The Secret Diary of a Phonics Teacher
I have been asked by Debbie to start writing a diary of my synthetic phonics (SP) teaching, in order to help and inspire others to teach SP. Well, I really do hope I can inspire people as I feel that SP is, without doubt, the best way to teach reading.
At first, I was hesitant about starting the diary- would I have enough time in my already busy schedule? But then it struck me that this could actually benefit me as I can use my observations and musings as assessment evidence! This should help me move my class forward and identify those children who need more support. I think to be an effective teacher, you must be reflective, and really think about strategies that work best for your class.
I teach a new reception class in a primary school in South Australia. Before this, I taught for 4 years in the UK. My new school is in a ‘leafy green suburb’ and the children come from relatively well-off families. I share the class with another teacher, although we are both full-time. The school had the money to employ 2 teachers for 1 class and thought this would give the children a better start to their schooling.
I plan to make an entry each week, but seeing as we are 2 weeks into the term, the first entry will cover the first 2 weeks.
Before term started, I met with the deputy head, who showed us where everything was kept. We came to look at the reading books that the children take home and the deputy told us that they were based on the Reading Recovery (RR) scheme. I said, with some trepidation that RR had been widely discredited in the UK… My colleague was very surprised and told me that they were taught to use RR when she was in teacher training 2 years ago.
The children were pretty confident and eager to start school. I wanted to see how good their listening skills were so chose a few games from Letters and Sounds (L&S – the UK government’s synthetic phonics guidance) for the first week. They were actually very good at sitting still, listening and creating their own sound effects. I decided to start teaching Phase 2 of L&S the next week.
During this first week, I had several parents asking when I would be sending home ‘sight words’. I think I surprised some when I explained that once the children had learnt some sounds, then we would be looking at ‘tricky’ words which cannot be readily decoded, but this would not be for several weeks. One parent said her oldest son had been given sight words on day 1 of reception! Argh! Poor child.
How exciting- I was itching to start teaching some phonemes (sounds)! I told the children that this was going to be a very exciting week, because this week, I was going to teach them how to read some words. They seemed pretty keen, although I did have one little boy cry out ‘But I already know how to read!’. From listening to the children and parents last week, I found that many (especially those with older siblings) ‘knew’ some letters and sounds. Several had been memorising words and could technically ‘read’ them. However, I found that parents had been teaching their children the letter names, not sounds, and… teaching their children how to write their name, in CAPITAL LETTERS! Argh!
We covered /s/, /a/, /t/ and /p/ this week. I like to tell a little story to introduce the sound of the day. So for example for /s/ I told the children that I had been to the zoo on the weekend and was walking past a large glass tank when I heard a ‘ssssss’ noise. What animal could it have been? Then we all pretended to be snakes and I introduced the grapheme card. I asked the children to think of words beginning with /s/ and to my surprise, they came up with several words with /s/ at the end, and in the middle! I wrote them on a ‘sun’ cut out of yellow card and stuck it up for display. Later in the day several children came to me with further suggestions for ‘s’ words which we wrote on the sun.
The children stuck their new sounds in their sound books, traced over the dotted letters and wrote some for themselves. They take home their sound books every night, to share the sound with their families.
On Friday, we recapped the 4 sounds and had a go at blending them. I chose 3 children to stand out the front with the grapheme cards and put them in order to spell ‘pat’. I pointed to each letter and the children had to call out the sound. I gradually pointed faster and faster until they were blending the sounds and one little boy shouted out ‘pat!’. Well done- you have read the word ‘pat!’. We then spent some more time saying each sound slowly and building up until they were reading the word. When I wrote ‘pat’ on the board, one little girl said it could say ‘hat’, so I had to explain why it couldn’t. To be honest I think this may have been because /p/ and /h/ are voiceless and are therefore pretty hard to actually hear!
The children then sat with me to write some letters into phoneme boxes on laminated sheets. They were very keen and had already started writing before I had a chance to get to their table! I did have a problem with my supply teacher (my colleague was off sick). She watched as I did the whole-class phonic session and I asked her to sit with a group to help them write their letters in the phoneme boxes. I said they could only use /s/,/a/,/t/ and /p/. However, when I looked over, she had written ‘pasta’ and ‘past’ for them. This would have been fine if I was still in Northern England where ‘a’ is pronounced /a/, but here it is pronounced /ar/. She must have thought we were thinking about the letters, not the sounds… I wonder if other people will think this? I try not to use the letter names as it is confusing for the children.
After school, 2 of the mums came up to talk to me. They were so excited and surprised because their sons had shown such an interest in ‘their letters’ and in writing. One boy who had only ever been interested in cars and doing ‘active’ things, was showing great interest in finding letters he knew at home. The mums were genuinely excited and I said I was so pleased. I told them this is what happens with synthetic phonics- the children can learn so quickly!
Read an endearing week by week description of synthetic phonics teaching by an infant teacher in Australia!
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Permission has been given for me to copy and paste 'The Diary Entries' as the synthetic phonics teaching progresses week by week. You will read some great ideas and learn how a teacher reflects on her observations over the weeks. Enjoy!
This week we covered the phonemes /i/, /n/, /m/, and /d/. The children are also phoneme/grapheme spotting in almost every lesson- which is great.
On Friday we did some more blending and segmenting. I chose some children to hold large grapheme cards out the front and pointed to each, saying the sounds faster and faster until they were blended. I swapped the children around so that they were standing in the wrong order and we had a go at blending, e.g. “/n/…/i/…’ni’- is ‘ni’ a word?” I asked the children. “NO!” they shouted back, although someone said ‘NIT!’. So we talked about what we would need on the end of the word to change it to ‘nit’. Then we discussed reading from left to right, otherwise it doesn’t make sense. Incidentally, they love it when I read words in the wrong order. Every Monday we do a shared speaking and writing about the weekend. I will write a child’s sentence on the board and read it correctly, then starting with the last word, putting the full stop in different places etc. They also LOVE counting how many words I have used, and how many letters.
Anyway, after blending as a class, I handed out some mini letter cards, one per child on the carpet. I said a word and they had to find the letters needed and place them in the correct order. It was interesting to see who could do this quickly and accurately and who struggled. Many found it easy, with only a few getting confused. I decided that next week I will split them into rough ability groups and differentiate their phonic tasks accordingly. I’ve also decided to sit with 1 little boy every morning during register (while my colleague takes the register) to run through the previously taught phonemes on flashcards. This way, he should be getting more practice, little and often. He has a severe speech impediment which I am presuming is why he is struggling a little at producing the correct sound when shown a letter.
I have noticed the children are using mark-making in the writing area, and the roleplay (Baby’s Clinic) which is great. My classroom is very different from the other reception classrooms in that I have the provision areas, as in the UK. Here in Australia, reception is much more like Year 1 in the UK, as the children must be 5 to start school and there are up to 4 intakes per year. I still believe in learning through play, as opposed to a more formal approach.
So, this week we covered /g/ g, /o/ o, /k/ c and /k/ k.
I got my hedgehog puppet, Prickle, to pretend to be a robot and sound-talk some words for the children to work out. They thought this was hilarious! They then had to find the object in a feely bag, which they enjoyed.
On Friday, as a whole class, I taught the children what a caption is, and we blended some sounds to read words that were in captions. Once they could read the caption, they had to match it to a picture. A couple of the boys who I had provisionally placed into the lower ability group surprised me with their blending skills. The children were then split into groups to complete differentiated tasks. The highest ability sat with me and wrote some captions to match pictures (‘pat a dog’ and ‘a sad man’).
The middle ability groups had different jobs:
• writing the graphemes in boxes to match a cvc word
• reading a cvc word and drawing a picture to match
• playing snap with the letters s a t p i n
The lowest ability group sat with my colleague and played a game, matching objects to their initial sounds. I was a little hesitant to try the groups approach but the children all surprised me by working really hard, and staying focused on their tasks.
I had another parent talk to me on Monday about how impressed she was with her son’s reading progress- he is suddenly a lot more interested in looking at letters in everyday situations. She praised the phonics approach, saying ‘It just makes sense, doesn’t it?’ I wanted to hug her!
I also met one child’s grandmother who used to be a reception teacher herself who said she was very pleased to see I was doing ‘proper phonics’ and gave me a knowing wink! It’s so reassuring to know that I am getting positive feedback and support from people.
I have been searching the school for phonic-based reading books for the children to take home, as the ones that the school currently uses are based on ‘whole-word guessing from the initial sound’ strategies. I was told that I could make up a list of books and pass them on to the librarian who would order them for me. However, the next day, I was told that there might be some Jolly Phonics Readers around somewhere that I could use, rather than buying new books, which no-one else would need to use . The Jolly Phonics Readers have not appeared, although I was given another scheme of brand new books. Again, these ‘phonic’ books are simply pictures with words corresponding to the initial sound, e.g. ‘f’- ‘fly’, ‘feather’, ‘friend’. These would be fine once the children are in year 1 because there are many decodable words in them, but are too advanced for my littlies! I’m thinking now I may have to resort to making some books of my own…
This week, unfortunately, we had to miss 2 phonics lessons due to a class trip and the new reception children’s transition visit. So we covered /k/ ck, /e/ e and /u/ u. I thought that teaching the children that ‘ck’ is 2 letters but 1 sound would be tricky but they seemed to grasp it well- and actually reminded me as we were going through the flashcards the next day; for each letter I show, they repeat the sound a few times and do the action- but for ‘ck’, they decided it would be best not to repeat the sound /k/, but just to say it once to help them remember that you only say the sound once. For example, when sounding out ‘duck’, you would say /d/, /u/, /k/, not /d/, /u/, /k/, /k/.
For /e/, I talked about making an omelette and when I cracked open an egg, it was rotten and smelled disgusting! They thought this was hilarious! I made some pretend eggs from card and wrote ‘e’ on 4 of them, plus 2 different graphemes on the other 2. I put them in a real egg box and the children had to choose an egg and say the sound on it. If they chose an ‘e’ egg, that one was ok for using, but if they chose an egg with a different grapheme on, they had to pretend to throw it away! I put the game out on my sounds table and they played with it during their ‘choosing time’. I love making up silly games like that!
For /u/, I demonstrated putting UP my UMBRELLA, as I like to use real props.
My colleague and I have noticed 2 of the lower ability children are improving already in recognising letters, and in blending them, which is exciting to see!
I have been meaning to make some decodable books, using the ‘I can read’ resources from Phonics International, but have not had a spare second this week, so will try and get that done next week! The children and parents seem to like having the PI ‘I can read’ word lists to take home. I give a new list each week, once they have returned the previous list with 4 ticks from the parent against each word, to prove the child has read them properly. However, a few of the parents have said that the child has been memorising the list! I’m not sure if this is a good or bad sign- I do want them to be practising blending to read, but perhaps, because they are such short words, they have now blended them enough times for the word to be instantly recognised?
I have one child who is gifted in reading and maths. He is reading at a year 2 level (he’s just started reception). He is really amazing. He has a brother in year 1 who is also gifted in this way, and I presume that the child in my class has learnt by listening and watching his brother learn. He has an amazing ability to memorise words. He does do some decoding, and I do have to prompt him to decode unfamiliar words, but on the whole, it seems as though he has memorised words very, very quickly! It is interesting to watch him read and we are currently thinking of new ways to challenge him.
This week we covered /b/, /l/ and /r/. Usually we try and cover 4 sounds but we had the new reception children come again for a transition visit so ran out of time!
For /b/, I told the children that my next door neighbour is always batting his ball against the fence, using his cricket bat, which makes a /b/, /b/, /b/ sound. They enjoyed thinking of lots of words beginning with /b/ to write on a picture of a bat and ball. I try and include some words beginning with the target sound into my everyday speech, with just a little more emphasis on these words. For example, ‘Today I have brought in my beautiful blue bag’. It’s brimming with things beginning with /b/’. The children sometimes don’t realise I’m doing this on purpose and like to tell me: ‘Hey- beautiful-that starts with /b/- we could write it on our ‘bat’!’. I have a collection of ‘posters’, made with the children, displayed at child-height. Each has a target sound and the children enjoy adding new words to it as they come across them everyday. I enjoy using home-made resources sometimes, as it involves the children more. I remember last year with my year one children, we were covering /ea/ and one girl drew me a fantastic ‘seal’, on which we wrote /ea/ words. I think it gives them ownership and allows them to become more involved in their learning.
I have a boy who is on the autistic spectrum and has great difficulties concentrating on focused tasks. However, for some reason, he enjoys phonics and gets straight down to work! He really enjoys going through each sound in his ‘sounds book’, and even made me some ‘posters’ with ‘our sounds’ on them. Some of the letters are hard to recognise , but I let him hang the posters up and I see him referring to them in his play.
I have had the roleplay area set up as a school for the past 2 weeks. I put some photocopies of handwriting practice sheets, laminated numeral writing strips and some grapheme flashcards in, amongst other things. We have found that the children have loved pretending to be the teacher, and have often heard them saying things like ‘Right, it’s time for phonics, who can tell me what this sound is?’!
This week we covered /h/ h, /l/ ll and /f/ ff. We only had time to teach these 3 new sounds as Friday was a ‘student free day’ and on Monday we had lots of other things going on around the school. I don’t like missing phonics but I suppose you have to just ‘go with it’ and try to catch up later on.
For /l/ ll, we sang ‘Jack and Jill’, and wrote words ending in /l/ ll on a picture of a ‘hill’. I found that, of course, the children were getting confused with words ending in ll, and words beginning with l. We had to re-iterate that not many words begin with ll- I could only think of Llama but I didn’t put a great emphasis on this. We had to explain what a ‘mill’ is and, more surprisingly, what a ‘pill’ is! My colleagues and I were talking about how easy it is to mistakenly assume that children know the meanings of words that we talk about. So bearing this in mind, we are trying to clarify the meanings of words as we teach the sounds.
I ended up having to re-visit /ff/ ff, as the children were still getting confused between the starting sound and the end sound in words. We talked about the ‘Big Bad Wolf’ who had to ‘huff and puff’! I also had to explain what a ‘cliff’ was, as most of them looked blank!
In addition to the grapheme-phoneme correspondences, we have been practising oral blending and segmenting by playing various ‘5 minute filler’ games. One is where I, or a puppet pretend to be a robot and slowly say the sounds of a word, for example /c/…/a/…/t/, repeating it a few times. The children have to tell me what the word is. After a few more examples I will choose children to be the robot and for the others to guess. They are very good at this! I will also try and incorporate blending and segmenting skills into conversations, for example, ‘Can you please get your /b/…/a/…/g/?’.
This week, I made up a little book using the Alphabetic code frieze posters found in Unit 1 of Phonics International. I simply printed them off, laminated them and punched a hole in the top left hand corner of each. I then threaded a treasury tag through to make the book. I popped it into my book corner and the children have enjoyed flicking through and talking about the sounds and pictures. I have also noticed them showing parents!
A point of interest- as a teacher, I am constantly trying to correct (in the nicest way possible!), any mispronunciations of sounds in words, for example the use of /f/, for /th/ as in ‘One, two, free…’ and ‘fank you’. The children must subconsciously ‘know’ their pronunciation is wrong, although they still do out of habit I think (as well as the fact that it’s easier to say /f/ than /th/). However, I have noticed a few of the children saying things like ‘d thee d’, for ‘DVD’, and ‘thingers’ for ‘fingers’, thus over correcting themselves! I have put up a poster showing the different ways your mouth looks when you say /f/ or /v/ and /th/.
This week we covered /v/, /j/ and /w/. The children are getting good at predicting what the new sound of the day will be, as we tell a little story to introduce it and this includes something in the story making the sound. So for /v/, it was the sound of a van revving up outside my house and waking me up, and also the wind blowing /w/ during the night and keeping me awake. I didn’t get much sleep this week! It was novel to the children that by saying /w/ onto the palm of your hand, you can actually feel the ‘wind’ blowing on it!
I have been getting increasingly fed up with some of the reading books that are on offer for the children. They are not particularly phonic based, but use sentence patterns (repetitive text) such as ‘My mum wears glasses, my grandma wears glasses, my brother wears glasses…’ and so on. The children are simply memorising the sentences and not looking at the words unless prompted and even then some are skimming over the words. I have to cover the picture and some of the words in order to get them to focus on sounding out! When they are remembering to sound out words, many of the words contain grapheme-phoneme correspondences which, as a class, we haven’t covered yet so I have to tell them as they come to the word in the book. However, as the books also contain many ‘tricky’ words which cannot be decoded, the poor children are sounding out the words, desperately trying to figure out what it says and getting nowhere! To keep their confidence levels up, I have to approach this in a light-hearted way, by saying ‘Oh, this is actually a tricky word which we can’t sound out. It’s a shame the author has included it in your book!’.
In light of this, I have finally made some books using the ‘I can read’ cumulative decodable texts in Unit 1 of Phonics International. I printed out the pages A5 size and added a front cover. I have included 2 stories per book, with the corresponding picture after the text, and at the back, the ‘Questions for I can read texts’, also in Unit 1. The pages are stapled together and placed in plastic wallets for the children to borrow. I will report back on how they are received by the children and parents!
This week we covered /x/, /y/ and /z/.
For /y/, I used my ‘Elmo’ puppet, which the children love (he’s sometimes a bit naughty…) and he decided he’d like some yogurt for his breakfast. As I fed him the ‘yogurt’, he made the sound /y/, /y/, /y/. The children then copied him. I left the letter card ‘y’ with Elmo and the pot of ‘yogurt’ and a spoon out for the children to play with later and I heard them saying /y/, /y/, /y/ too. I think little things like this can help the children remember the letter sounds in a way that is non-threatening as they clearly enjoy silly things like this!
My colleague brought in some x-rays to show the children for the introduction of /x/. We had to correct the children a few times as they were saying ‘ex’ for the sound, rather than /ks/. I pointed out that the letter ‘x’ often comes at the end of a word, such as ‘mix’, ‘fox’ and ‘box’. The children are getting better at hearing the sounds in different parts of a word. I use my fingers, clenched in a fist and we count the sounds, raising a finger for each sound so they can visually see how many sounds there are and that they are different places in a word.
This week we have been introducing some further phonics activities, such as sound bingo, find the letter in a newspaper page, make a letter using various mediums such as playdough, small tiles and string, and matching the objects with the initial sounds. We also finally got some magnetic letters which we’d been waiting for, which have proved very useful as the children don’t have to worry about forming the letters with a pencil to make a word. They like the novelty of the letters being magnetic too!
The Phonics International books which I mentioned in my diary entry last week have proved a success, with parents taking an interest in them. They too, are becoming frustrated with the reading books that we have as they can see there are too many ‘tricky’ words. The poor children are trying to sound out words like ‘birthday’, which will become decodable in time, but not until we have taught the code required!
Week 1, Term 4
After having a relaxing break from school, I was keen to get straight back into teaching. We only have 9 weeks left of the year and still so much to do! The majority of my reception children will actually stay in reception for the whole of next year, thus completing either 5 or 6 terms in reception! I think this is quite a good idea as many of them are simply not ready for year 1 as they have only just turned 5. It also takes the pressure off me, as I know if we don’t have time to cover something, it will be done next year! However, in relation to phonics, I am not sure how much input the children will receive next year, as most teachers do not teach synthetic phonics… So, without rushing through things, I am keen to expose the children to as much as possible and get their letter-sound recognition, blending and segmenting skills sorted so they at least have these strategies to fall back on when they encounter a new word, rather than guessing.
My colleague and I shared a class last term and have now moved into our own rooms, with half of the class each, plus some new starters. In previous schools, I have split the class into two ability groups and sent one group to my year-group partner for phonics. We decided to do this now as the new children need to start by learning the single letter sounds, whereas the older children are ready to move onto digraphs. We assessed the children at the end of the last term and were pleased with their progress. Out of 23, we found only 3 who we felt needed some extra exposure to the single letter sounds and we made the decision to group them with the new children. My colleague is teaching this group and I am happy to take the older children. Previously, we had phonics timetabled for the first 20 minutes of the day, followed by guided reading. We felt that the books available for guided reading were not appropriate for these children and decided to scrap this and extend the phonics lesson to 40 minutes. This means we have more time to teach without feeling rushed, and there is more time for the children to practise and apply their knowledge.
This week we covered /kw/ qu, /ch/ and ‘my favourite sound’- /sh/ as it makes the children go quiet! The emphasis now is that these digraphs are made up of 2 letters but 1 sound, which the children have picked up on well. I have a couple of children who are pronouncing /sh/ as /s/, which is something I will need to address.