Phonics and literacy – separate strands, or warp and weft?

One passage stood out for me in the recent report on the usefulness of the Phonics Screening Check:

The most frequently reported change by survey respondents in 2014 was increasing the pace of phonics teaching, and this finding was supported by data drawn from the case studies. As in 2013, an increased focus on pseudo-words was also reported by participants in the survey and case studies, as well as increased assessment of phonics. Analysis did not determine what form this increased focus took.

‘Analysis did not determine what form this increased focus took.’


Let’s just do a thought-experiment. Imagine that what’s going on in [some] schools in the name of phonics is actually not very helpful to wider literacy. Perhaps there are lots of nonsense-word games and very little 1-2-1 reading support. Then imagine that teachers have increased this extra phonics activity as a result of the PSC. Perhaps they are playing an extra hour of nonsense-word games per week. What else might they not be doing as a result? If this were the case, it would be unsurprising if a reported increase in ‘phonics’ would not result in an increase in literacy levels.

I’m sure this sounds like blaming teachers: I’m not, I’m just asking questions. I’m a firm believer that teachers’ motives are good in the vast majority of cases, but an equally firm believer that the contents of a test will skew what is taught. You’d be crazy not to consider the test, really, wouldn’t you?

In the past, I’ve seen many claims of problems for good readers within phonics schemes, where very regimented work apparently prevents children from progressing, or treats children who can read as if they can’t, but until now nobody has been willing to answer my questions about what actually happened.

Around the time of the PSC check this year, though, one parent, on condition of anonymity, agreed to share her daughter’s story. It follows a number of patterns that have been claimed elsewhere as well, so I think it’s very much worth looking at to help unpick what’s actually going wrong in these kinds of case.

Since the report into the check didn’t look at what was actually going on in schools, anecdotes like this one represent the only comparison evidence available.

NB This post is not meant as a criticism of any particular scheme but a question about implementation and effects, and about how schools use and understand the synthetic phonics material that they are teaching.

Here’s the account of her experience:

Hi, my daughter who is now 7 and in y2 didn’t read before school. She was tested at the end of reception by an ed psych (at 5.5) and given an IQ on the 99.4th percentile and a reading age of just under 8. In reception she had a great teacher who skipped her through the [commercial phonics scheme stages] as her reading required. They had separate reading groups and N___ was always in the top group for that (the top group had 3 gifted children including N___ and were way above the rest).

In year one they stuck rigidly to the [commercial phonics scheme], the teacher was inflexible but in the reading group N___ remained in the top group. However in [commercial phonics scheme work] she was overtaken by others who she could read better than. I thought at first it was because of her writing – but no it was explained to me that in order to progress they had to know certain sounds.

They were given in isolated sounds for example what sounds does ou make, however give her an ou word such as group, soup, troupe, she had no difficulty reading it. She also had no difficulty sounding out new words – so wasn’t learning whole words rather than phonics.

She had to repeat [commercial phonics scheme stages], switched off and started to hate [commercial phonics scheme] lessons. In the end I got a copy of the sounds off the Internet and took her through them. We learned them by rote each half term to get to the next stage.

When she started y2 she had 3 stages left. She got her reception teacher again, she was still in the top reading group but one of the middle [commercial phonics scheme] groups, the top reading group was reading novels in class she was then going into [her commercial phonics scheme group] and doing easy books. Her teacher took her off the scheme within a few weeks.

Four things stand out for me here.

1. The mismatch between the child’s assessed reading age and progress, and her assessed progress with phonics sounds;

2. The fact that with a few videos from the internet (provided by the same scheme, I think) her mother was able to teach her daughter sounds which the school had apparently been unable to teach her for close to two years.

3. The different ways in which the various teachers approached the mismatch in progress.

4. The actual lived experience of this child. Imagine how baffling this must have been for her.

1. The mismatch with the reading age might be explained because a test of reading age based on common vocabulary would be testing something different from the ability to use phonics sounds to work out words, BUT I think it’s very interesting that the child could sound out and read words containing sounds which, in isolation, she did not know.

There might be various reasons for this: she may actually have known all the words by sight (though her mother notes that she could also sound out unfamiliar words, so this does not appear to be the reason); or (more likely) she might not have felt able to assign a specific sound to ‘ou’ if she knew that there was more than one possibility. Or there might be some other reason – unfortunately, we can’t know.

2. The mismatch between the child’s apparent inability to learn isolated sounds in class, and her learning of them at home with her mother, suggests that there was no deep learning issue attached to the child herself with regard to this. But it does suggest that something in the way these sounds were being taught at school did not click with her (and this is an intellectually very able child).

3.The problems for the child appear to have arisen as a result of inflexibility on a particular teacher’s part: a flexible approach to the system was much less problematic.

4. It seems to me pretty awful that this child was put into such mismatched groups for sounds and for reading actual books, when she was apparently able to learn the sounds perfectly easily and quickly.

This is not the only example I have heard of first-hand of unhelpful placing of children for phonics work. That’s not the fault of the alphabetic code.

If, as Debbie Hepplewhite has said (I think), there are potentially as many different ways of teaching phonics as there are schools, but many of them think they are doing the same thing, examples like this become essential, in order to allow comparison. In this instance, within the same school and one overarching system, there were clearly substantial differences in implementation (and the learning and well-being of the child).

The report into the PSC was necessarily inconclusive because the writers had no decent evidence – this is what they mean when they say they had no comparison (i.e. control) group, no ability to separate effects of PSC from effects of other phonics practices, and no knowledge of what actual methods ‘increased’ in schools. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, of course. Policy makers should be very careful about how they respond to this report.

What’s needed in order to resolve this debate, it seems to me (looking at it from a research perspective) is a much more finely-grained investigation, looking at correlations between different methods and outcomes. Do schools which are heavy on explicit and standardized phonics techniques do better (on a value-added score, not just the PSC) than schools which teach the sounds quite simply but then just do lots of their own kinds of literacy work to embed them? Which changes lead to improved PSC results? Which changes seem to lead to improved literacy results? Are these the same changes? Is it about methods in the abstract, or the quality of teaching regardless of method? Or (as seems most likely) something in between? This investigation would need to be at the level of classes within schools, since as the example shows, a school’s results may mask great variation of approach, even within an outwardly very standardized system.

If this report leads to greater division between phonics and ‘anti-‘phonics people that would be really unhelpful – most ‘anti-‘phonics people are worried more about methods and effects than about the content itself, when it comes down to it. And those methods and effects are not dealt with in this report.

The report does emphasize the clear and obvious benefits of teaching a SSP-style alphabetic code in some form. But what form? In the above example, the method seems actually to have undermined the child’s confidence when rigidly applied, and not even to have taught her the basics very effectively. Is this because of the method, the teacher, or a change in the child? The latter seems unlikely since she picked up actual reading so quickly and so early. So something wasn’t right in the classroom, for her at least.

I have expressed my concerns with the quality of the PSC previously here – though my understanding has moved on since then – and also here. But I find it worrying that a number of people seem to be cheering the inconclusiveness of the report – some even seem to have interpreted it as the PSC itself having no effect, rather than the authors of the report not having access to data which would have demonstrated what sort of effect it has had.

It has clearly had one effect, which the report itself acknowledges: schools are ‘doing more phonics’. But I don’t think anyone’s any closer to knowing what that means in practice.

One more thought experiment:

If your phonics is badly integrated with your broader literacy curriculum, isn’t it most likely that doing more (but dislocated) phonics work is going to improve your PSC results but not your overall literacy ones?

Since this is exactly what the report has found, shouldn’t we really be asking about the issue of how (or even if) phonics knowledge is embedded in good, complex, deep literacy work? And how the DfE can create drivers for this to happen more?

While the PSC has been shown to be a decent proxy for literacy despite its weaknesses, it’s not going to answer questions about how improvement happens. It’s not going to tell you why literacy has not improved in certain schools. It’s not even a perfect test of phonics: an improvement in PSC score could conceivably be accounted for by an increase in the real words score, which could be the result of other aspects of literacy work, not explicit phonics at all (an extreme and unlikely case, but a logical possibility).

Have any schools had their literacy results go down following the introduction of the PSC? Now those schools would be really worth looking at, if there are any.

Phonics knowledge seems to me to be the warp on which the whole of literacy can be woven. It’s integral to reading, writing, and understanding language, and like the warp in a piece of cloth it needs to be strong, simple, carefully laid but ultimately invisible. And if you don’t weave in the weft, or you expect it to just happen by itself, or you try and put the warp and weft onto separate looms, you’ve got nothing useful at all.

Weaving it in means never forgetting what phonics is for. It means never being so proud of your warp that you forget its real purpose is for weaving something far more complex and beautiful. Is this beyond the DfE to comprehend, I wonder?

NB I’m sorry this is so opinionated this time! But really. How on earth do people maintain their patience for years when the real questions needing an answer are so obvious….? If phonics is so embedded in schools, if it is properly integrated into literacy work, why are all the parents I speak to (from various different schools, all at the just-missed-‘outstanding’ end of ‘good’) still in a fog about it?



6 thoughts on “Phonics and literacy – separate strands, or warp and weft?

  1. I really like your analogy of ‘warp and weft’.

    I’m wondering if the ‘commercial programme’ you refer to in your piece is actually Phonics International in that you mention the words ‘group, soup, troupe’ (not that any programme owns any words in particular) but then you mention video clips of hearing the sounds – so putting those two things together made me add to 4 – and PI – but maybe I’m wrong.

    If it is my PI programme you refer to, then I don’t really recognise how it is being used in the school you mention above and it could well be inadvisable use of the materials which is part of the problem, or misuse of the core resources (I find this a lot when I visit schools) – and I would suggest that PI is so quickly successful for reading purposes that it isn’t long before, in effect, it really is a spelling programme (or soon continues as a spelling programme) although it includes plenty of reading.

    Then, as I know you know, for my phonics programmes I have formalised a ‘Two-pronged systematic and incidental phonics teaching and learning’ approach. This encourages and enables any code to be taught to any child, group or whole class within phonics lessons and within the wider curriculum at any time. This is ambitious – and addresses some differentiation needs for able children very well – supported by the ever-present Alphabetic Code Chart.

    If the programme you refer to above is indeed PI, then it would be very interesting indeed if you could perhaps draw attention to my ‘How to set up and use your core and essential Phonics International resources’ to see if the mother recognises any of the material and practices described within this guidance – here is the link:

    This guidance document is available freely via the homepage – and I have focused on the core resources as there are many resources in PI which could be in danger of detracting from a core way through.

    If I’m barking up the wrong tree (as they say), my apologies – but I know that you will know that I myself am very concerned about good implementation of any serious phonics programme (body of work) and although of course we need teachers to make professional choices and judgements, it’s all too easy for teachers not to take enough care to use the resources/programme wisely enough or well-enough informed or trained.

    It is interesting, relevant in fact, that many schools thought they were ‘sorted’ when it came to the phonics match-funding – including in their ‘training needs’. The series of NFER reports on the phonics check commented that many schools considered they did not require training. Is that the reality I wonder?

    Of course I am only one person and I can only visit a limited number of schools – as invited – but I do suggest that our teaching profession is looking like there is still a long way to go with regard to deep professional development in phonics – and in the warp and weft requirement for phonics and higher-order literacy provision.

    • Hello Debbie – I went for weaving rather than patchwork, but I got there because of our previous conversation 🙂

      It’s actually *not* PI – I’d have asked you directly first if it were, given how many times we’ve spoken (online) in the past – though I don’t want to say more than that, because my main concern is to understand how even the most structured system can have variations, and how much depends on the flexibility of the teacher (a teacher on Twitter has pointed out that this basically comes down to knowledge – I’d expand that to depth of *expertise*). In this particular case perhaps it’s that the inflexible teacher was unable for some reason to make *enough* professional judgments, as opposed to making too many.

  2. You’ve referred to the need to know in more detail the difference in phonics provision in the schools. Based on both my predictions from when ‘Letters and Sounds’ was first published and entitled a ‘high-quality six phase phonics programme’ – and my subsequent observations in schools and wider knowledge of schools’ practices – I drew up this graphic the ‘Simple View of Schools’ Phonics Provision’. My opinion is that ‘Letters and Sounds’ is not a comprehensive phonics programme but instead it is a detailed framework. This means that teachers and assistants in the schools purporting to use ‘Letters and Sounds’ have had to translate the guidance and resource their teaching and resource children’s practice. I believe it is time that we drew a line under England’s phonics provision – that is, we need a full analysis of what phonics ‘looks like’ and how it could look better and different in light of experience and findings to date. Then we can truly advance and this should lead to deeper professional knowledge and understanding.

    We cannot have ‘continuing professional development’ if people are unable to take an overview of the country’s phonics teaching and phonics teacher-training, to enable us to build on developments to date.

    Most importantly, how many other core subjects are expected to be taught in only 20 minutes per day? After teachers have invariably gathered their class or group ‘on the carpet’, conducted some ‘revisit and review’ (usually some flash card work of phonicsplay), then introduced the focus letter/s-sound correspondence – how much time is left in reality for the children themselves to get some actual practice to learn, apply and extend the code knowledge and skills of blending, segmenting and handwriting?

    Quicker to learn children fare well in most contexts, the slower-to-learn children don’t stand a chance. I predict the national average result for the Year One Phonics Screening Check will not go beyond 80% until such a review is conducted and everyone is brought on board in terms of their professional knowledge and understanding of the role of phonics provision.

    So – I think the teaching profession as a whole is a bit stuck at the moment and we do need a deeper analysis of ‘what happens’ in schools on a national basis.

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