How can you spice up a lesson that can typically become routine and dull for everyone involved?
Phonics is one of those subjects that simply must be taught. Every school has had to find time to squeeze it into the timetable and by its very nature, teaching phonics can become very routine and dull.
You should be teaching it every day and whilst repetition aids learning, this should not become so repetitive everyone, children and teacher, switch off from learning. It can and should be an enjoyable session, when teachers can be really creative whilst at the same time tailoring the session to the needs of a particular cohort of children.
This article explores the phonics session in Reception and KS1 and looks at how to make it a more enjoyable experience for both teacher and pupils. Using the Letters and Sounds discrete session from the DfE Primary national strategy as a basis, it will demonstrate activities for each section of the lesson and how they can be taught in a lively fashion.
The drip, drip, little and often method works well for young children, as well as those with English as an additional language and children with special needs. If you are revising the same things every day, for the majority of children, this is a very good way to learn.
Using cards works well for this part of a phonics lesson, with the grapheme on one side and a helpful picture as a clue on the other side. For example, a card for the grapheme /ir/ might have a girl on the other side. If the class have forgotten a particular grapheme you can put the card to one side and go over it again. Children love this if you do it as a timed activity – ‘can we beat our time from yesterday with no mistakes?’
They also like taking it in turns to hold up the cards. This allows staff to be free to assess small numbers of children during the review part of the lesson.
The graphemes covered should then be added to a display. I’ve seen many ways of doing this but it always works best if the graphemes are added as they are taught and then referred to frequently – otherwise the display is just wallpaper!
One of the best displays involved the children in a Reception class choosing the word they wanted to illustrate the grapheme and then taking a photo with a child in it to show that word. So, the ‘ur’ grapheme was illustrated by a photo of a child holding up an urn.
It is often tempting to try and squash too much into one lesson, but as a lesson should only be 15-20 minutes long it is simply not realistic. Keep in mind the one thing you want to actually teach (a new grapheme/phoneme or tricky word) and just think about that.
One of the best starts to the teach section I’ve observed was a teacher with a magic box: out of the box came the grapheme for the day in a real drum roll moment; the children were on tenterhooks waiting to see what was going to come out of the box that day in a ‘ta-da moment’.
I have a puppet who sometimes helps with this part of the lesson. It is a rather strange, unidentifiable woodland creature who sometimes gets things wrong, but more often just needs encouragement to sound out words to read them or have a go at spelling an unfamiliar word.
It is amazing that children who are sometimes very reticent about answering questions, will happily help a struggling puppet! Children like it if the puppet gets things wrong and they can jump into the role of the teacher, but I also like to show that they are helping the puppet to learn.
This is also the time to model the blending and segmenting as it is a crucial aspect of the teaching. It is easily differentiated, for example, when doing the /ur/ grapheme, most can cover words like fur and urn, whilst others can be using words like nurse and surprise. The whole of this section of the lesson does not have to be very long; a few minutes is all that is needed.
This section of the lesson is the bit where you can have most fun. As the title implies it is an opportunity to practise using the phoneme/grapheme to be learnt, as well as previously learned words and spellings. The best way of doing this is through games, where children are consolidating learning but also trying things out and playing with it.
There are large numbers of free games available on the web. Many of them have a programmable aspect, so you can select the exact phoneme you are learning in that lesson. For example, there is a great bingo game, where you can download cards and then play as a class with an online element that looks like a slot machine.
There are also games that use nonsense words, where you have to decide if it is a real word or not and place it accordingly. This is about the only good use of nonsense words as it involves language comprehension as well as decoding skills.
There are also many easy to make games you can do yourself. A very popular choice is bowling. If you use milk cartons or squash bottles, with plasticine in the bottom to weight them down, and stick the graphemes on the side you can differentiate according to ability.
Higher level children can have more graphemes and may be expected to spell as well as just think of words with that grapheme when they knock the bottles over. You can do something similar with a ‘board’ game, where you put the relevant graphemes in the spaces and then children answer questions in ability groups.
As this section comes at the end, if you talk too much, as I do, it can sometimes be hard to squeeze this bit in. It is, however, absolutely crucial and once again easy to differentiate. The apply section should involve independently reading or writing whole sentences. There are many examples of this sort of sentence in the Letters and Sounds document. I feel, however, that they are often quite dull and as phonics is the tool to teach reading, should involve books and opportunities to read for meaning.
Poetry is a good way of creating a sound application. Many reading schemes have poetry books with suitable poems and if you type ‘phonic poems’ into a search engine, there are endless choices on the web. I also like using books, where I will take an extract for the different ability groups and then make sure we read the whole book at the end. A book like ‘Shark in the Park’ by Nick Sharratt, or ‘The Dark, Dark Tale’ by Ruth Brown is a great deal more fun to read than “the car is in the car park”.
Phonics is an amazing tool to teach reading. I’ve seen lessons where really young children were applying their skills in an exciting and creative way. I’ve also seen lessons where everyone was so fed up of doing the same thing every day they were dreading the phonics session.
It does not have to be that way; it is so easy to make the session something everyone looks forward to and learns from.
Please look at the following Primary course to help you create your own drum roll moments:
Outstanding Learning in the Primary English Curriculum
Or join together with other teachers from your school to take part in one of our in-house courses presented to you at your school:
Outstanding Assessment in Primary Literacy
Outstanding Lessons in Primary
The Essential Guide to Phonics and Literacy For Primary LSAs and TAs