Teacher view: Discovering systematic synthetic phonics

In the first of two blogs, Executive Principal (Wellspring Academy Trust, Leeds) Sam Bailey, explains her journey to systematic synthetic phonics teaching. It begins at a time before Letters and Sounds and the Phonics Screening Check (remember those days?!) at ‘stage zero: novice’…

Stage Zero: novice

When I arrived on the teaching scene back in 1997, I was one of the first cohorts to be ‘trained’ in all things ‘Literacy Strategy’. Some of us still remember the well-documented structure of lessons, and the folder full of objectives for pupils to learn. At least ‘Mastery’ was not a thing back then, and so coverage was a bit of a conundrum to tackle but provided you had: job done. Most days started with a ‘Big Book’ and, by the end of the week, the children in my class knew the story well and happily read along with me. We even had some pictures and captions, or - as the year wore on - a list, a letter or even a story, based on the text of choice. Life really was that simple!

 In phonics and reading – there was something of a disconnect which even I, as a Newly Qualified and full of enthusiasm teacher, recognised. Children learned to read in my class back then via these magical shared reads of the Big Book, plus additional Guided Reading sessions.  I embraced each session on a wild carousel ride, with children rotating through reading with an adult and independently each week and of course completing a range of simple follow on tasks – all independently. Think about that, for a moment. Using a whole host of strategies no more sophisticated than guesswork – using pictures, known key words and often (quite bizarrely) just the initial sound in a word - children simply learned to read by practice, until one day – almost by a miracle – the majority could read at a level deemed acceptable for their age. Except for those who did not have the opportunity to practice reading at home – theirs was often a slower journey – but there were not many of those in my class, back then. As an NQT – I once had a 1:1 session with the then English Leader in my school and was told that the Reception reading scheme was three levels (imaginatively called Stage 1, Stage 2 and Stage 3) and that I should ensure that the children read all the books in each stage before moving the children on to the next stage. Absolutely idiot proof, she said.

So what was my phonics approach? Unlike most of my colleagues, I did buy into phonics massively. I saw it as the most reliable of the searchlights and did lean towards this as a more concrete way of teaching a child to read. However, my approach was fundamentally flawed as it was all a bit haphazard. There was no whole-school curriculum for phonics and so (I am embarrassed to tell you now!) I went for a bit of an alphabetical order kind of approach. We did a lot of work on onset and rhyme, and also taught in blend families (think bl-, fr-, sn- , for example). We worked our way through the entire alphabet at roughly a sound a week and – by the summer term – we had enough sounds under our belt to be reading CVC words confidently. That was my end of year expectation in Reception – and everyone was thrilled with that as an outcome for the majority of five year olds in my then leafy lane school. Yep – we had seriously low expectations and a haphazard approach that we somehow never questioned because these outcomes were comparable for all children by the end of Reception. 

Stage One: vacuum expertise

By the time the DfE Letters and Sounds was released in 2007, I’d been teaching for the best part of a decade. I had put some serious work into my earlier approach to the teaching of reading in particular, and the precise order in which grapheme-phoneme correspondences were introduced and revisited throughout EYFS and KS1, following the Letters and Sounds guidance. I was a self-made expert and developed the logical progression through sounds and spelling rules from EYFS until the end of Year 2 at this stage. Our pitch was higher; our expectations sharper; our AFL drove our daily sessions and the pace of teaching. Staff were clear and focused and the pedagogy within the sessions looked sharp and was consistent – whole class, teacher led and high pace and engagement amongst the pupils. Subject knowledge around Letters and Sounds was high, and we taught directly (not through games and gimmicks) to secure some good reading and writing outcome. We had even developed focused assessments to match progression through book bands and had a rough handle on the phonics the children needed to know to confidently tackle books at each stage, although our reading books were a mixture of all kinds of schemes, only some of which were phonetically decodable. Phonics was our main driver for reading and spelling. Our KS1 results were good, with the vast majority achieving the then holy grail of Level 2b or above each year, and a good proportion into Level 3. There was a stubborn 20% not doing so, but that matched the national average and so I thought we were smashing it….

A few things happened next, all around about 2011:

  1. I attended a phonics conference where the trainer was talked passionately about systematic synthetic phonics and the need to ensure every child could read. I had a one-to-one conversation with this trainer: our kids could read and we were doing well, our own way. Perhaps she just didn’t understand our approach well enough?

  2. The Phonics Screening Test was introduced, and we achieved in line with the national average. Suddenly – I could only focus on the 20% of children in our school who were not hitting expected standard… Were we actually failing 20% of our kids, every year?

  3. I left the school where I had been since 1997,  and encountered a whole new world of underachievement in reading with a higher proportion of so-called disadvantaged pupils. I enjoyed a 7-month secondment before taking on my first Headship. Whilst steaming ahead with implementing everything I’d introduced in all my years of experience, I met a phonics expert and author of another systematic synthetics programme or two. One short and informative session led me to realise that, for all my expertise in the teaching of early reading, I’d missed a few opportunities to do it better. Although I’d spent over a decade developing my own expertise in this area that I was genuinely the most passionate advocate for, I was happy to pin back my ears and listen to someone on my wavelength, and my decade long love affair with systematic synthetic phonics began…

Look out next week for Part 2 of Sam's blog: Implementing Systematic Synthetic Phonics teaching and learning.

About the blog author: Sam Bailey is Executive Principal with Wellspring Academy Trust, leading five primary schools across Leeds and Barnsley


phonics, Reading, Reading and Ebooks, Rising Stars Reading Planet

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