There’s something slightly unnerving about the way Facebook updates me every day on how much older I’ve got. Each daily reminder of what I’d posted nearly a decade ago is just a little dig at my ever-greying hair, and increasingly unsociable lifestyle. Just recently, it’s also served as a useful reminder of how my thoughts have changed on some things.
Seven years ago, I started work at a new school, and in the first term the whole school was introduced to a new phonics scheme. I was broadly supportive of the principle, but had little interest in the practice. At the time, I was teaching a Year 7 class where almost all were “level 4 readers” and certainly nobody in my class looked to be in need of a phonics intervention. The thought of two days of training on delivering a phonics programme that I never intended to teach filled me with dread.
I knew the theory: anybody could be moved to Year 1 at the drop of a hat – we all needed to be on board. I didn’t like it, but I was new to the school, so I kept my mouth shut – to start with. By lunchtime on the second day I fear that my lack of interest was beginning to show. I was bored and I was frustrated.
And I was wrong.
It’s true that I was never going to be the sort of teacher who “sprinkled fairy dust” on my pupils, used puppets to practise things, or praised pupils with a “silent firework”, but those fripperies were incidental. What I didn’t realise at the time was just how instrumental that introduction to phonics would be in helping me to understand the needs of pupils I later taught. Whether I liked it or not, taking the time to understand how structured phonics teaching really works made me a better teacher.
Tools to help
Since then I’ve taught plenty of children – in the upper reaches of key stage 2 – who have benefited from a revisiting of or introduction to some elements of phonics. Taking time to think about how phonemes are represented – and to become familiar with the language of “graphemes” and “sound buttons” and “pure sounds” – equipped me with the tools to help my pupils to improve. And not just of decoding.
So often we hear that poor spellers are over-reliant on phonics, yet my now clearer understanding often allows me to see that many struggling spellers aren’t relying too much on phonics: they’re relying too much on their poor phonic knowledge. Knowing how the code works and having experience of tools such as sound buttons and phoneme charts has enabled me to fill the gaps not just by hazard, but with a carefully structured intervention. The consistency of the language we used across the school helped me to meet that need head on.
And so it is, seven years later, that instead of grumbling about the phonics training course, I’ve booked it all again for staff at my new school. I still don’t intend to become a fan of sound effects and puppet props, but I’ve gone from being the mutterer at the back of the hall, to standing at the front introducing the training. And I’ll make no apology to them for encouraging every member of staff to attend – no matter how little they might think they need it at the moment.
But perhaps I will extend a few words of apology to the headteacher who put me through the process all those years ago. I’m happy to admit that I was wrong. And he’ll know, as you might well have guessed, I don’t do that very often.
Michael Tidd is headteacher at Medmerry Primary School in West Sussex. He tweets as @MichaelT1979