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 as the headteacher of a primary 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 the pdf resources themselves are ‘free’ and 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 is in place and teachers are held to account for the way they use the programme – 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 provided 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 linked to the associated sounds. 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 find the additional packages supplied for Early Years to be particularly helpful. 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. The excellent Teeny Reading Seeds package uses the same key principles behind the main Phonics International programme but enables us to introduce the concept of letter sound correspondences and blending with the basic alphabet letters in any order with suggestions for links with the wider curriculum. Children at this stage tend to have emotional links to certain letters (for example, in their names) and will enjoy toys such as magnetic letters and alphabet puzzles, so this interest can be maximised. In addition, Phonics International Ltd provides two activity books Phonics and Talk Time with systematic, cumulative content for the phonics skills and sub-skills – linked to lower case and capital letters. Parents and carers also have access to these free resources. The ethos for phonics introductions in nursery is not pressurised as it is about ‘exposure, experience but no expectation‘ – that is, children will assimilate what they are capable of then they simply start from the beginning of the systematic synthetic phonics provision in Reception with some good foundations.
In our Reception class we mainly use the resources in the Early Years Starter Package which is like a programme-within-a-programme of the Phonics International range of resources. We find we can comfortably cover the code in units 1-5 during the year, which gives children an excellent start with their reading. Our Foundation Stage children make excellent progress from their starting points.
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 and focus on the grapheme being the trigger for memory. By starting the full programme in Year 1, covering the code in units 2-5 again before adding Unit 6, we enable children to consolidate their learning for writing and spelling, when many children are developmentally more ready for this aspect. 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%.
We are finding it particularly useful to be able to integrate some of the hard copy resources from No Nonsense Phonics into our teaching, secure in the knowledge that we are not compromising the methodology of our programme by doing so. For example, having the hard copy reading books for the early stages, and the ready made alphabetic code friezes and flashcards, is a huge bonus for teacher workload. We are trialling the use of the No Nonsense Phonics Skills pupil books for some of our intervention resources (we were previously making these up from Phonics International into booklets ourselves). This is popular and going well. We are beginning to integrate Wand Phonics into both intervention and whole class work as an additional resource. We are at the early stages of this but mostly because I have been with Phonics International since the early days and I am not used to having it – however, for the younger teachers who like an electronic resource I think having this ‘on the side’ is a big bonus, as the resources are all in line with the methodology and there is no chance of diluting the key messages.
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
Note from Debbie Hepplewhite:
Rachel must take full credit for instigating the resources provided by Phonics International Ltd for nursery provision. Rachel brought her experience and her ambitions for fulfilling children’s potential and following the interests of the three to four year olds during her in-depth experience as their nursery teacher. Rachel’s suggestions coincided with various nursery practitioners approaching Debbie for advice and support for their phonics provision. Rachel contributed curriculum plans and resource ideas which were then further developed and led to the creation of the Teeny Reading Seeds package of resources.
Abigail Steel was influential in prompting Debbie’s development of the Early Years Starter Package of Phonics International Ltd as she suggested that some of the core resources of the full Phonics International programme may not present as teacher-appealing or child-friendly enough for four to five year olds because of preconceived ideas of many Early Years teachers regarding ‘what children like‘. Abi has gone on to create the Rocket Phonics systematic synthetic phonics programme for infants and also provides consultancy and training from nursery-aged children through to secondary. Abi, Debbie and Rachel all note the continued needs for training and resources for at least some pupils in secondary schools and special schools – not just ‘infants’.
Debbie recommends that Early Years and Infant Teachers explore the full range of not only the ‘core and essential‘ Phonics International resources in Units 1 to 6 (of the 12 Units of resources) but also the additional resources for games and activities in Units 1 to 6 – all of which have specific learning intentions and can be useful for continuous provision, for intervention and assessment, and for providing in the home as additional phonics resources.
See Debbie’s introduction to her rationale and programme-design, and free training with full course notes, to learn about her Two-pronged systematic and incidental phonics teaching and learning approach – including teaching English as an Additional Language (1 hour 35 minutes duration).
Debbie has designed various packages of phonics resources to be complementary to Phonics International. Visit this page to learn more about the Wand Phonics digital interactive resource.
For teachers interested to learn about Debbie’s approach to teaching fully joined handwriting from Year 2 and for remedial provision for older pupils, visit this site for video suggestions and free alphabet and handwriting resources.
PLEASE NOTE: From June 2022, The No Nonsense Phonics Skills resources are published by Phonics International Ltd and not Raintree Publishers. Thank you to the Raintree team for supporting with the development of the No Nonsense Phonics Skills Starter Kit resource. This will remain available and provided by Phonics International Ltd as originally described and sold. Full information and free training for the No Nonsense Phonics Skills resources are available via the ‘About No Nonsense Phonics‘ page HERE.