Is your school’s reading programme research-informed? Are children being taught according the the latest scientific evidence? Many children succeed at reading despite impoverished provision, but a significant number will require explicit and systematic teaching to become confident readers and spellers.

What does systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) look like? There are certain ‘ingredients’ that all high quality phonics programmes share.

What to look out for

  • Children are taught the alphabetic code—the sounds (phonemes) in English and their corresponding letter/letters (graphemes).
  • Children practise blending for reading, segmenting for spelling, and handwriting.
  • Children practise reading with decodable words, sentences and texts. (Decodable text uses only letters and sounds that have been taught so far. This accelerates progress, confidence and enables children to be independent.)
  • Reading books for independent reading at home or in school are also decodable and in line with children’s current phonics knowledge.
  • The only strategy is phonics all-the-way-through-the-word for reading and spelling.
  • Parents are fully informed about the school’s phonics programme and their child’s progress.

What to avoid

Many schools in Scotland follow what would be described as ‘mixed methods’ when it comes to reading. Almost all schools use some phonics—but this tends to be mixed up with other inefficient, confusing, and sometimes damaging, practices.

All of the following are regularly seen in Scottish classrooms, but are not supported by robust evidence and have no place in a systematic synthetic phonics. No high quality phonics programme includes any of these in its core practice.

Sight Words

Learning words by sight, or by memorising their shape, is a limited strategy. It confuses struggling/dyslexic readers and undermines phonics teaching. Common or tricky words should be taught in sensible groups e.g. he, she, me, be or could, would, should (rather than random collections) with attention being drawn to the tricky part and the rest sounded and blended as usual with phonics all-the-way-through-the-word. Watch for: random word lists (to be memorised); common word walls.

Banded or Levelled Reading Books

Phonics teaching should be supported by decodable books or reading material that matches children’s current knowledge of letters and sounds. This enables children to practise, read independently, and make rapid progress. Banded reading books are not based on phonics. Instead, they rely upon predictable, repetitive text, whole-word memorisation and guessing. They are not matched to phonics teaching and are confusing for children, especially struggling/dyslexic readers.

An example of a decodable reading book that a child can read independently and with confidence when they have been taught the letters and sounds it contains – no guessing required
An example of a banded reading book that relies on prediction, repetition and guessing from the pictures or memorisation of sight words to be able to read it.
Multi-cueing and Guessing

When children don’t have the phonics they need to read, they are encouraged to look at the pictures, to read on, or back—to use context clues or guess what a word might be. This is called multi-cueing and it is not a reliable strategy! It results in children looking everywhere for the ’answer’— instead of at the word on the page where all the ‘clues’ that are required are there in the letters—ready to be sounded out and blended. Also useless: word within a word; look for a rime; chunking.

Poor Practice

Reading practice should begin with plenty of opportunities to read by sounding out & blending printed words. Many programmes, such as Active Literacy, focus on mini-whiteboard activities with magnetic letters for spelling, which does not provide sufficient reading practice for beginners.

Core routines may be weak and lack necessary elements. If children are being asked to ‘break’ (oral segmentation) a given spoken word, then ‘make’ it by choosing letters—this is actually a spelling (encoding) activity—but it is insufficient on its own.

Routines should include lots of practice in both decoding (sounding out & blending) for reading and encoding for spelling. Watch for incorrect terminology e.g.: joined phoneme; split phoneme. N.B. sounds=phonemes and letters=graphemes!

Download this information in the handy guide below to share with your school.

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