Every school aims to ensure strong progress for all children in phonics. Phonics is an essential tool for learning. In the same way that the mental recall of number bonds or times tables opens up the world of mathematics and allows us to use this in our daily lives, strong progress in phonics ensures that children reach the end goal: being confident, fluent and expressive readers who read for both pleasure and to open the wide world around them. Phonics is the means to an end and this should always be in the forefront of any discrete lessons: if we get this right we are setting children up to be successful, life long learners, across the curriculum and beyond.
1. Set High Expectations
Improving progress comes down to some basic expectations and pedagogy which, aligned with strong teaching and learning principles, many of which could be applied across a variety of areas of the curriculum, results in successful learners. Primarily it is about high expectations from the adults delivering the lessons. If taught well, all children should make progress in phonics. This progress may be different for individual children but current thinking suggests that we should be aiming for 95% of children making the expected progress.
2. Assess and Track Progress
We must measure progress from Reception through Key Stage 1. Indeed this should even be tracked forwards to Key Stage 2 outcomes, in order to be sure that Quality First Teaching in phonics is embedded in our schools.
Ensuring we can track our summative judgements across the phonics learning journey, but also at key measurement points will indicate that we have truly got this right: the child who is attaining securely in their phonics and leaves Reception meeting Early Learning Goals and making a Good Level of Development in those prime areas.
The expected judgement in Reading must also triangulate with the expected phonic phase they are working within, how they apply these skills and the reading skills that match this. In Year 1 this will correlate with children who pass the phonic screening check. Again this needs to be matched with the reading skills the child is showing. Are children decoding to the phonics level we expect at the end of Reception and Year 1? Are they also recognising words by sight and becoming more fluent readers? And in Year 2, if phonics progress has been securely embedded, these children continue the learning journey by reaching at least expected in KS1 assessments.
Assessment judgements cannot just be made at benchmarking points. This is far too late to intervene and support where children may be tailing off the trajectory. Truly strong teaching, and therefore progress, hinges on ongoing assessment opportunities, even on a daily basis, in order to ensure that immediate intervention, targeted to address any gaps in knowledge or the ability to apply key skills, is planned immediately. Quality AfL is fundamental to strong progress in phonics teaching. Summative assessments which happen termly, with intervention planned for a period after this will not close the gaps and keep all children mastering their phonics learning.
3. Embed One Phonics Programme
It is therefore essential that schools show fidelity to the phonics programme that they have chosen for their learners in school. Consistency is paramount and, sitting alongside high expectations and quality assessment, supported by Quality First Teaching in rigorous, daily phonics sessions, all children will progress. The phonics programme chosen should meet some key criteria: the programme should have a trajectory and pace to ensure children meet the requirements of the National Curriculum. Sufficient time should be given to daily phonics and reading sessions (both guided and individual) with appropriate intervention as soon as required. Elements of the daily lesson should focus on the skills of blending to read as well as segmenting to spell and ensuring children practice, learn and apply the phonics needed for this.
4. Implement a Progressive Phonics Reading Scheme
Resources used for the teaching of phonics and reading need to support each other, be progressive and closely matched to the learning, as well as consistent across year groups. This is a prime area of development for many schools and has implications for resources allocation. However ask ourselves this: how can we expect a child to read if they do not have opportunity to apply the phonics they are learning (the basic skills) to the reading they are doing? For many schools, undertaking a review and audit of their current reading stock has resulted in the culling of many books which we now realise ask children to use other cues for reading and not their phonics.
5. Inform and Upskill Parents
And this leads to the final key to ensuring strong progress for all children; the link between home and school and ensuring parents are informed and skilled enough to support their children in their reading. Parents need to understand that we teach phonics for children to be able to read and reading is much more than decoding and word building. Indeed, children should have the opportunity to develop fluency and prosody (reading with expression) in order to gain the comprehension skills which are so important, especially as they move up the school. In this instance, children should be taking books home to read with parents which are at a lower decoding level than where they are learning their phonics in school, in order that children have the chance to practice and re-read. Being able to have the conversation with our parents so that they can understand that true reading is much more than moving through books bands, stumbling over many words so that we are not reading at a minimum of a 90-95% fluency rate and that successful phonics application is not being able to blend words, but indeed reading them by sight, is fundamental to supporting children’s progress. This is a real shift in culture across our schools and with all stakeholders and cannot be achieved in a week or indeed a term. Developing a reading culture in our schools, much more so than a ‘passing the Year 1 phonics screen’ culture will support all children’s progress in their learning.