Category Archives: DfE (Department for Education – UK)

***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…


***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’?

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.