In parts 1 & 2, published in previous RRF Newsletters, I explained how, in the 1970s, our school, Woods Loke P S, experienced enormous improvements in the children's reading and writing skills following a change in our method from 'look and say' to a systematic, synthetic phonic approach. No advisers were interested in our much higher than average reading scores or the fact that far fewer of our children needed remedial help. Initially I was puzzled at their indifference to something that was good for children. Gradually I realised that education was run on fashionable trends and not what works best for the children. The fashion at the time was anti-phonics, and this meant that when we said that we had found phonics to work extremely well, people did not want to listen to us. I continued to tell anyone I met who was linked to education that the children must be taught the alphabetic code through structured phonic teaching. One of the people I spoke to was Chris Jolly. He showed interest, and wanted to find out more about how our programme worked. At that time I had no idea that he had started his own publishing company, Jolly Learning Ltd.
After many meetings and discussions with Chris Jolly, he asked me to write a book about how to do the teaching. It had never occurred to me that he might want me to write a book for teachers, as this was usually done by someone higher up in the education world and not by an ordinary teacher like me! However, it was a challenge that I knew had to be met. After several days of hard work I had written twelve pages, which I sent to him. I wanted to make sure that this was what he had in mind. To my horror he rejected it and said that I was trying to justify this type of teaching. He said there was no need for that because I knew very well how to do the teaching, and that it works more effectively than anything else. He then recommended that I should write it like a car manual! This turned out to be just the advice I needed.
At the time of writing The Phonics Handbook, most of the materials and ideas were in use at our school. Over the years of teaching I had noticed that the children learnt the letter sounds more easily when there was a story and an action linked to the letter. It started with the /m/ sound. We used to think of our favourite food, rub our tummies and say 'mmmmmm'. Although there were actions for most of the sounds, I still needed to fill the gaps. Luckily for me, my colleague Sara Wernham, showed interest in what I was doing, and helped me by bringing her creative ideas and talents to the project. We started to work together for the last part of the handbook, which included thinking up the actions for the final letter sounds. Finally all the bits and pieces were sorted out, and our efforts were passed on to Chris Jolly. He then had a considerable amount of layout work to do before it could go to print.
Not long afterwards, I was telephoned by the commercial breakfast TV company, TVam. They were doing a programme about the teaching of phonics and were looking for a school that used phonics in their teaching. Our Headmaster, Mr Cant, agreed that they could come and film in the school. To cut a long story short, the interviewer, Mr Hastings, if my memory is correct, was impressed by what he saw. Our colleagues told him that we had written a book about the way we teach phonics. He telephoned Chris Jolly and said that he might be able to show it on the programme if Chris was able to get a copy to him in time. At this stage there was no book printed! Chris pulled out all the stops and rushed with it, hot off the press, to the studio.
On the morning of the broadcast, my colleagues and I huddled around the school television set. In the Breakfast TVam studio was Martin Turner, the educational psychologist who had written, in his book 'Sponsored Reading Failure', about the serious decline in reading standards in schools. With him were Irina Tyk, Headmistress at Holland House School, and a Chinese girl, who was a very young pupil from her school. Many interesting points were discussed in the programme, but the one thing that demonstrated the importance of phonic teaching was when the little Chinese girl read aloud. First of all she read well from a familiar book, and then confidently from an unknown book. When she came to an unfamiliar word that had three syllables, she sounded it out aloud and read it accurately with no problems. At the end of the programme, the interviewer held up The Phonics Handbook. This was the first time that Sara and I had seen it. It was an exciting moment for us. We continued with our day at school oblivious to the chaos that TVam and Chris Jolly were experiencing. The response of the viewers was so great that they were jamming all the phones. They all wanted to know where they could get The Phonics Handbook. Over the next two days the handbook was held up on Breakfast TV and the viewers were asked to contact Chris Jolly, whose address and telephone number were given. The phones did not stop ringing for days. We were told that, in the ten years that TVam had been broadcasting, they had never had so much response from the public. We then realised, from this experience, that there were thousands of teachers and parents who were worried about the lack of phonics in the teaching of reading. Martin, Irina and I had approached the literacy problem from different angles: Martin as an educational psychologist analysing results from thousands of children in different LEAs, Irina as a Headteacher in an independent school and myself as a classroom teacher in a state school. And yet we had all independently found evidence that problems were being caused by a lack of phonics teaching and could be remedied by putting phonics back on the agenda.
The next part of the Jolly Phonics story will be about the role phonics plays in the National Curriculum.