I Returned to teaching in September as a secondary literacy and language coordinator, after a stint in the local authority’s special educational needs and disability (SEND) service. I had one key aim for my first year: raising the profile of phonics.
I knew that it would be a tough sell and so it has proved. Although the teachers have been very polite and interested, persuading them that phonics is vital in secondary schools (and we’re an upper school too, for students in Years 9-13) has been challenging.
Nudging people to take up phonics, rather than a fully blown onslaught, has been the most effective strategy. We’ve trialled various ideas. Here are the seven that have proven to be the most successful so far.
1 Spreading the word
This included me talking about phonics in a literacy assembly where I spent 20 minutes focusing on the word “chair”. Apparently, it was more interesting than this makes it sound.
2 Bursts of inspiration
Different curriculum areas are receiving short sessions on spelling techniques using phonics, and an A3 poster with the main patterns has been made available to hang in classrooms (you can download it at bit.ly/PhonicsPoster).
3 Back to basics tutorials
A demystifying phonics session for interested staff was well received. I explained the precise sounds involved, including the “schwa”, which basically means ensuring that teachers say a short, clipped sound for “r” or “g”, for example, rather than the lengthened ruh or guh.
4 Early intervention
Phonics was included in literacy training for our PGCE students and newly qualified teachers and at an event for parents on “Improving your child’s literacy”. A more in-depth workshop for parents on how to use phonics to tackle reading and spelling difficulties is being planned.
5 Support staff focus
Teaching assistants have received extensive phonics training, alongside creating a one-to-one literacy programme for students who need extra support.
6 Phonics HQ
The school has a room where many literacy resources are displayed, including phonic patterns and the English alphabetic code from Phonics International. There are also lots of phonics-based materials, such as a scheme called Direct Phonics, along with some games, which include the use of swap cards and paper chains.
7 Peer-to-peer strategies
We have a peer-mentoring reading programme where Year 9s read to Year 11s once a week. The Year 11s have been trained in decoding strategies using phonics so that they can help their mentees to break down the words that they struggle to read.
Slowly, phonics is being integrated into our school as one way to improve decoding and encoding for all our students. It is hard for teachers to see the relevance for students who are already good readers and spellers, but I am not giving up.
From September, a weekly spelling, punctuation and grammar initiative is being planned, which will include phonics. Teachers from across the curriculum will be asked to concentrate on this one area, and there will be a prominent display in the library and information on the school website for parents.
We will focus on spelling in the first term, punctuation in the second and grammar in the third. It is finding the phonic element for spelling that I think will be the most challenging. Perhaps we could spend a week exploring the “a, ai, ay” sound in all subjects up to A level. In philosophy and ethics, for instance, we could look at words such as: verification, eudaimonia and Mayan (a good one to focus on as the UK pronunciation seems to be May/an but the US pronunciation has an “i” sound, while the name “Maya” is pronounced with an “i” by both).
Am I being too ambitious? My intention is to find hard-to-spell keywords in each area that use these sounds. I want to show that phonics is relevant, particularly when it comes to more difficult, multisyllabic words.
Most of all, I’d like to persuade as many secondary teachers as possible that phonics is not just for primary schools. Wish me luck.
Jules Daulby is literacy and language coordinator for Thomas Hardye School in Dorset