I have no axe to grind, no bandwagon to follow. I work in a school with good reading results, with a team of progressive forward thinkers who took on the NLS whole-heartedly. But I’m hooked - line, sinker, rod, reel, fisherman, the lot. We embarked on the Jolly Phonics approach to literacy within our Foundation Stage in September of 2001 because of concerns about how our children were picking up the basics of literacy. The traditional combination of focusing on initial letter sounds and sight words at a slow laborious pace was applied because it’s how it has always been done. No-one seemed able to challenge the fact that many children did not succeed using these methods, and in my role as SENCo I watched as they continued to struggle. I am as guilty, this is my fourth year as a Reception teacher (though not consecutively) and felt there had to be something better. I took the opportunity to discuss different approaches with our LEA Early Years team who suggested the approach of Jolly Phonics had been succeeding in another local school. On first look the handbook was not inspiring, but the multi-sensory approach appealed having seen the successes when applied with my SEN children throughout the school – it made sense to apply the theory from the beginning and perhaps meet the needs of many of these children from the outset, before they began to struggle and became switched off from literacy. Teaching the concept of the phoneme appearing anywhere in the word and that these can be combined to make words from the beginning also made so much more sense – providing the building blocks for reading and writing from the start.
However, caution ruled and I started with two phonemes a week with the usual sight word development. My class consisted of 10 children from the September intake, whilst I planned and oversaw the work with the Nursery full-time children (a group of 9 including a child with Downs Syndrome). Within two weeks I switched over to five phonemes a week with associated action, handwriting and soon blending techniques for reading and spelling. We took the radical (Headteacher's word) step of reducing the amount of words taught by 'sight' to those that cannot be blended from their phonemes. The Nursery full-time group switched over to 3 phonemes a week. We held a meeting with parents to explain the change of approach fully and enlisted an enthusiastic response. But the key was the children – they were enthused by the process and speed of learning. They wanted a new phoneme every day – their disappointment when I had a week of revising the digraphs was so heartening after years of plodding through the Reception curriculum looking for inspiring ways to work on ‘i’ for the fifth time with the same child.
After five more weeks I introduced the ‘word boxes’ for my Reception group. These are sets of ten words that contain the phonemes the children recognise to practise blending into words at home (and checked in school). These are returned daily - not learnt off by heart but changed so that they constantly have to apply their blending skills. Two weeks later we were introducing these to children in the Nursery full-time group – their thirst for reading was amazing and they knew what my children were doing and wanted to do the same.
At the same time I introduced nonsense words to the children on advice from colleagues on the senco-forum and after personally seeing the benefit these can have when working with dyslexics. The children were developing the blending techniques to work out words; therefore the intention was to make them consider the meaning of the word at the same time. They took to this enthusiastically – for some children it doubled the time it took to check the ‘word boxes’ because they just had to give the meaning of the word or an example of how it could be used.
So, what point did they reach after one term of teaching? We have now covered 42 phonemes. My weakest child regularly recognises 37 of these, applying them during reading. That child is now beginning to blend words with 4 sounds in them, even blending some initial clusters whilst reading which is very pleasing. This child can spell cvc words accurately 90% of the time, write all the letters of the alphabet in response to the sound and of the 16 digraphs can write 8. This child will also often spot nonsense words and give an example where the word may be applied. All this after in September having no letter recognition, an inability to hear initial phonemes and having little concept of rhyme.
My strongest child can read all 42 phonemes and blends words with 5+ components. She can write 40 of the letter sounds consistently and has written the others on a regular basis. As you can imagine her spelling is excellent. The other children come within a range between, but all are improving their blending skills from day to day. We are still working on tricky words – New Ginn 360 is full of them - and we are currently working on Level 2 words in this scheme but 2 children are not picking up the Level 1 tricky words despite a diet of games/lotto/group/individual reading/parental support. This is a definite concern but I feel less of one when considering the range of words they can read through blending.
The Nursery Full-time children covered 40 phonemes; all the children know their letter sounds and some of the digraphs. A few know all of the phonemes. They can write most of these too. All are reading word boxes at cvc level or above for blending. The child with Downs Syndrome recognises 35 phonemes but is not yet able to blend (we are aiming to combine a sight based approach from next term whilst continuing the synthetic process). These children join my class from next term. The baseline results may be a little skewed this year!
I know all this will require revision and also application of their skills in a wider context. But all I can say is wow, what a term! I know I'm talking about one school, one cohort, one term, and one teaching team. But in that term the children have achieved more than in one year of the conventional approach to phonics. That can't be a fluke. I know that many people have been sceptical over synthetic phonics, but at the very least as a way of teaching phoneme/grapheme relationships I cannot fault it. The children are genuinely reading words, in combination with sight words that they have had to be taught and yes I do agree with the view that children learn in many different ways. I have worked with and designed programmes for enough Dyslexic/SEN children to see that their strengths and weaknesses are wide and varied, requiring an open-minded approach. However, we have to lay as firm a foundation for every child at the beginning of their school career as we can and as part of that synthetic phonics gives systematic knowledge of phoneme awareness and recognition that I have not seen surpassed by any other approach. Our Special Educational Needs Support teachers are beginning to take note, and there is now an over-subscribed ‘Leading Teacher’ for Jolly Phonics in our area. The message is spreading.
Of those of you who are sceptical all I ask is that you find a school in your area that does follow Jolly Phonics or another synthetic phonic scheme whole-heartedly. Go and have a look - see what it can do.
Nik, your contribution to the RRF newsletter and your diary recount on the senco-forum have been invaluable. Well done, thank you and keep up the good work.