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Does PE hold the key to engaging older pupils with phonics?

Teaching phonics to older students with low reading ages is no easy task, but one teacher found a solution that has been a success way beyond his expectations. David Fallis, lead teacher for intervention at Springwell Community School in Barnsley, tells his story.

“As the lead teacher for intervention in an EBD special school, I found myself trying to answer the same question over and over again: ‘How do you teach phonics to disengaged older pupils?’

One Key Stage 4 boy in particular refused everything I could think of, he was a 16 year old pupil with ADHD and a reading age of less than 6; all the pupil wanted to do was go to the sports hall.

The solution I came up with was throwing a tennis ball at laminated sounds that I had stuck on the sports hall wall. As it happened, at the same time, a PE colleague was having some success working with an autistic pupil making letter shapes on the trampoline. I suddenly realised there was potential here – we teamed up and developed an intervention we called Active Phonics.

We trialled the sessions initially with Key Stage 3 and 4 pupils and had great success in terms of progress in reading age but also in terms of engagement and confidence. We developed a number of games based on sports including basketball, frisbee, trampolining and boccia; most of the games use the simple principle that participation was earned through identifying a letter/sound or high frequency word.

For example, we have a game trying to shoot basketball hoops from different base points. At each base there is a choice of two or three sounds to be mastered before they can throw the ball. For some students, I will ask them to repeat the sound, others I’ll ask them to tell me it and for some I’ll ask them to use it in a word or sentence.

We were delivering the programme for two hours per week, but I wanted to expand it. So I applied for and was fortunate to receive £15,000 from the Shine Trust to help take the project forwards. We are now able to deliver Active Phonics for four hours and we have developed a website to share information and session plans.

We have also taken the programme to other schools. We deliver weekly sessions at two local primary schools – Athersley North and Worsbrough Common – and we have also led one-off sessions at other primary schools.

To date, we have developed over 30 games combining phonics and PE – all incorporate reading and writing stations. It works primarily as an intervention and this is where the multi-sensory learning seems to have the greatest impact. Having said this, schools are looking to implement the project with whole classes as an additional method to deliver phonics. We hope to expand the project further so we can reach more students in desperate need of a fresh approach.”

David’s funding was provided by the Shine Trust, which runs Let Teachers Shine, a competition to fund innovative teacher-led ideas to raise attainment in the classroom. To apply for a grant of up to £15,000 before the closing date of 27 April, visit


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