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Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) - Promoting Synthetic Phonics : Page Title

RRF Newsletter 53 back to contents
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’ Lesley Drake and Debbie Hepplewhite


Following the criticism from Ofsted in its report The National Literacy Strategy: the first four years 1998 – 2002 which led to the DfES phonics seminar in March 2003, the DfES published a supplement to Progression in Phonics (PiPs) in May 2004 – Playing with Sounds.  

Perhaps the most important message to come from the Ofsted report was the need for professionals to be critical of aspects of guidance which were not working: ‘There are still teachers who follow the framework and guidance with too little questioning and reflection. Schools have reached the stage where they need to make the strategy work for them – and that includes being critical of things that are not effective enough’.  

It is our experience that teachers are increasingly beginning to question the advice (or confusion of advice), having followed national guidance conscientiously only to find they have large numbers of children who still fail to read and write with competence – or at all. Some have lost faith in the literacy strategy and they are now looking for reasons for this reading failure when they have been led to believe that the NLS advice was research-based. In the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) paper for the 2003 DfES phonics seminar, the teachers were blamed for poor results: it was stated that ‘There is a tendency for some teachers to direct children away from the phonics searchlight in the first instance and only to use it as a last resort’, and that teachers did not ‘grasp the importance of applying phonics effectively in shared and guided reading’. The NLS team says that the problem lies with the implementation and not the design of the reading model, but many others believe the model and training to have contributed greatly to continued failure in reading standards. (See ‘…and the last word’ in RRF Newsletter no. 51, pp. 43-44, and read Solity’s seminar paper p. 2, pp. 17-25, pp. 29-30 – the relevant DfES link can be found at  

The number of people accessing/contributing to the RRF website messageboard and the TES online early years staffroom forum about reading instruction issues has noticeably increased as teachers do search for answers. It is not uncommon for contributors to comment that the RRF and various individuals have taught them more about effective teaching methods than both their teacher training establishments and NLS training. Repeatedly, practitioners describe in detail what they are teaching and to whom; they describe what works and their amazement at what they are able to achieve in short periods of time with commercial phonics programmes which are based on research evidence.  

What is also apparent is the frequent lament from these practitioners that headteachers, literacy co-ordinators and LEA school improvement advisers have not necessarily taken on board the Ofsted hierarchy’s clear message that all is not well with the NLS. There still appears to be ‘too little questioning and reflection’ at senior management level. Is there still a climate in education of toeing the line at the expense of being sensitive to, and acknowledging, the movement at grass-roots level? Individuals who have achieved good results in their own classrooms through employing research-based phonics teaching methods are often made to feel isolated, and may see all their good work undone the following year or ignored by colleagues around them. Certainly it is still largely a matter of chance whether those in authority sit up and take notice and support the teachers who are prepared to try different approaches. Solity states in his DfES seminar paper (2003), ‘Potentially the most significant step that could be taken is to give teachers greater responsibility in selecting appropriate curricula and teaching methods…’. Teachers could then ‘make informed decisions about how best to teach in the future based on research rather than being directed, yet again, what to teach’.  

Playing with Sounds – a supplement to Progression in Phonics  

The RRF was pleased to receive a copy of the above supplement. There have been worrying signs that the recent movement towards greater learning-through-play in the Foundation Stage and Year 1 might endanger gains made in phonics teaching. This is because some advisers and headteachers perceive phonics teaching as too ‘formal’ and developmentally inappropriate. It was initially reassuring to find that the supplement is clearly a substantial phonics-based resource. The reviewers felt that the DfES was making a strong statement that phonics teaching was wholly appropriate and here to stay in the Foundation Stage. This is very much to be welcomed, and the review was approached with a positive mindset.  

The RRF received the new Playing with Sounds supplement only after its publication, ruling out the possibility of feedback which might have contributed to the content of the materials. It is possible, though, that feedback from others was incorporated if the post-seminar advice of Prof. Greg Brooks was followed: under the heading ‘Revisions of the NLS’, this advice included a recommendation to ‘convene a focused debate between experts to design and mount research…’ (Sound sense: the phonics element of the National Literacy Strategy, July 2003, p. 24). This debate may indeed have been convened and may have fed into Playing with Sounds, but the RRF was not invited to be part of it. We still do not know which significant researchers, programme designers and practitioners were considered to be worthy ‘experts’ to suggest/research revisions. It is frustrating that there is a lack of transparency about the ‘experts’ regarded as having the best experience and advice to offer, about the authorship of NLS materials, and about any trials which are conducted before new materials are rolled out into schools. We would again ask, as we did with Early Literacy Support: were any objective trials carried out of Playing with Sounds, and, if so, how did results compare with those of other beginner reading programmes?  

Observations and Impressions  

The supplement’s CD Rom provides the first four pages from the original PiPs manual including the model and rationale of the searchlight reading strategies. The following extract is taken from pages 1 and 2:  

‘Where texts are familiar and predictable, children can often rely heavily on contextual and grammatical knowledge, paying relatively little attention to the sounds and spellings of the words. They make progress in the early stages by reading and re-reading familiar texts. Because this story language and its context are predictable, children can get by with very limited phonic strategies and quickly become over-dependent on remembering or guessing their way through the text.  

However, these young readers often meet problems when faced with unfamiliar more complex texts because they have learned to be over-dependent on contextual cues as the predominant strategy for reading. As the familiarity of text diminishes, they need to rely more on their ability to decode individual words.’  

We would ask: Should children be put in a position of ‘reading and re-reading familiar texts’ so that they ‘become over-dependent on remembering or guessing their way through text’? If children ‘have learned to be over-dependent on contextual cues’, might this be because they have been taught or forced to read this way? Is the ‘searchlights’ model possibly responsible for this state of affairs, and is the publication of Playing with Sounds a missed opportunity to examine this possibility?  

The searchlights model was prominent from the very first NLS publications in 1998, and it is clear (for example from the OFSTED report The National Literacy Strategy: The first four years 1998-2002) that it was widely interpreted as sanctioning non-phonic strategies for word-identification (e.g. context use) at the expense of phonic strategies, to correspond with the individual learning styles of the beginning readers. Some attempts were made to correct this, but other advice seemed contradictory. Consider the following:  

·        In 1999, a year after the searchlights model was introduced, the original PiPs manual warned against letting children ‘get by with very limited phonic strategies’ and become ‘over-dependent on remembering or guessing their way through text’;

·        In 2004, Playing with Sounds endorsed this warning by including the four pages from the original PiPs manual where it first appeared;

·        Between these two dates, however, two other NLS publications, Early Literacy Support (2001) and Guided Reading: Supporting transition from Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 2 (2003), condoned and even recommended teaching reliance on pictures, context, and initial letter-cues: for example, it was recommended that children ‘* work out an unfamiliar word based on the pictures and context of the sentence: * re-read sentence with suggested word: Does it sound right in this sentence? * cross-check suggested word by looking at initial letter: Does the word that you suggested start with this letter?’ (Early Literacy Support, p. 23).  

The RRF continues to maintain that teachers are in reality receiving seriously contradictory advice from NLS materials: some NLS publications are training teachers to teach children to rely on pictures, context and initial letter cues, while others are warning against letting this kind of reliance develop. There should be no such contradiction – this needs addressing as a matter of urgency.  

Playing with Sounds continues to emphasise pre-reading sound- and word-play activities. Whilst there may be nothing wrong with these traditional activities, practitioners should not be led to believe that they are essential pre-requisites to reading. Solity draws attention to this issue of pre-requisite skills in his paper for the DfES phonics seminar: ‘Teaching children rhyming and alliteration skills and general sound discrimination within step 1 of PiPs is highly questionable. This is similar to the activities advocated by the reading disabilities movement of the 1960s (Frostig and Marlow, 1973; Solity, 1996) and there is no evidence that these are requisite skills of learning to read.” The Playing with Sounds supplement places much emphasis on rhyming activities and practitioners might well conclude that these are essential to developing reading ability when this is not the case. Macmillan cites a 1996 study by Sumbler and Willows showing that the only two activities highly correlated to subsequent reading and spelling performance were phonic activities involving print. (See RRF Newsletter No. 46,  p. 13.)  

Several researchers and attendees at the phonics seminar expressed their worries about the NLS instructions that children are to learn their letter names along with the letter/s-sound correspondences. Solity had the following to say in his seminar paper (2003): ‘The NLS requires beginning readers to acquire letter names as well as letter sounds. Teaching both potentially confuses children and doubles the amount of information they are required to learn. Letter names are best introduced after children have gained fluency in their application of letter sounds and can distinguish between letter names and sounds with fluency. Teaching names is a redundant skill in both early reading and spelling and takes instructional time which could more usefully be devoted to other activities’ (para. 6.7, p. 21). Later Solity states: ‘Equally it is not clear what role the authors of the NLS see for teaching letter names alongside letter sounds and this was not addressed by Brooks....The ERR demonstrates the high levels to which children from financially disadvantaged and low attaining schools can achieve in reading and spelling even though they are not taught any letter names until Year 2.’  

In the new Playing with Sounds supplement material, it is still not clear what the NLS authors intend regarding the teaching of letter names, but an example is given of a child’s invented spelling where it looks as if the child has resorted to letter names to supply long vowel sounds for which he has not yet been taught graphemes. On pink card no.17 (post-Reception), the child writes, ‘big bilEgOt gruff’. The reviewers did not see any instructions saying that practitioners should not teach letter names at first, despite the criticism and warnings of many experienced researchers and teaching professionals who have repeatedly suggested that many children are seriously confused by the early teaching of both names and sounds.  

Throughout NLS programmes and materials, the tendency to imply or state that ‘research says’ continues to be misleading. If, indeed, there is evidence to support various suggestions, surely the DfES/NLS team should include specific references so that practitioners can investigate them further if they wish. How can we be in times where professional development is purportedly valued and necessary and yet government programmes continue to be produced without references? When the RRF has queried various claims, and has asked for specific references, none has been forthcoming. As was the case with the Progression in Phonics and Early Literacy Support programmes, the authors of the Playing with Sounds supplement are not mentioned and no research references are supplied. Is this acceptable?  

In the introduction sections of the Playing with Sounds CD Rom and the manual it is stated: ‘Phonics needs the whole of the word-level time in the literacy hour’. This implies an expectation that there will still be a discrete ‘literacy hour’, but this does not correspond with the impression given by the Playing with Sounds cards, where activities are play-based in all areas of learning. What is the practitioner to deduce? Has whole class and group teaching been superseded by the latest ‘child-initiated’ ethos where the interpretation of teaching and learning is more individual, incidental and developmentally led? In any event, early phonics teaching may well warrant and need much more than 15 minutes a day. Moreover, the advice that handwriting should be taught outside the literacy hour is puzzling when children need to learn and rehearse their letter/s-sound correspondences through multi-sensory strategies including the kinaesthetic act of writing. They also need to be able to practise spelling not only orally but in writing. It would seem most appropriate for handwriting to be a fundamental part of phonics learning.  

Reception children (Later Foundation) are to be introduced to an incomplete alphabetic code making it likely that they will invent parts themselves. Without the structure of comprehensive phonics knowledge and skills, the probability of guessing increases. The slow pace of teaching does not compare to the pace of the best-known synthetic phonics programmes and it is highly doubtful that reading and spelling results will begin to compare either. Macmillan notes with reference to Stuart’s large- scale classroom based study (1999): ‘This study demonstrated, in particular, the need for speed of learning at the beginning in order to avoid constant struggle later on, to catch up’ (RRF Newsletter no. 46, p. 14).


However, this is all speculation. How are we to discover the effects of the Playing with Sounds programme? If a pilot study was conducted, the results should be published. Is it possible, though, that the DfES has yet again made the unaccountable mistake of failing to test its programme before mass publication and distribution? On the basis of past form, we have to regard this as highly probable – but highly unacceptable and highly regrettable.  

In the comparison which follows, the comments which we make about synthetic phonics outcomes are all supported by existing research conducted, for example, by Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson and by Marlynne Grant. By contrast, the comments which we make about Playing with Sounds outcomes must necessarily remain at the level of predictions because we do not know of research evidence showing that it has been successful in classroom trials. We feel that there are signs of attempts to incorporate elements from successful published programmes, but that the Playing with Sounds approach differs from these programmes in several important respects which may adversely affect its outcomes: for example it is slower in pace, and it focuses initially on first-last-middle sound processing (in that order) whereas successful published programmes focus from the start on the first-middle-last sound processing – the order actually needed for reading and spelling. This is what we call ‘all-through-the-word’ blending and segmenting. If there is research evidence showing that the precise approach used in Playing with Sounds has worked better than these published programmes in classroom trials, we hope that NLS or DfES officials will tell us about it.  

 Comparison between a Synthetic Phonics teaching programme

and the DfES Playing with Sounds programme

Synthetic Phonics  

Synthetic phonics provides the necessary skills that enable the majority to read and write above their chronological age. The 20% of children who have greater difficulty with learning to read and write still have a good foundation of the basics and just need more time and input. Children are intro­duced to at least one spelling version of each of the 40+ sounds of the English lan­guage by the end of the first term in Recep­tion and to the vast majority of phonic spelling variations by the end of Reception. These are revised and reinforced through­out Year 1. This fast-paced and compre­hen­sive phonics approach is best practice accor­ding to the research on reading, inclu­ding the Clack­man­nan­shire research (Johnston and Watson) and the longitudinal study at St Michael’s Primary School, Stoke Gifford (Grant and Wainwright).  

Reception Year, Term 1:  

Learn letter/s-sound correspondences:

a to z plus

ai, ee, ie, oa, ue, er, oi, ou, or

oo, ng, ar, qu, ch, sh and th

– that is, at least one spelling version of the 40+ sounds of the English language.

Practise writing the above letters-for-sounds with a traditional tripod pencil hold.  

NB: ai, ee, ie, oa, ue, er, oi, ou, or, oo, ar are not introduced in the Playing with Sounds programme until the Year 1 yell­ow cards 18 to 23 – a year or more later than this exemplar Synthetic Phonics pro­gramme.  

Using the above letter-sound correspon­den­ces, blend all-through-the-word for deco­ding 100+ regular words, and identify sounds all-through-the-spoken-words for en­coding 100+ regular words.  

Learn 10-20 less regular key words.

Start reading books from decodable reading schemes which correspond with the child­ren’s level of letter/s-sound correspon­dence knowledge.  

Result: Children understand the alpha­be­tic code of the English language and know how to read and write simple words and a few less regular words. 

Reception Year, Term 2:  

Revise letter/s-sound correspondences taught so far.

Learn to recognise alternative spellings:

ay, a-e, ea, igh, y, i-e, ow, o-e, ew, u-e, oy, ir, ur .  

NB: These letter/s-sound correspon­den­ces are not introduced in the Playing with Sounds programme until the Year 1 yellow cards 18 to 23 – two terms or more later. As long vowel sounds are not in­troduced until Year 1, the cumulative word bank cannot in­clude such words as ‘he, we, me, she, see, tree, I, my’ etc, until Year 1 – see yellow card 19. The split digraph or ‘magic e’ words are not intro­duced until card 20, approximately halfway through Year 1. Children are surely going to encounter such words a long time before this point. Also words ending in ‘y’ do not appear until card 19, which precludes words such as ‘mummy’ and ‘happy’ in Reception.  

Independently write several sentences by listening for the sounds all-through-the-word and writing letters for those sounds.

Read to parents, and at school, books from decodable reading schemes.

Learn a further 20 less regular words through a phonic approach drawing atten­tion to the less regular part.

Know the blending technique: If the short vowel does not work, try the long one.  

NB: This routine, ‘If the short vowel does not work, try the long one’, is emu­la­ted in Playing with Sounds but only at the very end of Year 1 on yellow card 23: ‘Tell them that good readers read the word first with one sound, then with the other…they need to try it both ways before they can decide’. This is far too late for practitioner or child.  

Result: Read 10-50 small books.

Independently write news and simple stories by listening for the sounds – some less regular words being spelt correctly.  

Reception Year, Term 3:  

Regularly revise all the letter/s-sound correspondences.

Learn to recognise the alternative spellings au, aw, al.

Know the principles of ‘soft c’ and ‘soft g’.  

NB: Soft c and soft g are introduced at the end of Year 1 in Playing with Sounds.  

Read books at home and at school – fluent readers start choosing their own books at their level.

Understand that there is more than one way of writing some sounds – e.g. ai, ay, a-e.

Try to choose the correct spelling for these sounds, knowing general principles where relevant – e.g. ‘ai’ cannot end a word.

Learn a further 20 less regular keywords.

Write stories, news, topics, science inde­pen­­dently.

Spell the less regular keywords which have been taught.  

Result: Children enter Year 1 with a rig­o­rous introduction to Synthetic Phon­ics knowledge and skills. Most of them will have a reading and spelling age a year above their chronological age. Many of them will be able to read and write inde­pendently with the right foun­d­ations for rapid progress even if they have dyslexic tendencies or speak English as an addi­tional language. Boys’ results compare well with those of girls and summer-born children are not dis­ad­vantaged as they tend to be in mixed-methods set­tings. Practitioners will have worked in part­nership with most parents and child­ren will have been provided with text level material, to read at home, which they are able to­ decode compe­tently. The behaviour of most children is not ad­verse­ly affected by difficulties with learning to read, as they will experience success. Settings familiar with rigorous Synthetic Phonics programmes often use them or trial their use in Early Found­a­tion stage, so pleased are they with the reading and spelling results of the vast majority of their children, including those with a range of special needs.  

If the Synthetic Phonics teaching prin­ciples are whole school policy, the child­ren will go on to perform very well in Key Stage 2. You will have Stanovich’s ‘Matthew’s Effect’.

NLS Playing with Sounds  

As only limited spelling versions of 31 of the 40+ sounds of English are introduced by the end of Reception, children taught by the NLS Playing with Sounds pro­gramme may enter Year 1 with insuf­ficient letter/s-sound knowledge to read and write phonic­ally. Practitioners and children may have to resort to a mixed-methods approach for reading and wri­ting. There may still be a high percen­tage of children failed by this ap­proach. Children may have to resort to guessing for reading and spelling words with such a limited introduction to letter-sound cor­res­pondences, exacer­bated by the fail­ure of the DfES to withdraw the instruc­tions about the multi-cueing search­lights reading strate­gies. Prac­ti­tioners may con­tinue to teach children to guess words from pictures, context and initial letters, despite the revealing warn­ing in the first pages of Progression in Phonics about the dangers of children guessing words. This may lead to conti­nued underachievement and confu­sion. The research on reading does not advo­­cate such a mixed-methods approach. Some children will fare much better than others, but the weakest may struggle.  

Reception Year, Terms 1 & 2:  

Pale green cards 6 & 7 (described as ‘Later Foundation’ – relates to step 2 of Progress­ion in Phonics):

Card 6: ‘Continue a rhyming string’

Card 7: ‘Hear and say the initial sounds in words and know which letters represent some of the sounds’

Grey cards 9-14: (described as ‘Later Foun­d­ation’ relates to steps 2, 3 and 4 of Pro­gression in Phonics)

All grey cards are linked to Early Learning Goals as follows: ‘Hear and say initial and final sounds in words and short vowels within words; link sounds to letters; use their phonic knowledge to write simple reg­u­lar words and make phonetically plau­si­ble attempts at more complex words’.

Grey card 11: ‘North-South-East-West; Purpose: to identify phonemes in the initial/final/medial position in words and match with the appropriate grapheme’.  

NB: These instructions on the grey cards are a serious missed opportunity to pro­mote the idea of all-through-the-word phonics instead of initial, final, medial sounds. It is not until the Year 1 yellow card 18 that we read, ‘The left-to-right orien­tation of words and the fact that pho­nemes are represented in written lan­guage in the exact order in which they are spoken should also be estab­lished’. Why is this vital aspect of all-through-the-word blending and seg­men­ting not made explicitly clear to the prac­ti­tioner on the grey Later Founda­tion cards? Is it to be seen to ‘tie in’ with previous NLS programmes and the QCA Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage?  

Reception Year, Term 3 to the end of Year One:  

Practitioners may have some difficulty monitoring the teaching of letter/s-sound cor­respondences. Children may have some difficulty remembering the correspon­den­ces without a supportive mnemonic system. Apart from ‘Mood Sounds’ (grey card 10), the NLS authors fail to provide an effective mnemonic system. The emphasis through­out the programme is of incidental play oppor­tunities to write and read – with an over-emphasis on spelling at the expense of blending for reading. Practi­tioners may find it difficult to restrict spelling opportu­nities to words avoiding the letter/s-sound correspondences the children have not yet learnt. Children may resort to a heavily in­ven­ted code to fill in gaps in their know­ledge and understanding. For example, we see on pink card 15 (Later Foundation): ‘Gran dusnt lIk fish and chips, just bAk bEns’. Pink card 17: ‘troll, big bilEgOt gruff’. The assumption seems to be that the chil­dren might substitute upper-case vowels to represent long vowel sounds because spellings for long vowel sounds have not yet been taught.  

Year 1:  

On the Year 1 yellow card 18 we read, ‘They will have been introduced inciden­­tal­ly to the fact that there are different ways to represent a sound through the work with phonemes and graphemes in groups 4 and 5’. This insistence on ‘incidental’ teaching and learning is more akin to a whole lan­guage/mixed methods approach than a syste­matic phonics approach. Is this an attempt to be politically correct by empha­si­sing the new ‘Learning Through Play’ ethos for Foundation Stage and Year 1 children?  

What exposure will children have to a range of books over a protracted period with letter combinations and words which the children have not yet been taught? Will they be expected to read these books without a substantial know­ledge of the alph­a­betic code? There is no guidance about the reading of books on the cards them­selves, although informa­tion is pro­vi­ded at the front of the folder about a set of anima­ted decoding cart­oons and other de­co­dable printable stories on the accom­pa­ny­­ing CD Rom. This is a welcome im­prove­ment. Unfor­tu­nately, the adult voice modelling the blending for the cartoon stories is unna­tu­rally slow when saying the individual sounds all-through-the-words, thus giv­ing practitioners a poor impres­sion of the synthesising process.  

Result: Reading and spelling results may not match those in settings follow­ing a rig­orous Synthetic Phonics pro­gramme. A large percentage of children may not pro­gress well on the mixed methods of learning letter names along with sounds, and the slower introduction to the alpha­betic code combined with the multi-cueing search­light reading strate­gies. Lear­n­ing to read and write may con­tinue to be a lottery for children as prac­ti­tioners remain con­fused as to which phonics programmes and mnemo­nic sys­tems to use, with what order of letter introduction along with which reading books. Some schools will change to Playing with Sounds as they wish to be fol­lowing ‘official’ advice, and will be­lieve that it is based on research evidence – implied by the introduction on the CD Rom and references to the DfES phonics sem­inar where research was presented. Many practitioners may not have the time or inclination to read the papers pre­sented as a consequence of the semi­nar, and they will be unaware that these included serious criticisms of the NLS reading instruction pro­grammes, the search­light reading strategies, and the con­clusions of Professor Greg Brooks.  

If the searchlight reading strategies are whole school policy, a large percentage of children may fail to catch up and fail to reach their potential in literacy and other curriculum areas in Key Stage 2.


We recommend that schools consider very carefully the efficacy of the Playing with Sounds order and pace of introducing letter/s-sound correspondences. Research has shown that an early, fast-paced phonics introduction to reading and writing, supported by a literacy-rich environment, produces exceptional levels of performance compared to eclectic approaches. We suggest that children are excited to learn and apply the alphabetic code in its own right without the need for activities such as fishing letter shapes out of water and reading word cards buried in sand.  

Lesley Drake is currently deputy head of an East London Primary school . She was a literacy consultant for the NLS from 1996-2003, but resigned on principle from this role because of the DfES failure to test the NLS intervention programmes and the failure to act on the criticisms expressed at the DfES seminar in 2003. Debbie Hepplewhite is a primary-school teacher and past editor of the RRF Newsletter.




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