Super-charged phonics

I’ve talked a lot on this blog about the skills, the knowledge, and conceptual understanding young children need to develop to mastery level. What I haven’t mentioned is the sort of really ‘super-charged, value-added component’ that should come with any high-quality phonics teaching.

As always on this blog, I’ll talk about the detail of what I mean when I talk about a ‘super-charged, value added component’.

Of course, phonics teaching isn’t just about teaching sound-spelling correspondences, skills and understanding, it’s also about much, much more. Let me give you an example, in a couple of my previous posts here, I’ve described how sound-spelling correspondences should be taught through word building: i.e in the context of real and recognisable words [Why do so many others teach them in isolation?] But, what else should the lesson in word building include?

With Sounds-Write, when the class has built a word, we get the whole class to say the sounds and read the word. Then, we go round four or five children – and that’s four or five different children every day, always choosing the lowest-attaining child last – asking them to say the sounds and read the word. In this way, it’s obvious that all children have the opportunity to link specific sounds to specific spellings and we can identify any child who is falling behind.

This procedure is also intended to establish good habits. In this case, the good habit is something that all highly fluent writers do: viz, checking that what they wanted was what they got.

After building the chosen word, the teacher should be making explicit that the class is reading what is written to check that it was what they wanted. Good writers do this so automatically that the process happens under the level of their conscious attention. But, this doesn’t happen in the practice of novices.

Novices need to be taught this and the habit needs to be firmly established. The language used to mediate the process of checking must also be highly precise and succinct. So, having built a word, I say to the class, “Now, let’s read it back to see that we got what we wanted. If we say the sounds (precisely), we can hear what the word is.” And, in the early stages of learning to write, which, incidentally, should be taught hand-in-hand with reading, what we hear should be what we see and what we see should be what we hear.

In addition, as the students are reading the word sound by sound, the teacher is pointing to each spelling and asking every child to look at it carefully. When children write the word, they also need to say the sound of each spelling as they write. There’s an abundance of evidence to show that, for young children, saying the sounds as they write the spellings of words helps further to sediment the link between the two in their long-term memories. As McGuinness wrote in her seminal Early Reading Instruction (p.114), ‘copying letters forces you to look carefully and hold the image in your mind while you are writing. This, plus the act of forming strokes, makes it clear how letters differ.’

Encouraging this particular habit becomes even more important when we teach different ways of spelling sounds and is especially the case when we are dealing with less frequently encountered spellings.

The approach works all the way through the teaching of the code, from the teaching of an Initial Code, where sounds and spellings are mostly mutually implied, to the most complex of polysyllabic words.

Our main imperative is to make certain that, as teaching is taking place, we are ensuring that our students are paying attention to the detail because we know that what we attend to is automatically encoded by the brain and can later be retrieved from memory if we give opportunities for further practice.