Reading in Primary Schools: Guide

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Teaching Phonics

Phonics is a way of teaching children how to read and write. It helps children hear, identify and use different sounds that distinguish one word from another in the English language. It is an approach to teaching reading, and some aspects of writing, by developing learners’ phonemic awareness. This involves the skills of hearing, identifying and using phonemes or sound patterns in English. The aim is to systematically teach learners the relationship between these sounds and the written spelling patterns, or graphemes, which represent them. Phonics emphasises the skills of decoding new words by sounding them out and combining or ‘blending’ the sound-spelling patterns (EEF, 2018).

A brief history

Before 2000, the dominant method for teaching reading in the English-speaking world was whole language’. Its main characteristics were:

  • Immersion in so-called "real" books. Little to no phonics. Phonics instruction, if it did occur, was unsystematic, and was taught only as a last resort
  • Rote-memorization of sight words
  • Word-guessing based on pictures, or context, or the word’s first letter

In 2000, the U.S. National Reading Panel condemned whole language by name, and in its place advocated, the Whole Word (top-down) method called for systematic phonics.

In 2005 in the UK, the Clackmannanshire (Scotland) Report was published. The results of a seven-year study on the effectiveness of bottom-up synthetic phonics in teaching reading and spelling were published by researchers Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson The full study is here.

Two months later the House Education Committee released a report for extensive trials of synthetic phonics in England. Until then, ministers had adhered to the official DfES position that synthetic phonics is included in the National Literacy Strategy.

In 2006, in England the Rose Report was published. The Rose Report recommended only systematic phonics.   

In 2007 the DES/PNS published: Letters and Sounds: Principles and Practice of High Quality Phonics

How is phonics taught in Primary schools?

There are two main approaches to teaching phonics: analytic and synthetic phonics. In both approaches the learner needs to have some phonological awareness (the ability to hear and discriminate sounds in spoken words). Synthetic phonics focuses on the development of phonemic awareness as a key skill. To learn to decode written text into sounds, a reader is taught up to 44 phonemes (the smallest units of sound) and their related graphemes (the written symbols for these phonemes). Analytic phonics, also sometimes known as the "whole word" approach, involves analysis of whole words to detect phonetic or orthographic (spelling) patterns, then splitting them into smaller parts and sounding these out to help with the decoding process.

The Rose Report was quite specific about what these four principles of synthetic phonics are: “Having considered a wide range of evidence, the review has concluded that the case for systematic phonic work is overwhelming and much strengthened by a synthetic approach, the key features of which are to teach beginner readers: • grapheme/phoneme (letter/sound) correspondences (the alphabetic principle) in a clearly defined, incremental sequence • to apply the highly important skill of blending (synthesizing) phonemes in order, all through a word to read it • to apply the skills of segmenting words into their constituent phonemes to spell • that blending and segmenting are reversible processes.” (section 51). The Rose Report also devoted an entire section to a discussion of the Simple View of Reading, a topic missing from the national reports of the US and Australia.

Synthetic phonics

This approach is most commonly associated with the teaching of reading in which phonemes (sounds) associated with particular graphemes (letters) are pronounced in isolation and blended together (synthesised). For example, children are taught to take a single-syllable word such as cat apart into its three letters, pronounce a phoneme for each letter in turn /k, æ, t/, and blend the phonemes together to form a word.

Analytical phonics

A popular approach in Scotland, this method is associated with the teaching of reading in which the phonemes associated with particular graphemes are not pronounced in isolation. Children identify (analyse) the common phoneme in a set of words in which each word contains the phoneme under study. For example, teacher and pupils discuss how the following words are alike: pat, park, push and pen.

Analogy phonics

A type of analytic phonics in which children analyse phonic elements according to the phonograms in the word. A phonogram, known in linguistics as a rime, is composed of the vowel and all the sounds that follow it, such as –ake in the word cake. Children use these phonograms to learn about “word families” for example cake, make, bake, fake.

Embedded phonics

An approach to the teaching of reading in which phonics forms one part of a whole language programme. Embedded phonics differs from other methods in that the instruction is always in the context of literature rather than in separate lessons, and the skills to be taught are identified opportunistically rather than systematically.

Resource: National Literacy Trust. Requires a log in and password .

See the article by Stephen Parker, ‘What phonics does and what it does not do.

Characteristics of a Synthetic Phonics Program:

1) Synthetic Phonics is a bottom-up approach to reading and spelling. "Bottom-up" because instruction starts, not with whole words, but with the most basic sound unit there is: the phoneme. The word SHOP, for instance, has 3 sounds or phonemes: /sh/, /o/, and /p/ (represented by the letters SH, O, and P respectively). To use Synthetic Phonics is to teach phonemic awareness, with letters, throughout the entire program.

2) The major letter/sound correspondences of the alphabetic code are taught in an explicit and systematic manner, using a clearly-defined sequence, with each new topic building on what has already been learned.

3) As soon as "some" letter/sound correspondences are mastered, children start reading simple words, that is, they blend (sound-out, synthesize) phonemes, left to right, all through a written word in order to pronounce it. This is the decoding allows the child to self-teach.

4) Children are taught to listen carefully, and to segment a spoken word into its constituent phonemes in order to spell it. Initially, best practice is to do this only with words the children have just decoded, thereby making the segmenting and spelling task easier for them.

5) Children are explicitly shown how blending and segmenting are reversible processes.

6) Children are asked to read for themselves only words and sentences for which they already have the skills to succeed. Such text is called decodable for them.

7) A Synthetic Phonics program is completed within two years for the majority of children, meaning that, by the end of two years, children are able, within reason, to read independently.

8) Reading Comprehension (RC) during these two years is understood strictly in terms of the Simple View of Reading. Time is spent with the teacher reading children’s literature to the class and then conducting a group discussion about that reading. In this manner, both decoding skills (D) and language comprehension skills (LC) improve daily. The Simple View makes the claim: RC = D x LC.

9) The main characteristic of a Synthetic Phonics program is that it presents reading to the child as a logical skill right from the outset. Children need to understand what they're being asked to do - especially if the task requires significant daily effort extending over a period of many months. Without such understanding, many children will get frustrated and give up.

What Synthetic Phonics (SP) Does Not Do

1) SP does not have children rote-memorize words (typically called “sight words”) without regard to the sound value of all the word’s letters or letter groups. Exception: there are perhaps 5 - 10 high-frequency words whose spellings are so bizarre (when compared to their actual pronunciations) that rote-memorization may be necessary (e.g. ONE, TWO, THOUGH, EYE, ONCE).

2) SP does not use top-down teaching methods that start with whole words (sight words) rather than with phonemes and letters. Any program that uses analytic phonics, analogy phonics, or onset-rime phonics must, by its very nature, be top-down.

3) SP does not expect that children will discover the letter/sound correspondences of the alphabetic code. There is neither time nor reason to have students “construct their own knowledge” when it comes to learning the skill of reading. All other academic skills depend on the ability to read.

4) SP does not expect, encourage, or allow children to guess the identity of an unknown word based on pictures, context, or the word’s first letter.

5) SP does not use "predictable" text, thereby giving everyone involved the illusion the child is reading. The reality is that the child is merely reciting memorized sight words, and guessing.

6) SP does not have children write using words they have not yet been taught to spell, thereby assuring “invented” spelling and letter-name spelling. These repeated spelling errors prove difficult for children to correct later on. Phonetic spelling is the goal. Phonetically plausible mistakes (e.g. BOTE instead of BOAT) show significant skill. A child making this mistake should be congratulated, then corrected. The child should also be told that, had the word been NOTE, the O-T-E spelling would have been correct, and NOAT would have been wrong.

7) SP does not use levelled books. Independent readers will, with a little help, find books appropriate to their skill level. No child need be stigmatized or embarrassed by being at level B when all his or her friends are at levels D and E.

8) SP does not condone teachers who can function only as a “guide on the side,” or worse, a “peer at the rear.” The teacher in a synthetic phonics program must be a “sage on the stage.” Synthetic phonics teachers need to be comfortable with whole-class, direct instruction current in most of today's reading classes.

How effective is it?

The Education Endowment Foundation evaluation (EEF TOOLKIT PHONICS, 2018) found a moderate impact for very low cost. Phonics programmes can be effective in schools, but the evaluation also underlined the importance of high quality implementation

Phonics approaches have been consistently found to be effective in supporting younger readers to master the basics of reading, with an average impact of an additional four months’ progress. Research suggests that phonics is particularly beneficial for younger learners (4-7 year olds) as they begin to read. Teaching phonics is more effective on average than other approaches to early reading (such as whole language or alphabetic approaches), though it should be emphasised that effective phonics techniques are usually embedded in a rich literacy environment for early readers and are only one part of a successful literacy strategy. For older readers who are still struggling to develop reading skills, phonics approaches may be less successful than other approaches such as Reading comprehension strategies and Meta-cognition and self-regulation. The difference may indicate that children aged 10 or above who have not succeeded using phonics approaches previously require a different approach, or that these students have other difficulties related to vocabulary and comprehension which phonics does not target. The following recommendations were made:

1. Phonics can be an important component in the development of early reading skills, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, it is also important that children are successful in making progress in all aspects of reading including vocabulary development, comprehension and spelling, which should be taught separately and explicitly.

2. The teaching of phonics should be explicit and systematic to support children in making connections between the sound patterns they hear in words and the way that these words are written.

3. The teaching of phonics should be matched to children’s current level of skill in terms of their phonemic awareness and their knowledge of letter sounds and patterns (graphemes).

4. Phonics improves the accuracy of the child's reading but not the comprehension. How are you planning on developing wider literacy skills such as comprehension?

To find out more about synthetic phonics,

See and