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What can hold foundational literacy provision back in some schools – and even cause ‘special needs’ from the get-go?

As it is plain to see from a visit to this site, I like to create graphics, lists, diagrams, charts and resources of various descriptions (and programmes!) to support the sharing of information, ideas, observations, content, practice – and even worries!

Much of what I design is (may I suggest) very sensible and practical and I like to present at least some of it as ‘generic’ – suitable for general knowledge, understanding and practice in the field of foundational literacy – and based on findings in research and extensive teaching and training experience.

For my consultancy work in schools, I am privileged to observe many discrete phonics, spelling and handwriting lessons (mainstream and intervention) which helps me to understand how I can best help those schools and I note that features of provision I observe commonly are not quite what they could be.

Although provision may differ from one school to the next, or even from one class to the next, or even from one adult to the next, I still get to see patterns of provision and I can identify a number of reasons why good and caring capable teachers (‘teachers’ includes teaching assistants who are frequently called upon to teach groups of children – often the slowest to learn) are working very hard but not really developing their pupils’ full potential. Often, whilst the adults are working very hard in their preparation and delivery, the pupils are not really getting sufficient opportunity to practise, apply and enrich their learning well enough, and the content of the activities provided for them are not necessarily content-rich or truly fit-for-purpose. A plethora of ‘fun games and activities’ and ‘mini whiteboard’ spelling activities, often don’t touch the spot well enough – and without cumulative letters, code, words and text content on paper for each and every pupil, there is no real marking, monitoring, repetition, sharing with home, ownership, rewarding or accountability in place.

Teachers may struggle with phonics provision suitable for every pupil because they have been misled in the first place by damaging suggestions – for example the first one that springs to mind is that discrete phonics lessons should be around 20 minutes in length. If you couple that unrealistic guidance with the idea that teachers should be introducing new letter/s-sound correspondences at a very fast pace (around 4 new correspondences per week for example), and deliver a full ‘teaching and learning cycle‘ each lesson, then many children are destined to be labelled as ‘special needs’, or become special needs, from the get-go.

Fortunately, in England, the Year One Phonics Screening Check is serving to provide some indication to schools about the effectiveness of their early years and infant phonics provision relative to an average national figure and schools within regions – although the check itself is merely a simple snapshot of code knowledge to a certain level and the reading/decoding skill.

Regarding time and pace: Did you know that the leading commercial systematic synthetic phonics and linguistic phonics programmes in England suggest that teachers need 30 minutes up to one hour for their discrete phonics lessons? Did you know that I personally recommend breaking down the phonics ‘teaching and learning cycle’ into two sessions? These can take place over a two-day period and include a proper ‘apply and extend’ opportunity – therefore introducing new and focus letter/s-sound correspondences generally every other day and not daily!

I’ll continue to develop this theme of obstacles to the most effective phonics provision (with language comprehension) in a later post, but for now I’m going to share yet another set of grids, graphics, information and guidance which I hope is helpful:

Summary of main features of phonics reading and spelling/writing instruction

[You can find some of the graphics in small scale in full size via the Free Resources page.]

Debbie Hepplewhite’s suggestions for effective and supportive phonics provision and practice

Simple View of Schools’ Phonics Provision

By the way, when I share observations with a lead phonics or English teacher in schools, this person is invariably excellent – and with a little nudge in the right direction, can see all the challenges/struggles/weaknesses/strengths in the phonics lessons. Perhaps I’m just the catalyst for the light bulbs being switched on – or even for the observations to take place at all. I have to say that Ruth Miskin’s absolute insistence on a designated phonics leader having non-contact time to observe and support all the staff who provide phonics lessons is essential if you want professional knowledge and provision and pupil-practice to be the best it can be.