Spoken words can be split up into smaller sounds, of which the smallest units of identifiable sounds in a word are called phonemes. For example, the word ‘peach’ can be split into the phonemes /p//ee//ch/. (A phoneme is expressed within slash marks /-/). The phonemes are then represented by written symbols to create an alphabetic code writing system.
In the English spoken language around 44 phonemes can be identified but there are only 26 letters in the alphabet with which to represent the phonemes in the written code. Thus, not only single letters but also groups of letters are used to represent the 44+ phonemes for the English written code – known as The Alphabetic Code. A letter or letter group can be referred to as a grapheme.
If only the code was as simple as a letter, or a group of letters, representing any one particular phoneme, then the teaching and learning of the code would be speedy and straightforward – that is, one grapheme for each of the 44 phonemes. Unfortunately, in the English Alphabetic Code over 180 main graphemes are used to represent the 44+ phonemes. For example, nine different graphemes represent the /ai/ phoneme in common words: ‘a’ as in table, ‘ai’ as in train, ‘ay’ as in tray, ‘ae’ as in sundae, ‘a-e’ as in plane, ‘ey’ as in survey, ‘eigh’ as in eight, ‘ea’ as in great and ‘aigh’ as in straight. Whilst some of these variations are very rare, none of the words themselves are rare.
Our job as teachers is to make this complicated Alphabetic Code as simple and straightforward as possible – working from the simple to the complex in systematic steps with direct teaching methods and materials. To do this, we need good subject knowledge and we need to be organised with how we understand The Alphabetic Code ourselves; how we teach it and how we support learners in learning it. If we are teaching in a school situation we also need to be able to work in partnership with parents, sharing the information and the teaching steps with them.
The image above is part of an English Alphabetic Code chart available to download for free from www.alphabeticcodecharts.com They have a huge variety available in different formats - with pictures, without pictures, with teaching notes, large versions for wall displays, small versions for desktop references.
The Teaching & Learning Cycle is nothing new, revolutionary or challenging. It's a good ol' fashioned teaching structure. You revisit and review previous learning, you teach or introduce something new, the children practise, apply and consolidate the learning. It's not set in stone, but it provides a common sense structure for phonics teaching - agree?
I love the Teaching & Learning Cycle but it's not without it's problems...
Final thought... the Teaching & Learning Cycle can be used flexibly to meet your needs, but you should complete the cycle before moving on. Learners need plenty of opportunity for each section pf the cycle.
When you start learning about phonics, or teaching phonics, you realise that it's not as straightforward as some people think. It isn't just 'a few sounds and letters'. It's actually a bit of a minefield. Especially if you want to do a good job of it.
'Conquering the complex English language for reading and writing is jolly tough.'
My job is to make learning about, and teaching, phonics as clear and straightforward as possible. If I can help teachers to have a deeper understanding of the way phonics works then they will be more effective in teaching children to read and write.
One of my key messages is: 'Relate back to the Systematic Synthetic Phonics Teaching Principles (SSPT principles).'
Get the picture?
So what are these SSPT principles?
It's surprisingly simple... there are four points...
*The skill of handwriting wasn't specified by the DfE in their explanation of the principles. The DfE cites the fourth point as knowing that blending and segmenting are reversible skills. To me, and several others in the world of phonics specialism, this isn't a skill. It's a fact. A fact that is useful for teachers to know but doesn't need to be directly taught to children like the other principles. So it's unofficially replaced with the skill of handwriting because that makes absolute common sense :-)
Going back to phonics being a minefield... the more you learn about it the more straightforward and logical it becomes... and the easier it becomes to teach confidently and effectively. Of course, for young and beginner learners the principles are fairly hefty. To know all of that code! To be able to blend! To be able to segment! To be able to write! Fear not, the SSPT principles can be broken down into much smaller sub-skills (and I'll cover this in another post).
A CVC word is a word like 'cat'.
A CCVC word is a word like 'stop'.
A CCVCC word is a word like 'swept'.
We're talking about the structure of words. The consonants (C) and vowels (V) within words. It isn't rocket science to state that beginner readers (and writers) will find shorter words like cat, hen, map easier than longer words like philanthropy, exuberant and sophistication.
The problem is that people have gotten a bit carried away with this idea and now we're getting in a muddle.
Firstly, in a modern world of systematic synthetic phonics it's no longer accurate enough to talk in terms of vowels and consonants. Do you mean a vowel letter or a vowel sound? Do you mean a consonant letter or a consonant sound?
Vowel letters = a, e, i, o, u
Vowel sounds = a, e, i, o, u, ay, ai, a-e, ee, ea, ie, ei, igh, y, i-e, ow, oa, er, ou, etc (there are about 20 or so vowel sounds in the English language)
So when you talk about a CVC word do you mean 'like cat' or do you mean 'like boat'? Or is boat a CVVC word?
The answer is that CVC, CCVC, CCVCC etc word structures are referring to the sounds in words and not the letters. So the word 'light' is a CVC word because it has a consonant sound, followed by a vowel sound, followed by a consonant sound: /l/ /igh/ /t/.
However, you do need to be careful, especially if you download information/activities from the wonderful place that is the Internet as several sites contain mistakes. A well-known parent site lists 'chop' and 'ship' as CCVC words because they have wrongly identified the 'ch' and 'sh' as two consonants sounds and not one. To clarify, 'chop' and 'ship' are CVC words.
Secondly, children taught using systematic synthetic phonics don't need to be held back by following a rigid progression in word structures. Although you might generally use shorter, simpler words during the earliest days of learning to read and write you should always include longer and more complex words in every lesson. This lifts glass ceilings and allows children to progress further and faster at their own rate. It enables a simple method of differentiation when teaching whole class.
Furthermore, ensuring the teaching and practise of words with consonant clusters and blends from an early stage reduces the need to teach these separately later. For example, when you've taught 's' /s/ and 'p' /p/ include words in your lessons like 'spot' and 'spin', 'naps' and 'mops'.
'Take CVC, CCVC, CCVCC etc word structures with a pinch of common sense and don't get hung up over them.'
Why are you using sound buttons and dashes? I want you to dig deep and really think about this one.
Don't you think they're a bit weird? An odd distraction. Unrealistic. Nothing to do with real reading, writing or spelling. An overused scaffold.
Let me bust the myth for you right now...
'YOU DON'T NEED SOUND BUTTONS AND DASHES!'
What are sound buttons and dashes?
Sound buttons and dashes provide children with a scaffold. They help to remind them that when they read the word 'goat' the letters 'o' and 'a' go together as 'oa' to represent the sound /oa/.
Admittedly some young learners struggle with this concept *for a moment in time*. You might recognise the beginner reader who looks nervously at the word goat and sounds out, "g - o - a - t".
"Very good," you say, "but look (pointing), when we see the o and a together like this, we say /oa/. g - oa - t."
The beginner reader nods their head eagerly at you then tries again, "g - o - a - t".
The theory then, is that if the reader saw dots under the g and t, and a dash under the oa, they would be prompted to remember to say /oa/ and not /o/ /a/.
My experience (from teaching swaths of beginner readers) is that very few children struggle with this, and even when they do it only takes a matter of days before they've conquered it. I distinctly remember one child that seemed to be held back from making progress for a couple of weeks because he just couldn't get his head around digraphs (two letters together representing one sound) so I did use a pencil to underline the digraphs in his reading book. I then rubbed the lines out again after a few days.
I don't want children's eyes looking at dots and dashes - I want them focusing on the letter shapes through the word.
Scarily I see activities like the third picture above - where children draw sound buttons and dashes under words - used in lessons all the time. It's depressing, a real waste of time in my opinion. Even worse if you're calling them sausages and beans, and talking about pressing sound buttons. Excuse me while I puke.
So if you are going to use sound buttons and dashes please remember the purpose of them and that they should only be useful as a scaffold for a brief moment in time. Move on from them as soon as you can.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know what you think of sound buttons and dashes in the comments below :-)
What is a mnemonic system?
A mnemonic system is an aid to memory. It's a way of helping learners to remember something. In phonics we are introducing young children to a large complex system of letter shapes that correspond to sounds (then trying to put it all together to read and write words). For some children, simply looking at the letter shape and hearing (then saying) the sound, repeated day after day, is all they need for them to remember. However there are lots of children who struggle to remember which sound goes with which letter/s.
Examples of mnemonic systems:
Jolly Phonics uses actions. Look at this video by Little Learners to see the Jolly Phonics mnemonic system.
Read Write Inc uses pictures that are drawn onto the letter shapes. Look at this video to see the mnemonic being used in a phonics lesson.
Phonics International and Floppy's Phonics both use key pictures and key words. Here is Debbie Hepplewhite demonstrating some sound and letter correspondences using her key pictures and key words.
The case against using a mnemonic system...
When I was teaching phonics to Reception aged children (aged 4 - 5 years) I mostly used the Jolly Phonics programme. The children adored the characters, storylines - and the mnemonic system with its actions. The problem was that after a few weeks of teaching I wanted the children to be able to look at a letter and say the corresponding sound without doing the action and repeating the sound multiple times "a - a - a - ants on my arm". I needed to hold up a flashcard with the letter shape on 's' and for them to reply with the sound /s/ - and nothing else. But they didn't. Every letter I held up induced a chorus of repeated sounds and actions. This meant that when children came to blend for reading they read 'pan' as "p, p, p, p, p, a, a, a, ants on my arm, nnnnnnnnnn net". I just wanted "p - a - n, pan". Was it so much to ask?
Poor children - the mnemonic system that was helping them to initially remember the sound for the letter was in fact causing a barrier, preventing them from moving forwards. I found myself needing to actively unteach the very mnemonics that had been designed to help them.
So, do the benefits of having the mnemonic system outweigh the bad habit that becomes quickly engrained and must be untaught? Should we bother with mnemonics? Can the children manage without it?
I decided to experiment one September by not using a mnemonic system. I introduced each letter/sound correspondence in as pure and simple a way as possible. I held up the letter on a flashcard and said, "This is /s/. You say it, /s/". The result? 50% of the cohort managed completely fine without, the other 50% struggled and we needed to do far more over-learning and repetition to help them to remember.
I learned that a mnemonic system is worth it - but you need to move on from it as soon as the children are ready and don't allow it to linger around unnecessarily, becoming engrained and preventing a smooth transition to blending. Mnemonic systems can be extremely useful when talking about spelling alternatives too. I'll save that for a separate post and link it here.
I must mention that in recent times I have been working with some schools who have completely abandoned the use of a mnemonic system. Although it's not what I personally would do, you can't argue with their excellent consistent results. They've focused on purity, repetition and consistency. They've eliminated and stripped back anything not essential to teaching the Synthetic Phonics Teaching Principles.
Number 1 item on my list of 'Ten Things That Successful Phonics Schools Do' is:
Some schools call this role the 'Phonics Lead' but I like to use the term 'Literacy' because for me, phonics = basic literacy knowledge and skills. It's the foundations that, well, everything else, is built upon.
Appointing a designated leader is not only a sensible and practical measure but it also demonstrates that phonics is being recognised as important in your school.
What does the Literacy leader do?
It's a hot debate in phonics... should you vertically group children according to their ability irrelevant of their age? Or should you keep them in mixed ability, same age classes?
Here are my thoughts...
Whole class teaching:
Many schools report that they have tried to adopt vertical grouping but have now moved back to whole class teaching.
'My preference is whole class teaching for all the reasons listed above.'
Schools tell me that their results have been consistent irrelevant of whether they've vertically grouped or kept whole class. So, there seems to be a move towards whole class teaching which makes me happy - better application of skills, teachers with more responsibility and ownership, less logistical problems. However, vertical grouping can work effectively WHEN and BECAUSE phonics is made a priority and that is an important key message.
If you are a school with two or three form entry (more than one class per year group) it might make sense for you to horizontally group children for phonics within the year group. I work with schools who review the children in the year group as a whole, then split them into three or four ability groups - two groups staffed by class teachers and the other group/s staffed by teaching assistants.
A final note on grouping children for phonics...
However you organise your phonics remember that groups should be 'fluid'. Children make progress so quickly in phonics, and progress at different rates from one another. You should certainly review the groupings each half term but also be prepared to move children between groups mid-term if it will benefit them.
How does your school group for phonics? Let me know in the comments :-)
I often set teachers homework to come and watch this video.
'Learning from others is so useful.'
In many ways it's exactly what my job is - I spend lots of my working time visiting schools and sharing information about what others are doing that is or isn't working. This video is the lovely Sam Bailey talking at the Reading Reform Foundation Conference in 2015. She explains how she transformed outcomes for children in her first headship at a school requiring improvement and how, in just two terms at her next school (ranked 32nd worst in England on previous results) children's outcomes got on track for equally good, if not better, improvement. She is sure that Synthetic Phonics teaching has played a key part in this.
Enjoy and let me know what you think in the comments :-)
Abigail Steel is an Education Consultant for Early Years (EYFS) and Primary (KS1 & 2) Language and Literacy. Her specialist area is Synthetic Phonics.
Click here to go to Abigail Steel's Amazon Author Page to browse and purchase her education books and literacy resources.