A six-phase programme for teaching phonics aims to help children become fluent readers by the age of seven

The phonics programme Letters and Sounds: Principles and Practice of High Quality Phonics is based on the criteria for ‘high-quality phonic work’ identified by the independent review of reading conducted by Jim Rose in 2006. Issued in 2007 by the then DfES, the resource comprises:

  • notes of guidance for practitioners and teachers
  • a six-phase teaching programme
  • a DVD illustrating effective practice for the phases
  • a poster showing the principles of high-quality phonic work.

It is designed to help practitioners and teachers teach children how the alphabet works for reading and spelling by fostering children’s speaking and listening skills as valuable in their own right and as preparatory to learning phonic knowledge and skills. For most children, this will be by the age of five with the intention of equipping them with the phonic knowledge and skills they need to become fluent readers by the age of seven. Although the materials include some reference to additional support for pupils with sensory and communication difficulties, SENCOs may wish to look with colleagues at how best to support children with learning difficulties, who may not make anticipated progress through the programme. Letters and Sounds does not refer to the layered approach to tackling the difficulties that some children have with the three ‘waves’ of intervention as advocated in the Every Child a Reader initiative. This might be a pertinent focus for SENCOs to discuss how and when to identify pupils with specific problems with reading, writing and spelling who require further support. As Learning from Every Child a Reader (DfES 2006) argues, the majority of children who struggle with early literacy have difficulties with phonological awareness and phonics and will need specific help in understanding and applying the systematic synthetic phonics teaching they have had in class. They will need repeated, supported practice in thinking about the order of sounds in spoken words, and linking those sounds with appropriate letters. There is also evidence, however, that intervention programmes need to be multi-faceted rather than focusing on only a few components of the reading process if they are to be effective.  The department emphasises that it is up to schools how they use the new programme. Settings and schools can use Letters and Sounds to support their phonics teaching, choose a commercial programme that they judge matches the criteria, or use materials matching the criteria that they, or others in their local area, have developed.

Additional support

The notes of guidance argue that high-quality phonic teaching can substantially reduce the number of children at risk of falling below age-related expectations for reading and it should help to reduce the need for supplementary programmes. However, ‘some children may experience transitory or longer-term conditions such as hearing, visual or speech impairments.’ The notes refer to the way even a mild, fluctuating hearing loss can hinder normal communication development, slow down children’s progress and lead to feelings of failure and social isolation. It is suggested that, as with concerns about any aspect of children’s physical condition, risks to their communication and language development must be shared with parents or carers so that the situation can be fully investigated and professional help sought. Where hearing loss, for example, has been ruled out and practitioners and parents/carers continue to have concerns about a child’s development, advice should be sought from the local speech and language therapy service.

The six-phase programme

Letters and Sounds is designed as a time-limited programme of phonic work aimed at securing fluent word recognition skills for reading by the end of Key Stage 1, although the teaching and learning of spelling, which children generally find harder than reading, will continue.

Phase One supports the development of speaking and listening as crucially important in its own right and for paving the way for high-quality phonic work. Daily activities are designed to encourage auditory discrimination, memory and sequencing, developing vocabulary and language comprehension, oral blending and segmentation.

Phase Two marks the start of systematic phonic work. It begins the introduction of grapheme-phoneme correspondences. It suggests an order for teaching letters and a selection of words using them. Decoding for reading and encoding for spelling are taught as reversible processes.

Phase Three completes the teaching of the alphabet, and children move on to sounds represented by more than one letter, learn letter names and practice blending or reading and segmenting for spelling.

Phase Four consolidates knowledge of graphemes in reading and spelling words.  No new grapheme-phoneme correspondences are taught in this phase. It is suggested that many children may be capable of taking this step much earlier, in which case they should not be held back from doing so.

Phase Five aims to broaden knowledge with new graphemes and alternative pronunciations, where relevant, as most phonemes can be spelled in more than one way and most graphemes can represent more than one phoneme. This phase should be treated as a resource to be used as needed rather than as a list of items to be worked through slavishly with all children.

Phase Six marks ‘the shift from learning to read to reading to learn’ for information and pleasure. However, proficiency with spelling usually lags behind proficiency with reading and this phase focuses more sharply on word-specific spellings and broad guidelines for making choices between spelling alternatives.

You can access Letters and Sounds on the primary literacy area of the Standards Site