The Department for Education has announced that Letters and Sounds, the free phonics teaching programme rolled out across schools as part of the Communication, Language and Literacy (CLL) programme for the National Strategies, is now not fit for purpose.
According to the DfE, it does not help schools to teach phonics synthetically, in a systematic and consistent way. Instead, schools will be encouraged to select a different programme from a DfE-validated list and buy it from approved suppliers.
What does history tell us about how to roll out a successful phonics scheme?
When Letters and Sounds was first rolled out, the implementation in schools was supported by a team of consultants, who were centrally employed and provided with ongoing training.
These consultants then worked with schools so that they themselves could provide training and ongoing support to teachers to ensure the scheme was understood and implemented effectively.
The rollout was supported by considerable ongoing professional development and training for all involved to ensure it was effective where it mattered – on the ground, in the classroom.
This approach worked – it was the right approach, and at the right time. And we know this because this approach had a measurable impact – a study by Machin and colleagues retrospectively identified an improvement in outcomes for schools where there was a consultant, working in collaboration with educators (Machin et al, 2018).
Part of the success of this approach can be attributed to the way in which these consultants also focused on the development of communication and language – ensuring that all literacy teaching was grounded in a deep, rich understanding of children’s spoken language, communication and literacy development.
We saw huge success with phonics because they understood that the way we do something is often as important as what we do.
And why do we know this was a success? Because when there was an understanding that the way that we do something is often as important as what we do, it helped to develop phonics and improved outcomes – as seen in the Phonics Screening Check.
So is there any need to change?
There is no doubt that teaching phonics effectively is hard.
There is a considerable amount of subject knowledge required; it is easy to mispronounce phonemes when you are teaching a large group; it is not always an instinctively easy thing for children to understand – especially those who have a loose grasp of what letters/sounds/words/sentences are. Any Year 1 teacher will know exactly what I mean!
Because it is such an important and challenging area of learning, it is a sensible idea to be constantly reviewing our phonics provision in school and developing and refining our effectiveness.
Revisiting and refreshing our teaching should be part of the regular school development cycle for primary schools.
But is ditching Letters and Sounds the best way to do that?
What would improve the provision of phonics in primary schools?
The good news is that we already know what steps we can take to ensure that teachers develop their skills at teaching phonics.
The Education Endowment Foundation has suggested that we focus on ensuring that all staff are regularly trained well and have a deep understanding of the practices and principles of effective phonics teaching – and that the programme we use should ensure that we can teach in a sequenced and systematic way.
They suggest teaching should be engaging, responsive and with the children carefully, dynamically and sensitively grouped, and that their progress should be checked regularly.
They also suggest careful consideration of any adaptations to the programme that we use, as it might influence the impact. In short, we should be focusing on developing and refining the teaching and organisation of phonics in school.
For schools that are in a pickle with their ways of teaching phonics, perhaps changing to a new scheme will provide them with the focus they need to deepen their knowledge and sharpen their teaching.
For others, perhaps a focus on revisiting and refreshing the teacher’s knowledge and understanding should be the main thing. Or we could focus on ensuring that we all have a deep understanding of the practices and principles of effective phonics teaching and that we teach in a sequenced and systematic way, regularly checking the progress of children.
Perhaps we should also place as much focus on the other aspects that contribute to developing literate children – spoken language, comprehension and the ability to write.
What will the change to phonics provision mean in practice?
The question schools will have to ask themselves is will changing from Letters and Sounds to another scheme really help achieve any of the above.
For some schools, the choice will not be there – if you are in trouble with phonics, and use Letters and Sounds, the English Hubs will help you change your programme.
Instead of thinking about the way that we deliver phonics, it is making it all about the materials we use. And we all know that the way that we do something is as important to get results (thanks to Bananarama).
Perhaps, especially in these challenging times, we should be keeping the main thing, the main thing.
Megan Dixon is director of research at Holy Catholic Family Multi-Academy Trust. With thanks to Daphne Barker at the Lancaster University Literacy Research Centre