Make no mistake:
A “Phonics First” approach to early reading skills does not require:
/ a high VAS / books in the home / literate parents / the privilege that comes from wealth / advanced vocabulary /

A ‘Phonics First’ approach levels the playing field and provides far ranging benefits for all students.

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  • Letter Formation Enter description here.
    Letter Formation

    Writing and spelling is supported by three aspects of memory: The first is visual memory, the second is auditory memory, the third is proprioceptive (muscle) memory. We usually think of muscle memory in relation to riding a bike or playing piano or knitting. Although we seldom think about it, writing is also carried out by the muscles. If the task is carried out the same way every time, it becomes a powerful support system, particularly for the student who has weak visual and/or auditory memory.

    The first consideration is the ability to visually recognise the difference between letters and words. Can the student differentiate between b and d / form and from? The difficulty may be a matter of capacity (see the info on VAS) or it may be a more serious visual perception difficulty - see Learning Difficulties (side menu).

    The second consideration is the inevitable change from printing to linked writing, be it script or cursive. A student who consistently uses the correct letter formation will make an easy and smooth transition into linked writing.

    The third reason is perhaps the most critical of all. Correct letter formation from the beginning will in most cases prevent b/d/p/q reversal confusion from occurring. As b, d and p are such high frequency letters in the early stages of learning to read and write, correct letter formation can make the difference between one student who loves to read and one who stumbles over every second word and becomes a struggler. (56% of simple words contain one or more of the letters b,d or p.)

    The widely spread practice of seating students so that they do not always face the front in class compounds reversal problems; worse still is placing students in different positions from day to day. At the base of reversal problems is left-right confusion. Do the students in the classroom a favour by having them face the front at all times during language and maths sessions.

    The student who begins writing both a 'b' and a 'd' with a stroke can become easily confused as to which side to place the circle. The 'bat and ball' or the 'drum and stick' are confusing for the student with sequencing problems for he/she may think "Is it the ball and the bat or the bat and the ball?" The word 'bed' making a 'bed shape' is a little more robust but slow and cumbersome.

    The first stage of confusion is at the visual matching level; the student can't visually match a 'b' with another 'b' consistently. This must be rectified before attempting to match shape with sound.

    The second stage of confusion is matching sound to print; the student can see the difference in the shape of the letters but doesn't know which sound to attach to which letter shape when reading.

    The third stage of confusion is matching the letter's shape (from memory) to the letter's sound when spelling; the student who has no firm muscle memory of how to represent a sound is at a serious disadvantage. When trying to form the shape that represents the 'd' sound, he may make a downstroke and become confused as to which side he should form the circle. A 'd' written in the same manner as a 'tall a' presents no such problem and will readily progress to linked writing. The TASSI (Trace and sound sensory input) approach is ideal for establishing correct letter formation.

    Three more aspects need to be acknowledge here. The first is consistency in the way the letters are formed - without consistency there is no fluency. Second, knowing the alphabet and efficiency in writing the letters is an indicator of future proficiency in reading & spelling (the letters are the building block of all future literacy endeavours). Third, a correct pencil grip can support the acquisition of these skills and an incorrect pencil grip can obstruct the learner - in some cases creating serious learning problems.

  • Letter & Word Reversals Enter description here.
    Letter and Word Reversals

    b d confusion

    If the student forms the letter 'a' in the correct manner - then the letter 'd' is like a tall 'a' Knowing that 'small b' is like 'capital B' without a 'hat' can help. Use the (Bb) tile to demonstrate this. Complete the tracing task.

    As 'q' is always with a 'u' the p/q confusion does not persist as long as b/d confusion. The (bed) image is stable. The 'bat & ball' or 'drum & stick' crutches are not, students, particularly those with sequencing problems, often forget the order - ('stick & drum').

    Letter Formation is VERY important. Knowing that 'small b' is like 'capital B' without a 'hat' can help. Cutout the graphic below as a reminder for students who find this a challenge. If you laminate the strip the student can trace over theletters with a wipe-out pen repeatedly till they form a proprioceptive (muscle) memory of the letter shape; at this stage you can instruct the student to make the 'b' sound as they trace the shape. It take a lot of practice to eradicate a long standing confusion. The student will dispense with the graphic when they gain sufficient confidence.

    If you try to intervene too much it can cause unnecessary stress. The proprioceptive pathway will support the auditory & visual pathways. Many adults when asked how to spell a word will say,"Let me write it down." They then use visual recognition to see if it 'looks right'.

    p q confusion
    There is another little trick you may like to try with younger students who exhibit p/q confusion. Cut out the graphic below and sit it on the work-table for the student to refer to at any time.

    Tell the student "This is 'Peter Postman. He delivers letters into the post boxes. Now he always starts at the margin and walks in the same direct as you make your pen go when you write. The important thing is that he needs to look where he is going. Only a 'Silly Postman' would walk backwards trying to post letters!"

    Margins are a great convention. It was a sad time when they went out of fashion. Students find it comforting to know exactly where to begin writing. This also holds true for letter formation. Make sure that the letter is always scribed in the same way - this aids recall - so much so that it can prevent letter reversals from occurring in the first place. For remediation it is vital. The student must begin on the dot - make a downward stroke through the line - then up and around.

    After visual matching comes sound matching

    As well as visual similarities there are sound similarities between b & d and b & p.

    Sound confusions (the student reads 'big' as 'pig' or writes 'pan' as 'ban') are dealt with in one of two ways. You can either 'show' the student the mouth position for making the sound, ordemonstrate that one is 'voiced' and the other 'unvoiced'.

    Take care that you NEVER put vowel sounds after the sound - it is NOT 'puh' - you do not sound p-i-g as puh-i-guh. The 'p' is merely a little puff of air.

    The only other way to deal with these problems is by using more complex positions of the mouth and tongue. Only a speech therapist has the expertise to do this. If the two simpler techniques above fail to work then refer to a qualified speech therapist.

    The 'Sound Confusion Cards' and the 'Sound Confusion Practice Strips' cover the most common errors.

    Again, if the student experiences excessive sound confusions refer to a professional. A child with 'glue ears' or 'grommets' may not hear the distinction between similar sounds.

    The most common sound confusions (teaching tips)

    b d confusion

    The 'b' sound begins with lips together. / The 'd' sound is uttered with lips apart.

    The 'b' sound is noisy (voiced) - you can shout it. / The 'p' sound is a quiet (unvoiced) puff of air - you can't shout it. .... Likewise;

    m n confusion

    The 'm' sound begins with two fat lips pressed together saying 'm'. / The 'n' sound is uttered with lips apart and the tongue behind the top teeth.

    g c confusion

    The 'g' sound is noisy (voiced) - you can shout it. / The 'c' (as in 'cat' ) sound is a quiet (unvoiced) puff of air - you can't shout it.

    d t confusion

    The 'd' sound is noisy (voiced) - you can shout it. / The 't' sound is a quiet (unvoiced) puff of air - you can't shout it.

    v f confusion

    The 'v' sound is noisy (voiced) - you can shout it. / The 'f' sound is a quiet (unvoiced) puff of air - you can't shout it. ...

    v th confusion

    The 'v' and 'f' sounds are made with the top teeth on the lower lip. The 'th' sound is made with the tongue poking out between the teeth.

    i e a u confusion

    he short vowel sounds 'i', 'e', 'a' and 'u' (as in 'bit' 'bet' 'bat' & 'but') are often confused. Vowels sound confusions are often difficult to remediate. The order I have given (i e a u) is important - 'i' is the most closed mouth, followed by the 'e' then the 'a' and finally the 'u' - 4 descending positions of the chin. The 'o' (as in 'hot') is rarely confused with other short vowel sounds.

    © Jean C Harrison 2010
  • Letter Sounds Enter description here.
    Letter Sounds

    The first question is 'What do I teach first: the letter SOUNDS or the letter NAMES? "Some may ask Does it matter?" and the answer is an emphatic 'YES!!!" because the strategy you teach first is likely to become - and to remain - the student's instinctive, automatic strategy. The student who has learned SOUNDS first can thus give an automatic sound for any letter - and they need that if they are to develop PHONIC skills (the blending of sounds and syllables).

    However the student who learned letter NAMES first will instinctively go to her/his store of NAMES and then try to DEDUCE the sound from that name. This strategy works well for some letters: for example if you ask a name-dependent student "what is the SOUND of the letter 'T' ?", he/she will instead access their memory for the NAME ('tee') and (from the initial 't' sound) correctly deduce the 't' sound.

    The problem is that some sounds cannot be deduced in this way. For example the student who has established 'Y' as a NAME ('WY'), then takes the first part of the Name (WY) and incorrectly deduces that the sound must be 'w' (as in 'wig'). A similar problem arises for the letters c, g, w, y, a, e, i, o, u and suddenly we have a student lacking confidence in blending sounds and syllables, the very basis of reading long words, unfamiliar words and of spelling.


  • Blending Enter description here.


    Blending is the key to truly independent reading, which in turn, supports spelling. It is the reason we learned letter-sounds and letter combinations (th, ch, ai, ea, ew, igh etc.). Once we know the sounds we can blend them to hear the word - m u d = mud / r ai n = rain / ch ea p = cheap. As we also build up a knowledge base of alternative sounds ( each head heart) and alter-native representations (see sea field receive here) we are increasingly empowered to use reference books such as a dictionary or a thesaurus with confidence.

    As short-term memory store is limited we move on to sounding syllables - con stant ly = constantly / dis em bark = disembark / re la tion = relation. Note that knowledge such as "A vowel at the end of a syllable says its name." helps the student to make sense of the structure of the word re la tion. Information that makes sense is better accepted into memory. Knowledge that is useful across a great number of words is invaluable as it greatly reduces the quantity of information that needs to be learned. It makes no sense to learn words individually when we have a powerful alphabetic code to make life easier and might I say a lot more interesting.

    Learning phonic skills, spelling rules, grammar rules and punctuation rules results in a great spin off in terms of increasing the learner's cognitive abilities, which in turn has spin offs for problem solving and creative endeavour.

    An inability to blend sounds into words is experienced by a small percentage of students. The student is said to have a 'phonological coding deficit'. Can this be overcome? I have to say "Yes, in most cases it can but it requires a tutor who knows the nature of the problem." For example such a tutor has to know the importance of steering clear of explosive letter sounds (the letters b c d g k p t & x produce explosive sounds - they can't be drawn out during blending tasks) in the initial learning stages. Explosives when they are first introduced must be the last sound in a word only. Apart from the technical aspects tutors must be aware of the compounding factors of long term failure and the fear and stress that it engenders. Take great care in selecting a tutor in such cases.

  • Reading Enter description here.

    The discussion on methods of teaching children to read is heated and, I think, unnecessarily contradictory. Basically there appears to be three main 'camps': the 'Phonics' camp, the 'Whole Word' camp (variously called 'Language Experience', 'Whole Word', 'Real Books' etc). This appears to have culminated in OBE - Outcome Based Education - and the 'eclectic' or 'teach everything' camp.

    The third camp is predictably a combination of the two main camps. I will stick my neck out here and openly declare a general preference for a 'Phonics First' approach.

    Students with a background knowledge of phonic skills (the alphabetic code) approach the reading task in such a way that, whilst it is may be slower in the initial stages, it is accurate, accumulative and supports spelling.

    Whole Word readers are not hampered by rules and left-to-right sequencing at the beginning stages; therefore initial reading is much faster. However Whole Word reading is less accurate and does not support spelling as effectively as phonics.

    Many factors need to be considered when choosing an approach to the teaching of reading, particularly in those critical initial stages. Personally I am not swayed by 'philosophies of reading'. I am swayed by the cognitive, language and memory limitations inherent in the students. I am also swayed by proven 'data' - not by general airy-fairy rhetoric or 'belief statements'.

    For those who have a burning desire to understand the bases of learning to read, I can do no better than refer you to the book titled ‘Reading in the Brain’ by Stanislas Dehaene, who also runs a web site. http://www.unicog.org/main/pages.php

    In addition, however, I would also urge you to read about the VAS (Visual Attention Span) factor; I cannot stress the importance of this factor enough. It is absolutely essential to test for VAS prior to even considering a whole word approach to reading. You can test a student's VAS by clicking http://www.vasreadingecho.com The test takes a matter of minutes to conduct. You can also read more about VAS on that site as well as testing the student's knowledge of other vital reading sub-skills.

    Also note that a purely whole word approach becomes redundant around grade 4 / 5 for most students. Whole word reliance results in students hitting a brick wall around this time. Teachers in these grades often bear the brunt of the blame for the onset of the student falling behind, when in fact the problem was initiated in grade one. Remediation for these students is difficult as much 'unlearning' has to occur before real progress can be achieved.
  • Spelling Enter description here.
    Spelling Rules

    There is nothing 'natural' about reading and writing. The alphabetic system was DEVISED for the purpose of recording speech by representing it in a visual form.

    I remember watching the student who looked for 'orful' in a dictionary because it didn't 'look right'. He couldn't find it, but knew of no other alternative for the 'or' such as 'au' or 'aw'. Another student, searching for 'thank' was looking under 'f'. Yet another looked for 'dread' under the 'b' section, one surmises that even if he had searched under 'd' and found no reference to 'dred' he would not have known to try 'ea' as in 'dead'.

    Yes, spelling is a complex task for those lacking the capacity of 'magical visual recall'. The dictionary is a best seller because the majority of the population need one on hand. However, without a knowledge of the alternative ways of representing sounds and the general rules of spelling, they can be locked out of using that dictionary.

    It is the tutor's task to make sure that the student is competent in spelling. Whilst the student may not know how to spell every word in the English Language, he/she should be able to use a dictionary with confidence.

    There are many who will claim that spelling is a visual task: one simply recalls a word with similar appearance. This is easy for the individual who has excellent visual recall and can easily access a memory of how a word looks. We therefore jump to the conclusion that this is therefore the best way for everyone to learn how to spell. This is of course a very simplistic conclusion because we do not all possess equal ability to recall visual information. A student with poor visual recall will fail miserably if forced to rely on such a method.

    Spelling can also be an auditory task in that, by listening to the sounds that we utter and matching that with the written symbol, we are able to write down those sounds. Unfortunately it is not so easy because there are multiple ways of representing the same sound. There is,'ay' as in 'play' and 'ai' as in 'rain' and 'a_e' as in 'rare'! There are homophones such as 'pain' and "pane' that even sound exactly the same! Whilst 'sounding out' is a supportive skill for all students, it is a CRITICAL component for those with low visual recall and those with significant sequencing difficulties. it is not, however, the only skill required. Good solid teaching enables students to cope with the anomalies of English spelling demonstrated above.

    Tactile or proprioceptive (muscle) memory is yet another support system. How many times do you hear someone say, when asked to spell a word, "Let me write it down."?

    Most of the population will at various times need each of the three support functions. For example when asked to spell a word like 'conscientious', we may use our sounding of syllables - 'con' is easy - the next bit could also be sounded but we may choose to relate it to the word 'science', with which we are already familiar; visually we have to note if it has a 'ti' and not 'ci' or 'si' and finally'ous' is merely a familiar suffix. So we would likely say - "Let me write it." However, if we misspell it as "consciencious'' we may notice that it doesn't look right. By writing it down we convert the difficult task of retrieving a visual memory of the word into a simple 'visual recognition' task. We may then try 'ti', thereby satisfying the visual recognition criteria.

    As you will now appreciate, those of us not blessed with a superb visual memory require quite a lot of knowledge to 'hang it all together'. It is the tutor's job to teach ALL the strategies that are required. The student can then find his/her own 'best balance' of learned skills to apply to the task of SPELLING.

  • Dictation Enter description here.

    Dictation has been almost absent from the scene for a decade or more. The power of dictation is grossly underestimated. Looked at reasonably, it is an interim step between thinking and writing. Dictation provides an opportunity to practice accuracy in spelling, punctuation and sentence structure without the parallel burden of creating 'story'.

    For some students this step is vital, acting as a springboard into the world of written words. The loss of dictation from the learning scene has resulted in a massive loss of opportunity for countless numbers of students, who may otherwise have become competent writers.

    Dictation also provides a framework for discussing different types of phrases within sentences, sentence ambiguity and paragraphing. It is the ideal means of modelling all of the above skills and providing much needed consolidation. It offers experience in best practice that many students are unlikely to generate themselves.

    When giving dictation, always have the student repeat the sentence aloud. This ensures that the student is following the pattern of his own voice, in much the same way as he would do when writing a story, project or assignment.

    Students who are known to suffer short-term auditory memory deficits should not be expected to retain an entire sentence containing more than 5 or 6 words. However, this can sometimes, but not always, be expanded by gradually increasing the number of words that are dictated. This is particularly important when the student copies from the board one word at a time, frequently losing his/her place and eventually failing to complete the task in time.
  • Comprehension Enter description here.

    Obviously the ultimate aim of reading is to gain an understanding of written text.

    However, although sentences should be introduced from the very beginning, they must be controlled. In the initial stages there are three major skills:
    1. learning letter sounds (NOT names)
    2. learning to blend known sounds into words. At a later stage comes the blending of syllables.
    3. reading and writing meaningful phrases or sentences comprising of previously learned words.

    When the teacher is aware of the necessity of directly teaching steps1. 2. & 3 above, there are no unrealistic expectations of the students. Teachers should never 'assume' that an infant learner will somehow miraculously work this out for themselves.

    The teacher teaches, organises practise exercises, and consolidates the learning over time.

    Example is perhaps the easiest form of explanation.

    At the very beginning stages the teacher introduces the sound 'aaa'. Next he/she introduces the sound 'mmm'. The two sounds are then blended into a word aaammm - am. The word 'I' is introduced. The student is then ready to form their first sentence "I am ….".

    I amhappy smily . (represents "I am happy.", as 'happy' (like most words) is beyond their skill base at this early stage.)

    The sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a full stop.

    The student can make many similar sentences with different feelings, such as 'sad' 'cross' 'surprised' 'sorry' etc. These can be made into a book. The student has full control when reading this first little 'published' effort.

    The sound 't' is then introduced. You will notice the sound can't be represented as 'ttt' - it cannot be drawn out. For this reason it is best to introduce it at the end of words first. The student learns to blend 'aaat' 'at'. The student can then write ...

    I am at house . (I am at home / the park / Grandma's / the beach / dance class.)

    As the student is drawing the picture he/she is in control of what it conveys. The word 'I' and 'am' are consolidated, as is the full stop. Again the student can make a little book which they can 'read'.

    The mind needs to be 100% sure of the accuracy of the reading before it is free to then concentrate on comprehension. At this stage of controlled reading the teacher needs to introduce one of the most powerful tools known to comprehension - visualising what you are reading about.

    The teacher's cue may be something like "When you read that to me I can imagine a picture of you at the beach inside my head. Can you imagine that in your head too? You can? Is anyone else at the beach with you in the picture in your head? What kind of day is it? (you may have to prompt - rainy/hot?) What are you wearing? and so forth to simulate the student from the beginning to expand on their thinking. At this stage they will simply be verbalising their ideas; young children love the sort of attention such an interaction brings. Refrain from asking too many questions at this stage, two or three is enough. With more able students you may wish to ask an open-ended question, such as "Is there anything else you can imagine?"

    In this fashion comprehension is built up alongside the alphabetic skills the student is learning. It is the teacher's job to structure and sequence this early learning. If the student misses out on this early controlled learning they may never recover without the need for later intervention.

    Teach thoroughly, when you are confident the student can do the task, ask them to do it, then say 'Well done.' Success breeds more success.
  • Punctuation Enter description here.

    Educators fell into a trap with the advent of the almighty photocopier. It is all too easy to produce worksheets with a 'fill the gap' component. Positively it could be said that the student can fit in more practice in a given time. However, much practice of writing full, coherent sentences complete with appropriate punctuation is sacrificed in the process.

    Apostrophes in particular are an essential part of the spelling process (contractions) and the grammatical content (possessives). Many students find the conventions involved in representing speech within a piece of prose particularly problematic. Such knowledge of the conventions of punctuation cannot be simply left to chance.

    Punctuation is an integeral part of the writer's message. As such its appropriate use is deserving of being taught directly.

    Punctuation, when habituated from the beginning, rarely becomes problematic as the learner progresses through the grades.
  • Mathematics Enter description here.

    Mathematics is the subject area most affected by stress.

    In order to overcome the 'fear factor' students need to 'over-learn', that is, learn to the point of automaticity. This means a good healthy dose of 'rote learning' of (for example)
    * multiplication tables
    * frequently used formula
    * common procedures

    Mastery of such skills will place students into a 'comfort zone'. They are supported as they begin to explore higher mathematical thinking.

    Let us take just one simple example ......

    The student does not know the 3 or the 7 times tables. He is also unsure of the procedure used in long multiplication. He is given the following basic task ... 576 x 37 …. can you begin to imagine the level of confusion and distress?

    There are so-called educators who advice primary teachers that they no longer need to teach basic fractions as all the student needs is an introduction to decimal fractions and a calculator. So what is wrong with such advice?

    a) Basic fractions are easier to understand - which representation makes most immediate sense - 0.625, 62.5% or 5/8 (5 pieces out of 8 pieces)?
    b) An understanding of basic fractions helps to develop the concept of decimal fractions - 6/10 = a 6 in the tenths column.
    c) Most junior high school students will encounter algebra - imagine trying to establish a concept of the following with scant knowledge of basic fractions ......z = 56 (find the value of z).

    Further, calculator dependent students are typically insensitive to obvious errors. The student who knows and has practised a procedure manually is capable of estimation and will usually pick up an obvious key-pad error. In order to correct an error the student must first recognise that an error has occurred.

    Direct teaching followed by ample practice followed by on-going consolidation leads to mastery. Rote Learning is a vital component in mathematical competence. Such competence in turn frees the student to begin exploration of higher level mathematical thinking that involves reasoning and problem solving.

    Mathematics can be a nightmare or a joy of intrigue and a great deal of fun. The human mind loves a solvable puzzle.


To reinstate systematic phonics into all infant classrooms throughout the English speaking world. That is, give the greatest number of children to best start in reading, making them fully independent readers and writers.


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Management / Admini: Mark

Research / Assessment: Byron

Teaching / Resources: Jean

Other: Byron