Phonetic knowledge and understanding
In order to deliver high quality phonics, there is a need for staff to demonstrate high levels of phonetic knowledge and understanding.
What do we mean by systematic phonics?
This refers to phonics teaching which is done regularly, discretely, explicitly and in an agreed and rational sequence.
Synthetic phonics refers to the process of blending (synthesising) the individual sounds in a word together, working from left to right, to read them.
Synthetic phonics work can begin simply with oral blending, that is, the children listen to sounds and then blend them. They also learn to say sounds, in order, that are represented by individual letters and pronounce these together to say a word (e.g. the sounds /c/, then /a/ and then /t/, blended together to say /cat/). Synthetic phonics also teaches children to break down (segment) a word they hear into its individual sounds, starting from the first sound and working systematically through the word.
For each sound they hear, they choose the letter (or combination of letters, such as ‘ch’ or ‘ai’ or ‘th’) to represent that sound in order to spell the word.
What is the alphabetic code?
Beginner readers should be taught four things:
The way the 26 letters of the alphabet (singly or in combination) are used to represent the 44 sounds is referred to as the alphabetic code. In the alphabetic code in English:
• a single phoneme can be represented (spelt) in different ways, using one, two, three or four letters. For example, the sound /aw/ can be represented as ‘or’, ‘saw’, ‘haul’, ‘lore’, ‘fraught’ and ‘sought’
• one grapheme (that is, a letter or combination of letters) can represent different sounds. For example, the digraph (two letters) ‘ow’ sounds different in ‘crowd’ and in ‘low’; the four letters combined in ‘ough’ are pronounced differently in ‘through’, ‘rough’ and ‘bough’; the letter ‘c’ represents a /s/ sound at the beginning of ‘circus’ and a /k/ sound in the middle, and so on.
What are ‘Phonemes’?
A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a word. It is important you can identify clearly the separate sounds in individual words. You are then in a position to evaluate the quality of the teaching of phonics and to talk to children about the sounds they can hear in words. Listening to the individual sounds in words is a skill needed for spelling, not reading, but if a child can hear individual sounds and the differences between them, she or he is well on the road to reading.
Why is correct articulation important?
Correct articulation is vital in helping children to learn to blend sounds together. This means making sure that the sound produced (each individual phoneme) is as precise and accurate as possible and that no additional sounds are added. For instance, the sound /m/ that starts ‘mother’ or is embedded in ‘impress’ needs to sound /mmmm/ and not /muh/. The clearer the sound, the easier it is for a child to blend together (synthesise) the individual sounds to read a word because there are no unnecessary sounds getting in the way.
Segmenting is the reverse of blending. In segmenting to spell a word, the teacher or the child is listening to a whole word, identifying the individual sounds (not letters) that make up the word and choosing a letter or more than one letter to represent each individual sound.
Positive features of good practice with segmenting:
• good focus on listening to the individual sounds in a given word
• focus on individual phonemes (the /i/ and the /ch/ sounds)
• good demonstration by the teacher (‘My turn, your turn.’)
• good multi-sensory reinforcement: the teacher asks the class to ‘touch to say’, that is, to tap out on their fingers the number of sounds they hear. (In England, you might hear teachers refer to ‘phoneme fingers’.)
• clear distinction made between ‘sounds’ and ‘spelling’
• teacher asks individual pupils for a response
Children should also be taught to read words that are not completely phonically regular, often called ‘tricky’ words in phonic schemes. Children need to be taught to read these tricky words on sight, so that they do not have to spend time puzzling them out. You should expect to see teachers regularly helping children to practise their speedy recall of tricky words, often with something as simple as flashcards.
In terms of spelling, children need to remember the tricky parts of a word, that is, the letters that do not match the usual grapheme-phoneme correspondences they have learnt. For example, the word ‘said’ is not phonically regular in that the sound /e/ in the middle of the word is normally written ‘e’ as in ‘bed’ (or sometimes ‘ea’ as in ‘bread’, ‘dread’ or ‘read’ – past tense) and not ‘ai’ as in ‘paid’. However, the sounds at the beginning and end of ‘said’ are represented with ‘s’ and ‘d’, just as one might expect; it is only the middle of the word that is tricky.
Why do we use a range of multi-sensory approaches?
The Rose Review referred to the importance of multi-sensory approaches in helping children to learn the alphabetic code:
‘Multi-sensory activities featured strongly in high quality phonic work and often encompassed, variously, simultaneous visual, auditory and kinaesthetic activities involving, for example, physical movement to copy letters shapes and sound, and manipulate magnetic or other solid letters to build words. Sometimes, mnemonics, such as a picture of a snake or an apple in the shapes of ‘s’ and ‘a’, were used to help children memorise letters. Handwriting too was often seen as a kinaesthetic activity and was introduced early. This multi-sensory approach almost always captured the interest of boys as well as girls. A common feature of the best work was that boys’ progress and achievement did not lag behind that of girls – an important outcome given the generally weaker performance of boys, especially in writing.’
As a result, the phonics teaching at Lakeside incorporates a wide variety of multi-sensory approaches.