Despite his initial scepticism about using synthetic phonics to help young children learn to read, Steve Mynard enthuses about its benefits

I am teaching a Reception class this year. They’re lovely – it’s hard work, but extremely rewarding! It has probably been the most challenging year of my 20-year career. I had never taught Reception before. I went in that direction after three years of headship and a career break running my own historical drama company, because I could see that it was the area of education where the most truly radical changes were happening.

Our biggest success, in the nine months that I have been teaching our 25 nippers, has been with reading. In my previous article I confessed to having no idea how young children learn to read – having been a KS2 practitioner for most of my career. I also didn’t really believe in phonics – although this was based on the rather simplistic notion that you can’t spell l-i-g-h-t phonetically (I now know better! It is l-igh-t.)

I went into Reception with an open mind, and got stuck into Jolly Phonics while I got my head round Letters and Sounds. My children clearly loved our daily phonic sessions and I did, too. Feeling a bit daft at first, as I scurried my fingers up and down my arm and chanted ‘a-a-a-a-a-a’ for ‘ants on your arm’, I soon got into it and looked forward to each new batch of letters.

One of the problems was with the provision of training. Our county hadn’t done the maths, and provided too few courses for all the early years practitioners to attend the one-day Letters and Sounds training. I finally got my training at the beginning of May. It was very useful, but I had already worked my way with my class through to the end of phase three of the programme.

I have a very good teaching assistant and we have timetabled specific one-to-one time for her and the children to work on reading skills, and I also have weekly guided reading sessions with ability groups. We probably are a bit over-the-top with all of this, but to me the importance of reading is central to a child’s education. I used to think we were a bit pushy in this country teaching our children to read so young. My current experience is that the children are eager to get going and, with a programme like Letters and Sounds, they can see their own progress, week by week. I will add a caveat here. The learning environment has to be rich in stories and poems, non-fiction texts, labels and captions. Children need to love stories. This isn’t about teaching them to bark at text.

The more I taught the Letters and Sounds programme, the more I found myself noticing words that just don’t work: simple words that children are quite likely to meet fairly early on in their life of reading. ‘Once’ cannot be sounded out. Neither can ‘girl’ or ‘two’ or ‘learn’. In Letters and Sounds ‘ear’ is a phoneme so ‘learn’ would be sounded out ‘l-ear-n’. Just try that and see if it makes sense! I’m not being picky – it is just that focusing on phonemes and graphemes does make you acutely aware of the inconsistencies in the English language. And that is not to mention all the regional variations!

What we used to call ‘blends’ has gone, too, and, at first, I was a little taken aback by this. Surely it is OK to teach ‘br’ as a sound. The phonic enthusiasts have replaced these blends with a new approach to clear and precise sounding out of individual letters and, when I make myself do it properly, I can actually hear the ‘b’ and the ‘r’ in ‘br’. I still haven’t quite worked out what to do with ‘ph’, but I only teach Reception, so I’ll leave that problem to someone else!

On a mission
There is something of an evangelist’s zeal about synthetic phonics. I felt the searchlights model of the NLS was useful and I don’t think there is particularly anything to be gained from ditching it completely. Children do need to use picture clues to a certain extent and need to be able to read on for meaning to help them read a new word. Also key word recognition is still important. Some children do just seem to pick up words as soon as they are told them. In the searchlights model I liked the idea that a word has a certain shape, depending on the pattern of risers and descenders it is made up of. This certainly felt like the way I had picked up reading myself as a child.

Phonics is a means to an end, and that end is children who can read the majority of the words they meet quickly and have strategies to tackle new words they are unsure of. Underpinning this has to be a love of reading. The outcome is children who can ‘read to learn’ as the Letters and Sounds programme would have it.

As the end of the school year approaches I am liaising with our Y1 teacher over transfer arrangements. One of the most striking improvements between the current YR and the previous year is in this solid foundation of phonic skills they have. The Y1 teacher had to start lower down in the Letters and Sounds programme than would have been expected with her current class and some of her children had to come into us for extra support. The YR class that is about to move on, with a small group of exceptions, are off to a flying start in reading, based on their newly acquired phonic knowledge.

Letters and Sounds is making a difference and I’m a fully signed up convert, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. A good phonic programme will build a sound foundation for most children – just remember to be aware that not all children will learn the same way.

Steve Mynard is a former headteacher and editor of Primary Headship