The implementation of a systematic synthetic phonics programme was a period of real self-reflection.
Without doubt, I knew the essential ingredients of good phonics teaching. But I was quickly humbled by the depth of knowledge within the SSP programme handbooks I had chosen to implement.
I learned that the systematic synthetic phonics programme was far more ambitious than I ever had been, in terms of the pace with which sounds were introduced, and the range of vocabulary which children were exposed to, as well as the more explicit correlation between word and sentence level reading. Letters and Sounds had limited the range of words I’d invited my children to read and spell for years, and I’d actually paid too little attention to building a rich vocabulary, in part because the children in my first school enjoyed a good one without the need for explicit teaching – not so in my subsequent settings. I learned that a good proportion of the taught sessions pre-synthetic phonics were dominated by the adults – with too few opportunities for children to practice reading and spelling independently.
During a 30-minute session, children were now expected to read and spell in excess of 30-40 words, compared to a previous high of 10-20. A simple but hugely powerful matter. I also realised that the emphasis on spelling as children moved into Year 2 had curtailed reading instruction, and a disproportionate amount of time was instead being given to spelling. This programme taught the skills of blending and segmenting in equal proportion, and the speed and accuracy of decoding literally shot through the roof as a result. Most shockingly, I realised that I had come to accept that 20% of children would lag behind, and I left them to find their way with reading into KS2, where phonics instruction was no more than a phonics intervention session a few times per week, along with all the limitations of too little subject knowledge and expertise amongst the staff in KS2. I learned that phonics instruction throughout Key Stage 2 is a wholly worthwhile endeavour to secure the future of all pupils as readers.
Over the next decade, I have worked alongside talented colleagues in seven schools implementing this trusty systematic synthetic phonics programme. The proportion of children learning to read has risen without fail in each of those settings, some from incredibly low starting points. I certainly do not accept that 20% of seven year olds simply might not be able to read at the expected standard by the end of Year 2, and our rigorous approach to the teaching and assessment of phonics instruction has had a definite impact. Those children who have benefited from seven years of phonics instruction are accurate, fluent, confident and discerning readers. They also love reading, as a by-product – for children who can read with automaticity, reading widely for enjoyment is an inherent part of the process.
Stage four: the next leg
In the few days before the world went into a pandemic, I enjoyed an Ofsted inspection under the new framework. Ofsted inspectors, fresh from their phonics training and pumped with their newfound expertise, raised so many questions about our approach to early reading that it provoked just another moment of reflection for us. Currently, across the five schools I work with as Executive Principal, we are embarking once more on a period of less sureness in our phonics strategy. We have embarked upon a new partnership with Reading Planet Rocket Phonics in our ongoing mission to get this crucial aspect of our daily provision right for our children.
Studying the Rocket Phonics materials, I can once again see some strengthening of our previous approach – no matter how strong the headline figures we’ve been able to secure in the past, never has there been a better time to achieve more in less time given the impact of the pandemic upon our youngest readers. Rocket Phonics builds on everything we have previously learned and continues to hit the spot in terms of pace, pitch and expectation, vocabulary development and rigour. There is an equal balance in the teaching of blending and segmenting. On top of all of that, we note another couple of layers that we feel confident will further accelerate the progress of our children, notably the direct correlation of the reading scheme (Target Practice Readers for the whole class) allowing children to develop their reading in line with their phonics instruction.
The keep-up - not catch-up - methodology chimes with me massively: a phonics programme of study delivered at a good pace, consistently well taught, with adults picking up children who are not keeping up with the majority and doing something about it. Why wait until there is a whole string of phoneme-grapheme correspondences missing? The extensive and excellent training provided has given us all an opportunity to refresh our thinking, to discuss anew what each element of the programme will help our children to achieve, and to throw out any bad habits and complacency that have built up, over time. Having been in the thick of phonics teaching for the best part of twenty five years, I think phonics teaching is one area where we all form a series of habits and complacencies, and I am all for the continual challenging of our own thinking in our teaching of early reading.
Having been hailed as an expert in phonics instruction for the majority of my career, there have been so many times I’ve come to realise I’ve missed a very simple opportunity to strengthen practice: it’s never failed to surprise me, I’m not going to lie… But, as Henry Ford said, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”
Never has that been truer than when it comes to phonics.
Click here to read Part 1 of this blog series.
About the blog author: Sam Bailey is Executive Principal with Wellspring Academy Trust, leading five primary schools across Leeds and Barnsle
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