Phonics – Why they matter past KS1

Children in classroom learning phonics

Ensure the continuing development of phonics throughout your school by making sure all teachers have a good understanding, including in KS2…

Sara Wernham
by Sara Wernham
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In many schools, phonics is something that is ‘done’ in Reception and KS1, with little thought given to it in KS2. There seems to be an opinion that KS2 children need to ‘move on’ and use different strategies. 

However, as phonics is the basis of the spelling/writing/reading system we’re teaching, it seems weird to just drop it and move on to using other strategies.

These are needed, as unfortunately English is not regular, but it doesn’t mean phonics is no longer relevant.

English has many complexities, but the basic underlying structure is a phonetic one. For this reason, it’s logical that we continue with this approach. 

While most KS1 teachers are familiar with the alphabetic code and the sounds, often KS2 teachers are not. So, one important thing to ensure the continuing development of phonics throughout your school is to ensure that all teachers have this understanding and familiarity.

There are many complex alphabetic code charts available which can be printed out and used for reference. 

Spelling words out

This unfamiliarity with sounds often leads to KS2 teachers ‘spelling’ words out using letter names. Yes, it’s a more ‘adult’ way, but we’re not dealing with adults. Our pupils are still refining their knowledge.

To spell a word out using letter names, you have to already know how to spell that word. You’re not enabling children to become independent writers, and readers, if they can’t tackle words they don’t already know.

Adults, when asked to spell a long, unknown or difficult word, often revert to breaking the word into syllables and sounds to work out how to spell it. 

When asked how a word is spelled, every teacher should first sound it out. This reinforces the sound-symbol relationship of the language.

Once they’ve sounded it out, then other strategies can come into play. Does it look right? What are the alternatives for, for example, the /ai/ sound?

These alternative spellings can then be said using letter names. For instance, does the word call for AI, AY or A hop over E? Is it like another word they know? 

Reading unknown words

The same applies for reading. If a child doesn’t know or struggles to read a word, don’t just tell them the word. Instead, sound it and blend it, whether the word is ‘cat’ or ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’.

Again, it’s the best and most logical way to read unknown words. Just because the word is long or unfamiliar, children should still be able to attempt to read it. This will get them out of the habit of always asking someone else. 

SSP spelling programme

Another way to develop phonics across the school is to use a SSP spelling programme that goes across all years – and to use it! Don’t use it for KS1 and then decide to ditch it and move to ‘topic based’ or ‘collections of words children have misspelt’ spelling lists.

A good SSP spelling programme should include plenty of revision as well as building on and adding to children’s knowledge. 

Standardised testing

While we have the phonic screening check at the end of Y1, there aren’t any further statutory checks. This gives the impression that phonics is something that’s important only in the primary years.

Yes, there are the SATs, but across the primary years as a whole, there is a lack of standardised testing to assess progress and achievement.  

As a class teacher, whatever year group I was teaching, I always gave my class a standardised spelling test at the beginning, middle and end of the year. This way I knew where I was starting from and what I needed to revise or catch up on. It showed me how we were progressing, if all the children were keeping up and, finally, what progress they’d made.

I didn’t need to report the scores. It was just a way for me to assess my teaching, as well as pupils’ progress. It simply and easily flagged up any child with problems. This meant I could attempt to address any issues rather than sending them on their journey through school struggling.

The best way to develop phonics across your school is quite simply to ensure all teachers understand it and use it as their primary strategy.

It’s also important that we assess children’s progress using standardised tests and that we have a good SSP in place.

Sara Wernham is a primary teacher at Woods Loke Primary in Lowestoft, England. She developed Jolly Phonics with Sue Lloyd. 

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