We welcome a guest post from Sian Collinson from The Literacy Company. Sian has an MA in Education from Edge Hill University, with many years of teaching experience across the Primary age range (with a particular focus on KS1 and SEN). In addition, Sian is an Edge Hill accredited trainer and Readers Count teacher, DfE accredited Letters and Sounds trainer and an LA moderator for Cheshire and Wirral.
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In 2021 it was announced that the long-awaited updates to the Letters and Sounds document were no longer going ahead. At the same time, it was also announced that Letters and Sounds would no longer be considered a validated phonics programme when the current validation period ends in March 2022. We can probably all recall the confusion and anxiety that this caused as for many schools the answer to the question ‘What do you use for phonics teaching?’ has always been ‘We do Letters and Sounds’. In our own training, we have always used it as a framework to guide our CPD on early reading and phonics so many were left with questions which we hope to unpick in more detail.
Since the announcement, it would be true to say that we are asked for advice on what to do about phonics without Letters and Sounds on a regular basis. We aim here to collate some of our knowledge and help guide schools to make decisions which are right for them, starting with debunking some of the main myths.
Letters and Sounds is not fit for purpose. False.
If we view Letters and Sounds as a document to guide the teaching of phonics and a framework to support progression, then it is most definitely fit for purpose. Where it fell down was in filling in the gaps. This was ultimately left to the interpretation of teachers with varying degrees of success. Success was achievable though and many schools, including those who went on to become English Hub lead schools for Letters and Sounds, demonstrated this. Since its publication in 2007, there have been many layers of interpretations added to it with each teacher/subject lead/trainer sharing a little bit more about how they teach phonics and with more and more activities created. It is no surprise then that the message and framework got buried. What was lacking was the clear structure of how to teach on a daily basis (although many liked the freedom to be creative) and the key answers that would eradicate the grey areas many people found themselves in. Without these answers (and other features) Letters and Sounds was lacking the core ingredients needed from a validated SSP programme.
All schools need to purchase a validated SSP programme. False.
The DfE have been clear that schools do not need to rush into purchasing a validated phonics programme. At the time of writing, only schools being supported by an English Hub need to ensure that this is in place. Lack of consistency between classes is usually a key reason for Hub support. If teachers have been interpreting Letters and Sounds in different ways, clear progression is often missing. This results in phonics practice not having a strong enough impact on pupils’ progress. If you are in a school who have their own consistent interpretation of Letters and Sounds and have the outstanding phonics screening check results, the message is to keep doing what you are doing as it obviously works.
Naturally though there are many schools who are thinking that buying into a scheme validated by the DfE will provide a much-needed boost to current practice, but how do you choose one that is right for you? The list of validated schemes contains a wide range of products and many of them have used the Letters and Sounds framework as a springboard. As mentioned, its principals in terms of the teaching of early reading are valid but what these schemes have now been able to do is to add in the extras:
Progression. The expectations of the 2014 National Curriculum (and now the revised Early Years framework) didn’t always match with the expectations of Letters and Sounds and these new programmes have been able to address this. Each programme now sets out clear term by term expectations. Phonics is the strategy we teach pupils to use when they are learning to read and the ultimate goal is to allow them to develop fluency with their reading. For this to work, we need high expectations and clear progression in order to achieve confidence and competence in reading by the end of KS1. When choosing your new SSP programme, you may want to look at how progression has been organised and consider the closest fit for your school.
Planning. Having access to daily/weekly lesson plans is obviously a huge gain in terms of teacher workload. In their latest survey the NEU found that 70% say workload has increased over the past year, with almost all respondents (95%) reporting they are worried about the impact on their wellbeing.
The planning within most schemes will not be too far from the key structure of revisit, teach, practise and apply that many of us will be so familiar with. The difference now is that they will include more detailed guidance in terms of modelling and expectations for staff and adults. Far too many lessons have been taken up with teacher talk and these new programmes ensure that the focus is on pupils doing more in the lesson. After all, how can they learn a new skill if they don’t have time to practise it? Having a definitive set of plans will also aid consistency across classes and support effective transition. Ideally the planning will demonstrate expectations for each part of the lesson without being overly cumbersome for teachers. Routine and repetition are key so expect to see the same things repeated but with different focus words and GPCs.
Resources. With no official Letters and Sounds resources produced, staff would spend time finding (and laminating) their own. Each classroom may have had slightly different versions so that pupils didn’t see a consistent representation of each GPC or hear the same mnemonic to help them remember them. Undertaking learning walks would often highlight this within the flashcards, friezes, display etc… is i an igloo, an insect or an ink well?! Pupils with poor working memory may have found this even more confusing which is why a mix and match of resources was another area to consider when phonics was not working effectively across school. Now each programme will have their own high-quality set of resources, designed to engage pupils and support them with their rapid recall.
Decodable books. It is crazy now to think that until recently we were giving pupils books to read which contained GPCs they were not familiar with. This interrupted their flow and didn’t allow them to truly practise their decoding skills. Think back to every time the driving instructor pressed the brake pedal on their duel control cars or grabbed the steering wheel as we learnt to drive and you may be able to image how it would feel for pupils. Ensuring that pupils have access to fully decodable texts linked to GPC progression is another key factor in terms of phonics success. All validated schemes must show teachers how to match books to their programme. Some have had new texts written to cover this, some have shown how current schemes would fit and some have a bit of both. It is probably a good idea to audit your current stock and to look at which scheme would fit best for you as the purchase of new books is an expense that many schools can’t afford.
CPD. As already covered, the training for schools delivering Letters and Sounds has been varied over the years. Even if staff had received high quality training at some point, it was often not reviewed and new members of staff may never have had any. For a programme to be run successfully in a school all staff need to be fully trained on it and have continued access to this training. This is integral to a validated programme along with ongoing support to ensure successful implementation and sustainability. As part of this, it is also important that staff understand the basic pedagogy behind early reading, how that fits with the SSP programme and how to effectively teach the programme.
Assessment. The question of how to know when pupils are on track with Letters and Sounds or have achieved success within a particular phase has always been tricky to agree within different schools. Guidance was produced by The National Strategies but schools were using different assessment processes, again often between different classes. Each SSP programme needs to show teachers how to assess against their progression; this needs to be straightforward as assessments for phonics have become onerous and taken much time away from teaching. Assessment needs to be purposeful and acted upon so strategies for supporting those at risk of falling behind are also provided by each validated programme. As with many other areas of phonics, intervention has also been sharpened and we no longer want to see pupils having 5 years of phonics support for 30 minutes every day in a group of 6. Instead, the assessments and strategies should provide a more forensic approach, identifying a key area of need and having short, sharp focussed activities to address this.
We are always happy to answer questions or to support you with auditing your current provision and in identifying the features you would want from a new SSP programme. Contact us for a chat or to book time with one of our consultants. We will also be running a Facebook Live on February 4th to re-iterate these points so look out for the video and link on our Facebook page. For schools looking to improve their current practice further, or to consolidate staff subject knowledge, check out our online phonics and early reading training courses based around the Letters and Sound framework, The Literacy Company Online (thinkific.com).
Finally, we are incredibly privileged to go into schools and see the work being done to support young readers and we look forward to seeing this develop further as more programmes are implemented in schools.