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Comprehension is essential to phonics lessons, and picture books are a great place to start

Comprehension has an essential place in your phonics lessons, says Jacqueline Harris, and your favourite picturebooks are an ideal jumping off point…

Jacqueline Harris
by Jacqueline Harris

I wholeheartedly approve of systematic phonics teaching, but what with scrutiny from Ofsted and the Y1 check, the focus often shifts almost entirely onto decoding, rather than teaching children to read – when it really should be a balance between the two.

I am, for example, a good decoder in Spanish as I studied it for a year at school. I know the correct pronunciations, but I am not a Spanish reader as I can only make sense of very few words. And my decoding skills are useless without comprehension.

If teaching children phonics is all about giving them the tools for reading, it seems to me that lessons need to focus on comprehension as well as decoding. This is why I use the application section of the lesson to make sure children truly apply their knowledge – that they are able to understand, as well as decode, what they are reading.

In my cautious early days of teaching phonics, I used the sentences in Letters and Sounds – that is until the day Thomas piped up with “But why are we reading such silly things?” when being asked to read ‘Are fingers as long as arms?’.

He was right, I realised. Why would anyone be interesting in reading that? So I started to use my own sentences for the apply section of the lesson.

Choosing the right books

I began by making the sentences more interactive. I gave children a collection of pictures and a selection of sentences, each of which matched one of the images. There would, however, always be one picture without a matching sentence, but the children had to read and understand all the sentences to discover which one.

Then, when I was teaching /ar/, I realised I knew a good book, Ruth Brown’s A Dark, Dark Tale, that featured this Phase 3 sound, and I could use that instead. I wrote my own version, making sure I used only decodable words with graphemes the children already knew.

‘On a dark, dark night in a dark, dark wood was a dark, dark oak. In the dark, dark oak was a …’ This was instantly more exciting and successful in motivating them to read, particularly as I projected one of the beautiful illustrations onto the whiteboard. Then, having read aloud the original book, we enjoyed talking about what the surprise ending might be in the version I had written.

Some educators think you should not use books unless they have been written specifically for phonics teaching; but I believe any great picture book can be used, so long as the story is rewritten in decodable chunks. It takes very little time as you are only looking for a couple of sentences to be read independently, and some books can provide greater challenge for more able pupils.

There are a limited number of words for the /z/ /zz/ phoneme (Phase 3), but there is a wonderful, memorable book to support this. Ben’s Trumpet by Rachel Isadora is set in the 1920s jazz era. The marvellous black and white illustrations tell the story of Ben whose favourite place is the Zig Zag Jazz Club.

Start off the lesson by listening to jazz – it’s likely that many children will not yet have encountered the word. Then, when it comes to the apply section, you can just edit the book’s opening: ‘Bens sits next to The Zig Zag Jazz Club’.

This book rightly won awards and when using the story as part of a phonics session I’ve found it has far more impact than just reading the example from Letters and Sounds – ‘He did the zip up on Zenat’s jacket’.

Stories for every phase

After trying this method of making the apply section of the lesson more meaningful and enjoyable, I began to collect books to use for all the phases.

Phase 2

It’s trickier to find books at this level as the language tends to involve more than just simple CVC words, but there are some good options, including Duck in a truck. ‘Duck has no luck, he is stuck.’ It’s not as good as Jez Alborough’s original rhyming text, I’ll admit, but it works well for /ck/. ‘Stuck’ is technically a Phase 4 word as it has adjacent consonants, but most children have no problem decoding it in their enthusiasm to read the story, and there are no new graphemes to untangle.

Phase 3

There’s no shortage of choice here. As well as The Dark Dark Tale, an obvious choice would be Shark in the Park (or Shark in the Dark) by Nick Sharrett.

Pig in the Pond by Martin Waddell is another lovely book and some of the pages require very little editing. This works well once children have begun digraphs and need a bit of revision of the early ones. ‘The pig sat in the sun. She looked at the pond. The ducks went “Quack!” The geese went “honk!”’.

Phase 4

Here things get a bit harder once again due to the increasing complexity of texts, but there are options that highlight adjacent consonants well and help children revise previously learnt graphemes.

Mr Gumpy’s Outing by John Burningham, for instance, is one of those clever books where each word has been chosen with great care, even though at first glance it appears quite simple. It really lends itself to comprehension. “The goat kicked, the chickens flapped, the pig mucked about…” There’s a good conversation to be had about the way the word ‘mucked’ is used in that sentence!

Phase 5

This is a return to easier ground. There are dozens of options, with The Smartest Giant in Town by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler being one of my favourites, and useful for assessment – you can be sure that any child who is able to read the letter at the end of the book has a very sound grasp of Phase 5.

Quentin Blake has written a couple of great books suitable for phonics teaching. Mr Magnolia is fantastic for exploring different ways of spelling the / oo/ phoneme (flute, newt, boot and suit) while Fantastic Daisy Artichoke provides lots of options for /oa/ (croak, stroke and folk).

Finally, if you are looking for a book that makes good use of nonsense words, Lynley Dodd’s The Dudgeon is coming is a good example. Alongside the Dudgeon, other characters have unconventional names that require decoding skills, eg The Bombazine Bear and the Purple Kazoo.

The most important thing to remember when using books is not to give children ‘extractitis’ and always make sure you read and enjoy the whole book together. After all, that is the point of learning phonics!

Jacqueline Harris (@phonicsandbooks) is a literacy consultant and passionate advocate of high-quality children’s literature.

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