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 Six-Phase Teaching Programme’ (DfES 2007) – Evaluate, Compare and Contrast (Part 2)
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4 thoughts on “***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)

  • February 4, 2016 at 10:12 am

    Now 2016, I never did complete my series of postings focused on evaluating ‘Letters and Sounds’ in full.

    Nevertheless, I hope the first two parts of my critique were sufficient for readers to evaluate ‘Letters and Sounds’ with a critical eye.

    So, a few years later, I felt it important to devise a graphic (below), which I based on the ‘Simple View of Reading’ diagram, to illustrate my findings on first-hand observations in early years, infant and primary settings in England.

    Please note that of course the profile of schools’ phonics provision will be more complex than this graphic suggests, and different classes within schools will receive different phonics provision – and schools’ provision changes over time (not necessarily on an upwards trajectory!). What I do know is that teachers work hard everywhere but it is not uncommon that teachers are misguidedly restricting their phonics provision to ’20 minutes a day’ as they perceive this is what they need to provide according to ‘Letters and Sounds’ but this is to ‘miss’ that the pupils need to gain their practice of applying their phonics knowledge and skills beyond this ’20 minutes’.

    This means that whilst teachers work really hard, the children may not get sufficient practice or the right kind of practice or balance of practice.

    Most worryingly, despite the research evidence for teachers to guard against children guessing the words on the page, ‘multi-cueing guessing-words reading strategies’ still persist:

    See ‘The Simple View of Schools’ Phonics Provision’:

    To read about the findings of research and current events in the field of reading instruction in the English language, you might be interested in the site of the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction here:

  • November 26, 2019 at 2:39 pm

    Now November 2019, once again I am updating this post with the current developments in England with reference to the ‘Letters and Sounds’ (DfES, 2007) publication.

    The Department for Education has launched another funded, or part-funded, initiative focused on early learning, literacy and literature. 34 schools achieving very highly in the statutory Year One Phonics Screening Check and identified as providing quality teaching and experiences for beginners have been established as ‘English Hubs’.

    These schools provide ‘showcase events’ to encourage their regional schools to take part in the initiative.

    ‘Ruth Miskin Training’ was successful in an official bid to head up and coordinate this initiative as an ‘English Hubs Training Centre’ (EHTC) in association with various organisations and people.

    See here for a brief description of the initiative and the list of organisations, people and programmes associated with the EHTC:

    If you’ve followed the link, you will see that I am an associate of the English Hubs Training Centre and represent both the Oxford Reading Tree Floppy’s Phonics programme (Oxford University Press) and the Phonics International programme (Phonics International Ltd).

    Abigail Steel and I are the official trainers for Floppy’s Phonics and Phonics international for this initiative.

    Nearly a third of the English Hubs identify themselves as ‘Letters and Sounds’ schools demonstrating that it is possible for teachers to translate and equip ‘Letters and Sounds’ in such a way that they can achieve results of the highest levels.

    This makes the scenario in England very complex as it means that identified ‘partner schools’ in the initiative can choose ‘Letters and Sounds’ as their core phonics ‘programme’ even though they are then not supposed to be using the commercial resources (such as friezes and flash cards) of other phonics programmes to prop up their phonics provision because they are officially instructed to apply ‘fidelity to programme’ and not ‘mix and match’.

    Bit of a muddle if you ask me.

    And if anyone was to conduct a truly transparent evaluation of what the various accredited phonics programmes provide for teaching and learning resources, would ‘Letters and Sounds’ really pass muster in comparison?

  • May 7, 2020 at 7:37 am

    My biggest concern with this approach is that students are taught multiple GPC’s in the same session. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘confused me thoroughly’ method.

    Here is an example;
    words containing…
    as in me
    as in tree
    as in beach
    as in pony
    as in chief
    as in ceiling

    Plus a prefix, homophones and a Greek root

    …all in one session…mind boggling!

    Surely, one GPC per session/week from the start to the end of Primary school is best practise as constant opportunities of revision is present in words studied.

    The best example of this scope and sequence I have seen is SMART spelling in Australia. This also comes with a practical methodologies and resources, something which Letters to Sound sorely lacks. It takes a very experienced and knowledgeable teacher of spelling to deconstruct L to S to focus a) develop high quality resources and b) transmit from the basis overview of a session to a week/fortnights practical teaching.

    • May 7, 2020 at 9:57 am

      Hi Bob, thank you for your comment.

      As you mention a spelling scheme in Australia, I wonder if you are more aware of programmes and practices there than in England?

      The reality is that there are only a small handful of accredited programmes promoted and funded (in part) by the Department for Education (DfE) in England – and these are all different in their approach regarding the ‘pace’ of how quickly the letter/s-sound correspondences are introduced, their ‘order’ of introducing those correspondences and ‘which’ they introduce and ‘when’!

      I don’t know that any of them jump right in and introduce all those spelling alternatives at the same time – although my programmes provide overview Alphabetic Code Charts that show a comprehensive range of spellings that are code for the sounds because the rationale of the programmes is teaching a ‘code’ – and showing it is a complex one at that. To start with, however, the letter/s-sound correspondences are introduced one at a time in a set sequence.

      So, I appreciate your concern but suggest you are possibly a bit misguided as to the phonics programmes and their approaches in England.

      I certainly agree with you, however, that to teach such a wide range of spelling alternatives in the same session as if this is the norm and from the outset is confusing and not one that I personally promote.

      In England it is expected that teachers would provide one discrete phonics session a day – or perhaps four per week. Some programmes might introduce one different grapheme a day so around four over a week.

      That is not my suggested pace. I have a ‘two session’ approach whereby a new or focus letter/s-sound correspondence is introduced in session one but a second session features the same correspondence and this enables ample practice for the children to work with their own content-rich materials (paper-based) at code, word and cumulative sentences or texts for reading, vocabulary enrichment, spelling, language comprehension (and building up knowledge of spelling word banks over time).

      I think that lack of teaching and learning resources of ‘Letters and Sounds’ (DfES, 2007) has caused great hardship for many teachers as they have tried to equip it. That’s a huge ask for a programme covering at least two or more years of content. Teachers have done this variously – some to good effect, but not so other teachers – no fault of their own. ‘Letters and Sounds’ should have been kept as a ‘framework’ and not labelled as a ‘programme’. Some schools (meaning the teachers and learners) suffer to this day – and teachers don’t understand why they can work so hard on what they have been instructed and not get the results of other teachers. Then they consider it must be the challenges of the children and their home environments because the teachers are ‘doing’ Letters and Sounds in good faith.

      Best wishes, Debbie


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