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Research School Network: Five Ways Forward in Phonics Practical, evidence-led strategies to drive progress by Louisa Farrow, Early Reading Lead at St Matthew’s

Five Ways Forward in Phonics

Practical, evidence-led strategies to drive progress by Louisa Farrow, Early Reading Lead at St Matthew’s

by St. Matthew's Research School
on the

Research demonstrates that teaching synthetic phonics is the most effective strategy for teaching the decoding element of reading. Lessons are rightly prioritised in a robust Key Stage 1 curriculum. How can we use them to drive progress across the curriculum? 

1. Keep lessons focused

Memories are formed as the residue of thought according to the research of Daniel Willingham. The main thing we are teaching in synthetic phonics is the complex alphabetic code, so that is what we need children to be thinking about. Often fun’ activities and games’ have complex rules or muddle learning with concerns about winning and losing. We hear a lot about desirable difficulty but it is important to remember: many, perhaps most, of the difficulties we create are undesirable” (Bjork and Kroll 2015)

Simplified, repetitive activities which concentrate on study of words help to reduce the planning burden for the teacher and keep the children focused on the learning.

2. Teach word roots and the history of language explicitly

Build engagement by communicating an excitement about language. Explicitly teaching that the complexities of the English alphabetic code are dictated by its history, simultaneously normalises its difficulty and the likelihood of mistakes (Teach Like a Champion technique 49) and helps young children to join up their understanding of whole groups of words at once by seeing their underlying structures. They love to know that some /​f/​sounds are spelled ph because all those words come from Greek and it represents the Greek letter phi. The words phonics and phoneme come from the Greek word for voice, phone. Many words with the grapheme ch sounded as a hard /​c/​are Greek too (from the letter chi) – like school and scholar – or arachnid. On the other hand, ch sounded /​sh/​denotes a link to French. Did you know that brochure comes from the French verb to stitch?

3. Use intelligent variation to improve attention to detail

It is important that children learn to apply their knowledge of synthetic phonics accurately, rather than guessing from the general outline or shape of a word. We need to constantly be building their attention to detail. Intelligent variation of examples can be a useful strategy to employ as When certain aspects of a phenomenon vary, when its other aspects are kept constant, those aspects that vary are discerned” (Lo, Chik and Pang 2006)

Consider the possibilities offered by the following sequence of words designed to practise sounding and blending adjacent consonants in Letters and Sounds phase 4:

boat – boats – boast – coast – coats – croats – croaks – cloaks

The sequence immediately focuses on the difference between ts and st – and the significant effect that has on meaning. Nonsense words can be used to extend these sequences in interesting ways, adding an additional level of challenge if children are expected to identify which is the nonsense word.

Within the sequence, boast, coast, croak and cloak have also been included for their merit in terms of vocabulary, introducing the fourth way forward.

4. Teach vocabulary: choose target words with care

The effects of poor vocabulary in young children have been proven to have long-term effects in terms of attainment throughout school.

At St Matthew’s, the majority of children come from homes where English is spoken as a second language. Bialystok (2010) has shown that bilingual children – and I would claim all children – benefit from opportunities to widen their vocabularies. So building vocabulary is an urgent, whole-school priority. Every opportunity for robust vocabulary instruction needs to be seized. And, as Isabel Beck states, research shows that young students can benefit from robust vocabulary instruction’. (p59 Beck 2013)

For children to grasp words securely and to understand their nuances, they need to come across those words in different contexts in a planned way. Synthetic phonics lessons provide a perfect opportunity for additional practice that deepens understanding of the link between synthetic phonics, reading and meaning. Vocabulary exercises in phonics provide high challenge, low threat activities naturally to engage children across the ability range.

How do we incorporate this in day to day practice? Choose the target words we use with care, focusing specifically on words which we want the children to remember.

Consider the following example, practising alternative pronunciation of ea’ words in Year 1. Steadfast was chosen as a target word because it linked with a key idea in the RE curriculum. Healthy was chosen to link to balanced diets in DT. Instead was chosen to develop the difficult concept of expressing an alternative in a formal way. A simple true/​false independent application exercise gave an opportunity to practise these words in context:

- Steadfast friends may let you down.

- It is healthy to eat brown bread instead of white.

5. Build in retrieval practice across the curriculum

We know that retrieval plays an important part in memory. We need build in opportunities for spaced and interleaved practice. In her Research Ed home webinar, Daisy Christodoulou offers a succinct and accessible overview of the research.

Using phonics lessons as part of our explicit teaching of vocabulary is mirrored by using the wider curriculum to retrieve and practise knowledge of synthetic phonics. The following examples of another true/​false activity rehearses knowledge of the Great Fire of London, taught in Year 2, but is also an opportunity to revise and strengthen recognition of the split digraphs as part of Phase 6 Letters and Sounds:

- In 1666, a lot of houses in London were made from concrete.

- The flames blazed for days but the king refused to intervene.

The key to making this work is, again, made possible by careful planning of target words.


A research-informed approach to phonics suggests that we must shift the focus of planning from the activities to the words themselves.


Beck, et. al (2013) Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction. Guilford Press.

Bialystok E, et al. (2010) Receptive vocabulary differences in monolingual and bilingual children. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition. 2010;13:525 – 531.

Bjork, R. and Kroll, J. Desirable Difficulties in Vocabulary Learning (2015) Am J Psychol. 2015 ; 128(2): 241 – 252.

Lemov, D (2015) Teach Like a Champion, Jossey Bass.

Lo, M. L., Chik, P., & Pang, M. F. (2006). Patterns of variation in teaching the colour of light to Primary 3 students. Instructional Science, 34

researchEDHome 2020 Daisy Christodoulou: How to remember anything, forever.

Willingham, D. –

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