John Galloway visits a London primary where the impact of synthetic phonics has been dramatic
"It works," says Tejinder Dhingra enthusiastically of the synthetic phonics programme used in her school. "It is a lot of work - but that's teaching,"
she adds reflectively after her rounds of instructing small groups, supervising teaching assistants and visiting colleagues' classrooms. This is not an untypical morning since her school, Elmhurst Primary in Newham, east London, introduced the "Read Write Inc" scheme and responsibility for it fell to her as the deputy head for key stage 1.
Her morning started by taking a group of reception pupils through the five letters, M, A, S, D, T, whose sounds are the initial building blocks of the programme. As well as sounding these out, the children watch each other mouthing them and draw them on their mini-whiteboards. It is all very lively and interactive with plenty of boosts, choruses of "That's the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it", and a firework for Naseema when she writes an "m" correctly. They also use "Fred Talk", a way to blend sounds to form words, while Fred, a soft-toy duck, who can only speak in phonemes, looks on. The children have to say these faster and faster running them together until "suh, ah, tuh" becomes "sat" and "duh, ah, duh" forms "dad".
In Jill Dockerty's class another reception group are using "Fred Fingers", a system of marking the sounds in a word with their hands. They count out, "j-o-g" and "j-e-t" and even the non-words "jop", "jid" and "jas" for practice. They have already practiced their "Speed Sounds", quickly repeating some of the 44 phonemes in English either held up on flashcards or shown on their Promethean interactive whiteboard with its supporting software. And they've discussed the different letter types, whether they are stretching sounds like "j" or bouncing ones like "a". Here, though, they are ready to use these skills to read, starting with some of the 40 "ditties" that are part of the scheme. "Bad dog yaps", reads Davinder.
Nasser tries it too, but he begins by using his Fred Talk skills to blend the letters into words to say "Bad dog digs".
"We teach children how to read at the same time as inspiring them to want to read," says Ruth Miskin the scheme's creator. "Synthetic phonics is making sure children are given nearly every sound they need so they have sufficient phonic knowledge to blend all the way through the word. During teaching we don't expect children to read words we haven't taught them how to read." Which is why words are categorised as either green or red, those that are phonically regular and those that are not. Children will sound both, but some will be learnt phonetically while others will need additional decoding strategies.
The reading books are graded and written with the vocabulary the children have learnt. In Juanita Holloway's Year 2 class the children are being introduced to some of the vocabulary before they read independently. They discuss with their "Perfect Partners" what the meanings of "clumpy" and "spooning" might be before putting their thumbs up to show that they have an inkling.
Writing exercises retell the stories and, following the same structured framework, the teacher models the writing. Then the children follow the model before creating their own versions using cartoon strips as guides.
The children are clearly at ease with this process in Shahin Karim's class next door where seven-year-old Abdi describes it in detail before reading through his story about the piano-playing horse.
Throughout the morning, groups of pupils can be found in every available space working at an appropriate level, regardless of age. Tejinder reconstitutes the groups every eight weeks to make sure everyone is in the right one. While this system is predominantly designed for younger pupils, groups could include newly arrived pupils from further up the school. In a school where 98 per cent of pupils have English as an additional language it is proving particularly effective. Also, "It allows us to pick up SEN issues much quicker," says Tejinder, "and then they are closely monitored."
What it gives all pupils at Elmhurst is a system that "immerses children in phonics, especially early readers and struggling readers," says headteacher Shahed Ahmed. "Children turn to phonics as their first and principal way of decoding." Evidence for this can be found across the curriculum. In Year 1 science lessons, for instance, teachers report that pupils use Fred Talk when writing, and even if they get it wrong their guesses are more accurate. And the school has seen the national curriculum test scores rising each year since they introduced it. More important is its impact on pupils' access to the curriculum. Ruth Miskin says: "The child who can't read says, 'What is this word?' The child who can read says, 'What does this word mean?'"