Author Archives: Debbie

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 ). 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.


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:


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:


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:

Donald Potter




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


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:

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.

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:

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):

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’s comprehensive self-study course £20:





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:

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 for this purpose.

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

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:

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:

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:

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:

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

2019 – 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:

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, 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…