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Phonics isn’t just ‘Baby Stuff’ – It Has a Valuable Role in KS2 Too

“Some people, worryingly, consider that weaker or slower-to-learn readers need ‘something different' from phonics”

  • Phonics isn’t just ‘Baby Stuff’ – It Has a Valuable Role in KS2 Too

We are still on a journey of discovery regarding the potential of phonics in our schools. Phonics provision is generally considered a ‘job done’ by the time children reach KS2, apart from the few who lag behind others, but is it possible to teach such a complex alphabetic code well enough in this time period?

Word banks

If the majority of infants have learnt sufficient code to read well, continuing to teach the alphabetic code for spelling purposes is a different matter. Spelling needs a strong emphasis on children becoming very familiar with words featuring the same letter/s-sound correspondences.

Teachers can provide content and activities that ‘glue’ the words in these spelling banks together, such as themed spelling stories involving grapheme searches, reading the stories with comprehension or acting out the words.

While starting in Reception, this emphasis on building up awareness of the need to recall spelling word banks could easily continue appropriately and supportively throughout KS2 for advanced alphabetic code.

The vocabulary in these banks can also provide many new, age-appropriate words to enrich spoken language, with attention to homophones and including dictionary work and grammar activities alongside.

Code charts

A very useful teaching aid is an alphabetic code chart (alphabeticcodecharts.com) that shows sounds, or phonemes, down the columns and the many spelling alternatives for the sounds (graphemes) embedded in word examples across the rows.

This helps to highlight just how complex English’s spelling system is and provides a permanent visual reference for use within spelling lessons for KS2 and for supporting application of phonics for spelling/writing in the wider curriculum.

Following oral segmenting (identification of the sounds from beginning to end of spoken words), teachers and learners can discuss which spelling alternatives are required for specific words, with reference to the chart.

Oral segmenting

We only need letter names in spelling to relay a correct spelling from one person to another – letter by letter. The skill of oral segmenting for spelling (starting with syllable chunking in multi-syllable words) should continue in KS2 – including making it explicit that this spelling skill is an adult skill, not just ‘baby stuff’.

This understanding is for children’s intellectual development and self esteem – especially important for those receiving a phonics intervention beyond the main class.

Phonic decoding

The Y1 phonics screening check results are invaluable for informing teachers’ continuing professional development. In 2016, 81% of children reached or exceeded the 32 out of 40 benchmark, yet in over 1,000 schools 95% to 100% of children met or exceeded this benchmark.

This demonstrates the difference effective teaching can make, rather than focusing attention on ‘within child’ difficulties to explain weaker reading for 19% of England’s Y1 children.

There is much room for improvement in phonics teaching and these results certainly suggest that KS2 teachers may well need to continue with phonics provision for reading purposes, not just spelling, for at least some children.

Some people, worryingly, consider that weaker or slower-to-learn readers need ‘something different’ from phonics on the basis that it doesn’t suit all children. However, in his review, Sir Jim Rose pointed out that regardless of children as individuals, it is the same alphabetic code and phonics skills they all need.

For longer term reading and increasing vocabulary, the ability to phonically decode new and unknown words is essential. If a printed word is new to the reader, it is sometimes possible to deduce its meaning according to its context.

However, if the reader is not able to come up with a pronunciation for that word – either aloud or silently – it cannot be added to spoken language. This is a very worrying state of affairs and it is not always something that teachers are aware of. If they were, there would be no suggestion that some children need something different from phonics.

Competent readers may habitually skip more challenging new words but there is a big difference between readers who can phonically decode virtually any word, enabling them to add it to their spoken language, and weak decoders who cannot apply alphabetic code knowledge to new words well enough to come up with a pronunciation.

This may explain why some pupils cannot access more challenging texts in secondary school or upper KS2.

It is very encouraging that KS2, and even KS3, teachers often seek phonics professional development even where this has not been emphasised on a national basis. For some, then, the phonics journey continues voluntarily. TP

Debbie Hepplewhite MBE FRSA is the author of Raintree No Nonsense Phonics Skills. Download a taster here. Follow Debbie on Twitter at @debbiehepp.

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