Sounds system

7th September 2007 at 01:00
Every day is a red letter day for Marj Newbury's pupils, who are forging ahead with phonics

For the past three years, I have been working in a large inner-city school in Bradford where 98 per cent of children are Muslim and speak English as an additional language.

Before that, I taught at an all-white English-speaking school in West Yorkshire, and I had seen incredible results using synthetic phonics, where children are taught sounds of letters and letter combinations, and then combine them to form words.

Two thirds of my class were reading and writing independently on leaving reception, even though the majority had arrived without any knowledge of sounds at all.

When they left, 60 per cent had a reading age at least one year beyond their chronological age. I wanted to see whether this could be replicated for the children learning English as an additional language in Bradford.

By using synthetic phonics, my planning, assessments and daily teaching have become much more effective, and the results from my present school have been as good, if not better, than my last one.

I have seen children who could barely speak any English, leaving in July speaking, reading, and writing with confidence and ease. Approximately two thirds of my class this year can write independently, sounding out words, making spelling alternatives and remembering challenging constructions.

So how is it done? Firstly, reception children need to be taught all the 24 single sounds and the 18 digraphs, a pair of characters used to write one sound that does not correspond to the characters in sequence.

At least four to six sounds should be taught per week. Lessons should be as exciting, child- centred and kinaesthetic as possible.

Mine last about half an hour and I teach four sounds a week, re-enforcing and rehearsing them with tactile interactive activities.

We fish for sounds (letters) in the water tray, print them on the painting table and make them out of Play-Doh. The children love making sound boxes, where they cut and stick them inside and outside.

But you have to be quick. When the children learn six sounds (s, a, t, i, p and n), they must start to blend these to make words, and segment words to find sounds. Word boxes take over from sound and fishing for sounds becomes more focused when you are looking for the final one in a word.

Blending and segmenting must become daily practice. Alongside this runs an accumulative pathway of tricky words. These are high frequency words that will not blend (such as, "here", "my", "come", "the" and "saw"), which are taught as whole word patterns. I teach one per week.

By learning how to write these 42 sounds during the second term through dictations, the children can start writing independently during the third term. You can begin to teach spelling alternatives. You can, in effect, be teaching up to phase five of the Government's six phase Letters and Sounds programme in their first year with amazing results.

Teaching these skills has a massive impact on you as a teacher. You will feel focused and will see the children progress. There can be no better foundatio*

Marj Newbury is a reception teacher at Byron Primary School in Bradford. She has been using a programme of synthetic phonics for 13 years

How to do it

Teach phonics daily for half an hour.

Teach four to six sounds a week.

Start blending and segmenting as soon as six sounds are taught.

Teach a tricky word a week.

Teach the children to recognise, then write, all 42 sounds and the 36 high frequency tricky words.

Give the children as much time to practise sounds, blending, segmenting, and tricky words in as many fun ways as possible.

Give them lots of opportunities to read and write.

Teach the spelling alternatives and spelling rules.

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