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

RRF Newsletter 60 back to contents
A Comparison of the Recommendations of the Rose Report and Oxford Brookes University Catch Up Programme TrainingElizabeth Nonweiler on behalf of the RRF



Our government has accepted all the recommendations of the Final Report of the Independent Review into the Teaching of Early Reading (Rose, 2006) and has promised to ensure that they are implemented. Rose states that high quality phonic work, as defined by the review, should be a key feature of provision for pupils with literacy difficulties. Catch Up is a literacy intervention programme designed to help 6-11 year olds who struggle with their reading. In February 2007, I attended a three morning course called ‘Delivering the Catch Up Programme’. My aim was to find out to what extent Catch Up training promotes best practice as described in the Rose Report.


The trainers gave a professional and enthusiastic presentation, with the result that many of the trainees were clearly inspired. Most of them were teaching assistants, who had been sent by their schools so that they would be able to deliver Catch Up with individual pupils. There were also teachers in management positions (SENCOs, deputy heads), who came so that they would understand what is expected of those delivering the training.


Some Crucial Points from the Rose Report:


Training should promote high quality phonic work, including

·         systematic, regular and explicit teaching of phonics (para.46)

·         letter/sound correspondences in a clearly defined incremental sequence (para.51)

·         the skill of blending phonemes in order, all through a word, to read it (para.51)

·         the skills of segmenting words into their constituent phonemes to spell (para.51)

·         understanding that blending and segmenting are reversible processes (para.51)

·         unwavering focus on ensuring that pupils gain phonic knowledge and skills, especially asking them to blend sounds together to read and segment the sounds in words to spell (para.228)

·         consolidation and revision in lessons of previously taught phonic knowledge and skills (para.228)

·         simple, rigorous and purposeful assessment (para.61)

Training should be characterised by

·         straightforward, well structured presentation of the phonic knowledge, skills and understanding pupils need to learn, ensuring that each stage of learning is secured (para.187)

·         ensuring teachers understand the relationship between phonic work and comprehension (para.187)

·         guidance on how to teach irregular words (para.187)

·         guidance on regular assessment of phonic knowledge, skills and understanding and using the information gained to improve teaching and learning (para.187)

Trainees should be told that

·         word recognition is the process of using phonics to recognise words (para.122)

·         pupils should use knowledge of letter-sound correspondences and the skills of blending sounds together in order to decode effortlessly (para.118)

·         it is not a good idea to teach pupils to use context to read the words on the page (Appendix 1, para.43)

·         pupils should not be taught habitually to infer the word they need from pictures (para.117)

·         pupils should be taught to use their phonic knowledge not only for the first letter in a word, but to read the whole word (para.237)

Training should help adults working with pupils

·         to acquire excellent knowledge of the phonic content to be taught (para.228)

·         to pronounce phonemes clearly and precisely (para.228)


Which of these points from the Rose Report was delivered by the Catch Up training?


Simply, none of them.



How were we advised to help the pupils involved with Catch Up?


We were told to present a ten minute structured individual session once or twice a week. We should select a suitable book for the pupil to read and then deliver the session, divided into two minutes of prepared reading, four minutes of pupil reading and four minutes of a linked writing activity.

The instructions for prepared reading were:

·         Go through the book.

·         Use key words from the text.

·         Ask pupil to predict the ending of the story.

·         Give pupil the whole story.

For hearing the pupil read:

·         Pupil reads.

·         Observe, use Pause Prompt Praise, discuss text and record miscues.

·         Select a word from the recorded miscues for follow up focus.

For the linked writing activity:

·         Provide focused teaching of the selected word, based on miscue analysis.

·         Pupil practises writing the word and a sentence that includes the word.




Catch Up assessment consists of

·         Reading Interview: Questions are provided to ask pupils about their reading habits, perceptions and experiences.

·         Sight Word Knowledge: There are 4 lists of high frequency words for the pupil to attempt to read.

·         Phonological Knowledge: Charts are provided to record

1.        Grapheme-Phoneme Matching - of the single letters of the alphabet, ch, sh, th and wh, i.e. 30 graphemes

2.        Hearing Phonemes - in the initial, final and medial position in CVC words

3.        Initial Consonant Clusters - e.g. pl, fr, sn. It is not acceptable for the pupil to say the sounds separately.

·         Letter Name Knowledge: This includes all lower and upper case letters.

·         Letter Formation Knowledge


The assessments are expected to take about an hour and a half; we should do them before starting the programme; we should not leave any out. The trainer said, “Although they are time consuming, they give a huge profile. You will become the expert on these pupils.” We were told that assessments show what pupils can and can’t do and where to go next; individual targets are set accordingly. However, we were later told to use miscues, and not assessment, to decide what to teach. A trainee asked what to do if a child made no suitable mistakes, and was told that she could then refer to the targets. The only other use of the assessment information is to base the choice of reading book on the number of high frequency words read correctly.


Children who struggle with their reading are usually those who find it difficult to memorise whole words and do not learn grapheme/phoneme correspondences without direct teaching. Several thousand words and over 120 graphemes are used to write everyday English. For instance, the text in ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’, from a Catch Up book collection, includes more than 100 graphemes. Catch Up phonics teaching is based on either miscues or assessment of just 30 graphemes. The result must be that pupils are taught to recognise only a few of the graphemes they have not already learned, and have to try to remember whole words.


Choosing appropriate books


We were told to choose books which have texts that are challenging but not frustrating. A book list was provided with books graded according to 10 Catch Up levels.


Catch Up levels are based on:

·         number of words on a line

·         number of lines on a page

·         number of high frequency words used

·         degree of repetition

·         print size

·         inclusion of technical vocabulary

·         complexity of sentences

The decoding skills required at each level were not mentioned.


Catch Up Level 2 is for pupils who can read only 15 to 30 of the 45 (reception sight) words in the first two lists of high frequency words in the assessment. I analysed the words in these lists and found that they include altogether:

·         15 words with simple one-to-one letter/sound correspondences: a, am, at, in, it, on, up, can, big, cat, dad, dog, get, mum, yes

·         3 words with 2 letter consonant clusters: and, went, play

·         11 words with 7 digraphs that are commonly taught in synthetic phonics programmes as basic code: she, see, look, for, day, play, away, this, the, they, going (play has both a consonant cluster and a digraph)

·         14 words with 9 common alternative spellings: my, we, he, me, she, no, go, going, all, like, I, is, was, the

·         7 words with unusual spellings: to, of, you, come, said, they, are


Here is an example of the text in a book from level 2:



p.1 What does a newsagent sell?

p.2 What does a toy shop sell?

p.3 What does a chemist sell?

p.4 What does a supermarket sell?

p.5 Where can you buy these things?


On each page there are colourful illustrations, which give clues to the words in the text. A child who could read only 15 to 30 words at Catch Up Level 2 would be unable to decode most of the words in this text.


When choosing books, we were told, “Avoid at all costs books which prevent fluency. Don’t choose books where they spend time sounding out.”


How to Help Children to Read Words


A slide showed us a range of reading strategies:


·         sounding out letters

·         building up letter patterns

·         applying knowledge of other words and rules

·         applying knowledge of grammar

·         using the context for clues

‘Blends phonemes accurately’ is one of the strategies written on the pupil’s record sheet for adults to highlight, but the trainer did not mention it. She said that there is a problem with “that slow robotic reading that is going to lead to more slow robotic reading”. She suggested that if pupils are using phonic clues all the time, we may need to work on context clues. “The problem we’ve got is that the pupils won’t have all the strategies.”


The trainer explained, “The purpose of prepared reading is to make sure that they can concentrate on reading for meaning, because they have no surprises, they know the story and they know the tricky words.”

We were told about a boy called Michael who said, “I know why you do this. It makes it easy. You give me half the words.” The trainer said, “He understood the process.” Apparently Michael was not taught how to recognise these words independently.


Examples from Videos Shown at the Training:


·         During prepared reading, the adult pointed mainly at the pictures and very briefly at the written words, ‘shoes’ and ‘helmet’, as she told the story in her own words. Nothing was said about the letters or sounds in the words.

·         A child read, “But then Dipper swam a shark.” The adult asked, “Did that make sense?” Then the child read correctly, “But then Dipper saw a shark.” She did not suggest decoding ‘saw’.

·         A child said “/w/” for wreck. The adult asked, “Do you remember what we called the boat under the water?” The child was silent. The adult said, “It was a wreck.” She did not explain that ‘wr’ is pronounced /r/ in ‘wreck’, or in any way help him decode ‘wreck’.

·         A child read “nose”. The adult said, “Did you find that (the word ‘nose’) ... by looking at the picture? Good boy.”

·         When a child read ‘with’ incorrectly, the adult asked, “What’s the beginning sound?” The child said, “/w/”. The adult asked, “Any idea what it could be?” The child was silent. She asked about the next sound. The child said “/i/”.The adult said, “Yes,” and then asked again what the word was. The child said, “with”. I deduced that guessing from initial letters is considered preferable to blending to the end of a word.

·         Another child read ‘couldn’t’ for ‘can’t’. The adult said, ‘Try again’. The child read /ka/. The adult said, “can’t”, without asking the child to decode any further.

·         On one occasion a child paused at the word ‘chest’. The adult asked, “What does that make?” pointing at ‘ch’. Without further prompting, the child successfully blended the sounds to read ‘chest’, and the adult wrote in a speech bubble, “I liked the way you sounded that out”. This was the only occasion during the training that this strategy was praised.


How to Help Children to Spell


We were told that we should choose one word to focus on, based on a miscue that is either a high frequency sight word or a word with a common letter pattern.


For sight words, we were shown a slide with the example ‘was’:


1.        Tell pupil to study the word ‘was’ and to memorise it by saying the letter names (bold text as on the power point slide).

2.        Tell the pupil to close their eyes and visualise the whole word, saying the letter names again.

3.        Ask pupil to write the word from memory.

4.        Tell pupil to check if they have spelled the word correctly. Then cover the word and ask pupil to spell it again. NB. The pupil always writes the word from memory.

Nothing was said about segmenting the spoken word. In the case of words with irregular spellings, nothing was said about identifying the more usual or unusual grapheme/phoneme correspondences. For instance, the child’s attention was not drawn to the ‘w’ in ‘was’, which is the usual letter for /w/; or that ‘wa’ is the common grapheme for ‘wo’ (/w/+/o/).


For words with common letter patterns, we were given the example, ‘hill’, and told to


1.        Break hill into 3 phonemes. This was the only time it was suggested that a word should be segmented.

2.        Ask the pupil to blend the phonemes to make the word. This was the only time it was suggested that children should be asked to blend phonemes.

3.        Cover the word and ask the pupil to write it from memory. It was not suggested that the pupil should use the process of segmenting the word to help to spell it.

4.        Tell the pupil that if they can write ‘hill’ they can spell many other words which have the same ‘ill’ pattern, e.g. ‘fill’.

5.        Help the pupil to generate other words with the letter pattern, ‘ill’, e.g. mill, pill, kill, will.


If a child is stuck trying to spell a word like ‘hill’, the trainer said to ask, “What does it begin with?” “Hopefully,” she said, “they’ll be able to add the ending; if they can’t, write it for them.”


Examples from the Videos


·         A child tried to write, ‘Jack was on the hill’. The adult filled in ‘Jack’ for him. I understood that she believed it was difficult for him to spell ‘Jack’; but ‘Jack’ is easy to segment and spell. The correct spelling choice for /k/ could have been given if necessary.

·         For practising spelling ‘want’, a child was told to look, cover, write and check. When she made a mistake, she was told to try again. She was not shown that the only tricky part of ‘want’ is the ‘a’.


For follow-up, it was suggested that children could play an onset and rime game from the Catch Up CD.


Skills and Knowledge for Adults


Language Comprehension and Word Recognition


We were very briefly shown a slide of the ‘simple view of reading’ as in the Rose Report and the new Primary Framework. The trainer told us that this structure is very new. She explained that she was trying to get her head round it, but her understanding was that children may have strengths in some of these areas, and that it is our job to establish where the weaknesses are.

We were all given a handout with the same text, but half of us had a title about tennis, and half had a title about school dinners. The text was about ‘servers’, ‘a board’, and ‘a repeat of yesterday’. The point made was that the title influenced our understanding of the text. The trainer concluded that a prepared read, where children are given the title and a bit more, empowers the children. As the Rose Report makes clear, this is about language comprehension and not about word recognition. The distinction was not clarified, and the implication was that the aim of the reading preparation is to help children recognise the words.


Phonic Knowledge and Irregular Words


The alphabet code was not explained to the trainees. The only guidance on how to teach irregular words was to use Look, Cover, Write and Check. The trainer said, “As you know, with high frequency words, you often can’t sound them out.” She described the word ‘out’ as “not phonetically regular”. Yet, the usual pronunciation of the grapheme ‘ou’ is taught early on in synthetic phonics programmes.




Catch Up Boxes


At the end of the first morning, trainees collected their Catch Up boxes, which included:

·         A Video

The video is for showing to whole school staff, parents, governors and local authority advisors. It explains that Catch Up focuses on teaching children to read with understanding and uses a balanced approach. As well as the individual sessions described in the training, the video shows a group reading session where a child is praised for reading smoothly with lots of expression. There is no teaching about how to decode words. A child who can’t read ‘dragon’ is told to look at ‘drink’, ‘drip’, etc. We are told, “Not only has his fluency improved ... but confidence and self esteem have also ... He’s not just relating the picture and the words together; he’s actually looking for meaning as well.”

·         A Teaching Manual

This provides detailed guidance on how to deliver the Catch Up Programme, as in the training. There is some confusion between phonemes and graphemes, as pupils are to be asked ‘to point at and say the sound of each phoneme’, but a phoneme is a sound and cannot be pointed at. However, later the words are used correctly.

·         A List of Fiction and Non-fiction Books

The books are graded according to Catch Up levels as described in the training. They include books from many well known schemes such as Oxford Reading Tree, All Aboard, Story Chest, but not structured phonics schemes, such as Read Write Inc Story Books, Jolly Readers, King Wizzit, Jelly and Bean.

·         A Pupil Progress Booklet

This is the booklet described in the training to keep a record of each session. It includes details of the assessment activities, forms to fill in for individual teaching sessions, and pages of pictures of rockets, dinosaurs, etc., with the title, ‘Words I Can Spell’ for children to fill with words from the Catch Up High Frequency Words lists. Again, there is some confusion about vocabulary, as ‘Phonological Knowledge’ is the title given to tasks involving matching letters to sounds, but phonological knowledge is only about the sounds of language, and not about how letters represent sounds.

·         Photocopiable Games and Activities for Follow up and Extension work

Half the games and activities involve matching, either ‘sight words’, rhyming words or letters. An alphabet game involves matching single letters to the initial sound of words represented by pictures. There are similar games for single letters at the ends of words, single letter vowels in the middle of words, the digraphs sh, wh, th, ch, consonant clusters at the beginning of words and the vowel digraphs, ee, oo, ou and ai (but vowel digraphs were not included in assessment or training). ‘Syllable Chunks’ involves putting two halves of written words together to match to a whole word. Spelling games involve looking at words and then writing them from memory. None of the games or activities focus on blending sounds all through the word to read or segmenting words to spell.



·         Interactive CD ROMs

This advertises CD ROMs to support Catch Up sessions. CD ROM 1, which I have seen, is based on the high frequency word lists, initial letters, and onset and rime. The games are similar to the photocopiable games; they involve nothing to do with blending sounds all through the word to read or segmenting words to spell. For many of the games, it seems to me that a child who cannot already read or spell the words on the CD cannot play, but a child who can read them does not need the practice. In other games, the child sees and hears the words before playing and is then expected to memorise the words as wholes for reading or spelling.

·         Catch Up Book Collections

This advertises 3 collections containing a selection of 40 different non-scheme books, graded according to Catch Up criteria. They include books such ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ and ‘Shopping’, which are referred to earlier in this article.




The content of the Catch Up Programme training was quite different from the recommendations of the Rose Report.




The director of Catch Up sent me the following document to explain how Catch Up links to the renewed Primary Framework for Literacy, which has been designed to support practitioners in implementing the recommendations of the Rose Report:

Catch Up and the renewed Primary Framework for Literacy

Catch Up is a one-to-one literacy intervention programme for pupils in Years 2 – 8. It provides focused teaching, tailored to the needs of the individual, in those aspects of literacy that struggling readers find difficult.

Raising expectations


The renewed Primary Framework for Literacy prioritises the importance of raising expectations for all children, especially those at greatest risk of underachievement.

With effective support, struggling readers are able to make significant progress – 85% of pupils on the Catch Up Programme make double the expected progress. Catch Up also helps them access the full curriculum and significantly improves their self-esteem.

The ‘simple view of reading’


Within what it calls the simple view of reading, the Framework identifies two components: word recognition and language comprehension.

Word recognition


To address word recognition, the Framework recommends synthetic phonics as the preferred method of teaching reading to be used with all children in Reception and Year 1.

Catch Up is not intended to be used with those young beginner readers. Catch Up is for children who have been unable to make a significant start with reading in Reception and Year 1. It builds upon the initial reading skills taught in the Early Years and gives children a fresh start with reading.

Although Catch Up is not an Early Years synthetic phonics programme, phonics is an important part of Catch Up: the Catch Up initial assessments enable the adult to identify any areas of phonic weakness; the Catch Up sessions then provide opportunities to practise and build upon phonic knowledge. The child is encouraged to blend phonemes to decode unfamiliar words and to segment a word into its phonemes.

The Framework also acknowledges the need for pupils to ‘establish a store of familiar words that are recognised immediately on sight and linked to their meanings’. Catch Up addresses this in the Catch Up session when pupils are taught to spell irregular high frequency words.

Language comprehension


The Framework identifies comprehension as the ultimate goal of learning to read. In each Catch Up session we address comprehension by introducing each text and ensuring the pupil understands what they are going to read before they start reading. When they have finished reading, the pupils are then asked literal and inferential questions, to support and reinforce their understanding of the text.

Summarising the sequence of learning in a Catch Up session


In each Catch Up session we start with a text,

then we focus on a sentence,

and then we concentrate on a word,

and study its letters and/or phonemes,

then we put the word back into its sentence.

Catch Up and phonics kite marking


The phonics kite mark isn’t applicable to Catch Up which is designed for struggling readers in Years 2 – 8. The kite mark is designed for Early Years phonic programmes.

My [Elizabeth’s] response to this Catch Up document:

1.     The Rose Report states that high quality phonic work, as defined by the review, should be a key feature of the provision of intervention. In other words, it is not only for Reception and Year 1.

2.     The Catch Up initial assessments do not ‘enable the adult to identify any areas of phonic weakness’, because only 30 graphemes are assessed - most of which are single letters.

3.     The sequence of teaching described in this document is top-down analytic phonics and not synthetic phonics.

4.     In the training I observed, not once was it suggested that a child be asked ‘to blend phonemes to decode unfamiliar words or to segment a word into its phonemes’.





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