A creative approach to teaching reading and writing
Last week, I spent a fascinating afternoon at John Donne primary school with 24 early years and foundation stage (EYFS) teachers listening to deputy head and early years specialist Ruth Moyler share her creative approach to teachingphonics.
Ruth was first galvanised into taking action on phonics after seeing a group of parents’ bewildered reaction to the Letters and Sounds initiative, first introduced to schools across the country in 2007.
“I watched the parents trailing out of the meeting with local authority reps, defeated and deflated. I heard them telling each other they didn’t understand words the experts were saying and they didn’t feel they could now help their child to read. It made me really angry. These weren’t highly educated parents and they were already feeling shut out of their children’s education. The new approach and its associated language seemed to be making learning to read more difficult. I thought there just had to be a better way to implement this.”
In 2007 Ruth had just moved from an outstanding school to a school at the edge of special measures and this is where the first seeds of her Fabulous Phonics approach were sown.
She said: “I started running sessions for parents in my planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time and I called it ‘family phonics’. I went through what we were going to do with the kids a week ahead of time, letter by letter, sound by sound, it was all about establishing a relationship with the parents, demystifying the process and having no secrets. I knew the group worked when a parent announced to the group that on ‘F day’ she was going to give her child fish fingers.”
When Ruth became deputy head at John Donne primary school, in 2010, she came out of the classroom for the first time in her career and realised her approach could be transferred to to other classrooms and schools.
So how does Fabulous Phonics work? “It’s about total immersion in learning letter sounds by linking all the activities in the environment,” says Rachel. “The first thing to do is capture interest at this very early stage. We have some children in our reception classes whose spoken language is not well developed and others who have English as their second or third language. We teach just three letters a week. Each letter gets a whole day devoted to it. So you do everything with that letter, special songs, rhymes and stories, eating food that begins with that letter, other multi-sensory activities and active learning outside. I have boxes of tiny toys for every letter and sound – so in the ‘A box’ you’ll find fake ants, aeroplanes, ambulances, astronaut figures and so on.”
You can feel the excitement and relief in the room as Ruth explains that this is, in many respects, old school infants teaching. “Many teachers are so worried about teaching phonics correctly that they fail to explore more active and creative approaches. I have visited reception classes which have no sand or water or small world play because the headteachers wanted to school to focus more on phonics,” says Ruth.
Instead of covering a topic in the first term of reception, this approach involves weekly themes, designed around the phonics teaching. Teachers start the routine of doing three letters a week; starting with S, A and T and from then on to P, I and N.
“It’s systematic synthetic phonics but with a twist,” says Ruth. “So that first week it’s snakes, ants and tigers… and a jungle theme emerges. We eat sandwiches and apples, all our songs and books are based on the letters. Stories and songs are a terribly important and the language reappears in their play. It is also important that the children take something they have made home every week, for example snake spirals at the end of week one.
At end of every week, students do a ‘Big Write’. During the week, teachers help children to make a composite picture about the theme and by Friday, each child has a picture mounted on A3 paper, with space to write their sentence below.
“If you collect these ‘Big Writes’ into A3 plastic display wallets you have a beautiful record of how the child first learned to write, something they and their families can be so proud of,” says Rachel.
“By Christmas they will have completed phase 2 so there is time to complete the whole alphabet. Then after Christmas, it’s phase 3, always a difficult time for reception teachers when the pupils find out that they’ve been tricked, since English isn’t a phonetic language at all – you have to introduce the dreaded ‘ai’ and so on. You have to make phase 3 really brilliant so children (and teachers) don’t lose hope.”
On a tour of John Donne’s reception classrooms we are shown a strange looking ‘doll’s house’, consisting of four quadrants of different brightly coloured worlds: “Welcome to ‘Interplayland’ – it’s a developing project which we have linked to the way that we teach phonics here,” explains Ruth. “The four worlds are the Jungle, Pirate-land, Homeland and the Castle, each with doorways joining to the next world. Children play with the tiny toys in this world. Making connections is the basis of intelligence and this ‘interplay’ helps the children develop their language through complex imaginative play.”
It’s not just an interesting and creative approach, it’s also an affective one. John Donne has more than 40% of children on free school meals and just six of the school’s 60 key stage 1 pupils didn’t pass the phonics screening.
“An incredible result as many of them came in at such a low level,” says Ruth. “At the end of the day, Mr Gove won’t be looking over your shoulder to see in which order you do phonics or exactly how. It’s the results that count.”
Teachers that have embraced the Fabulous Phonics approach are seeing a positive impact too. Claire Harwood, reception teacher at St John’s and St Clement’s primary school, said: “I came to this same conference last year and got so excited about the ideas I heard that we decided to change the way we teach phonics. The first thing I did was buy the boxes and start filling them up with tiny toys; some letters and sounds are harder to fill than others.
“The real benefits have been having that little bit more structure, I personally struggle with a free flow foundation class so this really suits me, doing three letters a week gets children into a great routine, the pace felt really good and the engagement is fantastic from the children and also for the teachers. As a teacher if you are really interested in what you’re teaching the children will be more excited about what they’re learning – and this does fascinate me. The children have made such fantastic progress in their writing.”
Fabulous Phonics resources from Ruth Moyler
Phase 2 of Fabulous Phonics for reception teachers: ‘SAT’ ‘PIN’ ‘MDG’
Phase 2 Fabulous Phonics for reception teachers: ‘OCK’ ‘CK’ E U ‘RHB’
Phase 3 of Fabulous Phonics for reception teachers
Funny phrases for phase 3 phonics
Phase 2 phonics suggestions for real ‘sound’ objects
Phase 3 phonics suggestions for real ‘sound’ objects
Ruth Moyler is one of two deputy heads at John Donne primary school. While developing Fabulous Phonics, Ruth has been also working with Harriet Namusoke at The Basena Agro Centre teachers’ centre in Kampala, Uganda and has created African versions of all her resources, including an African interplayland. Ruth has been working collaboratively with London South Bank University on its reading mentor programme and a new early years master’s module.
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- Fabulous Phonics: a creative approach to teaching reading and writing (schoolsimprovement.net)
- Phonics test ‘accurate but unnecessary’ (schoolsimprovement.net)
- phonemic awareness (alvindavis99.wordpress.com)
- Phonics literacy test for young children ‘a waste of time and money’ (guardian.co.uk)
- As school teachers We want you to learn English (alvindavis99.wordpress.com)