Phonics, reading and handwriting
What is phonics?
Phonics is one method of teaching children how to read and write. Phonics is all about sounds. There are 44 sounds in the English language, which we put together to form words. Some are represented by one letter, like 't', and some by two or more, like 'ck' in duck and 'air' in chair. Children are taught the sounds first, then how to match them to letters, and finally how to use the letter sounds for reading and spelling. Synthetic phonics refers to 'synthesising', or blending, the sounds to read words. It is based on the idea that children should sound out unknown words and not rely on their context.
Our school phonics schemes
At Gurnard Primary School, we teach children in our Reception and Key Stage 1 Classes how to read and write using a synthetic approach and resources from the Song of Sounds Phonics Programme.
Song of Sounds uses songs to teach children all the phonemes necessary to read and write English successfully. The programme is divided into different stages for Reception, Year 1 and Year 2. Each week has four short daily sessions and then a longer consolidation session at the end of the week.
Teaching children to read and write independently, as quickly as possible, is one of the core purposes of a primary school. These key skills not only hold the keys to the rest of the curriculum but also have a huge impact on children’s self-esteem and future life chances. Reading and writing are both two-part processes: readers decode and comprehend, writers create and encode. In one respect, decoding and encoding are the ‘mechanical’ skills that children need to master in order to be able to comprehend what they read and write creatively. Research has shown that by teaching phonics thoroughly and rigorously to children, we can ensure that they use this knowledge to decode effortlessly and automatically. This means all energy can be focused on understanding and enjoying what is read and on composing and creating fantastic writing (Ofsted: Reading by six).
How we teach early reading
- The English spelling code is one of the most complex in the world. It has evolved over hundreds of years and has had many different influences. As a result, our words are made up of combinations of 44 different sounds but many of these sounds are spelt in different ways in different words. Furthermore, we only have 26 letters to write these sounds down. This can lead to real confusion for children as letters combine together in different words to make different sounds. For example, the letter ‘a’ sometimes makes the sound /a/ (as in c-a-t), or, with other letters, the sound /ay/ (as in d-ay) or the sound ‘air’ (as in f-air). This can be overwhelming.
- In order to help the children conquer this complex code, we teach it to them systematically, using a system based on a programme called Song of Sounds. Song of Sounds is a multi-component, multi-sensory, systematic synthetic phonics programme. It is teacher-led, hands-on and interactive, with a wide variety of games and activities that reinforce learning.
- We start by teaching children to read the first 30 sounds (Set 1 Sounds) and to be able to blend these sounds to read words (i.e. to know that the sounds c/a/t can blend together to read the word cat). Once they have conquered this skill, they start reading stories and texts that have words made up of the sounds they know. This means that they can embed and apply their phonic knowledge and start to build their reading fluency. At the same time, we teach them how to write the sounds and use this knowledge to spell words, leading to writing short sentences.
- As their confidence and fluency grows, we start to introduce more sounds (Set 2 and then 3) and the children read texts with increasingly more complex sounds and graphemes. They learn that a sound can be written in different ways using 2 or 3 or even 4 letters (e.g. /igh/, /ie/ or /ay/, /ai/). We call this a grapheme (e.g. igh represent the /i/ sound in the word night). Equally they learn to use these graphemes to spell words.
- In short, the essence of our reading programme is based on the belief that by reading the sounds, you can read the words, and so the story. But, if it is hard to understand what sounds the words are made up of, it is hard to read the words accurately and so it is hard to understand what has been read. Additionally, if it takes too long to work out what the words are, it is difficult to understand the story as the meaning gets ‘lost’ in the individual words. Fluency and accuracy will be established by Year 1 as they are key to comprehension.
- Being able to decode a text alone is not enough. Children need to comprehend what they are reading and need to be actively taught key comprehension skills from a very early age. We do this through comprehension activities linked to the stories the children read with Song of Sounds, and also through a range of different literacy activities based around core texts shared with the children in class. We know that good readers question, check and engage with their own understanding – these are some of the skills we seek to develop. We know that decoding and comprehension should not be taught in linear progression but need to be taught simultaneously.
- As part of the Song of Sounds programme, the children also have a weekly session called ‘Big Phonics’ in addition to the short daily phonic sessions. These sessions are used to embed the sounds taught that week through fun and engaging games and activities. During these sessions, various ‘visitors’ attend to support their work such as Felicity the Phoneme Fairy, who visits to see if the children can show her what they have learnt so far. Tricky Trevor introduces the children to the ‘tricky words’ and Bert the Builder visits and, using bricks, teaches the children how to blend sounds together to make words.
What happens next?
Once children have learnt to read independently, our teaching and their learning is directed at developing their comprehension skills and writing. Work is focused on a series of carefully chosen quality core texts which act as the stimulus to teach higher level comprehension, build knowledge and develop a love of reading and literacy.
How we assess learning in phonics
Regular diagnostic and formative assessment is a key feature of our phonics programme and helps not only to monitor children’s progress but also to identify key areas for revision. Children are diagnostically tested on entering school, and then at specific points throughout the programme (roughly half way between each term). The more formal assessments are carried out on a one-to-one basis by a teacher. The outcomes of these assessments help teachers to plan carefully to meet class needs and identify children who need further support or extension work. Formative assessment takes place in weekly ‘big phonics’ sessions through small group observations during games and activities. Through using both diagnostic and formative assessment, and having the opportunity to work with every child in a small group every week, the teacher has an accurate understanding of each child’s achievements and learning needs.
Year 1 Phonic Screening Check
In England, all Year 1 pupils in state-funded schools must undertake a statutory Phonic Screening Check towards the end of the school year to ensure they are decoding at the appropriate level. Children are asked to decode 40 words under one-to-one test conditions with a teacher. The word list contains a combination of real and ‘nonsense’ words, the latter being included to ensure that children are using phonic skills to decode words and not recognising words by sight. To pass, the children must usually score at least 32 out of 40. Children who do not pass the Phonic Screening Check in Year 1 are expected to retake the test at the end of Year 2.
Those children who do not achieve the Phonic Screening Check in Year 1 will receive additional phonics sessions and support throughout their time in Year 2. This will take the form of individual and small group phonics interventions carried out by class teachers or Learning Support Assistants as well as the usual daily class phonics sessions covering Stage 3 of the Song of Sounds. Individual and small group phonics interventions will continue to be delivered to those children in Year 3 who did not achieve the Phonics Screening Check in Year 1 and Year 2.
Click here to hear the song used to help consolidate children's learning.
Please click here to see a film clip demonstrating how to pronounce sounds when teaching children to read with synthetic phonics.
Learning phonics in Reception
Year 1 Phonic Screening Check - Information for parents and carers
Phonics Progression – ‘Song of Sounds’ Programme
The table below shows the order that the sounds will be taught within each year group and the expectations for an average child that has good attendance. Some children will make more rapid progress and some may need further support – including daily phonics catch up sessions and interventions.
Our school reading scheme
At Gurnard Primary School we use a number of different phonically based reading schemes to give the children depth and variety in their reading experiences.
Books are graded into colour-coded book band levels, and within each level there is a carefully planned progression of books. This ensures that each child has a book at exactly the right level for them. This fine progression gives children plenty of opportunity to develop their reading skills and master each fine step while moving through the reading programme.
How to help at home
Reading at home is one of the most important ways you can support your child. Here are some ways you can help:
- Try to create a relaxed reading atmosphere. Establish a regular time and place to read and ensure the surroundings are as calm as possible. If your child doesn’t feel like reading, offer to read to them instead. Be positive about reading.
- Children don’t have to read with you. It can be very motivating for them to read with siblings, grandparents or friends.
- Talk to your child about the books they are reading. Before reading, challenge your child to be a book detective: look at the book cover and see if they can guess what the book will be about or what type of book it is. As you read together, talk about what is happening in the book, what might happen next, and anything that has puzzled them. When your child finishes a book, ask them whether they liked it or not and encourage them to explain why.
- Help your child engage with books by using them as an inspiration for play. You could try acting out part of the story or making something from the book.
- Remember that reading a book is not the only reading your child will do. Encourage them to read signs, leaflets, recipes, instructions and so on. By reading these types of texts your child will often be reading without realising they are doing so!