Liz Hawksby writes:
As a reception-class teacher for many years, I have used various strategies in the teaching of reading. When it was proposed to introduce the Jolly Phonics scheme at our school three years ago, I had some reservations. We had become increasingly aware of the problems some children were experiencing in learning to read, and although phonics played a part alongside reading schemes. it had not been the main focus of learning. When the materials arrived, we were rather dismayed by their ‘dated’ appearance, and were also sceptical about whether we could introduce a letter-sound each day and keep the momentum going.
However, we were agreeably surprised at how well the children responded, and in about eight weeks we had covered all 42 sounds, including those represented by digraphs such as ‘ue’, ‘ng’, ‘ie, ‘ee’, etc. The storyline and the actions have proved to be great fun for the children. They participate enthusiastically in all aspects, including forming letters by ‘sky-writing’, and they enjoy using other related materials. They particularly like showing off their skills to the rest of the school in work-sharing assemblies! The scheme involves parents through homework sheets and word-blending lists and the feedback has been excellent.
We have introduced a phonics-based reading scheme in the early stages to allow the children to transfer smoothly from learning sounds, through blending, to reading. We have been delighted with the results, and by the end of Reception we have the majority of the class confidently blending words and enjoying reading.
Dr Norma Mudd writes:
I have been Literacy Governor at Burscough Village Primary School, where Liz works, for eight years now, and during this time have also led seven groups of parents in obtaining accreditation as ‘Parents as Educators’ (Literacy).These parents have been able to help their own children with reading, and also help children in school who have difficulties in learning to read.
As Literacy Governor, I would like to add several comments of my own to Liz’s account of the Jolly Phonics programme. The first relates to Liz’s references to the children’s use of phonically-based reading schemes. After consultation with Debbie Hepplewhite over three years ago, the school decided to use ‘Sound Start’ readers, published by Nelson Thornes. The very early readers include words such as the following: ‘Rob’, ‘Pen’, ‘Ben’, ‘help’, ‘Mum’, ‘and’, ‘Dad’, ‘yes’, ‘went’, ‘up’. Very gradually, the books introduce and repeat sight words such as ‘the’, ‘go’, ‘to’, ‘my’, ‘like’, etc. Thus the children are able to use their phonic and blending knowledge immediately. The advantage of such phonic books is obvious when we consider the words that are introduced so quickly in, for example, the Oxford Reading Tree scheme (Oxford University Press), which is popular in many schools. Stage 1 books contain pictures only, which encourage child/adult discussion, but early in Stage 2, without necessarily being secure at decoding, children encounter tricky words such as ‘couldn’t’, ‘about’, ‘was’, ‘fight’, ‘downstairs’, ‘dolphin’, ‘dreamed’ (all in The Dream), and ‘no’, ‘go’, ‘car’, ‘they’, ‘were’, ‘couldn’t’, ‘walk’, ‘home’, ‘children’, ‘worse’, ‘light’ (all in The Foggy Day). Needless to say, many children’s inability to blend letters is masked, since they use other strategies to ‘read’ the books such as memory recall after being read to by an adult, and/or guessing by looking at the pictures. So unless children have good blending skills, we may have ‘fight’ read as ‘hit’, ‘wanted’ read as ‘went’, ‘told’ read as ‘read’, etc. Children in our school transfer to the Oxford Reading Tree scheme only once they are reading/blending well.
Recently, the Headteacher, Gill Serjeant, ordered sets of Ruth Miskin’s readers (written by Gill Munton): these promise to be very good indeed. In each reading book, the first pages introduce adults/children to the sounds to be encountered in the book and also to words which cannot be blended. These words are printed in red throughout the books; for example, one of the Stage 2 books introduces children to ‘the’, ‘of’, ‘to’, ‘no’, and ‘my’, as well as to words which are phonically regular. Examples of sentences in early books are ‘Dan is in his tip-up truck; the tip-up truck is full of mud’, with ‘of’ printed in red.
My second comment relates to the brief screening tests which are carried out at Burscough Village Primary School in Year 1 after children have been at school for four terms. These very informal tests check children’s knowledge of letter-sounds and blending ability. Thus any children still experiencing difficulties in letter-sound recognition and blending are identified early and given help individually, both in class with teachers and support staff, and out of class by the trained volunteer parents. It should be noted that the proportion of children still experiencing difficulties has been very small since the introduction of Jolly Phonics.
This year, we also administered the brief informal test of letter-sound knowledge and blending knowledge to children still in reception (they had completed two terms in school) to detect anyone who needed some extra help. The results show that out of sixteen children in Reception, twelve children (75%) knew nineteen letter-sounds or more, and this included eight children who knew all 26 letter-sounds. Similarly, thirteen children (81%) were able to blend CVC words with confidence, leaving only three children (19%) who needed extra help.
Finally, I also write as someone who met Mona McNee (founder of the United Kingdom chapter of the Reading Reform Foundation) in the mid-1990s. At that time, I was a college lecturer and Organiser and Tutor in Adult Literacy; because of the latter role, I, like Mona, had successfully taught many novice readers. However, we disagreed upon the part played by guessing in the reading process. Mona’s often- repeated statement, ‘guessing is a terrible thing’, seemed to me to be too extreme, particularly since I encouraged my adult beginners to make guesses based on the context of a passage and then to check their guesses against the visual display. However, the more I work with very young novice readers, the more I can see how guessing can be a very negative strategy for them.
Mona and I have, over the years, established a good relationship. I greatly admire the way she has argued for and maintained her beliefs over many years. Truly a tough and determined lady!