Have phun with phonics;Opinion;Platform

22nd October 1999 at 01:00
As primary teachers prepare for yet another method of teaching young children to read and write Kris Winthorpe explains the benefits of the National Literacy Strategy's new system.

THE NATIONAL Literacy Strategy has produced a new national resource for the explicit teaching of phonics. Called PiPs or Progression in Phonics: Materials for whole-class teaching it aims to provide structure and rigour to the teaching of phonics in the early years.

Children need to get to the meaning in reading and writing as quickly as possible. To do this, with independence, they need to be taught to find their way through texts drawing upon an explicit understanding of phonics, grammar and of how writers make language work.

The new system is designed to enable children to "illuminate" and work out difficult words at several levels. The problem is that, until now, many children simply have not had explicit access to phonic strategies to help them to achieve this level of independence.

The new phonics materials in both PiPs, together with the Additional Literacy Support programme, rapidly teach children to correspond sounds to the letters that make up the "alphabetic code" of English. Children are taught to blend these sounds together to read and to segment words into sounds, and, by choosing the right combination of letters to represent these sounds, to spell correctly.

Progression in Phonics aims to develop knowledge of the alphabetic code in young children by telling them about how the code works in seven progressive steps. It does this through both "traditional" synthetic phonics which works from letters to words, and also "word down" analytic phonics, putting to an end to the recent debate over "what kind of phonics" should be taught in the literacy hour.

Children can be accelerated through phonic skills so that they are able to focus on comprehension, meaning-making and writing. A class with a good foundation in speaking and listening should be able to comfortably work through the entire phonics programme in about four terms. This would mean that children going into Year Two could decode and read almost any word and also have a very secure foundation in spelling.

The programme places strong emphasis on teacher-led demonstrations, interactive games and spelling investigations. The phonics work is not dependent upon being derived from texts. Too many good books are being dried up with tenuous links to phonics teaching.

These discrete Word Level sessions are a good way to begin each Literacy Hour in key stage 1. Phonic skills can then be taught explicitly in a similar way to the mental oral start to the daily three-part mathematics lesson. The embedding of these skills in context can be modelled in shared reading and writing and children can be supported in transferring them to their independent work through guided reading and writing.

The activities and games are all provided in the PiPs book, which includes the resources needed for the whole class interactive sessions. There is a wealth of support material and many photocopiable resources.

The Progression in Phonics materials are not prescriptive. They are an attempt to exemplify best practice in teaching class-sized groups of children the key skills they need in order to decode and encode words in English.

The games and activities are fun and engaging to young learners, and are very adaptable and expandable. Teachers are encouraged to use their professional judgement to select and add activities to take children through the progression at a suitably ambitious but appropriate pace.

Finally, Progression in Phonics tackles the negative impact of the inappropriate imposition of formal phonics teaching on very young children. Step One, the first of the PiPs' seven steps, is described as pre- and early reception year work. This foundation step focuses on getting children to listen and discriminate among different sounds through musical activity and sound games.

This is part of the essential foundation to language acquisition and development, recognised through greater prominence in the new Early Learning Goals for Language and Literacy. These skills underpin not just later phonic skill, but development across all aspects of language including, as I have outlined, reading and writing.

English uses letters to represent the sounds of words. To this end there is not really a debate as to whether it is useful for a child to think about and use "phonic" strategies. Beyond this, children need access to several strategies, most of which will appear to be redundant most of the time, until they are needed to solve a problem, e.g. read or spell an unfamiliar word.

The clear message is that phonics must be phun!

Kris Winthorpe is a literacy consultant, training staff and supporting schools with the implementation of the National Literacy Strategy. He has a background in early years and has been a deputy headteacher and reception class teacher.

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