How many sound-spelling correspondences to teach in a phonics session?

I have recently been asked how many phonic patterns (sound-spelling correspondences) I would teach pupils in a half-hour session on average. Though at first sight this sounds pretty straightforward, in reality, it’s a complex question.

I’m going to assume that the pupils are beginning readers, aged between four and five years. I’m also assuming that while some pupils in any YR or Y1 class are going to have picked up a certain amount of prior knowledge from nursery, parents, and from ‘interested parties’ of one sort or another, many children will know very little and in some cases nothing at all about phonics.

For this reason, it is best to start from scratch. People may object to this but when one considers that many pupils who have already been taught some rudimentary ‘phonics’, may come in knowing only letter names, saying sounds with the ubiquitous /uh/ attached, and other maladaptive strategies.

Teaching phonics to a Reception class for the first time needs careful handling and how this can be done can be seen clearly from the advice I give in this blog posting. The posting makes clear how best to introduce sound-spelling correspondences for the first time and gives a clear rationale for the approach.

Now we come to the why. According to a number of eminent cognitive psychologists – John Hattie, John Sweller, Paul Kirschner, Daniel Willingham and Jeroen J.G  van Merriënboem – new material should always only be introduced in small steps.

Presenting anyone with too much new information at one time is likely to overwhelm the learner. Working memory is what John Hattie refers to as the ‘workbench’ of the conscious mind and the problem with it is that it can only hold on to a limited number of items at a time or it suffers cognitive overload. Moreover, unless the material in the working memory is being put into productive use, it is quickly lost.

It used to be believed that the number of items which can be held in working memory at any one time is between five and seven. However, one is better erring on the side of caution and confining the number to as few as four or five and, if those items are new (i.e. never introduced before), then two or three should be the limit.

If two or three items are introduced in the context of a lesson, such as the one outlined in the link above, then exposure is maximal because pupils are given lots of opportunities for rehearsal, with the consequence that children are much more likely to remember them. What’s more, after having already introduced /s/ /a/ /t/ (spelled s, a, t), the next day or the day after we might then add another sound-spelling correspondence, /m/ (spelled m), say, and word-build ‘mat’ and write it in the same way as the previous day. Thus, the combinations /a/ and /t/ are recycled. In this way, five sound-spelling correspondences [This includes /i/ in Sounds-Write.] can be introduced in the first two weeks of Reception, allowing time for the pupils to get the hang of the ‘game’.

Spending this amount of time is vital if ALL children are going to be given the chance to become properly literate because the rigour of such an approach promotes automaticity or the ability to access the material stored in long-term memory immediately.

What can plainly be seen from this procedure is that we are building a schema, which the children practise every day and on which we build more and more sound-spelling correspondences over time. Because the sound-spelling correspondences are taught at the beginning in the context of real words with which children are instantly familiar, the material isn’t random; it is ‘chunked’. Chunking is the way in which our minds can bring together formerly disparate elements into a coherent pattern.

In addition, we are building simultaneously the children’s skills of blending and segmenting, skills which are essential if children are going to achieve mastery level. And, we are teaching them conceptual understanding: that the individual sounds in our speech are represented by one-letter spellings in this case.

All of the above creates the basis from which we can go on to teach more complexity over time: two-letter spellings, CVCC, CCVC and CCVCC words, followed by teaching one sound-different spellings and one-spelling-different sounds, and how to read and spell polysyllabic words.

You might ask how long might it take for a class of Reception children to be taught all the one-to-ones, plus the two letter spellings ff, ll, ss and zz. Again, it does depend somewhat on the cohort and cohorts vary from year to year, though not usually by very much. Certainly, by Christmas of YR, I would expect most classes to have got there. So, not too fast and not too slowly.

Further reading
Hattie, J. & Yates, G., (2014), Visible learning and The Science of How We Learn, Routledge.
Willingham, D.T., (2009), Why Students Don’t Like School, Jossey-Bass
Sweller, J., ‘Human Cognitive Architecture’: http://www.csuchico.edu/~nschwartz/Sweller_2008.pdf