When phonics isn't working

Sometimes, in some classrooms or for some children, phonics doesn't work as well or as quickly as it can do. Fortunately, there are usually a few simple things, that can be easily put in place, that can make all the difference in the world. Here is a quick overview of the main things that need to be in place to ensure the most effective phonics teaching possible.

Helping particular children

As with all areas of learning, attendance, lateness, behaviour issues, emotional issues etc can all have an impact. If you think that any of these areas are holding back a child in your class then make sure you raise this with all relevant people: parents, headteachers, learning mentors, school counsellors, educational welfare officers etc. Until some progress is made in these areas, it will be tough to make good progress with phonics.

In addition, it is worth reflecting on whether any other less obvious issues are causing problems. For example, if you suspect that a child's sight, hearing or speech is causing difficulties, you will need to raise this with the school nurse and also with parents. Hopefully, these issues can either be ruled out by professionals or treatment can be put in place.

Meeting every child's needs

Ensure that whole class teaching is pitched at the 60% mark. See Assessment for more details. Also ensure that any children working below the phase at which the whole class is being taught, are being given daily 15-20 minute phonics sessions at the phase that they need. This could be instead of the whole class phonics session but it is often most effective when it is given in addition to the whole class phonics teaching.

Fine tuning phonics teaching

Is phonics fast enough?

Sluggish phonics sessions are a symptom of other problems. Aim for quickfire practise not long explanations and discussions.

Plan how much time each section of the session will take.

Play games that use time limits and timers. When the time is up, move on.

Don't talk too much. Phonics sessions should be about children blending and segmenting, not teachers explaining and discussing things at length.

Don't decide up front how many words (or phonemes) you are going to cover in a game. Instead, watch the time. When the time is up ditch the words/phonemes you haven't covered. You can always come back to them in the revisit section another day.

Use clear, familiar routines to save time and prevent behaviour problems.

Allow 15-20 minutes of pure teaching time. If you need extra time to get in from playtime or clear up after a session then build that into the timetable as well.

Believe! You can fit it all in. Honest!

Is it fun?

Are the children: Sitting up? Looking? Listening? Engaged? If not, liven things up.

Games, games, games - Record scores and times. Challenge the children to beat them. Split the class in half and get the two halves to compete.

Variety is the spice of life - Use computer games, real objects, pictures. Use whole class, small group and individual games. Do sessions: outside, standing up, to music, in fancy dress etc.

Is it systematic?

Learning in phonics builds on what has gone before. Follow a clear system (e.g. Letters and Sounds) and cover all the learning in the right order. Use assessments to check that you are teaching at the correct phase.

Are you including all the elements of the teaching sequence (don't let Revisit and Apply get forgotten)?

Introduce - Let the children know the learning objective and get them motivated for the session. People sometimes forget that this is part of our job too. You can't expect children to necessarily show up full of enthusiasm.

Revisit - Tackle any areas of previous learning that assessments have shown to need more work. Quickwrite Graphemes and Flashcards are key games but any games can be used.

Teach - Explicitly teach the phoneme/grapheme or skill identified in the learning objective.

Practise - Play games to rehearse the new learning as many times as possible.

Apply - Read or write sentences that involve the new learning.

NB - Sometimes it's great to deliberately choose to throw the teaching sequence out of the window and do things differently. Just beware of drifting into the trap of regularly missing out the same sections.

Is the session jam packed with children blending and segmenting words (not just reading and writing them)?

Phonics is all about learning to blend and segment. Don't fall into the trap of just asking children to read or spell words in phonics games.

Outside of phonics sessions, children may only need to blend or segment when they meet unfamiliar words but in phonics sessions, use every opportunity to explicitly practise these skills with all words (unfamiliar words, made up words and even words that they can read/spell easily).

Whenever one child has blended or segmented out loud, take the opportunity to get the whole class to repeat the process out loud.

In Phase 6 and beyond you will encourage children to develop automaticity and leave blending and segmenting behind but don't ditch them too soon!

Are there earlier gaps that need filling (the usual suspects are: Phase 1, Phase 4 and Phase 5b)?

Phase 1 - Phase 1 develops vital skills that will be built on for many years to come. In particular, children need to be able to be able to recognise rhyming words and alliterative words. Children may also need to spend time exploring and making particular voice sounds that they find difficult.

Phase 4 - In Phase 4, pronouncing and identifying adjacent consonants is tricky for some children. Thinking about mouth movements and using mirrors is usually the key to unlocking this. Know the difference between adjacent consonants and digraphs. Watch out for old resources that try to tackle blends (the old name for adjacent consonants) as if they were digraphs (one unit of sound). This can really overcomplicate things for some children.

Phase 5b - Phase 5b is sometimes under-appreciated but it is vital as it bridges the gap between children reading simple texts where each grapheme represents one sound and beginning to read texts where choices have to be made about how to pronounce some graphemes.

Is phonics taught every day (including Fridays and the week before the holidays)?

In a jam packed curriculum, sometimes something has to give. Don't let it be phonics! It supports everything else. Plan phonics into the timetable first and fit everything else around it.

Dropping phonics every Friday and the week before each holiday, is equivalent to missing more than a term every year - ouch!

Are children taught to apply what they have learned?

Give children regular opportunities to read/write at the phase they are on in all curriculum areas. This will make your life easier too as they will be able to read/write these things independently.

Train children to use what they have learned in phonics to tackle unfamiliar words in reading and writing. Model this and practise in shared and guided reading.

Hopefully it goes without saying but children should also be encouraged to revel in a wide and wonderful variety of ‘real’ and challenging texts as well. In the same way, they should be encouraged to make exciting and daring word choices in their own writing and not just stick to dull words that they can spell easily.

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