Claire Matthews’ primary school does not have a cave on its premises.
This, the Cambridgeshire headteacher says, presented a problem. How, after all, is one supposed to host a caveman on-site, if one does not have a cave to put him in?
The caveman quandary came about because Matthews, consultant headteacher of Abbots Ripton Church of England, had invited the phonic fairy into her school.
The phonic fairy is the creation of Michelle Larbey, a former primary teacher. She tours primary schools in full fairy costume, teaching children phonics through mainstream children’s picture books.
‘I said I couldn’t fly on Tuesdays’
“We’d all tried those phonics schemes where stories are written with as many words with the ‘ee’ sound as you can imagine,” Matthews says. “And the stories aren’t engaging, because they’ve just been written around the ‘ee’ sound.
“But the children absolutely love the phonic fairy.”
Larbey is not sure where the idea for the fairy came from, but it made immediate sense to her. “My own daughter stayed up all night, waiting for the tooth fairy,” she says. “And I thought, if we can create the same magic around reading – it’s win-win.”
The phonic fairy’s magic works in three ways. Firstly, there is the costume: Larbey turns up at schools in fairy dress, complete with wings and star-spangled tiara. “The response is electric,” she says. “If you’ve seen children on Christmas morning – it’s the same with the phonic fairy.
“One boy asked to see me fly. I said I couldn’t fly on Tuesdays.”
Larbey’s visits include the screening of film clips. In these, she embarks on a range of book-related magical adventures, riding dragons, “flying” on a zipwire or putting out fire with the fire brigade.
“Probably, the little ones do think she’s a real fairy,” says Matthews. “Because of the glitter, because of the magic of it. They’ll ask, ‘When’s the fairy coming back?’”
Secondly, Larbey reads to children from mainstream picture books, using those books to teach phonics.
For example, she will read the book Shark in the Park, by author and illustrator Nick Sharratt (best known as the illustrator who works with Jacqueline Wilson), and use it to demonstrate the phoneme “ar”.
Similarly, Sharratt’s book Caveman Dave is used to teach the sound “ay”. She has also worked with books by several of her own childhood heroes, including veteran author Allan Ahlberg.
“There’s always been a dichotomy between reading for pleasure and decoding,” says Rae Snape, headteacher of The Spinney Primary, also in Cambridgeshire. “The wonderful thing that the phonic fairy does is combine the two.
“Children don’t have to make a choice between the formal learning of phonics and the real books – you get both. They’re assimilating very, very formal phonics learning, at the same time as having fun.”
Larbey is keen to point out that there is structure to her approach: she works with national curriculum letters and sounds, just as other phonics schemes do.
“I wouldn’t want people just grabbing books from their book corners,” she says. “It won’t work if it’s haphazard. It needs to be systematic and progressive in order for it to work.
“It’s hard to say mine is an official phonics reading scheme, because it’s so organic. But, when push comes to shove, it is.”
Last year, for the first time, children at The Spinney – half of whom speak English as an additional language – achieved 100 per cent in the phonics screening check.
“I’ve taught grim approaches to phonics,” says Snape. “It was just barking out phonics, and it was grey and completely joyless. It was such a serious, academic approach to learning.
“Now, children – and teachers – learn to engage with the joy of it. By Year 1, the children have learnt all the phonemes. But they’ve also immediately transferred them into reading real books.”
Leave reality at the door
Matthews, too, has seen a significant change in her pupils’ attitudes to reading. “We had to buy extra copies of books, because the children were wanting to read them outside lessons, or take them home,” she says. “Parents were saying their children had never wanted to take books home before.”
Before Larbey leaves a school, she sprinkles fairy dust – glitter, which is just as sparkly, if harder to remove – over and inside the books in the school library.
“For weeks and weeks afterwards, glitter would fall out of the books,” Matthews says. “And the children would say, ‘Ooh, the phonic fairy’s been in the book’ – even boys and older children.”
Larbey’s third magic trick is to wave her wand and bring the books she reads to life. So teachers are encouraged to follow her lead, and act out the books they read.
For example, a teacher reading a book about a fireman to their class could set up a mock fire station in the playground, complete with an emergency telephone.
At Abbots Ripton, she read out a story set in an igloo. As it happened, the school already had an ersatz igloo, made from empty milk cartons. Larbey sprayed shaving foam on the ground around it, and then asked children to write graphemes in the “snow”.
However, when it came to reading Caveman Dave, Matthews hit a snag: she had an igloo onsite, but no cave. “We thought: we can’t do that book; we don’t have a cave,” she says.
But then she had an idea: she pushed several tables together, and covered them with black cloth. Then she drew some cave paintings on paper, and pinned them to the underside of the cloth. “Without any problem, we have a cave that can fit about 10 children in it,” Matthews says.
“Michelle will look at what you’ve got under your sink, or hidden in your cupboards. Lots of the things she uses are things we have in the classroom – you don’t feel you’ve got to buy lots of brand new, shiny plastic resources.”
And Larbey encourages teachers to dress up as characters from the books – even if it is only to wear a fireman’s helmet or a farmer’s hat.
“I just wanted to give teachers a licence to play around,” she says. “I would like every school to have a doormat reading: ‘Leave reality at the door’.
“It’s about being alert to the opportunities in your own school. I want to remind teachers why they entered the profession.”