How do you integrate phonics practice into your daily teaching and learning routine, making sure children maximise phonics practice in a fun and engaging atmosphere? I.e. not lecture style or monotone.
Sally: It’s important children understand that phonics is relevant so I agree that it is fundamental to integrate it into the day’s learning. Try to put a phonics activity in the provision which, if possible, practises the sounds you’ve learned that week (sound sorting, magnetic letters and phoneme frames etc.) You could choose books for story time which feature the sound you’ve looked at that day. Plan phonics based activities for your teacher led sessions so that you can refer back to the phonics session, and ALWAYS send the children off from phonics or literacy teaching saying: ‘Today we have been learning about xxxx. See if you can find xxx in our classroom today and bring me what you find!’ At the end of the day make time to look at the phonics table as see what they’ve found.
Sarah: “I think this all depends on what kind of teacher you are. Nowhere does it say that children have to sit down for phonics, or write in a phonics lesson!
The Letters and Sounds scheme works by using a daily discrete 25 minute phonics session. This works because it is a little and often. This stops working if the children see it as ‘phonics time’ and don’t carry their learning through to all other areas of learning, so I have mixed feelings about it!
I try wherever possible to teach phonics through games. I teach the children how to play seven different phonics games – the best ones are the games where the rules and what you do remain the same, and the items you use vary according to the sound. This means you can ask children at the end of the phonics lesson ‘What game shall we play tomorrow?’ and they can choose – all you have to do is adapt it to the sound you are teaching the next day. Sometimes you can’t avoid having children write or sit down, but wherever possible I try to plan so that children don’t do either of these.
The fantastic thing about teaching children the games is that you can put the equipment in the provision and they know what to do and can revisit and consolidate. There are lots of great ideas for games in the Bloomsbury Early Years site, and in the range of Little Books.”
How do you ensure parents understand progression in teaching phonics so that they can use similar strategies at home to those used in school?
Sally: I think the best answer is to be open, give them the information, preferably in small amounts, about what exactly you are teaching each week and just one or two ideas of how they can help – perhaps something on the school website, or even on your classroom door?
Sarah: “I agree with Sally. Using the classroom door or notice board is a great way to keep parents informed – or pointing out your letter of the day display so parents can check as they drop children off.
Phonics is tricky for parents because, in order to best help, you need to make sure they are using pure sounds, which is hard! So, over time, I have made the decision to do the following with my parents:
- I always invite them in once a half term for a phonics morning. I put out activities and games, and I invite them to watch me teach a phonics lesson. After that our phonics lead runs a workshop with parents that want to stay which teaches them how best to help with phonics at home. They can then ask questions they may have or ask for advice.
- I always find that there is never enough time to practise High Frequency Words so I give parents a sheet at around the autumn half term that gives them fun games to play to help learn sight reading of HFWs (pairs, using the words as passwords on doors around the house, etc.) I then send home the next set of words regularly with children. You can also do this with phoneme grapheme correspondence by sending home letter cards each week (print them on a sheet they can cut out at home) or asking parents to practise letter names and capitals (which they often feel happier about doing).”
What has been your most magical Phonics learning moment?
Sally: Seeing children independently use and apply something you have taught them is why we all teach isn’t it! When I was in the classroom there was much more space in the curriculum for the emergent writing phase to develop. Seeing that writing feature more and more sounds they have learned until there are whole words you can read is magical. I also love the phonetic attempts children make in trying to spell unknown words – often they make more sense than the conventional spelling!
Sarah: “There are too many to mention really – I won’t tell you about the time I asked my Y1 class if they could think of any words that rhyme with anchor…!
It’s so rewarding when they respond to what you have put out for them – when children run up to you with a clipboard full of things they’ve found outside with the letter ‘s’ in for example. I love when the light bulb comes on and children realise they can read! I have a bell in my classroom that we ring when someone has a light bulb moment, and the surprise on their faces when they realise they’ve read a word and heard the word in the sounds they’ve made, then the pleasure on their face when you ring the bell and the whole class stops and cheers them. There’s nothing like it!”
What activities do you use to help children who struggle with blending and segmenting?
Sarah: You don’t say whether this is aural blending or reading that they are finding tricky. These strategies will work with both. Often, we are encouraged to start blending and segmenting with CVC words. If a child is very good at hearing sounds, this might not be a problem for them, but don’t forget the magic of the two letter blend. Teaching a CV or VC word like ‘at’ is a good place to start and this can be done with a whole class, small group, or one to one. Once children have the knack of blending two letter words confidently (it, on, up, in, an, is) then you can introduce a new initial letter and it is easier for the children to blend as they can say c-at, b-at, m-at etc. If the child is ready for reading and this is the blending they are struggling with, then I would use a phoneme frame with the two letter blend in one box as if it were a digraph and the initial sound in the first box. This will encourage the children to recognise the known chunk of the word and this makes it easier for them to blend. A great tool for this is to use magnetic letters. You can then tape or glue gun together the two letter words and encourage the children to choose a letter to be the initial letter, and blend the word they have made. They can be real or nonsense words and this activity, once they are familiar with it, can go in the provision for them to practise.
What things can I observe and notice that will help me to know whether children are learning and engaged with their phonics?
Sally: If they are noticing print in the environment or choosing to look at books, then they are aware of the printed word, and you can then observe to see if they are using any of the strategies you have taught. If they are, then they are learning!
Sarah: You can assess them – that’s the easiest way to tell! You will see the sounds you are teaching appearing in their writing, or when you talk to them or observe them at play.
What do you observe and notice about children who are ready to move on to grapheme phoneme correspondence?
Sarah: Once children are noticing print in the environment and can write their name, understanding the link between the squiggles they are writing and the fact this represents their name, they are ready to start phase 2 of letters and sounds. HOWEVER, teachers often start this before children can confidently aurally blend. This is like giving someone a handful of screws, but no screwdriver! Children should be coming into Reception able to confidently aurally blend. Make sure you communicate with staff from your nursery providers to make sure they understand this expectation. Then if children can’t blend, you can put extra measures in place, but at least most of your class will already have that skill.
Question 7: Have you ever used or seen a really successful provocation that has had strong links to phonics? What made it engaging?
Sally: I have seen ‘phonic baskets’ used effectively. These are baskets of objects which share the same initial sound or digraph. There are lots of ideas for items to include in the Little Book of Phonics.
Sarah: “Ohhh! Lots!
- A fishing game using magnetic fishing rods and letters with paper clips on. The children fish for a sound and if they can identify it, they get to keep it. The one with most wins.
- Racing to get to a letter or word.
- Writing a message to the mermaid – a tray of sand and shells with letters written on. The children wrote words using the letters and left them for the mermaid to read – she left them a message to read the next morning.
- Cut out paper always works a treat. If your small world is a zoo, then animal shapes to write on and practise writing the animal names, bats to write on in the superhero small world, leaves to write on in the outdoors, etc. Always leave a provocation that gives children a reason to write – e.g. put an alien toy in the zoo and leave the provocation ‘Can you label the animals in the zoo so the alien knows what they are?’”
Have you observed any brilliant moments where children have taken their phonics learning and incorporated it into their Child Initiated learning? What did you use to support that happening?
Sally: I think the key is to have writing opportunities everywhere in the classroom. Clipboards are great for outside and sending children on sound hunts is great. It’s important to make sure that when they feel the will to write, the equipment is there and is inviting! Then the key is to put things in the environment that engage and excite them. Children will often naturally want to write about things they are interested in.
Sarah: I remember being really disappointed when I was told that a child, who was finally making progress, was going on holiday for three weeks in the spring term. I chatted to her about her holiday and what she would be doing and said, ‘You could really help Mum and Dad by writing a list of what you want to take with you…’ thinking to myself that she probably wouldn’t. She spent the whole afternoon writing an A4 page long list of all the things she would take (swimn coshtyum). I asked if I could photocopy it, but she was so proud of it, she didn’t want to let it out of her sight, so she wrote me one I could keep! Without copying! That demonstrates what a difference context, relevance and the child’s interests can make to motivation!
How do you incorporate your phonics into your classroom areas (outdoor and indoor – displays and areas)?
Sally: “Try having a phonics table so that children can display things they can hear that sound in. You can change the sound each day or have the same one for a few days. Make the area attractive and ask children to make a label to go with their object, and at the end of the day, review what’s on there, read labels and reward with stickers (or whatever your reward system is). If children get recognition for their efforts, they will respond and their confidence will grow.
- Try interactive displays using magnetic letters, matching HF or CVC words, or sounds.
- Use your listening station for games like identifying animal sounds or read along stories.
- Display the children’s writing!
- Leave whatever resources you have used in that day’s phonics lessons in the provision for the children to use.”
Sarah: “My number one tip with writing in the environment is to not undervalue drawing. Children draw what matters to them. Encouraging and valuing their pictures and modelling drawing a story is powerful. As the children realise (especially boys) that drawing a story is as valid as writing one, and that you will scribe the story that goes with their drawings, they get more confident about making marks on paper and themselves having a relevance (agency). From that it is a short step to labelling their drawings, and then a hop to captions. Before you know it, they will write their story and illustrate it rather than the other way round!
My other top tip is to remember how powerful their name is. It is important to them and has relevance. It is the first word they will learn to read and write. Once they can read and write their name, they will know all those sounds without you having tried! They will be motivated to read and write their friend’s names, and then they can use them to write cards, and invitations, to label drawings, to hand out letters etc. Names are hugely powerful and I would have their names on display EVERYWHERE! Blue tack them to walls wherever you have a space, then they will be able to go and get their name (or their friend’s) to help them write on their work, write to others etc. They will then start to spot those letters in other words. It’s like magic!”
How do you differentiate phonics to make them accessible for students of all abilities?
Sarah: “I have taught in schools where phonics is streamed and the children split into smaller groups working on the same phase, and in schools where there is whole class phonics. I think there are advantages and disadvantages to both. I would argue though, that with whichever method you have taught in schools where phonics is streamed and the children split into smaller groups working on the same phase, and in schools where there is whole class phonics. I think there are advantages and disadvantages to both. I would argue though, that with whichever method your school uses, you will still have to differentiate within the group you are teaching. Here are some ideas:
- Use games, particularly ones where you can ask lots of questions of the children. Then think before-hand about how you can ask questions that challenge the ones that have ‘got it’ and some simpler questions that get the less confident children to have a go, to tell you what they know and to feel successful. You can vary the amount of assistance you give them in answering, and in equipment you might give them to support them.
- Make sure the lower ability children are nearer to you and feel supported by you.
- If you are teaching whole class, make sure that independent groups are doing something they know how to do, so that they feel confident.
- Give more time to less able children to answer, write, read, respond, and extend your more able children by asking supplementary questions.
- Always ask yourself before any lesson ‘what will I do if they find this too easy, what will I do if they find this too hard’ – Your answers are your differentiation
- Always support EAL children with visuals, and where possible, real things to support their language. If you are sounding out shell, show them a real shell, not a picture.
- Try not to use the interactive whiteboard if you can – it allows children to zone out too easily and you will be looking at the board, and not at them.”
How often should you practise phonics for maximum benefit?
Sarah: “Teaching phonics – I would teach daily, and religiously! Try not to sacrifice it to assemblies, play practise, dress up or charity days – the only exception I would allow is for trips. Even if you squash it into your story time, try to make phonics opportunities every day.
Practising phonics – I would try to grab any opportunity you can to use phonics throughout the day. Here are some ideas:
- Let them go to get their coats one at a time by sounding out their names.
- When you are reading anything to them, sound out words in sentences for them to blend or point out high frequency words.
- When you are shared reading, make sure you make mistakes, or get stuck so that they can help you.
- When you spot the sound you have learned that day – in a book or in the classroom – stop everyone and point it out – encourage children to bring you any example they find (and reward them! Stop everyone and big them up!)
- Same as you would with number, shape, anything, use every opportunity to expose them to phonics.”
How would you advise we keep up the phonics momentum in years 3/4?
Sarah: “The screening check is a nightmare really because lots of schools think once it is done, there is no need for further phonics, and this causes so many problems for the children who aren’t fluent readers, or confident in their strategies.
- I would make an area in your classroom that is devoted to SPAG and phonics. Get the children involved in making it exciting and contributing to it. Have word games in it for children to play (Yes! Play!)
- Have competitions for any new words you come across in books – how would you spell it? Use post it notes and get them to try. Stick them on the wall and praise their strategies and confidence to have a go.
- Use segmenting and blending in routines so they are still exposed to hearing harder words segmented. Sound their names out as they line up, go to wash hands, come and fetch their work, etc.
- Play with words – make up some nonsense words and use them in some nonsense poems. They will enjoy it and their confidence will grow.
- Make sure you share reading something on the board or in a big book every day – use this as a teaching opportunity and spot challenging phonics or spellings that they are consistently finding difficult.
Most important of all, I would say that any child who has not passed the screening check in year two is probably one of the children for whom synthetic phonics isn’t working. I could read before I started school, but I didn’t learn using phonics – I learned by reading whole words, and by recognising chunks in words – root words. By years three and four, it is appropriate to try some alternative strategies and you can teach these to all children as they will help with unfamiliar words.”
Sally and Sarah Featherstone have worked together on several fantastic books. Discover them all on our website.