The impact of the Phonics International programme by Rachel Hornsey – June 2021
Our school vision, which is a thread running throughout our curriculum, is: “We work to provide our children with strong foundations on which to build their lives through core values and the love of each other.” Every aspect of our planned curriculum and every resource we choose to implement in the school is seen through this test – is this resource the very best there is available for our children in our context to give them the strongest foundations for their learning? There can be no area in the primary curriculum more important than the establishment of firm foundations for early reading.
I have worked with the Phonics International programme in various different settings over the past twelve years. As an English consultant, leader in school, and for the past five years a headteacher of a school that has made huge strides with data, I can honestly say that there is no better programme available. Not only do I consider that Phonics International is the best, it is also the most cost effective option for schools as its set up costs are minimal. I have seen excellent results when it is used as it is designed in every setting I have worked in, and I continue to recommend it whenever I am asked for advice.
The guidance for staff is clear. Here is a health warning – it must be used in line with the guidance. The programme is incredibly carefully designed to include huge amounts of interleaving and retrieval practice as the children accumulate knowledge. That said, I have found the key routines to be simple to establish, easy for staff to understand and – providing a robust quality assurance process in in place and teachers are held to account for the way they use it – the teaching fits seamlessly into good practice throughout the primary school.
The pace of introduction can be planned simply as the Alphabetic Code Charts make the order for learning the sounds clear. We like the way that blending is given far more focus than in many other programmes – for example, right from the very start children are encouraged to blend up to five known letter-sound correspondences in printed words rather than just three as is common in most programmes. This has the double effect of forcing more frequent retrieval of sounds and also pushing children to desirable difficulty as they grapple with longer words.
Each letter-sound correspondence has clear teacher guidance for the teaching on the core ‘Sounds Book Activity Sheets’. We particularly like the fact that the resources are relatively plain and focus clearly on the concept of text on a page – there are no extraneous gimmicks and the routines quickly become embedded. After introduction of a new letter-sound correspondence, the key feature is the emphasis on independent practice. The ‘Sounds Book Activity Sheets’ are provided for each letter-sound correspondence which revise previously learned correspondences and the new code introduced in a series of words which also boost vocabulary. The routines ensure every child can practise sounding out and blending with appropriate resources and then move on to practise the skills of encoding and spelling. Handwriting is also practised. The children quickly understand what is expected of them and take responsibility for this, and teaching assistants can easily be skilled to work with the whole class or groups, as is best practice. There is also extended practice for children with huge amounts of cumulative decodable texts in the form of stories and sentences which are used alongside the practice sheets. All of these are printable as booklets and provide plenty of practice material, reducing the need for expensive resources that offer little additional learning benefit.
The organisation of the programme into 12 Units is crystal clear and logical from the start – for example, in the very first unit the children are introduced to the concept that two letters can represent one sound, with the grapheme ‘-ck’. As quickly as the second unit, children are introduced to the idea that one letter can represent more than one sound, such as the letter ‘o’ as the /u/ sound in love and Monday, and ‘-y’ as the /ee/ sound in Mummy and Daddy. Throughout the programme, the units are colour coded so the adult planning the learning can see exactly where each letter-sound correspondence falls in the sequence, and they can be sure that all resources in that unit will deliberately practice the retrieval of previously learned code.
Another massive bonus is that ‘tricky’ words are introduced systematically in line with the units, avoiding the confusion which is common still amongst some teachers and parents that ‘some words in English do not follow the rules.’
The other huge selling point of Phonics International is that it is a whole school programme. The routines establish the basics of effective reading and spelling teaching to the very highest level. For example, with our highest prior attainers, we are still getting value out of it in Year 6. The various sheets for the more complex code introduce wide vocabulary and provide much opportunity for the discussion of word roots and origins. By sticking to the same routines throughout school, we also continue to prepare children to continue learning new spelling and vocabulary as they move into Key Stage 3 – they will know how to split words into phonemes and identify the challenging parts, and they will be fearless to decode new vocabulary.
Catch up intervention is easily delivered as the routines can be used to establish short-burst sessions which are highly focused with minimal additional training required for staff to deliver them to a high standard. It is also simple to set up bespoke programmes where parents can become involved as well, using aspects such as the ‘My Words’ resource and the cumulative decodable (matched) texts to practise. For a minimal cost, work booklets which contain all the resources for intervention focused on a particular unit can be printed out. There are effective, focused assessments to track the letter-sound correspondences children know and the stage of blending they are at. Children can move seamlessly in and out of intervention as they need it throughout Key Stage 1 and 2 – often, for young children, external circumstances can make them fall behind for a short time and so it is vital that intervention is very flexible and can be tailored locally.
As part of a 3-18 Multi Academy Trust, I have also been working with secondary partners to establish best practice for students with low literacy levels in Key Stage 3 using Phonics International.
In my current school, we have taken the decision to delay the start of the programme until Year 1. Our focus in the Foundation Stage (which includes a Nursery class) is on building phonemic awareness, clarity of spoken delivery, and understanding the principles behind reading and writing. We have a high proportion of children who enter with low language levels and our catchment contains between 30-40% disadvantaged children. We use a variety of early language resources including Renfrew assessments to track progress. Phonics and Early Reading is delivered through Jolly Phonics, as we have found that this emphasises the clear pronunciation of the sound through the actions and stories that accompany the learning. Our Foundation Stage children make excellent progress from their starting points.
However, there are a wealth of resources within the Phonics International programme for anyone wishing to start in Reception which are especially designed for this age group, including in the ‘Early Years Starter Package’ which is like a programme-within-a-programme of the Phonics International range of resources.
As our children move into Year 1, we know them really well and are aware of any support they need to start the full Phonics International programme. For example, some children we have identified with poor short term memory benefit from pre-teaching and extra practice. As we start the programme, we encourage children to drop the actions they used in Early Years with Jolly Phonics and focus on the grapheme being the trigger for memory. By starting afresh in Year 1, we can link this development to children’s growing sense of their own maturity. We avoid picture cues from this stage. The routines from this stage are relatively formal and there is a high expectation in terms of the ownership children take of their own learning and their ability to manage the tasks independently. Armed with the knowledge we have about the children from their Foundation Stage Profiles, we are able to move at a rapid pace and keep the class together, including the lowest 20%.
Primary school data should always be viewed cautiously as we are usually talking about low numbers of children which can make statistical comparisons unhelpful However, at the last set of National Data in 2019, our results were as follows:
We track our most vulnerable learners carefully. For example, we can see that in 2019 at Key Stage 1, 63% of disadvantaged children made expected or above expected progress from Reception in reading, and 100% did so in writing.
We have continued to make progress despite the pandemic. The programme has been flexible enough to move easily online using recorded lessons, and parents were quick to support the routines with our youngest children. Whilst in school, the assessment materials and the way intervention can be arranged rapidly in a bespoke way without launching costly and time-consuming new programmes has meant we have been able to support children to catch up quickly. Using past assessment papers, we estimate that we will achieve the following attainment:
This data indicates we have seen almost no learning loss as a result of the disruption.
Our reading and writing curriculum is rooted in spoken language, vocabulary development, and a love of story and text. Phonics International provides the foundation on which the key element of decoding and encoding text is built.
There can be no doubt that Phonics International is a key programme in the delivery of our school vision to provide children with firm foundations for learning and life for the following reasons:
• Exceptionally clear structure
• A wealth of resources
• Clear routines for staff and children
• Mastery approaches embedded
• Agile intervention
• The basis for a reading and spelling strategy for aged 4+ to adult
(suitable for use in 3-18 MATs)
• High quality online training
• Exceptionally cost effective
Sutton Courtenay Church of England Primary School
Tel: 01235 848 333