Derek Twigg, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for School Standards at the time, has stated, ‘Through the National Strategies the Government has always been clear that early and direct instruction in synthetic phonics is critical to the effective teaching of reading … Schools are free to select the phonics programme that best suits their needs. However, we expect that the selected programme would at least match the quality, standards and expectations in the National Strategies’ publications Playing with Sounds and Progression in Phonics.’
I maintain that the training for Playing with Sounds that I attended did not at all promote instruction in synthetic phonics as I understand it: that is, ‘no initial sight vocabulary where words are learnt as whole shapes … systematic, fast-paced, comprehensive introduction to letter/s-sound correspondence knowledge … putting the correspondence knowledge to immediate use with all-through-the-word blending for reading and segmenting single-sound units all-through-the-spoken-word for spelling; no guessing words from picture, context or initial letter cues’ (Introduction to the Reading Reform Foundation web site 2005 by Debbie Hepplewhite, www.rrf.org.uk.). The emphasis in the Playing with Sounds training was instead on the importance of phonological awareness preceding any learning about letters.
Playing with Sounds, published in 2004, provides guidance for practitioners and teachers working with children in the Foundation Stage and Year 1. As Lesley Drake and Debbie Hepplewhite have already written a thorough review of the content of Playing with Sounds, my focus is on the training provided by my local authority. I attended this three-hour training session in September 2004. It was run by a literacy consultant and an early-years consultant.
In the introduction to the training we were told that since Progression in Phonics was published in 1999, there has been a great deal of research and ‘they’ve learned a lot’. Power Point slides showed some good points about teaching phonics, including, among a list of phonic skills, ‘segmentation and blending’. Another slide showed phonics as one of four strategies in the Searchlight Model. We were told, ‘Phonics is one of the strategies. Children can pick from a range of strategies’. This is in conflict with Greg Brooks’s advice in his 2003 report to the DfES that teachers must teach children explicitly when to switch from one searchlight to another: ‘Teachers must therefore never assume that children are attending to more one of the focuses in the searchlights model at a time, and must teach children explicitly when to switch from one searchlight to another; for example, if a child manages to identify a word from the context, the teacher should immediately switch the child’s attention to decoding the word (if it is sufficiently regular) in order to reinforce the message that decoding is a more powerful way of identifying words accurately (and reduces the memory load)’.
The literacy consultant then said that there is a problem in KS2 when phonics is missing. She explained that children can get by in the early stages with contextual skills, but after a while they have to be able to decode. She was asked, ‘Why not teach children how to decode from the start?’ and she said she would answer that later. She never did.
The early-years consultant explained to us that Playing with Sounds is different from Progression in Phonics because of the new emphasis on the early steps. Also, vowels are introduced earlier, so that we can introduce verbal blending and ‘break down a word’. The literacy consultant then said that phonics should be the key focus of word level work and she briefly mentioned the use of letter fans and mini whiteboards for segmenting and blending.
Next we were given an overview of the cards that form the substance of Playing with Sounds. The cards begin with activities for children working within the Stepping Stones (Early Foundation Stage). It was explained that the pink cards relate to children at the end of the Foundation Stage and moving into Year 1 and the yellow cards to children already in Y1. Although the yellow and pink cards introduce some letter/sound correspondences earlier than the National Literacy Strategy, this was not discussed.
We moved on to the main focus of the training, which was about making sure children are ‘phonologically aware’ before they are shown letters. The importance of this was stressed again and again throughout the training. We were told that without a range of experiences of playing with sounds, children ‘cannot move forward’.
These are some of the activities it was suggested we do with children:
· Hide a music box and ask the children to find it.
· Blow whistles, ring bells and ask the children to perform different actions according to the sounds.
· Ask the children to hop and skip to different sounds.
· Read a familiar story. Say, for example, ‘When I say the word frog, you say sausages’.
· Choose three instruments. Play a sequence. Ask a child to repeat it.
· Chant the rap, ‘When Long Tall Sally went walking down the alley …’
· Sing a rhyme. Have a puppet steal a word. The puppet squeaks and the teacher is silent at the word. Children fill in the missing word.
· Pass a pebble as you say rhyming words in rhythm.
· Make a collection of rhyming things to match. Give a child an object. Ask: Can you find a rhyming one to match?
To develop alphabetic knowledge, the children can:
· Look for plastic letters in water.
· Make letters with Playdoh.
· Match letters to an alphabet strip – ‘and don’t forget to do it outside!’
After lots of experience of such activities, the teacher should introduce verbal blending.
· Speak like a robot, e.g. h-a-t. Ask the children what the word is.
So far, letter-sound correspondence was not part of the activities. At this point in the training, the literacy consultant said, ‘Look how long it’s taken to get to sound symbol association! Once they’ve reached a level of sound awareness, they’ll be ready’.
Letter-sound correspondence can then be introduced through activities such as:
· Show a letter, e.g. ‘r’. Pass round a parcel. Ask, what could it be? Guess, e.g. ruler, rubber. Open the parcel. It’s a rabbit!
· Place a letter next to an object with that initial letter sound.
We were told to teach first initial then final sounds and then medial vowel sounds.
Here are some statements made by the early years and literacy consultants:
· ‘It’s important that this doesn’t come first’ – pointing to a bullet point with the words, ‘Learn the letters and letter combinations most commonly used to represent these sounds’.
· ‘The key message is that focused phonic teaching can be done through play, games and activities.’
· ‘Playing with sounds is a fantastic phrase. Without playing with sounds, children can’t understand [how to read]’.
· ‘Rhythm is important.’
· ‘Beat is really important because it helps children to hear parts of sound.’
· ‘If they can’t repeat a sequence on three musical instruments … how can they do it with sounds?’
· ‘Note the word: orally’ – pointing to a slide about phonological awareness. ‘Nothing as a symbol, nothing written.’
· ‘We know you can take six months before teaching children about letter/sound correspondence. If they don’t have the previous learning, children can’t do it … It’s obvious. If you spend time first on oral awareness, they will be ready to learn.’
We were shown two CDs for practice in reading phonetically. One CD was called ‘Cartoons for Children’ and included material with incorrect punctuation. We were told it came with a ‘health warning’ and that we should ‘use the resource and adapt it’. The other was ‘Phoneme Spotter Stories’ with text for reading phonetically. We were told to use this one cautiously too.
There was no advice about how to teach letter/sound correspondence beyond that described above. The role of reading books and how to introduce them was not addressed at all. A teacher hoping for clear guidance about how to teach children to use knowledge of sounds to read and write will have been disappointed.
How can Derek Twigg suggest that Playing with Sounds is part of a strategy of ‘early and direct instruction in synthetic phonics’? How can Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State for Education and Skills, say, ‘Synthetic phonics is a large part of what the National Literacy Strategy is about’ (Minutes of Evidence taken before Education and Skills Committee, 2 March 2005)? The overriding theme of the training was the promotion of a philosophy of oral work and play before letters.
The literacy consultant told us, ‘Listen to and play with sounds. That’s really important. When I started teaching, I went straight into letters and sounds. Now I’m mortified … I didn’t know then what I know now’. What is it she knows now that can justify this delay in introducing children to the alphabetic code?
With the best structured programmes of synthetic phonics, children are taught in one term all forty-plus phonemes of the English language, with the letters most often used to represent them, and how to blend them to read words. They do not have to wait until they have spent months becoming ‘phonologically aware’.
Brooks, Greg, 2003. Sound sense: the phonics element of the National Literacy Strategy A report to the Department for Education and Skills, July 2003, p.22
Drake, Lesley, and Hepplewhite, Debbie, 2004. ‘Take the letter shapes out of the water and the word cards out of the sand – Review of Playing with Sounds: a supplement to Progression in Phonics’. Reading Reform Foundation Newsletter 53.
Twigg, Derek, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for School Standards. Letter written to David Rendel MP, March 2005.
Information about Playing with Sounds: A Supplement to Progression in Phonics can be found at: www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/primary/publications/literacy/948809.
An Adobe version is at
The DfES reference is 0280-2004.