacy Game 2007. p189). Sir Kevan Collins was deputy national director of the NLS, having been a Reading Recovery tutor earlier in his career (TES. 09/19). When giving evidence to the Education & Skills Committee in 2004, Collins was asked who designed the Searchlights model. He responded that the Searchlights model was ”something that three or four of [them] did…drawn from the work of [Reading Recovery author] Marie Clay” (Teaching Children to Read.Ev49.Q196) ”The human mind is not a bucket waiting to be filled with facts…The mind is better likened to a searchlight that is constantly expecting, guessing, predicting…” (Stannard/Huxford p25) When the NLS ended in 2006, Laura Huxford went on to co-author the DfE’s synthetic phonics programme ‘Letters and Sounds’. Sir Kevan Collins went on to lead the Education Endowment Foundation until 2019.

I have been approached for some time by knowledgeable teachers, headteachers, advisors and special needs teachers with their concerns about the prevalence of Reading Recovery in their local authorities. Reading Recovery is still entrenched in the Institute of Education (UCL) – the prior domain of the current CEO of the Education Endowment Foundation, Becky Francis. Is it any wonder, then, that the EEF continues to promote the Reading Recovery intervention programme?

Is this what Nick Gibb, Amanda Spielman, and others in the DfE, think is right for the weakest readers for national tutoring?

I highlight what the combination of SSP plus Reading Recovery (‘mixed methods’) looks like here:

‘BBC documentary on reading: ‘B is for Book’. Why is this worrying?’

https://iferi.org/iferi_forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=613

Meanwhile, as mentioned, we had parliamentary inquiries and Sir Jim Rose’s independent national review in England’s context in the period 2003 to 2006 – with the conclusion that the systematic synthetic phonics teaching principles were advisable for all teaching – mainstream and intervention. Sir Jim Rose himself pointed out that it is the ‘same’ alphabetic code and phonics skills that ALL children need – and that intervention should be in line with mainstream teaching, not contradictory. In England’s context since then, we have made considerable inroads regarding guidance for Initial Teacher Training, various government-generated and publicly funded phonics and early reading instruction initiatives including the latest ‘English Hubs’ initiative. Please note that Sir Jim Rose and his team used not only the research findings at the point of his review, but also what Jim and his team of inspectors observed with their own eyes across a number of schools using different SSP programmes and approaches compared to the NLS ‘Searchlights’ multi-cueing approach.

Sir Jim Rose had this to say about their observations:

We spent a huge amount of time observing practice and noting the spectacular success of systematic synthetic phonics when we found it, sometimes in classes where a significant number of beginners were learning English as an additional language.

Meanwhile, look at what the EEF is saying about ‘phonics’to this day (see the evidence trail document). When providing guidance for any phonics provision there is notable reference to ‘systematic phonics’ and avoidance of promoting ‘systematic SYNTHETIC phonics’ – and the EEF text undermines, that is casts doubt upon, ‘synthetic’ phonics as distinct from other forms of phonics provision – in great contrast to the DfE curriculum guidance and Ofsted guidance for inspection.

The EEF blurb states:

However, in the UK there are currently only a small number of phonics programmes that have been rigorously evaluated.

A further consideration is that there are several approaches to teaching phonics systematically this includes the analytic approach (which uses word groups e.g. ‘pet’, ‘park’ and ‘push’), the analogy approach (which uses rimes e.g. ‘night’, ‘flight’ and ‘bright’) and the highly popular synthetic phonics approach described above. Only a few studies have compared these approaches, and there is not yet enough evidence to make a confident recommendation to use one approach rather than the other.

The prevalence of synthetic phonics in English schools makes studies comparing different types of systematic phonics approaches difficult.

It seems to me, and surely any other sensible person, that this is a blatant step to undermine the government’s curriculum guidance and the DfE validated phonics programmes – indeed, the notion of ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ generally.

And this is at a time when one would hope that ALL tutors, for any children with weak literacy where the alphabetic code knowledge and phonics skills for reading and spelling is required, would be knowledgeable about high-quality systematic synthetic phonics provision.

And then consider this, the EEF is a RESEARCH organisation. There is nothing stopping them evaluating SSP programmes. In any event, surely in England’s context, every control group for any ‘other’ literacy programmes the EEF decides to evaluate should arguably be reputable SSP provision if there was a genuine aspiration to move this country forwards?

Their statement above beggars belief.

The modus operandi of the EEF suggests that the decision makers avoid finding out whether systematic synthetic phonics provision matches or exceeds the EEF recommended programmes and projects?

What also beggars belief, quite frankly, is the Government’s apparent faith in this organisation, and the investing of hundreds of millions of pounds of public money.

I suggest that the offer of public funding should be urgently withdrawn pending a full investigation into the Education Endowment Foundation.

You see, whatever one’s views, beliefs, biases, prejudices, experiences, knowledge with regard to the teaching of reading, the issue here is whether the EEF guidance and recommended programmes are in line with Government curriculum guidance and Ofsted guidance – or not.

And whether the government should be donating vast sums of public money to an organisation which can be shown to undermine the Government’s guidance for the teaching of reading (which is based on parliamentary and independent inquiries), undermine the guidance for Ofsted inspections, and confuse the teaching profession – and confuse those who ‘tutor’ children often with the greatest needs in this unprecedented pandemic.

UPDATE:

I have started a thread on this topic via the forum of the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction. This thread includes critical reviews of the evidence which the Education Endowment Foundation flags up to support the EEF promotion of the Reading Recovery intervention programme. These and many other critical reviews of Reading Recovery research indicate that people should be very wary indeed about the efficacy of the RR programme. It is very clear, however, that the people in the EEF organisation are not at all wary and, indeed, they promote Reading Recovery and other literacy intervention programmes instead of programmes which uphold the official guidance for systematic synthetic phonics provision with no multi-cueing word-guessing in England. Thus, the Education Endowment Foundation, without a doubt, leads teachers and others away from the official guidance – guidance which is underpinned by major parliamentary and national reviews in England’s context:

https://iferi.org/iferi_forum/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=1379&p=2867#p2867

***Guest post – Online ESL tutor, Steve Mol, asks, ‘What is the purpose of language? Is it to reflect culture or to communicate universally?’

I made the acquaintance of Steve Mol via the internet. He has been very responsive and encouraging over a number of years. Here is some information about Steve and his work:

Steve has always been fascinated with the English language. As an IT professional, he is always looking for systemic ways to make things simpler and easier to understand. Combine those two, and he helps his students learn the proper way to speak in English in a whole new way. He has been teaching in a business setting for more than 25 years. For the past 5 years, he has been teaching phonics – “the proper ‘sound’ of English,” as he explains it – to adults and children for whom English is a second language. He uses the Phonics International Systematic Synthetic Phonics programme to methodically teach every sound spoken in the English language, helping students understand spoken English more easily as well as speak using English more fluently. He follows a structured approach that has proven to help students understand English more effectively and easily as well as be better understood. Students learn words that are used in everyday speech as well as how to pronounce things so that they sound more confident and authoritative in their communication.

Here Steve relays some of his observations of different attitudes on the topic of ‘American English’ and ‘British English’:

I work as an online tutor teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) to adult learners. The site is based in London and the vast majority of my students are in Europe. Most of my colleagues on the site are British.

In our team discussions, we often discuss differences between American English and British English. Usually, when asked which is better to teach, the British tutors say, “British English. After all, we invented it!” As there aren’t many American tutors on the site, it usually falls to me to say, “American English. It’s simpler and more standardized!”

Yes, I’m American, but don’t let that get you angry yet…

Now this blog post isn’t about which language is “better” for ESL students, although I’d be happy to defend my position. (Maybe later…)

What I found very interesting was a podcast on BBC Radio 4 entitled, “Like, Totally Awesome: The Americanisation of English.” In this podcast, Michael Rosen moderates a discussion with writer Matthew Engel and linguist Dr. Lynne Murphy about the Americanization of English. (See how I spelled that?)

I expected a discussion of the differences in the language and some arguments for and against specific pronunciations and vocabulary coming from America. While there was some of that, the eye-opening surprise for me was the perspective of the debaters. Dr. Murphy, who has studied and taught in the US and, as I recall, has at least one American parent, was tasked with presenting the American point of view. However, she is British through-and-through. So, I don’t think that any of them, who are all British at heart, even noticed what I did about the debate.

My point of contention with them wouldn’t be the pronunciation and vocabulary differences, although that is worth discussing, but the foundational perspective they all seemed to have. They all kept returning to cultural issues. Basically, they want British English free of “Americanisms” simply for the purpose of staying British. They also assumed that Americans would want to use American English for the purpose of being American.
This is not an American point of view at all.

Americans tend to be quite utilitarian in their opinions on anything. We’re interested in adopting the most efficient and productive way of doing things. Any things. That includes language. This is why we adopt so many words from other cultures. If we like the word and find it useful, we’ll adopt it, simple as that.

Our objective in speaking American English isn’t to promote American culture (whatever that is), but because we want to make sure the conversation is successful. Our basis for language isn’t about culture. It’s about communication.

So, what is the purpose of language? Is it to reflect a culture or to communicate universally? As native English speakers, we all benefit from the reality that our language is the language of choice for all international communication – even if neither of the participants speak English otherwise.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Many thanks to Steve for his guest-post and for putting resources of our Phonics International programme to such good use in his ESL context.

Steve has very kindly provided us with recordings of sounds based on an American accent. The idea is that one day we may provide an online version of an Alphabetic Code Chart purpose-designed for the American sounds and spellings – complete with audio. It’s on our ‘to do’ list!

Meanwhile, see the bottom of this page (the blue section) for free printable versions of Alphabetic Code Charts for use in America and Canada.

Steve volunteered to send us the American recordings when he noted our British English versions – well, that is, my accent recorded for an online, audio Alphabetic Code Chart.

Click HERE for our online Alphabetic Code Chart with audio.

Click HERE for video footage of me ‘saying the sounds’ – and example words – from one of our free ‘giant’ Alphabetic Code Charts.

[The video footage is a blast from the past – I’m grey-haired now!]

***Pioneers – and guest post by teacher Rob Randel asking the question: ‘Does Curriculum for Wales leave reading to chance?’

Raising standards of foundational literacy in the English language is a team affair – and an international team at that. Within that bigger team, however, there are some stand-out individuals who understand the issues which continue to hold back research-informed reading instruction and who go the extra mile to do something about it. Pioneers work very hard to become well-informed themselves, and then to challenge as necessary – and pass on information to others through various routes.

Primary teacher Rob Randel is one such exceptional person. I’ve had the privilege to meet him in person during the very first researchEDCymru conference which was held in Cardiff High School in February 2020 (before the coronavirus lockdown in the UK). I was invited to speak at the conference and it was Rob who recommended me to the organisers. Rob was aware of my work – and the need for some serious pioneering in his home country of Wales.

I wanted to ensure my talk for the researchEDCymru conference was pertinent for Wales and so I collaborated with Rob about the content. Rob was enormously helpful to me, and in the process I became more informed about the teaching of reading – in English – in Wales. Having moved to glorious West Wales a few years ago I already had some awareness about different types of schools in Wales (for example, ‘Welsh Medium’ schools where the curriculum is taught in the Welsh language), and I’ve historically and recently provided teacher-training in Wales, but Rob has first-hand teaching experience, and a deep understanding of the challenges for teaching reading and spelling in English, in Wales.

Subsequent to my talk, Rob was invited to write a guest post for the ’15 Minute Forum Cymru’ blog (“discussing all things ‘Learning and Teaching'” at https://15mfcymru.blogspot.com ). Rob’s resulting post is excellent and I asked both Rob and teacher-blogger Barri Mock if I could add Rob’s post to ‘The Naked Emperor’ blog. But look at the wonderful response I received from Barri:

It is Rob’s post and I am but a concerned conduit. The rights belong to him although the messages are lovely and full of respect. There is no need to highlight my blog in all truth as I am just asking and curating debate about many things. I love your work and enjoyed a short time with you at rEDCymru – you opened my eyes to many things that troubled me but had not clarified. I am a full supporter and share your work as much as possible. Honestly, the post is completely Rob’s and I am honoured to have prompted and hosted, but that is all. Love the blog and please tag me in anytime you want a retweet (@15mfcymru). Hope this is helpful.

Further:

Let his blog be the focus. The fact that he wrote it in response to my request following your rED talks, which was the first time I actually met him face to face too is enough. I love the level of respect here but you are already a part of my PLN, and I want Rob to have all of the focus on this – such an important message which if acted upon fills me with hope.

So, in truth, my intention for this particular post has changed to feature not only Rob’s important guest post which he originally wrote for Barri’s blog, but also to show the warmth and commitment of some of the people (in this case, both Rob and Barri) who do indeed go the extra mile for the sake of the education of adults and children alike.

Now, please do read the shocking revelations in Rob’s post about guidance for teachers in Wales:

Does #CfW leave reading to chance? Guest Post from Rob Randel, a primary school teacher with a keen interest in reading instruction and a passion for getting this right in Curriculum for Wales. This is a must read for all teachers.

I started a thread featuring Rob’s post – highlighting some of its content – for the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction:

Wales, UK: Outstanding post by Rob Randel – laying bare flawed official guidance

The founding committee for the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction has invited pioneer Rob Randel to join its ‘Advisory Group‘ – representing his country of Wales. Thankfully, Rob has accepted.

Please note: Anyone interested in the field of teaching foundational literacy in the English language would benefit from visiting the Forum of the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction!

Follow Rob Randel on Twitter: @robrandel

Follow Barri Mock on Twitter: 15 Minute Forum Cymru @15mfcymru

Follow me on Twitter: @debbiehepp

***PART TWO: ‘The harmful legacy of multi-cueing and its evolution into look-alike reading – a secondary school perspective’ by Jacqui Moller-Butcher

For PART ONE of this topic, introducing Jacqui Moller-Butcher and her work and worries about ‘look-alike reading’, click HERE.

The harmful legacy of multi-cueing and its evolution into look-alike reading – a secondary school perspective

by Jacqui Moller-Butcher, June 2020

Please click on the link above for Jacqui’s full paper in printable format as it includes a chart of the detailed findings of the word-assessments of Year 7 students. For anyone with an interest in these findings, please circulate the paper and links to Jacqui’s guest-posts widely.

Here is Jacqui’s paper as a post:

The harmful legacy of multi-cueing and its evolution into look-alike reading – a secondary school perspective

by Jacqui Moller-Butcher, secondary English teacher 18.6.2020

Twenty-two colleagues at the secondary school where I teach English started a 20+ hours online phonics training course in the second week of lockdown, and the effects are beginning to show. Many of us have children, and so the training is interesting as parents too. One of the team emailed today to say that while reading with his primary-aged daughter, it became clear that she has been taught to multi-cue and was using images on the page to guess words, rather than using phonics to read them. He said he simply wouldn’t have noticed that before.

Multi-cueing. What’s wrong with it?

We tested our Year 7 cohort on arrival this year for gaps in their knowledge of phonics and to assess reading age. For the first time, tests were taken 1:1 with trained LSAs (Learning Support Assistants) who listened to every word and sound uttered, all of which were transcribed – rather unusual as a testing process in a secondary school, where tests usually assess comprehension, and are often done all at once and in silence. We introduced this system to see and hear how our students think when they read, and to learn what ‘wrong’ actually means for every one of them: why are they wrong and how wrong? From this approach, we have harvested useful and fascinating information at an individual and cohort level.

It became immediately clear, for example, that for around 30% of our students, guessing was the principal strategy for ‘reading’ unfamiliar words. Of course, there were no pictures on which they could base their guesses, true of many secondary school texts, especially in English, and so students guessed words by their most prominent, recognisable features, as if identifying a face by hair, eyes and nose.

The hair, eyes and noses of words seem to be the first, a middle and the final consonant, or at least one near the end. Consistently, vowel spellings are ignored in this ‘facial recognition’ process; it seems our students see many vowel spellings as foreign, indecipherable code, or they barely notice them at all. From these findings, we think 30% of our students see many words like this:

exostиd
moйшanlэss
repюtэйшan

If you can read English and Russian, you’ll be able to pronounce these words accurately (as the real English words they are), because I’ve used the closest possible corresponding Russian symbols to represent some of the English sounds. The English spellings I’ve replaced are those our students commonly struggle to recognise – in these words, the spellings: au, e, o_i, ti, u_a, a_i.

We’ve deduced that in order to read the all-too-many words that look like this, students do what you have probably just done – they make a ‘look-alike’ guess based on 3-4 recognised consonants.

Worse, it seems that many of our students think it’s normal for words to look like this. They aren’t puzzled when they meet them, and they rarely hesitate to say what they see; they think they are supposed to guess. They seem to believe, we’ve found, that this is what reading is.

I gave the three words above to our secondary teaching staff in INSET recently, and asked them to do the best job they could of reading them aloud. The full extent of ‘readings’ offered were as follows, and many were repeated around the room:

exostиd: existed, excited, excused, exhausted, exostand (and other pseudo words)
moйшanlэss: mountainous, monotonous, Mona Lisa, money-less,
repюtэйшan: reptilian, reproduction, repetition, reputation, reprowan (+ more pseudo words)

I knew there was one Russian reader in the room and he was able to pronounce all three perfectly, recognising the English words that the mixed spellings represented, because he knows English and Russian code. Quite simply, he possessed knowledge of the necessary code to unlock the print. Everyone in the room was a degree graduate of one subject or another, all very well educated, but few could pronounce the words correctly, so they could not access the meaning, try as they might.

Our Russian reader, when prompted, revealed the words to be: exhausted, motionless and reputation. Was he cleverer than everyone else in the room?

The words were all easy, known words – words in every teacher’s vocabulary, and yet with possession of partial code, some very clever teachers couldn’t recognise the words they knew. This is the predicament, we’ve found, for around a third of our KS3 students. Their vocabulary and knowledge has continued to grow, albeit slowly in some cases, since early years in primary, but, in many cases, their understanding of the written code has not, and they have continued to practise their guessing habit. They are able to read less than they know. The huge problem for us is that practice has made permanent.

If there had been a picture for each word (though a picture to convey reputation is not easy to come by), our teachers might have been able to guess each word, but that strategy wouldn’t have enabled them to decode the Russian symbols, much less learn them.

It also wouldn’t have helped the teachers to decode the Russian symbols if the words had been written into full sentences, but would they have been able to guess the words? Let’s try that…

Here’s a sentence from the GCSE text ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. In our school, all students in Y11 will study this book:
“Men have before hired bravos to transact their crimes, while their own person and repюtэйшan sat under shelter.”

And the GCSE text ‘A Christmas Carol’:

“But scorning rest, upon his reappearance, he instantly began again, though there were no dancers yet, as if the other fiddler had been carried home, exostиd, on a shutter, and he were a bran-new man resolved to beat him out of sight, or perish.”

Does it help a lot if the unfamiliar-looking words (remember, although unfamiliar-looking, all three are known vocabulary) are presented in sentences, in context? Well, clearly, it depends on the sentence. In a simple sentence, in a simple text, perhaps. But it requires more than a bit of thought to work out the mystery words in the contexts above, and it’s probably fair to say that it certainly doesn’t help ‘a lot’. Add to that the fact that, for many students, Dickens and Stevenson’s sentences above would contain other ‘Russian-looking’ words, it becomes clear that recognising known words from context is an unhelpful and inefficient strategy when rapid code recognition would unlock words so much more quickly.

In short, it’s a whole lot easier just to recognise words from their letters, in an instant, and it’s a crying shame if you can’t when mystery words are words you already know and understand.

The texts children face in secondary school are sophisticated and complex. Therefore, it’s crucial that they are able to decipher and recognise words they do know instantly, without effort, so that they can focus their brain power on deducing the meaning of the vocabulary they don’t.

The idea of our INSET activity was to show secondary teachers how around a third of our students actually see many words on a page, and to allow teachers to experience the difficulty of ‘reading’ with only partial knowledge of the alphabetic code. Put in this position, our teachers automatically used the common student strategy of visual guesswork.

Interestingly, the guesses of our well-educated teachers were very similar to – or exactly the same as – those of our struggling readers who, in assessment, misread exhausted as: exhaled, extinguished, excited, exclaimed, expressed, exactly, exalted, excused and expanded. (There’s no lack of good vocabulary there – just a lack of decoding.) Our students in assessment misread motionless for mention, mountainous and motion. And they misread reputation for repopulation, repetition, reput, repulsion, repartition, repartion, reception and retuption. In fact, arguably, our struggling readers performed at a similar level to our teachers; they came up with mostly real words (but some pseudo ones too, as did the teachers) that look a lot or a little like the target word, but aren’t close in meaning at all.

Any reader, well-educated or not, with good general knowledge or not, when guessing words from prominent features, will draw on what is often an extensive bank of look-alikes. Because there are so many possible words, it was just pot luck, rather than a matter of IQ, whether our teachers hit on the right word with their first look-alike or not.

So far I’ve emphasised the similarities, but the key difference between our students and our skilled-reader teachers was one of attitude, not strategy; teachers instinctively knew it wasn’t right to read in this way and didn’t like the experience, but they didn’t have any choice when faced with substituted spelling symbols. They said it felt unnatural. They groaned and grumbled. This is probably because skilled-readers aren’t hard-wired to guess. They know that guessing isn’t reading. Skilled readers instinctively know the job is to decode when a word is unfamiliar. A third of our students don’t.

Next I gave the same teachers these real English words:

archimage
coggly
mammothrept
sesquiplicate

Now they were much happier. They pronounced all words easily and fluently, after just a moment’s analysis, with only minimal variations in pronunciation and emphasis around the room. All pronunciations were plausible, and yet nobody had any idea what the words meant, despite being real English words. Our skilled-reader teachers knew in an instant that they didn’t know the meaning of these words. They didn’t feel confused or reading-disabled, as they had with the words they couldn’t decipher, and they didn’t express frustration at all; in fact, many were very intrigued.

This is perhaps the most destructive consequence of the guessing legacy: a skilled reader knows when they don’t know a word. Our struggling readers, through guessing, can’t decipher words that they know well and words they don’t know at all – they aren’t aware of the difference. If students misread an unknown word as a known word, they won’t (and don’t) stop to deduce meaning from context, even when it might possible. Meaning becomes mangled, confused, and they won’t (and don’t) know why. Reading like this is a horrible experience. Trying to make sense of increasingly complex and sophisticated texts in subjects across the secondary curriculum in this way is tortuous.

If a student arrives in Year 7 guess-reading, their reading age will plateau without extensive exposure to text (and if they haven’t done enough reading to deduce the code through osmosis so far, evidence suggests that they’re unlikely to develop the reading habit post Y6), while their knowledge and understanding will continue to grow, and so the divide between what they know and what they can read and write grows ever greater – as does their frustration, their diminishing self-esteem and, most obviously, their disruptive behaviour and a dislike of school.

In secondary schools, students who haven’t yet learnt to read fluently, who achieve low marks on a comprehension test or in a reading age test where no one listens to the child attempt to read, so cannot diagnose why an answer is wrong or how wrong, are often perceived as learning or reading-disabled. The problem is seen to be in-child. Secondary teachers rarely listen to students reading aloud in an extended way, especially struggling readers who avoid reading in class, and little time, therefore, is given to analysing how students read. This means that secondary teachers, untrained in this field, may not understand that many students are reading the wrong way, applying a flawed multi-cueing approach, guessing words as look-alikes, rather than deciphering the letters in words, and that the problem is one students cannot fix for themselves, not without direct and explicit intervention.

More library time, buddy readers, author visits, reading logs, World Book Day and ERIC won’t correct flawed reading habits. Accurate diagnosis, replacing guessing habits with decoding habits through regular practice with a trained professional and reinforcement in all classrooms, and filling gaps in students’ understanding of the alphabetic and morphemic code will.

If students are equipped to decode accurately and effortlessly, and they know that guessing words like recognising whole faces is not a part of skilled reading, they are able to identify an unknown word straight away, and so they are empowered to pause and deduce meaning from context if they can – or look the word up, just as skilled-reader teachers do, if they can’t.

The multi-cueing strategy which may seem to work very nicely, quickly building self-esteem in Year 1 or 2 or even 3, where comparatively little vocabulary is needed to read age-appropriate books, where sentences are largely simple and short, and where pictures abound, creates a harmful legacy for over a third of students in our school, and has a devastating impact on their secondary school experience, an experience that is extremely difficult to navigate as a struggling reader.

Children are prone to guessing because it’s quicker and easier than the hard work of decoding.
Multi-cueing instead of decoding is like taking a short cut across the garden, because taking the path around the edge is too long; it’s immediately gratifying, and it feels like it gets you where you want to go, but soon enough the grass will stop growing and ever-increasing bare patches are left behind. There are long term consequences that aren’t foreseen when taking those first steps.

Children need no encouragement to guess. If they are encouraged, they absolutely will, but they will do so at the expense of fostering the reading habits of genuinely skilled readers, and they may never fully master or apply the alphabetic code. For a fast track to what seems like success, for the glow of ‘feeling and sounding like’ a real reader quickly, for the pleasure that pretending to be a fluent reader brings at the outset, children are at risk of paying the heavy price of low self-esteem, disaffection and reading failure later as a teenage student in secondary school and, worse still, as an adult in real life.

For those intrigued:

archimage a powerful magician or wizard

coggly unsteady, wobbly or shaky – ‘She sat cocked to one side in a coggly canoe’

mammothrept a spoilt child

sesquiplicate relating to or involving the ratio between the square roots of the cubes of given terms; i.e. the sesquiplicate ratio of given terms is the ratio between the square roots of the cubes of those terms

 

Note from Debbie after Jacqui’s guest-posts were shared via Twitter:

There has been considerable interest in Jacqui’s findings notably from teachers and senior managers in the secondary sector.

But most significantly, an amazing stalwart campaigner for research-informed reading instruction and phonics from the USA, Don Potter, immediately contacted me with this personal message:

Name:
Donald Potter

Email:
don@donpotter.net

Subject:
Look-Alike

Message:
Debbie,

The article on look-alikes is fabulous. Helen Lowe wrote about this way back in 1958. I have similar lists of common errors: I call it Squirrelitus because my students almost always read “squeal” as “squirrel.”

Please do take an interest in who Don Potter is and his extraordinary contribution to the reading debate over many, many years. How can it be we are still having these word-reading problems for so many of our learners – which so many in the teaching profession simply don’t know how to recognise and/or how to address?

***PART ONE – Guest post: Introducing Jacqui Moller-Butcher and her extraordinarily important findings (and suggestions) regarding ‘look-alike reading’ in KS 3

PART ONE:

I’ve never met secondary English teacher Jacqui Moller-Butcher but I’ve known of her since she first raised worries about her observations of ‘look-alike reading’ in an online discussion via the blog of popular KS 3 blogger, David Didau. At that time she was addressing some of author Michael Rosen’s posts as he is someone who has gone to great lengths in England’s context to challenge the official guidance of ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ provision and the introduction of the statutory Year One phonics screening check. From Jacqui’s personal experience, she understands the promotion and importance of quality phonics provision and was clearly worried that a popular children’s author with great ‘reach’ to teachers, and others, would actively undermine the need for systematic phonics provision in our schools.

Some time later, Jacqui got in touch with me to let me know that she was actively promoting my self-study Phonics Training Online course to her secondary colleagues and to local secondary headteachers. Apparently, some Learning Support Assistants in her school had already taken the initiative to sign up as individuals. Jacqui described the school’s findings of some Year 7 students when they read aloud. The intent was to discover what kind of word-errors they made in reading and why, and how, they might be making these errors. In response, I asked if Jacqui would provide a guest-post and share these findings which are very important indeed. They certainly support my suggestion that ALL teachers should be trained so that they are knowledgeable about the English alphabetic code and how to teach, support, and/or remediate reading and spelling. Surely all teachers need the level of knowledge and understanding in the field of foundational literacy to meet the needs of all children and young people as required.

In the subsequent exchanges with Jacqui where she kindly provided me with a guest-post, I said her work and findings are so important that a ‘post’ alone would not be sufficient, and that her findings need to be printable as a ‘paper’ and so Jacqui has kindly provided her work for both guest-post/s and as papers. I do hope that anyone reading these will be prepared to share them widely as there are great implications here about the need to expand teacher-training in this field for all sectors and not just early years and infant staff. We need to build on what we know to date – and appreciate that we still have some way to go before we reach optimum teacher-training and teaching/supporting our children appropriately, as required.

About Jacqui:

I first noticed look-alike reading when I was out of the classroom, at home with my four children under five years of age! I was working voluntarily as a tutor with friends’ children of all ages. Because of my phonics training for KS3 at Phoenix High School in White City where I was an assistant head (I received my training from Ruth Miskin herself in 2002), many friends asked me to help with early years reading issues. With four children, you find that the number of fellow parent friends rapidly increases, and so I was asked frequently. I had never taught 1:1 before and this gave me the space to notice all manner of interesting things which I started to record. I could compare this directly with my own four children who all learnt phonics from me from age 3, and so an accidental, unofficial research project began.

As a secondary teacher, I was asked to work with older children at the same time, of course, for KS3 issues and for GCSE preparation. That’s when I realised that children of all ages were doing exactly the same thing – guessing words as look-alikes. This was something I had not noticed in all my years of teaching as an English teacher. My friends’ six year olds were trying to read words in the way that fifteen year olds were. I started to listen to all of my 1:1 students read aloud to spot how they read and identify what errors they made and why; then I was able to help them unlearn their guessing habits and relearn forgotten or learn new code to fill gaps. At the same time, I realised that my own children were being taught multi-cueing strategies at primary school and the whole picture crystallised. All of these accidental life events and professional strands came together at once and gave me a clear understanding of issues I had never understood before.

Further, Jacqui has concerns about the guidance provided to improve reading standards by another popular KS 3 blogger, Alex Quigley, and she describes these concerns based on observations and detailed assessments:

I attended Alex Quigley’s Closing the Literacy Gap webinar recently. He outlined 12 important reading strategies that weak readers don’t use: skimming and scanning, questioning texts, evaluating texts, possession of tier 2 and 3 vocabulary, etc. He said we need to model and teach these strategies explicitly. The breakdown of the twelve strategies, along with some practical tips, was the main thrust of the seminar.

Teaching the suite of advanced reading strategies through modelling and explicit teaching made up a good proportion of the modules in the KS3 Literacy Strategy many years ago, and, as a literacy consultant of old, I’m still very enthusiastic about the ideas and modelling approach. The new thread of focusing on tier 2 and 3 vocabulary is an important addition. I know that closing the vocabulary gap has been a major thrust in many schools in recent years.

However, despite presenting the statistic that 25% of 15 year olds have a reading age of 12 and under (I’m sure that’s right, a conservative percentage for many schools like mine, in fact), Quigley didn’t emphasise the crucial role that partial alphabetic code knowledge, guessing habits or slow reading speed play in deficit reading ages, nor what secondary teachers need to do to address these issues.

This doesn’t surprise me in secondary training because an emphasis on the alphabetic code and long-overdue recognition of the scale of the guess-reading problem is still only just emerging for the secondary sector. Quigley may have decided that, for a mixed subject audience, it might prove counter-productive to delve into the mechanics of reading. But I was left feeling frustrated because encouraging children who don’t read accurately or quickly to skim or scan or summarise is, perhaps, putting the cart before the horse, and may actually compound frustrations and self-esteem issues.

One of the last boys I worked with 1:1 before lockdown read aloud to me a Y9 comprehension test paper which had been set for the class. He guess-read incorrectly 36 words out of approximately 400 so just under 10%. He read most of the words as look-alikes – or couldn’t attempt to pronounce them at all – and often didn’t stop to think when they didn’t make sense. At other times he paused for lengthy periods while he tried to think of a lookalike word that would fit the pattern of the word he was looking at. It was a slow and painful process. An analysis of his reading is HERE.

I was amazed to find out that, when I read the words back to him correctly, he was able to explain the meaning of all but four. That’s 32 words he didn’t comprehend because of deciphering issues when he absolutely did understand them, based on his existing vocabulary knowledge.

Teaching this student the meaning of more, richer, higher tier vocabulary is no bad thing, but it won’t help him to decipher the new vocabulary in print or to encode it in his writing. There’s much he understands in his head already that he can’t access in print on the page.

However, more worryingly, this student is not ready to be taught to skim or scan, no matter how well I model the processes, because he has underlying, more fundamental issues: a guessing habit, gaps in his knowledge of the alphabetic code and slow reading speed, and all these need fixing first. Trying to teach him strategies that he’s not equipped to manage will result in yet more reading failure.

Teaching weaker readers the strategies that stronger readers use might be an upside down – or back to front – approach, I’m not sure which it is! Is it the case that weak readers can’t skim and scan because they haven’t been shown how to, or is it because they aren’t strong, efficient readers? Isn’t being able to skim and scan and ask questions and evaluate texts the product of being an accurate, automatic, fast reader – it’s possible to do these things when reading the print is effortless, and it’s not possible when it isn’t.

There seems to be a priority sequence for interventions; teaching some of the higher order strategies depends on fundamentals being already in place. The problem is that, typically, we aren’t trained to tackle decoding issues in secondary schools and we’re identifying the full extent of the problem either. We have to find ways to overcome that.

Right at the top we have to:

1. Make sure all students can decode spellings well. Plug alphabetic code and morphemic knowledge gaps as required.
2. Make sure all students do decode. Stop the guessing and predicting habit. This is widespread and absolutely not just a special needs issue.
3. Find ways to get students to read more often to practise reading print in order to increase speed to at least speaking speed: reading aloud @ 180wpm or faster.
4. Teach and promote vocabulary extension in lessons across the curriculum.
5. Once students can read accurately, without guessing and aloud at 180wpm+, teach the more advanced reading strategies.

The sheer extent of guess-reading and the number of students reading aloud @ sub 150 wpm was a shock to us when we introduced 1:1 testing in September – for us it’s nearly 30% of our KS3 students. The issue of accuracy and speed isn’t one for SEND; it affects the very 25%+ who Alex Quigley refers to. We need to make most progress and effect change in guaranteeing the 3 fundamentals of good reading before teaching the 12 advanced strategies to the target 25%.

And, if we do, we might find that some of the higher level reading strategies take care of themselves…

PART TWO: The harmful legacy of multi-cueing and its evolution into look-alike reading – a secondary school perspective
by Jacqui Moller-Butcher, secondary English teacher 18.6.2020

***Guest post: Teacher Katreena Heywood describes her school’s adoption of the Floppy’s Phonics programme

Background to this guest post: I received a lovely thoughtful email from Katreena which was of course wonderful to receive – so I invited Katreena to write a guest post for my blog. I’m very grateful that she was willing to do so and with full support from her school’s headteacher.

Katreena’s original message:

Hi Debbie,

I hope you are well in these very strange times. I wanted to let you know that Floppy’s Phonics has been a godsend for many of my parents. When we knew that the school was going to close we decided to give parents access to the interactive resources and the children have responded brilliantly. They have completed their sessions each day and we have sent them a copy of the activity sheet too. One child in my class was so amazing at ticking and circling her words and explaining this process to her mum. She could probably teach phonics when she comes back!

I am so pleased that we chose Floppy’s Phonics for my school.

I just wanted to let you know about a good news story in these difficult times.

Kind regards, Katreena

My school’s early journey with the Floppy’s Phonics programme

My name is Katreena Heywood and I am an Early Years Lead and teacher of Reception at Hartford Manor Primary School and Nursery in Cheshire. Through my other role working as a Literacy Specialist for an English Hub, I was introduced to the Oxford Reading Tree Floppy’s Phonics programme (Oxford University Press). I was fortunate enough to attend two days training with Debbie Hepplewhite learning all about the programme and its design and was intrigued to see it in action for myself. The school which I support as a Literacy Specialist had chosen to adopt Floppy’s Phonics as its new systematic synthetic phonics programme and in a very short time saw its impact. Working closely with the teachers over a number of months it was clear to me that this should be the programme for my school.

We started to use Floppy’s Phonics in January 2020. Having already gone through a term using our usual programme, Letters and Sounds (DfES, 2007), we began by assessing where the children were in terms of their grapheme/phoneme correspondence knowledge and reading of simple words. We used the assessment sheets from Floppy’s Phonics which really helped us to see where to start. We realised that we needed to go back further than we had thought we would need to because the children had not retained some of the newest grapheme/phoneme correspondences taught.

Very quickly, it was clear to us that the children were able to engage with the learning using both the Floppy’s Phonics online platform and the Activity Sheets. From Day 1 the children joined in with all the activities in session 1, getting plenty of practice orally segmenting and blending words. Even the most reluctant children joined in by the end of the first week quickly getting used to the routine which remained the same each time. The Activity Sheets for session 2, took us a week to ‘train’ the children in small groups on how to complete them and then they were away!

Soon my day to day groupings grew into quicker, confident learners who could work independently from the start with me checking their work quickly and then moving onto the Cumulative Texts. My next group needed more of my support to get going but were capable of practising themselves with me only checking their work after they had had time to work on their own. My slower, less confident readers needed more support initially but we also did a pre-teaching session with them in the morning before the whole class session. This was literally going through the activities with them so they could then work independently too. After week 3 these children, too, were able to access their own practice using the Activity Sheets and following the routines.

We did however have to have a fourth group of children who had already fallen behind from our initial Letters and Sounds teaching. These children went back to the beginning of the alphabetic code because they were unable to segment and blend. My experienced teaching assistant worked with them and was absolutely amazed that after only 2 weeks they were able to read the simple words on the Activity Sheets. Their progress has been slower and they have had more support with extra flashcard sessions but I am convinced that they would have been more able to keep up if they’d started out on their reading journey with Floppy’s Phonics.

Year 1 have had a greater challenge by starting Floppy’s Phonics partway through the year. The teachers have had to adapt to a new way of working and while still learning themselves teach the children. However they too have seen great improvement especially in their weaker readers. Plenty of time for them to practise and revise what they have already learned has really helped those children who were weaker at segmenting and blending. The Activity Sheets at this stage have the alternative spellings for the sounds alongside each other which enables them to practise these alternative graphemes and make that connection easily. The quick to learn children have enjoyed learning the new vocabulary and challenge this presents to them. The Cumulative Texts have given them lots of practice too.

It is still early days for us as a school and we were about to embark on our meeting with parents and the introduction of the Floppy’s Phonics ‘book-bag routine’ but the closure of schools stopped us in our tracks. However giving the parents and children access to the online platform has enabled many children to continue to learn phonics. I’ve felt reassured that the children have been able to follow the routine taught in school at home with their parents’ guidance. Parents have sent feedback in the form of notes, photos and videos to back this up. The only unfortunate thing is that not all parents and children have engaged with home learning. I know once we return to school, however, we will be able to quickly use the Floppy’s Phonics assessment materials to see where the children are and pick up their learning from there.

***Suggestions for organising ‘matched texts’ – that is, cumulative decodable reading books for beginners

I’ve been approached by quite a few teachers worried about the emphasis by officials in England for providing beginners with reading books that ‘match’ the letters/s-sound correspondences the children have been taught in the planned, systematic synthetic phonics lessons. In response, I’ve written some suggestions which might be of interest – particularly for teachers where the school has adopted my phonics programme/s and the accompanying ‘two-pronged systematic and incidental phonics teaching’ approach. Here is a printable pdf of the information below:

The approach to reading material for schools using the Phonics International programme and the No Nonsense Phonics Skills (Raintree) series – by Debbie Hepplewhite 2020

Matched texts in the phonics programmes

The Phonics International programme and the No Nonsense Phonics Skills series of 9 Pupil Books (of the suite of Phonics International) provide abundant cumulative, decodable sentences and texts for routine practice in the ‘teaching and learning cycle’. Children are not dependent on reading books to apply and extend their current and past alphabetic code knowledge and phonics skills.

Code in reading books lagging behind code introduced in school

For the purpose of independent reading at home – where children may be asked to have a go at reading ‘independently’ – it may be advisable for the published reading books’ content to lag behind the alphabetic code (the letter/s-sound correspondences) introduced systematically in the phonics programme/s.

Awareness of not encouraging word-guessing for teaching staff and parents/carers

Any quality books can be used with children as long as the supporting adults know not to teach, or encourage, or cause by default, the children to read new printed words through the ‘searchlights’ multi-cueing word-guessing (that is, don’t encourage or teach the guessing of new printed words from picture cues, or context cues such as ‘read on and go back, what word would make sense’, and initial letter/s, guessing). Tell children the words they are struggling with if necessary, or provide the code within the new words to enable the children to have a go at decoding them.

Children should not have to ‘lift the words off the page’ through guesswork – but the children will find the pictures and context can help them to understand the ‘meaning’ of new words. They will need to be able to decode and pronounce the new words, however, in order to add them to their spoken language. Supporting adults can help with this as necessary.

Sharing the phonics programme’s matched texts via the school’s book-bag routine

The guidance underpinning Debbie’s phonics programmes promotes a book-bag routine whereby each child’s phonics folder with up to date, cumulative alphabetic code content going back and forth to the home. Children repeat-reading word banks and cumulative texts of the core phonics material at home is encouraged; and parents/carers are fully informed about the programme and practice via the school’s information events and via the content shared back and forth in the book-bag routine:

https://phonicsinternational.com/Setting_up_the_phonics_folder.pdf

The No Nonsense Phonics Skills series consists of 9 ready-made Pupil Book which include cumulative, decodable ‘Mini Stories’ (selected from the Phonics International programme) to match the letter/s-sound correspondences introduced throughout the series. These Pupil Books can also go backwards and forwards to home to keep parents and carers informed, and for children to revise the content. Reading books from various publishers can be included in the home-reading routine – organised to lag behind the code introduced in the programme or selected carefully for any children who are exceptional readers.

When teachers adopt the book-bag routine so that they are sending home the NNPS books which include the plain ‘matched texts’, they have therefore fulfilled the expectation that children need matched texts to the past and current letter-sound correspondences both in the school and in the home. Teachers can then include ‘story books’ (with any alphabetic code) for the parents and carers to share with the child, to read to the child, to talk about new words not in spoken vocabulary, to develop a love of books and stories (and information texts) and to support the teachers in developing language comprehension and an understanding of book language and different genres.

Teachers may also find these infographics very helpful – these were developed with Ann Sullivan and then Lynne Moody following a webinar featuring the idea of ‘matched texts’ (and whether this notion is in danger of becoming ‘too purist’ and making teachers fearful!):

Reading Purpose and Choice of Texts for Beginning and Developing Readers

Reading with your child – in school and at home

Further documents which might be of interest and potentially useful to teachers linked to the ‘matched texts’ webinar were also provided.

The following page is useful for teachers and parents/carers:

No Nonsense Phonics Skills information and training page including video and PowerPoints (one including audio):

No Nonsense Phonics Skills

Use of overview Alphabetic Code Charts in school and at home to support incidental phonics teaching

The fundamental underpinning rationale of Phonics International and the No Nonsense Phonics Skills series is the ‘two-pronged systematic and incidental phonics teaching’ approach. This means that teaching, or using, new code beyond the systematic, planned introduction of letter/s-sound correspondences is included in the approach. Teaching staff and parents/carers know they can address any code in new printed words to read, or words required for writing, at any time, without this being problematic. Children are made aware of the notion of spelling alternatives and pronunciation alternatives from the outset of planned phonics teaching – supported by the use of overview Alphabetic Code Charts beginning in Reception:

https://phonicsinternational.com/Debbie_RRF_Two_pronged_handout.pdf

Teaching staff know how to vary their support for individual children’s needs when using literature that is high-quality, part of the wider curriculum and wider reading experience, but beyond the children’s code knowledge. The adults support as necessary – for example, read to the children, share with the children, point out new code as and when appropriate. This means no children need to be precluded from access to literature for the class topic (for example), for their intellectual understanding of the content in the books, and how the different types of books ‘work’ (fiction, non-fiction, anthologies, various genre).

Early readers may need reading material beyond matched texts at least some of the time

Precocious early readers should not have to be given reading books that are only fully in line with the phonics programme. Some children are better served by following the phonics programme very much with comprehensive coverage of the alphabetic code in mind for spelling purposes in their case, whilst they may need more challenging reading books for their individual reading capabilities. An example of this would be a child like ‘Alice’ as described in this document (see page 2):

https://phonicsinternational.com/Debbies_Phonics_Teaching_Tips.pdf

Use of labelling and bookmarks to guide parents/carers

When schools wish to share a variety of books with ‘home’ that may not always be fully decodable for the children to read independently (beginners and strugglers), then it would be helpful to stick labels on the books, or provide bookmarks providing guidance with the individual child in mind (which is a more flexible approach), to give the parents/carers a steer in how to use the book. The labels or bookmarks, for example, could state, ‘Read to me’ or ‘Share with me’ – or whatever is appropriate for the particular books for the individual child who will be taking them home. This will help to support a rich book culture at school and in the home but ensure that children aren’t expected to read books aloud by themselves when they can’t fully decode the range of words in the books – and also will ensure that very able readers are not unduly restricted in their reading material.

Organising the books in ‘chunks’ behind the code introduced in class

Generally speaking, organise decodable books for home-reading in ‘chunks’ (that is, according to a group of letter/s-sound correspondences introduced, not every correspondence introduced one by one) and lagging behind the letter/s-sound correspondences introduced in the phonics programme in the class or group lessons.

Cascading the books with matched texts

Another consideration regarding reading material with ‘matched texts’ in mind, is the impracticality and expense of the school providing 30 copies of every single title in a reading series on the basis that every child will require the same title at the same time with the same code. When the children are truly ‘beginners’, provide those children in the class who are more competent at sounding out and blending with the books first, then cascade the books to other children as they begin to decode more competently and independently. This means that for some children, by the time they get certain reading books, their code knowledge in that book may lag behind the ‘current’ code introduced in school but they will be more automatic and competent applying the code in the books for home-reading that they know very well.

Aim to provide variety of literature from different published schemes

It is also a good idea not to restrict the stock of reading material to only one publisher or series. ‘Variety is the spice of life’ so, over time if necessary, aim to build up a wider range of series which may be easier to organize if the chunking and lagging behind the alphabetic code approach is adopted.

Debbie Hepplewhite MBE FRSA

Author of Phonics International and the No Nonsense Phonics Skills series (Raintree)

Phonics consultant and co-author of the Oxford Reading Tree Floppy’s Phonics programme (for which the advice for organizing reading books is the same as above!)

Any questions, contact: debbie@phonicsinternational.com

Debbie’s comprehensive self-study course £20: https://phonicstrainingonline.com

 

 

 

 

***How to find the one-stop route to Debbie’s work and Phonics International Ltd’s resources, guidance, training and further information linked to the reading debate: syntheticphonics.com

Over the many years that my husband David and I have provided resources, information, guidance and training, David has constructed various websites – and then, poor man, he has to keep re-constructing them because of advances in technology – phew – hard work!

We realised that we needed one website to lead to our other websites so we have used the domain syntheticphonics.com for this purpose.

Go to the ‘HUB’ page in particular for all our associated sites including our free and commercial resources:

syntheticphonics.com/one-page-express/ 

If you scroll down the page (link above) you will also find direct links to the UK Reading Reform Foundation where at one stage I was the newsletter editor (Feb 2001 – Spring Term 2004) – see the archived RRF hard copy newsletters – this is what being a ‘pioneer’ for research-informed reading instruction looks like:

rrf.org.uk/resources/newsletter-archive/

Then in 2015, a founding committee (including me) established the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction which has a very informative ‘Forum’ that is well worth visiting:

iferi.org/iferi_forum/index.php

I also really want to acknowledge in particular the fantastic work of my long-standing friends and fellow-pioneers in the UK, Anne Glennie and Susan Godsland. They provide outstanding sites and dependable, very much-appreciated personal support:

About Anne Glennie:

iferi.org/members/anne-glennie/#more-47

Read about Anne’s petition and pioneering in Scotland for evidence-informed teacher-training – supported by Sir Jim Rose himself and many other internationally renowned educationalists and researchers!

About Susan Godsland:

iferi.org/members/susan-godsland/#more-41

Visit Susan Godsland’s acclaimed site packed full of information and references linked to the reading debate and how best to teach reading.

***2018 – The emphasis in England on early language, literacy and literature continues with the establishment of 34 ‘English Hubs’, an ‘English Hubs Council’ and the ‘English Hubs Training Centre’ involving the official promotion and funding of high quality Systematic Synthetic Phonics programmes and training

Anyone who knows me appreciates that I consider myself to be first and foremost a ‘practitioner’, that is a very, very practical person!

It was years of being a teacher, tutor, mother, special needs teacher, headteacher, teacher-trainer, phonics consultant, educational columnist, newsletter editor and pioneer for research-informed reading instruction that led to me writing the Phonics International programme in 2007 (my husband David’s suggestion) – in a genuine attempt to be supportive by providing the nuts and bolts for effective teaching and learning.

And it is this self-imposed need of mine to be practical and supportive that has led to me re-visiting the Naked Emperor blog as a conduit to provide practical suggestions based on my knowledge, observations and experiences – past and present.

As of this year, 2019, I am an associate of the ‘English Hubs Training Centre’ run by Ruth Miskin Training. This Department for Education’s initiative has led to a renewed interest in phonics training in England including in my work and approach to phonics provision – which I shall share via this blog.

See here for information about the English Hubs initiative:

https://www.ruthmiskin.com/en/about-us/blog-news/article/english-hubs-training-centre/

05/06/2019 | By Ruth Miskin Training

English Hubs Training Centre

We are delighted to announce that, after a competitive tender process, Ruth Miskin Training has been appointed to run the new English Hubs Training Centre.

We will work in association with ICANNational Literacy Trust, John Walker from Sounds Write, Sue Lloyd from Jolly Phonics, Marlynne Grant from Sounds Discovery and Debbie Hepplewhite from Phonics International and Floppy Phonics.

The English Hubs programme is made up of 34 schools with a strong track record in teaching children to read, as well as promoting a love of reading. The Training Centre will train and support 180 teachers, appointed by the hubs, to become literacy specialists. These literacy specialists will go on to support teachers working in some of the most disadvantaged areas in the UK. They will support local schools with excellent teaching in phonics, early reading, early language development and building a culture of reading in Reception and Key Stage 1.

The English Hubs Council, including leading phonics experts, reading experts and headteachers, will oversee the English Hubs and Training Centre.

For more information contact admin@englishhubstc.com, or call on 020 7043 2394. 

***A Critique of the Publication ‘Letters and Sounds: Principles and Practice of High Quality Six-Phase Teaching Programme’ (DfES 2007) – Evaluate, Compare and Contrast (Part 2)

Part Two – Question 1: Does ‘Letters and Sounds’ qualify as a programme?

Whilst ‘Letters and Sounds’ is doubtless a very important landmark document – the consequence of a hugely significant historic set of circumstances (which I shall touch upon in Part Three), it is equally important for future teaching and learning standards (our continuing professional development) to analyse whether the publication actually qualifies as a ‘programme’ in real, or practical, terms to warrant its continued promotion as a programme in England and internationally.

Six years after its publication, a proper analysis of the pros and cons of ‘Letters and Sounds’ is arguably overdue and for the sake of the teaching community and the learners, we need clarity as to whether it should continue to be regarded as a programme in its own right or simply as a framework or guidance document – or perhaps the equivalent of a programme’s manual. Even when viewed as a highly detailed framework, however, what are its merits or otherwise -and is it timely to summarise where we are to date and move on with a deeper understanding of the status quo?

In England, the vast majority of schools are still identified as ‘Letters and Sounds schools’ – but what does this really mean? Most, if not all, universities for teacher-training put ‘Letters and Sounds’ central to phonics professional development for student-teachers, and across the world ‘Letters and Sounds’ is being hailed as the programme to pay regard to for high-quality systematic synthetic phonics teaching in the English language. Is this the best possible scenario for moving forwards in England and globally?

‘Letters and Sounds’ was presented to teachers in England as a programme of choice and described in its own title as a ‘High Quality Six-Phase Teaching Programme’. Multiple hard copies were provided free of charge to state infant and primary schools in England in 2007. Clearly the various people behind ‘Letters and Sounds’ considered that this was indeed a viable programme – placed alongside commercial programmes with the same teaching principles as it states on page 3 of the accompanying ‘Notes of Guidance for Practitioners and Teachers’:

‘In choosing a phonic programme, be it Letters and Sounds, another published programme or their own programme, settings and schools are encouraged to apply the criteria for high quality phonic work (see page 8 of these Notes)’.

In its entirety, ‘Letters and Sounds’ comprises:

  • Notes of guidance for practitioners and teachers;
  • a Six-phase Teaching Programme;
  • a DVD illustrating effective practice for the phases;
  • a poster showing the principles of high quality phonic-work.

In reality, the Six-phase Teaching Programme document is most likely to be regarded as the actual programme which is underpinned by the teaching principles as described in the Notes of guidance document – although many teachers may well be unaware nowadays of these different materials (above) comprising ‘Letters and Sounds’ in full. Indeed, was it possibly an error of design to describe the Simple View of Reading and the core criteria in a different set of notes from the main manual because of possible separation of the two documents? What will we find when we evaluate the information in the Notes of guidance separately from the information in the main manual? Are the pros and cons equal in both documents or does one have greater value or potential longevity more than the other?

So, is ‘Letters and Sounds’ a programme?

No – not when the following criteria are taken into consideration – and further criteria will be brought into the picture in subsequent blog postings.

The most simple and immediate way to consider this fundamental question is on the basis that ‘Letters and Sounds’ has virtually no teaching and learning resources – no stuff. 

In ordinary but varied circumstances, would teachers, tutors or parents be likely to seek, or choose, or buy a teaching and learning programme with no actual resources?

The closest ‘Letters and Sounds’ gets to providing any resources are the six ‘Phoneme spotter stories’ in Phase Five (pages 160 – 165), a lower case ‘Letter formation’ page (Appendix 2) and possibly photocopiable ‘Example group assessment sheet for grapheme-phoneme correspondences’ for Phase Two and Phase Three (pages 201 – 202). In the scale of the need for content-rich and quality teaching and learning resources for possibly up to three years of daily phonics teaching for classes of up to 30 children of various profiles, this is shamefully paltry is it not?

It is nothing less than shocking in my view that ‘Letters and Sounds’ was ever considered to be a viable programme of choice on this basis alone, regarded as comparable to existing well-known, resource-rich, systematic synthetic phonics programmes available in 2007 – and yet not only in England but also increasingly across the world, this publication is still promoted as a high-quality programme in line with the stated claims of the originators.

Furthermore, central to many phonics programmes is a mnemonic system (aid to memory) to help beginners to learn the links between the letters and letter groups and the sounds they are code for. The use of a mnemonic system is recommended in ‘Letters and Sounds’ to teach the letter/s-sound correspondences of the basic alphabetic code but only three examples are described (for /s/ s, /y/ y and /sh/ sh). Would this be considered satisfactory for a commercial programme – or indeed any body of work  presented as a high quality programme?

A programme should surely not recommend a mnemonic system and then not go on to provide it. Even if a full range of examples were described in the publication, we return to the issue that no resources are provided in ‘Letters and Sounds’ such as mnemonic flash cards, or mnemonic frieze, to support the teaching and learning of the letter/s-sound correspondences.

This means that teachers have to devise their own mnemonic system plus make their own mnemonic teaching and learning resources – or acquire them through a commercial route – so now we are no longer in the realms of ‘free’ programme because to equip ‘Letters and Sounds’ with some pretty basic resources is going to cost one way or another in terms of effort, time and money.

Could it be that the official origins of ‘Letters and Sounds’ and, in England, fear of Ofsted inspection has diminished people’s capacity to evaluate what it is and what it isn’t – and six years later people continue to be misled. For some people, however, do they turn a blind eye to the realisation that ‘Letters and Sounds’ is simply not the high quality programme that is claimed because it has now taken on a life and momentum of its own – an unstoppable phenomenon?

Quality control is far from guaranteed when it is left up to busy teachers to devise and equip a resource-less programme – and how does this square with sustained government persistence of ‘fidelity to programme’ – a notion that has been emphasised since the Rose Report (March 2006) and recently repeated in England’s government match funded phonics initiative (2011 – 2013)? Fidelity to ‘Letters and Sounds’ is impossible when teachers have to translate the guidance into resources according to their own judgement and experiences – possibly using other programmes and various commercial resources in attempts to turn ‘Letters and Sounds’ into a viable programme. Thus ‘fidelity to programme’ is surely a contradiction in terms when the guidance of a programme is simply incomplete and no resources are provided.

How identifiable are ‘Letters and Sounds’ schools when teachers in every school have had to translate the guidance into practice and when many of these schools have adopted various other programmes, resources and practices in order to apparently deliver ‘Letters and Sounds”? I use the word ‘apparently’ deliberately, because many people’s delivery of ‘Letters and Sounds’ is not necessarily recognisable as ‘Letters and Sounds’ when you return to the original documents and compare the specific suggestions with the actual practice in the schools. Further, where activities are delivered close to the original suggestions, are these practical and effective in real schools with real children on a daily and annual basis?

I have much more to add to support a view that ‘Letters and Sounds’ is not a programme and that there are dangers inherent within the guidance, but will continue to build up the picture in bite-sized chunks over time.

The continuing critique will examine likely scenarios and outcomes for teachers and children when the suggested activities described within ‘Letters and Sounds’ have been fully equipped to consider their advisability – what is the teaching and learning likely to look like when the guidance has been followed closely?

Part 3 coming soon: ‘Are the principles and practice underpinning ‘Letters and Sounds’ up-to-date and evidence-based?’

***A Critique of the Publication ‘Letters and Sounds: Principles and Practice of High Quality Phonics Six-Phase Teaching Programme’ (DfES 2007) – Evaluate, Compare and Contrast (Part 1)

Part One – The Basis for the Critique

Is further national and international perpetuation of the use of the ‘Letters and Sounds: Principles and Practice of High Quality Phonics Six-phase Teaching Programme’ as a programme in reality a current and classic example of the Naked Emperor?

Letters and Sounds

The ‘Letters and Sounds: Principles and Practice of High Quality Phonics Six-phase Teaching Programme’ publication (DfES 2007)

Note that I have included the word publication in the title of this critique as this is one aspect that I am going to examine – the criteria for a publication to qualify as ‘a programme’ – along with other issues relating to the historic events, the content, and the delivery of ‘Letters and Sounds’ in our schools, and the use of ‘Letters and Sounds’ in our universities for training student-teachers in England – and further, the perpetuation of this publication in England and overseas.

My interest in teaching methods and their effectiveness extends to an international perspective– and increasingly I note that ‘Letters and Sounds’ is not only regarded as a leading publication in England – but also around the world, for example in international schools and in whole regions such as Western Australia.

 

Here are examples of questions that I suggest need asking:

  1. Does ‘Letters and Sounds’ qualify as a programme?
  2. Are the principles and practice underpinning ‘Letters and Sounds’ up-to-date and evidence-based?
  3. Is the content adequate, and are the suggestions for games and activities adequate and deliverable, and are the time-scales adequate, to support teachers in providing mainstream and special needs teaching over a period of broadly four years for whole classes and individuals (approximately three year olds to seven year olds – in England this would equate to Foundation Stage One and Two, and Key Stage One)?
  4. In the light of the passage of time (at the time of writing, six years following the publication), can we identify and understand any particularly positive or negative features in ‘Letters and Sounds’ to address for our continuing professional development?
  5. Further, can we recognize any patterns of practice of teachers’ translation of the guidance in our schools in positive and/or negative ways – and, if so, how can teachers adjust their practice accordingly for potentially greater benefits?
  6. Can we identify features of teacher-training in our universities and in-service training associated with ‘Letters and Sounds’ which is, or is not, sufficiently in-depth to move the teaching profession forwards?
  7. Do professionals (e.g. teachers/advisors/inspectors/trainers/curriculum developers) have sufficient knowledge and capacity to be able to evaluate, compare and contrast features and results, or likely results, of ‘Letters and Sounds‘ and of phonics programmes – commercial or in-house?
  8. Does professional development include support and capacity for teachers – and others – to evaluate, compare and contrast programme-content and teacher-practices of any phonics programmes and practices?
  9. Are the universities associated with teacher-education looking into the range of relevant issues such as those above?

Thus, the imperative in my mind for this critique is based on my particular interest and specialism in the field of literacy, my personal opinion regarding the content of ‘Letters and Sounds’ on a practical level, my observations in some schools in England and overseas of the translation by teachers of ‘Letters and Sounds’ guidance into practice and the hardship for teachers and children that this is in danger of causing, and my concern regarding teachers’ professional development in terms of building on findings to date – in other words, I suggest that there are dangers inherent in ‘treading water’ or being complacent on any level.

This multi-part posting will form the basis of a detailed critique of the ‘Letters and Sounds’ publication which I shall eventually provide as a one-piece paper. In truth, I think a detailed and deep evaluation is potentially so important for moving the education profession forwards that I perceive any evaluation must be as objective as possible (when in reality no one person can be truly objective). For the critique to have any value, it needs to be very detailed and not superficial in order to evidence opinion as far as is practicable – my critique itself must stand up to scrutiny.

I suggest that a critique was needed from the outset of ‘Letters and Sounds’ being rolled out in 2007 – when it was provided as multiple copies of free hard-copy material in infant and primary schools in England and presented as a possible ‘programme of choice’. With the weight and authority of this being presented as the government ‘programme’ and the climate of ‘what would Ofsted [inspectors] want to see’ setting the scene – and the fact it was free of charge therefore to all intents and purposes with no associated commercial vested interests, naturally many schools ‘chose’ to base their phonics provision on ‘Letters and Sounds’. What has been the effect of this?

What is the effect now?

It is important, however, to understand the important sequence of events leading up to the publication of ‘Letters and Sounds’ which is, no-one can deny, a landmark document.

Part Two to follow shortly…

 

***How to Reduce Learning Difficulties – for Teachers and Learners Alike!

Sharing news and evidence-based information – essential for the teaching profession, and invaluable in the public domain

Many years ago, when I took over the organisation of the UK Reading Reform Foundation and edited its newsletter, I wanted to get important information out to the teaching profession in such a form that it was not intimidating and actually too onerous to be read by very busy teachers – but beyond just a chatty teachers’ feel-good newsletter.

Content needed to be both evidence-based and reflecting first-hand experience – so with a ‘human touch’ ethos to underpin a serious newsletter with which teachers, and parents, could identify.

At that time, it was also important to produce the newsletter in hard-copy so that it could actually be put direct into busy teachers’ hands!

No small task then.

As it turned out, being a very busy teacher and parent myself, this was an extremely challenging aim which I struggled to achieve by the calendar – but thankfully, the advent of the internet allowed the Reading Reform Foundation to provide links to the research, classroom findings and academic articles whilst also providing a message forum to add to the human touch and to reflect ongoing developments and discussions. Thus the website succeeded the RRF newsletter and the hard-copy newsletters are archived electronically.

The very existence of a one-stop place to link to all the evidence (internationally) was also important as part of holding those in authority to account for teacher-training and professional development – and information in the public domain provides an additional means for lobbying purposes.

Recently I was invited by the Learning Difficulties Australia organization (LDA) to write an article about the Year One Phonics Screening Check in England and its negative press. I was forwarded the current LDA bulletin for my information.

My first thoughts were how excellent it was to read the articles relating not only to the scenario in Australia but also calling upon events and research in the UK and in America. You see, we need to look at research findings internationally to truly develop our teaching profession – and such information surely belongs in the public domain as it is everyone’s children whom we hope to educate to the best of our ability.

It was very disappointing to find that the LDA bulletin is accessible to LDA members only – so I appealed to my international contacts, Molly de Lemos and Kevin Wheldall, to seek permission from the LDA committee to provide their bulletin freely for the advantage of everyone.

Thank you so much to Molly and Kevin for their efforts and to the LDA committee for their permission – now anyone can read the excellent articles in the current bulletin as free access has been provided for a temporary period.

Moving forwards, I would urge the LDA to consider sharing all their invaluable bulletins freely. Everyone will benefit from the kind of information provided.

There would not be so many children with learning difficulties and weak literacy if the teaching profession were better informed and fully involved in developments to increase their knowledge and hone their skills accordingly.

www.ldaustralia.org

www.ldaustralia.org/client/documents/Bulletin-SEPT13-WEB.pdf

 

***DfE and Ofsted – left hand, ‘write’ hand?

I suggest that the Department for Education’s official ‘criteria for assuring high-quality phonic work’ neglects to pay specific attention to handwriting – and Ofsted clearly hasn’t understood the principle of avoiding ‘circuitous routes’!

References are made in the DfE’s official ‘core criteria’ to the use of a ‘multi-sensory approach so that children learn variously from simultaneous visual, auditory and kinaesthetic activities which are designed to secure essential phonic knowledge and skills’ but invariably this is interpreted as all sorts of play-based activities which do exactly what is warned about in the core criteria at point 5 which states:

5. Multi-sensory activities should be interesting and engaging but firmly focused on intensifying the learning associated with its phonic goal. They should avoid taking children down a circuitous route only tenuously linked to the goal. This means avoiding over-elaborate activities that are difficult to manage and take too long to complete, thus distracting the children from concentrating on the learning goal.

A number of phonics specialists, me included, have taken Ofsted to task for uploading video clips with precisely the kind of ‘circuitous route’ which is ‘distracting the children from concentrating on the learning goal’. Ofsted – Is this a bit of an ‘own goal’? We see children trying to do a bit of phonics spelling on mini whiteboards whilst sitting on the playground and at the same time trying to play the parachute game. It’s all rather bizarre.

Ofsted, methinks you may be trying to soften your image perhaps?

Ofsted has paid insufficient attention to the DfE ‘core criteria’ and certainly hasn’t helped teacher-trainers and programme-authors in their endeavour to clarify what ‘multi-sensory’ looks like for the most effective and appropriate phonics teaching!

A break-down of the phonics components required for teaching and learning illustrates how handwriting is linked heavily to both teaching the alphabetic code and the alphabet and is essential for high-quality phonics provision. It’s a great pity that I seem to be swimming against the tide when it comes to children using actual paper and pencils to practise their skills when mini whiteboard ‘activities’ (and carpet sitting) dominate educational practice in England from the teenies right up to the teens! But what could be more fit-for-purpose than paper and pencil practice sitting comfortably at tables when teaching reading, spelling and handwriting?

Also on the Ofsted videos we see, sorry to say, some Y1 teacher’s handwriting which is not great (lovely chap though) and some worrying infant practice. We see one lovely little girl writing on her mini whiteboard from bottom to top! Ofsted – is this really your definition of ‘outstanding practice’?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NeVlJxthnZc

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TmM9KqmQhcs

Ah, that explains it, you tell us you weren’t looking to scrutinise ‘handwriting’ on this occasion. After all, it’s not mentioned in the ‘core criteria’ so it’s clearly not important.

See ‘Debbie Hepplewhite’s Model of the three phonics core skills and their sub-skills’ – you may find this useful to see how much is involved with the teaching of handwriting.

Go here for free alphabet resources and guidance on my handwriting website.

Here is the official ‘core criteria’ provided by the Department for Education (DfE) in England:

Criteria for assuring high-quality phonic work

The core criteria provide schools with clearly defined key features of an effective, systematic, synthetic phonics programme.

Published programmes for phonic work should meet each of the following criteria. Further explanatory notes are offered below.

The programme should:

  • present high quality systematic, synthetic phonic work as the prime approach to decoding print, i.e. a phonics ‘first and fast’ approach (see note 1)
  • enable children to start learning phonic knowledge and skills using a systematic, synthetic programme by the age of five, with the expectation that they will be fluent readers having secured word recognition skills by the end of key stage one (see note 2)
  • be designed for the teaching of discrete, daily sessions progressing from simple to more complex phonic knowledge and skills and covering the major grapheme/phoneme correspondences (see note 3)
  • enable children’s progress to be assessed (see note 4)
  • use a multi-sensory approach so that children learn variously from simultaneous visual, auditory and kinaesthetic activities which are designed to secure essential phonic knowledge and skills (see note 5)
  • demonstrate that phonemes should be blended, in order, from left to right, ‘all through the word’ for reading
  • demonstrate how words can be segmented into their constituent phonemes for spelling and that this is the reverse of blending phonemes to read words
  • ensure children apply phonic knowledge and skills as their first approach to reading and spelling even if a word is not completely phonically regular
  • ensure that children are taught high frequency words that do not conform completely to grapheme/phoneme correspondence rules
  • provide fidelity to the teaching framework for the duration of the programme, to ensure that these irregular words are fully learnt (see note 6)
  • ensure that as pupils move through the early stages of acquiring phonics, they are invited to practise by reading texts which are entirely decodable for them, so that they experience success and learn to rely on phonemic strategies (see note 7).

Explanatory notes

1. Phonic work is best understood as a body of knowledge and skills about how the alphabet works, rather than one of a range of optional ‘methods’ or ‘strategies’ for teaching children how to read. For example, phonic programmes should not encourage children to guess words from non-phonic clues such as pictures before applying phonic knowledge and skills. High quality systematic, synthetic phonic work will make sure that children learn:

  • grapheme/phoneme (letter/sound) correspondences ( the alphabetic principle) in a clearly defined, incremental sequence;
  • to apply the highly important skill of blending (synthesising) phonemes, in order, all through a word to read it;
  • to apply the skills of segmenting words into their constituent phonemes to spell; and that
  • blending and segmenting are reversible processes.

2. Teachers will make principled, professional judgements about when to start on a systematic, synthetic programme of phonic work but it is reasonable to expect that the great majority of children will be capable of, and benefit from doing so by the age of five. It is equally important for the programme to be designed so that children become fluent readers having secured word recognition skills by the end of key stage one.

3. The programme should introduce a defined initial group of consonants and vowels, enabling children, early on, to read and spell many simple CVC words.

4. If the programme is high quality, systematic and synthetic it will, by design, map incremental progression in phonic knowledge and skills. It should therefore enable teachers to: track children’s progress; assess for further learning and identify incipient difficulties, so that appropriate support can be provided.

5. Multi-sensory activities should be interesting and engaging but firmly focused on intensifying the learning associated with its phonic goal. They should avoid taking children down a circuitous route only tenuously linked to the goal. This means avoiding over-elaborate activities that are difficult to manage and take too long to complete, thus distracting the children from concentrating on the learning goal.

6. The programme should not neglect engaging and helpful approaches to the more challenging levels where children have to distinguish between phonically irregular graphemes and phonemes.

7. It is important that texts are of the appropriate level for children to apply and practise the phonic knowledge and skills that they have learnt. Children should not be expected to use strategies such as whole-word recognition and/or cues from context, grammar, or pictures.