Advice for teachers

Teachers must have a relatively strong grasp of the key components of phonics in order to effectively and coherently teach children. In order to get the message across as clearly as possible, it’s also important to have a plan of attack. Let’s explore how to correctly and most efficiently go about teaching phonics in the classroom.

What to teach (and what not to)

There’s a lot to cover in the new curriculum, some of which we have already looked at in detail. These include:

  • The knowledge of grapheme and phoneme correspondences
  • The skill of blending (sounding out and decoding all through the word to read it)
  • The skill of segmenting (identifying the sounds through a word and allocating letters for spelling)

However, it’s a little more thorough than this, with teachers also needing to make sure they:

  • Define the difference between consonant and vowel phonemes at an early stage
  • Use correct blending order (from left to right as the word would read naturally)
  • Teach a child to read and spell words which do not conform to the normal rules – the exceptions to the rule

Children rapidly develop language skills from birth, but their early years experiences as well as their natural abilities will vary. This means that some children will take longer than others to master the knowledge and skills they need to become fluent and mature readers. In England, many children are exposed to phonemic awareness teaching and early phonics during their nursery or pre-school years (age 3 - 4). During the first year of school (age 4 – 5) most children will be well on their way to independently reading and writing using phonics.

Just as there are guidelines for what should be covered by teachers, there are also elements that need to be avoided. Some of these include:

  • Teaching one letter and a sound per week. This is too slow and won’t contribute to learning
  • Learning in alphabetical order. Phonics programmes introduce the code in a specific, systematic, cumulative order that is evidenced by research to be the most effective way to build up the language
  • Using pictures to “read” words instead of recognising the words themselves
  • Overly relying on rhyming techniques. Rhyming techniques are a fun way to play with language but they are not relevant to the process of learning to read
  • Failing to link the process of reading to that of spelling

All of these strategies are discouraged, and won’t be found in modern successful phonics resources – such as Rising Stars Reading Planet.

Order of teaching

To understand the order and progression of teaching many teachers refer to a document called Letters and Sounds: Principles and Practice of High Quality Phonics. Schools are free to follow any phonics programme that they wish so long as it meets the synthetic phonics Core Criteria set by the Department for Education. The six phases described in Letters and Sounds are broadly representative of the way in which many, but not all, phonics programmes progress.

Phase 1

This phase looks at developing the phonological and phonemic awareness of children. At this stage parents and teachers provide lots of language play for example, chanting, singing, rhyming words and identifying rhyme and alliteration. Phase One supports linking sounds and letters in the order in which they occur in words, and naming and sounding the letters of the alphabet. This can sometimes be sadly overlooked, but has increasingly been found to be very important in the early stages of a child’s development.

A key adult behaviour critical to the success of Phase 1 is that of modelling listening and speaking:

  • Listen to encourage talking – time spent listening to children talk to each other, and listening to individuals without too frequent interruption, helps them to use more, and more relevant, language.
  • Model good listening – this includes making eye contact with speakers, asking the sort of questions attentive listeners ask and commenting on what has been said.
  • Model spoken language – providing good models of spoken English helps young children enlarge their vocabulary and learn, for example, how to structure comprehensible sentences, speak confidently and clearly, and sustain dialogue.

Children who can hear phonemes in words and sound them out accurately are generally well placed to make a good start in reading and writing. Practitioners are expected to make principled, professional judgements about when children should begin a systematic phonics programme and embark on Phase 2.

Phase 2

Children entering Phase 2 will have experienced a wealth of listening activities, including songs, stories and rhymes. They will be able to distinguish between speech sounds and many will be able to blend and segment words orally. The purpose of this phase is:

  • To teach at least 19 letters
  • To move children on from oral blending and segmentation to blending and segmenting with letters
  • To teach children to read some VC and CVC words and how to spell them
  • To introduce children to reading two-syllable words and simple captions
  • To teach children to read some high-frequency words (the, to, go, no)

Teachers can break down the learning of letters into sets (with four to five per set). These can then be taught on a weekly basis. Magnetic boards and letters are very effective in helping children to identify letter shapes and develop the skills of blending and segmenting. For example, teaching sequences can be demonstrated to an entire teaching group or class on a large magnetic board followed by children working in pairs with a small magnetic board to secure the learning objective. In many schools Phase 2 teaching will last up to six weeks.

Phase 3

In Phase 3, children will be taught to:

  • Learn another 25 graphemes, most of them comprising two letters (e.g. oa)
  • Continue practising CVC blending and segmentation
  • Apply their knowledge of blending and segmenting to reading and spelling simple two-syllable words and captions
  • Learn letter names, read some more tricky words and also begin to spell some of these words

The key step here comes when children are taught the two-letter graphemes (digraphs). For example, they will begin to recognise that the /ow/ sound in “cow” is represented by the letters ‘ow’ as one unit.

If a school is following the Letters and Sounds guidance document, each of the final letter sets will take about a week to teach. From here you’ll have a further nine weeks to teach two-grapheme combinations. The total time recommended to spend teaching Phase 3 is up to 12 weeks.

Phase 4

The purpose of Phase 4 is to:

  • Consolidate children’s knowledge of graphemes in reading and spelling words containing adjacent consonants and polysyllabic words

Ideally, children should be able to recognise 42 of the 44 phonemes at this point. They should be able to coherently read and write many two and most three-letter graphemes. Some children, might even be able to read and write more complex polysyllabic words like “thunderstorm”.

Importantly, children will experience many words containing consonant clusters and have their attention drawn to this feature for possibly the first time. This is where words begin with two letters that are both consonant sounds – such as step, trap or plum. This stage of the process may take between four to six weeks.

Phase 5

The purpose of Phase 5 is to:

  • Broaden children’s knowledge of graphemes and phonemes for use in reading and spelling
  • Teach new graphemes and alternative pronunciations for these and graphemes they already know, where relevant
  • Encourage children to become quicker at recognising graphemes of more than one letter in words and at blending the phonemes they represent
  • Teach children, when spelling words, to choose the appropriate graphemes to represent phonemes and begin to build word-specific knowledge of the spellings of words

It’s these alternative pronunciation words that can provide the greatest challenge to some young readers. A perfect example comes in the form of the /zh/ sound. This can be duplicated in words such as “treasure” and “beige”. Phase 5 teaching will be an on-going process throughout most of their first year of learning phonics (and beyond).

Phase 6

Phase 6 teaching concentrates on:

  • Encouraging children to become fluent readers
  • Supporting the reading of, and learning the meanings of, hundreds of new words
  • Developing their understanding of spelling and grammar with the goal of becoming increasingly accurate spellers
  • Starting to develop as a confident free reader in their own time

At this point, there is less emphasis on introducing new graphemes at the previous rigour, as it is a case of encouraging children to put their reading and spelling skills into practice. The basics should all be covered, allowing kids to progress and begin to read more fluently and confidently. This will be a continuous learning curve throughout their second year of primary school (and beyond).

A typical lesson plan

While each teacher will have their own way to approach things, the Letters and Sounds guidance introduced a set structure which will help you through any lesson. Let’s take a look:

1. Review past learning

Arguably the most important step for ensuring that the learning is embedded and teaching methods are working is by reviewing what you’ve covered in previous lessons. This is a solid teaching approach, which works effectively to monitor success rates.

  • Don’t just talk about previous learning, use activities which allow them to get a hands-on reminder
  • If you have an interactive whiteboard you’ll be able to find a section which instantly brings up previous learning experiences
  • Cover all aspects of learning – reading, writing, listening, speaking and spelling

Refreshers are required throughout all stages of life, but perhaps no more so than at this very early point of development. Make sure that children are aware of, and proud of, what they’ve learnt so far.

2. Introduce a new learning focus

Children learn a lot better if you give them a structure of what will be covered in a lesson. It’ll get them engaged early on, and allows them the chance to work towards a new goal throughout the course of a day.

  • Be specific with what you’ll be covering. For example, tell them the sounds they’ll learn and highlight the objectives.
  • Make it fun and interactive by asking children about the new focus sound/s. For example, ask how many people’s names in the class start with or end in the sound.

Once the children have a clear idea of what they will be learning that day, it should theoretically be easier for them to know if they’re on the right track. If not, they can always ask the teacher for further help.

3. Teach the new focus

Once the children have an idea of what it is they’re learning, it’s time to begin. Decide how you want the lesson to go. Are you going to teach it in groups, or as a whole class? (The latter is increasingly encouraged as an effective way to organise phonics lessons). Use visual aids and try to make it as fun as possible with things such as:

  • A flip chart or magnetic board to show examples
  • Teaching letters and sound cards
  • Phoneme frames to make learning interactive

Once you’ve decided how you’re teaching and the tools you’ll be using, you can get started with the lesson.

4. Practice

Practice makes perfect. Make sure to encourage children to actively participate in learning by getting them to work on their skills during the course of a lesson. This might now be in groups, with a teaching assistant on hand to help if needs be.

Some of the techniques you could use to get the children to test themselves include:

  • Getting them to come up to the board and work it out for themselves
  • Writing a newly taught grapheme in the air with their finger or using miniature whiteboards for whole class
  • Rolling a dice to take it in turns to say a new focus word
  • Giving children large phoneme cards to stand next to each other with, and try to spell a word
  • Remember to practice phonics knowledge and skills at grapheme level, word level , sentence level and whole text level

It’s crucial to get hands-on experience with what’s being taught. That means implementing active routines to encourage the lesson to sink in. Children learn by doing.

As a word of caution, it is important to get the balance right. Too much ‘physical’ activity can actually detract from the focus being on the knowledge and skills you are teaching. The actions of listening, speaking, reading and writing are kinaesthetic, physical activities in themselves so don’t get too carried away with extraneous tasks.

5. Assess learning levels

As a teacher, it’s important to monitor whether the information is being learnt. This isn’t solely done in catch-up lessons, but can happen throughout the day when you get a chance.

For example, before lunch or break, you can spell out a colour and tell all the children who are wearing it to leave – continue the process until everyone’s colour has been spelt.

As well as that, you’ll want to address the levels of learning at the start of the next lesson in the same subject. Refresh their brains and even do a little practice session to help the process along.