Headteacher Ruth Miskin describes her particular step-by-step system of teaching phonics I have taught children to read for 20 years in six different local education authorities. During that time, I have tried every possible method and combination of methods: look and say, "mix and muddle" reading schemes, real books - and what I now know to be very basic phonics. The one constant has been my drive to ensure that my pupils came to share my love of reading.
Let me be honest. Every year, I taught children in Reception and Year 1 who learnt to read, irrespective of the system I used. A second group made progress, albeit slow. A third made very slow progress. The children in this last group loved listening to and memorising stories. But when it came to reading for themselves, they often lost heart. As the weeks went by, they grew bored with reading books that were written for younger children.
Looking back, I can see that I didn't really know what to do to help them. Dedication and belief are not enough on their own. If we are to teach all our children to read, then we need to know how to do it. We need a system that works.
Five years ago, I moved to Tower Hamlets to start a new school. I was particularly nervous because most of our incoming pupils spoke little or no English. I wanted to ensure that they would all have the same chance of success in our education system as the most privileged children in our country. I saw this as my key responsibility and I have spent a great deal of time developing a reading programme that eliminates failure.
Our children learn to read and spell effectively by the time they are seven. There is no question of pressure or forcing children who are not ready to jump through hoops. We know they can make progress. They want to learn and they enjoy their lessons. They find reading easy and, as a consequence, come to love it. The world of literature and knowledge is opened to them. They read more and so become better at reading. This is the virtuous circle which ought to be at the heart of primary education.
An effective reading programme is intensive, systematic and enjoyable. It also requires little planning each week. (We teachers want a life too!) At Kobi Nazrul school in Tower Hamlets, we know that all healthy children, if taught well, can learn to read quickly. We do not need to waste precious time placing children on the special needs register for literacy delay, because they learn quickly. Any behavioural problems reduce as children's self-esteem grows.
In Reception and Year 1, we teach our children the alphabetic code, step by step, for 30 minutes a day. We then apply their increasing knowledge and skills to the books they read for another 20 minutes. (The book is projected on to a screen using a True Image Projector, which saves us having to buy "big books".) The last 10 minutes is used to select books for them to take home (these are books that have already been introduced or read).
We praise them constantly. We show lots of enthusiasm and expect a great deal. Above all, we make reading easy and lots of fun. Anyone watching our sessions would see animated children who love learning to read. I say this because so many people ask: "Isn't phonics teaching dull?" It can be dull if taught slowly and badly, but it needn't be if teachers know exactly what to do.
Our programme is divided into four stages. Throughout, we read and discuss books with children that are above their decoding level so that their vocabulary is developed. Other books that children read are matched very carefully to their ability to decode print. They are helped to use the context of passages to support their decoding of unfamiliar words by identifying and blending their individual sounds.
We do not actually start a formal reading scheme until the end of Stage 2 of our programme, usually after the first term in Reception. We find children then make progress very quickly. Until then, they listen to, "read", and memorise a range of stories and poems. We are reasonably pragmatic about the schemes we use. Phonic schemes can be a bit dull and lacking in a good story line, so we also read books up to Stage 7 in the Oxford Reading Tree. The point is that if children learn the whole alphabetic system quickly, they don't need reading schemes past Year 1.
Once children have mastered the first two stages, they progress at an even quicker pace through the next two stages (particularly for reading). It takes one day to train teachers and assistants in the main part of the programme.
We use both a "synthetic" and an "analytic" approach to the teaching of phonics. The synthetic approach teaches children to blend phonemes (the smallest unit of pronounceable sound) into words for reading. The analytic approach teaches children to segment words into phonemes for spelling.
The alphabetic framework * Children are taught 44 phoneme-letter correspondences. (A phoneme is the smallest unit of pronounceable sound in a word.) * They are taught how every word in our language is phonemically based (even those words that previously have been considered to be "irregular").
* They are taught, step by step, how the whole of our language can be sorted into rhyming groups.
Rhyming Sets All words containing a specific vowel phoneme are split into rhyming sets of words. For example, the phoneme a (as in cat) is found in words that rhyme with dab, black, sad, band, bag, badge, ham.
The phoneme ay is found in words that rhyme with day, bake, made, rage, male, same, train, cape, lace, brave and beige.
These rhyming groups are taught very carefully, starting with the easiest to learn and finishing with more complex groups - for instance, words rhyming with "cat" through to words that rhyme with "thought".
Each rhyming group generates a dominant spelling pattern. For example, at Stages 2 and 3 of my programme, all words with a short a sound have the same vowel spelling - cat, mat, sat, flat, splash, flash, crash.
At Stage 4, a rhyming group may throw up a dominant though not exclusive pattern.
The programme In the early stages, pupils are taught the easier vowel digraphs (a digraph is two letters that represent one sound), for example ay, ai, and a e as in "make". Later on, they are taught the full range of spellings including homophones, such as wait and weight. Children are helped to learn the dominant spellings by a simple connecting poem or story. So the lower frequency spellings are taught after the dominant spelling pattern.
The programme is split into the following five stages:
* Stage 1 (ReceptionNursery): the first 29 phoneme-letter correspondences.
* Stage 2 (Reception): blending and segmenting skills using cvc (c = consonant v = vowel) with the first 29 correspondences, such as cat, dog.
* Stage 3 (Reception): blending and segmenting skills using words with consonant clusters, such as crash, spell, clock.
* Stage 4 (ReceptionYear 1; revision of spelling in Year 2): the remaining correspondences with their alternative spellings of words, for example ay, a e, ai.
* We are now adding Stage 5 (Year 12; revision of spelling in Year 23): compound words containing prefixes and suffixes - con, dis, sion, cious, ture.
All through the programme, children are shown how spellings of words can be affected by grammar, such as verb tenses, comparative adjectives, pluralisation of nouns. Grammar is integral to the meaning and spelling of many words.
Stage 1 Children learn the first 29 phoneme-letter correspondences In our school, this takes no longer than half a term for all children. They are taught how to:
* Hear it. Hear and identify initial and dominant sounds in words.
* Read it. Read the letters that represent them.
* Write it. Write the letter, in response to its most common sound.
* Hear it. Read it. Write it. We teach these three skills together to make learning easier.
We teach a new sound-letter every day. Each letter is turned into a familiar object, animal or person. This binds together the letter's sound and shape with the way it is written.
These mnemonics are key to the success of learning the first 29 sound-letter correspondences quickly. The mnemonic is dropped very quickly.
There are no diversions. We do not compose songs and rhymes about each letter. We do not colour, cut and stick or trace over dotty letters - none of this counts as phonic work. "Phonic" means sound-letter correspondence. Take away the sound and it is not phonics.
We refer to the letter by its common sound and not by its name. We do not use letter names until Stage 3 (it would slow the pace).
Here is, briefly, how we teach the letter "c" and the sound c.
Hear it * Children need to understand that the sound c is common to a lot of objects and people's names.
* Collect objects, pictures and photos of people beginning with c. (Provide these, don't waste your time waiting for children to bring them in.) * Say the names of the objectspeople quickly with the children.
* Listen to the first sound c in each word. Emphasise the first sound in each word, as in cat, caterpillar, cake.
* Split the c from the rest of the word - c c cat, c c cake, c c caterpillar.
Read it * Show a picture of a caterpillar and talk about the things that a caterpillar likes eating (cauliflower, cabbages, carrot leaves).
* Say the alliterative phrase; curly caterpillars climb cabbages.
* Show how the caterpillar turns into the letter "c".
* Look at words in a picture dictionary that start with c.
Write it Tell the children that the caterpillar likes you to smooth the hairs on its body downwards, starting at its eyes. The caterpillar curls as you stroke it. It likes its face pointing to the sun so it always chews in the reading direction. (Draw a sun on the right hand side of the page.) Simple quick revision Spend 10 minutes each day revising letters that have been taught already.
* Hear it: show children pictures of objects (mixed initial sounds of those taught so far).
Say the names of the objects, emphasising the first sound.
Say the first sound at the start of each object.
* Read it: practise reading the letter cards. Ask children to respond quickly with the sound and the name of somebody in the class to whom it "belongs".
* Write it: ask children to write the corresponding letter on the board as you: a) Call out a sound.
b) Call out a name of somebody in the classobject.
Stages 2-4 Children learn the skills for blending (reading) and segmenting (spelling) Taking advantage of the three skills, children proceed on to the following three stages, which are based around learning the five rhyming sets (cat, hen, pig, dog and bug). A "key" rhyme is taken from the rhyming chart depending upon the stage the children have reached. Children learn the next 15 phoneme-letter correspondences during Stage 4. Briefly, the rhyming sets are taught as follows.
* Stage 2 - for example, c-a-t, h-e-n, p-i-g, d-o-g, b-u-g.
* Stage 3 - c-r-a-sh, d-r-e-ss, h-i-ll, b-l-o-ck, h-u-ff.
* Stage 4 - d-ay, t-r-ai-n, n-igh-t, th-ough-t.
Rhyming sets are mixed once the children can read each set securely.
Within each stage, we follow a series of steps to develop the use of rhyming words. These are: Step 1
Rhyming words with the given "key" word (aurallyorally) Children rhyme words with their names, listen to and learn a range of poetry. More explicitly, they are taught how to rhyme.
When they learn cvc words, they are told that a particular animal (Stage 2) will only come out of his basket if he hears words that sound the same as his name. The cat comes out of his basket when he hears "hat, sat, mat", for example (you can include nonsense words too). The shape of the mouth is exaggerated as the words are said so children learn to hear the phonemes a, e, i, o, u. Once children can rhyme words with cvc words, they find it very easy to rhyme words with the other "key" rhymes.
Identifying the phonemes in each word (aurallyorally) Children are asked to count the number of phonemes (sounds) they can hear in a word. When they hear the words "phoneme fingers", they all hold the right number of fingers up to show the answer, for example: cat (3), crash (4), splash (5), day (2), and thought (3).
Blending phonemes into words (aurallyorally) Introduce a robot that speaks in sounds as it cannot say the whole word. It needs the children's help to say the whole word. This appeals to the children because they have to help an inferior being. At the same time, it helps them blend sounds into words.
The subsequent programme depends upon this robot that always speaks in phonemes, and never in onset and rime! For example: c-a-t, c-r-a-sh, d-ay, n-igh-t. (Teaching onset and rime - the initial sound and then the rest of a one-syllable word, like "c-at" - gives children the impression that words are two-dimensional. Phonemes show children that words are multidimensional.) Step 4
Segmenting words into phonemes (aurallyorally) The children now take it in turns to be the robot. Ask the child to say "cat", and then the "cat's words", in "robot speak" so that the robot can understand the word.
Step 5 Read the word
Identify the letter or digraph by its sound. Emphasise the reading direction.
Ask the children how the robot would "read" the word (in phonemes). Ask them what he is trying to say.
Look impressed that they can read these words so quickly! This praise is essential all through the programme as it gives children the important message that they can work out words for themselves.
Step 6 Spell the word
Ask a child to tell you how the robot would say the word. Ask a few children to write the word quickly on the board. Tell them that they can spell each word all in one go! This reinforces the importance of working out the sounds in a word before writing. Ask the children to draw "phoneme lines" under each word.
Each set of words is mixed with another set at the same stage. This is so children learn to read and spell the words when they are mixed up with other sets of rhyming words.
When children reach Stage 4, they examine the dominant spelling pattern for each set of rhyming words.
At this stage, reading really speeds up. The children almost teach themselves. The programme is now only needed to teach and revise spelling.
Ruth Miskin is head of Kobi Nazrul school in Tower Hamlets. She is also the author of Best Practice Phonics (pound;120 for a set of five books and other materials) from Heinemann.