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What about pace for whole class and slower learners?

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PostPosted: Thu May 14, 2015 9:56 am    Post subject: What about pace for whole class and slower learners? Reply with quote

I received the question below and tried to provide a full response via email - the response took some time to type and I thought it might be a helpful one to share more widely.

This is the original question:

Hello Debbie,

I am a speech pathologist supporting a number of schools in their literacy and language programs. I also follow your comments on the DDOLL list serve, so I feel a little 'in touch' with your approach. I'm in the process of signing up for a single user licence to your Phonics International web site so that I can advise the schools I visit.

I have one question which I'd like your comment on. A principal asked me yesterday about my views regarding the introduction of letters in the first year of school. They are currently introducing letters in meaningful groups (ie so that the children can start decoding using a synthetic phonics approach). He wondered, though, how many letters should be introduced at one time. Some teachers at his school introduce one letter per week, but one new teacher introduces more than one letter at a time.

Do you have a view on this? I did a literature search last night, but didn't come up with anything useful. My view was that it's likely that typically developing children would probably cope with more than one letter at a time, but there would be children with language delays (or at risk for literacy delay) who would require a much slower approach - even one per week may be too fast! I'd be interested in your experience and opinion though.

Debbie Hepplewhite
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PostPosted: Thu May 14, 2015 10:00 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

This is my original response - but read on because I had some after-thought things to add:

It’s really good to hear from you – thank you so much for getting in touch and also for being prepared to have a personal good look at Phonics International to see what resources it provides and to understand my underpinning approach.

‘Pace’ of introducing letter/s-sound correspondences has been a central issue for the Systematic Synthetic Phonics approach.

The Jolly Phonics programme has been highly influential – indeed the original ‘pace’ of introduction of Jolly Phonics was six letter/s-sound correspondences per week!

I personally found this far too fast to deliver and for all children to keep up.

However, the Clackmannanshire project in Scotland (which heavily influenced the Government in England) aimed to introduce the correspondences of the ‘simple code’ (all the sounds and mainly one spelling) in around one term.

This is a similar pace to Jolly Phonics – but then it seems that they considered it ‘job done’ as children were reading and writing by then.

We have ‘moved on’ since then – partly because the actual skills of blending for reading and segmenting for spelling have been included in a more serious and substantial way.

Some of us pushed for the notion of cumulative, decodable reading books so that as children learned the letter/s-sound correspondences, they could apply that knowledge to reading books.

This was in contrast to the original idea of Jolly Phonics which was to introduce all of the letter/s-sound correspondences of the alphabetic code practising at ‘word level’ (Jolly included lists of decodable words) and THEN start reading books – that is AFTER the simple code has been introduced.

In the meantime, this idea of ‘pace’ meaning a fast introduction became one of the buzz words or ideas in England (‘first, ‘fast’ and ‘only’). By the way, this has caused a lot of criticism with the phonics detractors in England!

This was never an expression that I promoted personally, but it was intended to mean teach phonics ‘first' (and not, for example, sight words), teach it ‘fast' – (in that you introduced the letter/s-sound correspondences very fast so that the children could ‘put them to use’ pretty quickly) – and ‘only’ - (meaning no multi-cueing reading strategies amounting to guessing words - ‘only’ apply decoding to lift the words off the page).

Forgive me if you know all this background already.

Then, when ‘Letters and Sounds’ (DfES 2007) was introduced in England, following the parliamentary inquiry ’Teaching Children to Read’ (March 2005) and Sir Jim Rose’s independent review (Final Report, March 2006), the notion of a ‘teaching and learning cycle’ was sort of embedded consisting of: ‘revisit and review’ previous learning, followed by ‘teacher-led introduce the focus letter/s-sound correspondence to the whole class, followed by children to apply the code knowledge to blending and segmenting activities, followed by assess.

The teaching and learning cycle idea I think is a very important one – it is ‘repetition’ and ‘systematic introduction’ and ‘apply’ when all said and done.

However, in the English context, I find that teachers have a very limited ‘teaching and learning cycle’.

It is very limited in the time devoted to it (the myth has become ’20 minutes per day’). This is not adequate with so much to teach, to practise, to assess – and also with classes of, say, 30 children.

I have found that, in many schools, the children are simply not getting enough practice at either word level or applying and extending to sentence/text level – and for all THREE skills of blending, segmenting and handwriting.

In other words, there is a lack of substantial content and a lack of EACH child getting enough practice of new material.

For Phonics International, therefore, I promote the notion of the Teaching and Learning Cycle – but that this must include ‘apply and extend’ and you will find in PI a very large number of cumulative, decodable sentence/text level material as well as all the code and word level material.

I promote a ‘two-session’ approach for the ‘teaching and learning cycle’.

In Phonics International this might amount to two alternating sessions similar to this:

Session One: Revisit and review previously introduced code (letter/s-sound correspondences) - but ‘revisit and review’ can also include revisiting word/sentence/text level content, then teacher-led to whole class the next or focus letter/s-sound correspondence and model some blending, segmenting with handwriting (children can lead the teacher once they know what to do – the teacher ‘holds back’ whilst the children blend, segment etc), followed by children practising, per child (not group or whole class work – but the material is the same for the whole class/group and children access it at their own level) at word level (in the main, the Sounds Book Activity Sheets which include the full guidance for the teacher or supporting adult). The teacher then goes through the word level work with the children culminating with the folded-up part of the Activity Sheet when a spelling-with-editing routine is conducted with the whole class. it isn’t hard for the teacher to provide extra and more challenging cumulative words to spell for the quicker learners.

Session Two: Revisit and review – perhaps with ‘Say the Sounds Posters’ which can be used per child and for formative assessment as a continuum, then the main focus is on ‘apply and extend’ of sentence/text level work.

Now, this sentence/text level work may have been given out to each child in ‘session one’ because children are allowed to work at their own speed. This means that children who work through the front side of the Sounds Book Activity Sheets quicker than others can already start (independently) with their ‘apply and extend’ text level work during ‘session one’ (the teacher tells them ‘what’ they need to do for their sentence/text level work – see the ‘Extras' webpage for the ‘learning intentions’ of the ‘I can read’ texts).

The teacher does not ‘go through’ any text level work in summary for session one as this becomes the main focus of session two.

Ultimately, Phonics International is really a spelling programme because children can soon read.

It provides a vocabulary and comprehension opportunity whilst learning ‘spelling word banks’ based on letter/s-sound correspondences (NOT onset and rime ‘word families’). The ‘I can read’ texts at least from Unit 6 onwards glues the words spelt with the same letter/s-sound correspondences together through mnemonic use of the story themes.

I hope all this makes sense!

Anyway, to try and encapsulate the ‘core’ of Phonics International, you can find the following doc with all its electronic links to core guidance via the big pink button on the homepage of the PI site:

Now the conclusion to all of the above whereby your question is about ‘pace’ of introducing the letter/s-sound correspondences: - what matters is completing the ‘teaching and learning cycle’ and this may well take two days as there is so much practice, per child, to be completed.

So, the pace might be along the lines of one focus letter/s-sound correspondence EVERY TWO DAYS (or ‘every other day’) to allow sufficient time for the children to do their paper-based practice.

Now, slower to learn children then have their own paper-based resources – code, word, sentences/texts – which enables more ‘little and often’ - including ‘at home’ if this is at all possible.

The slower-to-learn children may have short term memories or need closer supervision and support - (but don’t do the work for the learner as you know!) - but they are very ‘enabled’ by the use of paper-based resources giving them plenty of content to engage with, practice with (all three phonics core skills and their sub-skills), share with any supporting adult, and to facilitate ample revision.

Basically, the design of PI resources and rationale is to do everything possible to maximise 'common sense' teaching and learning opportunities.

All of this is explained in the ‘How to’ information – link above.

I do hope that you will keep in touch with me and let me know how things develop with schools that you are associated with.

Best wishes,


Debbie Hepplewhite
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PostPosted: Thu May 14, 2015 10:09 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Further to my message above, I felt that it needed more explanation.

Firstly, not all schools 'look the same' in England even though they will all be doing their version of 'Systematic Synthetic Phonics'.

I drew up a graphic to try to illustrate how schools' phonics provision can look very different school to school - and some reasons why this is.

One very important difference is that even when schools say they 'do' Systematic Synthetic Phonics, they may also be continuing with 'multi-cueing reading strategies' which amount to a focus on guessing words from various cues - and sometimes these schools also do not provide cumulative, decodable reading books so that their children can fully apply the alphabetic code knowledge that they have learnt and the blending skill.

If children are not provided with decodable reading books when being asked to read INDEPENDENTLY, they have to 'default' to guessing words anyway - this is not good for their short of long term reading development.

I am now going to provide two links to exemplify this, my graphic of School's Phonics Provision and an Ofsted report published in 2014 which describes how schools can look different - exemplified by some schools in Stoke-on-Trent:

Also, I need to add that Jolly Phonics now includes decodable reading books in its range of resources and the notion of 'cumulative, decodable reading books' is established in England and promoted by Government whether or not all schools adhere to this approach.

They should - but they don't necessarily!

Multi-cueing reading strategies may still prevail so we have some way to go.

Also, not all schools only allow for 20 minutes of phonics per day - much more may be needed.
Debbie Hepplewhite
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PostPosted: Thu May 14, 2015 10:38 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

By the way, in 'Letters and Sounds' (DfES, 2007), the general pace of introducing letter/s-sound correspondences is about four per week.

My 'two-session' approach is based on around one focus correspondence every two days - but of course this pace can vary according to the context of the teaching and learning.

I try to point out that 'what matters' is the nature of the 'teaching and learning cycle' - ensuring that learners simply GET ENOUGH PERSONAL PRACTICE of the three core skills and their sub-skills at code, word, sentence and text level - plus plenty of practice with cumulative, decodable reading books when asked to read INDEPENDENTLY.
Debbie Hepplewhite
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