Introducing phonic readers into schools

Research has shown that phonic-based instruction is best when learning to read and write, leaving many schools with significant resourcing and logistical issues. These include the high cost involved in purchasing phonic readers, the vast number of products available, and how and when to use them effectively. We spoke with some teachers about how they are currently moving towards phonic-based literacy in their primary schools.

Many teachers and their leadership are listening to the reading research about how we learn to read and changing their focus to a phonic-based literacy program, incorporating phonic texts into classrooms. “The Big Six” skills for learning to read were outlined by Deslea Konza in 2015 in the APPA Podcasts, with phonemic awareness and phonics being a necessary foundational skill that leads to fluency and comprehension. Phonics instruction for reading flows into spelling and writing as well. Our article will discuss some of the options and considerations to take into account when moving towards phonic-based literacy in your primary school. We will also share some ideas from teachers who are well into their journey using phonic books in their classroom.


How are schools resourcing their students with phonic readers?

Of the teachers we asked, the use of phonic readers in schools is varied and at different stages.

  • Some schools only have small collections in their special education teaching areas for the students who are struggling to use, and in the classroom they only used levelled readers.
  • Some have made a decision to put their collection in their Foundation level class(es), or both Foundation and Year 1.
  • Some have made a 5 year plan to help distribute the cost of purchasing sets of phonic books and introducing them to extra year levels.
  • Some are just beginning their journey and are asking advice on where to start when purchasing books, due to poor literacy results in their school.
  • Some are well into their journey and add to their collections each year.

Phonics instruction and access to phonic texts are important to reading success. We encourage all schools to pursue ways of giving all students the best opportunity to succeed and support them in literacy acquisition by providing appropriate instruction and resources.


When are phonic readers introduced?

Some schools are choosing not to teach phonics (letter-sound correlation) for the first couple of weeks, concentrating on phonemic awareness: students being able to hear the sounds in words. If this is the case, these students would not be given readers until phonics is taught.

Other schools are choosing to introduce phonic readers from week 2 of school when students, following Jolly Phonics, would have been taught the sounds s, a, t, i, p, n. Dandelion Launchers and Readers, Decodable Books Australia, Little Learners Love Literacy, SPELD SA Phonic books and Getting Reading Right support the gradual introduction of sounds within books.

The advice of Sue Lloyd, who wrote Jolly Phonics, not to introduce readers until all 42 sounds have been taught has been taken by some schools. Word boxes and sound flashcards, printed from the back of the teachers manual, replace readers in Term 1. The mastery of the words in the word boxes are checked by an SSO, parent or the teacher each day. Once each word in the list can be read on three occasions, the child moves on to their next word list. After term 1, the school starts sending home readers.

Following Sue Lloyd’s idea, the introduction of readers can be a gradual process and based on skills. Consider the skills that are needed to decode text: phonemic awareness – letter-sound correlation – blending. A student who has those skills could move onto readers. Until that point, students are consolidating the decoding skills through flashcards, modelled visual and oral blending and ‘word boxes’/lists. This moves away from the idea that all children get a reader the moment they start school, just because of parent expectations or school culture.

Every school is different and what works on your site may need changing for another. When changing from levelled readers to phonic readers, consider the whole community and spend time explaining to parents and staff the reasons for change, along with your hopes and dreams for the students’ literacy. If parents share the vision, slight hiccups and changes in resources can be understood. Many parents come into SPELD SA confused as to why their child is being taught phonics but still given levelled readers that do not support the skills that the student is being taught in the classroom.

When do children move on to other reading material?

Keeping track of students through running records will be required through the DECD data collection central body. Considering the running record system is based on word number, sight words and other reading behaviours and comprehension, it is difficult to say when a child is ‘ready’ to move onto non-phonic texts. Certainly within the school environment the different number of texts and reading opportunities that students are exposed to broadens when students are required to do research and access information on websites. Not every piece of reading material can be controlled, but students can be allowed to practise their reading skills with phonic readers and be supported in their skills by a well-structured phonics program.

One of the teachers we spoke to uses the full Dandelion Launchers and Readers sets and then moves her students onto the Jolly Phonics readers. She has found that the Blue set (set 4) sits about at a level 18-20 levelled reader, although we stress that phonic readers cannot be ‘levelled’. Her students have also enjoyed the Jolly Phonics reader novel-format as they get older.

How are teachers managing to buy phonic books for their classroom?

Budgets, budgets, budgets! Money is always tight and there are many demands on schools for spreading the money as far as possible. Most teachers we spoke with have gradually introduced phonic books into their classrooms by expanding their collection each year and initially sharing sets between classes, rather than discarding levelled readers entirely. As the type of text in phonic readers is different to levelled readers, they cannot be ‘levelled’ and mixed with levelled readers.

Phonic readers can be used with all students and not just for those with learning difficulties. The important point is to make a start! Some schools have only bought a limited amount of books and they have been topping them up by printing some of the free SPELD SA Phonic books. One school with 2 reception classes shared a set of Dandelion Launchers and readers, with set 1-10 Fitzroys and printed of the SPELD SA free phonic readers to make a start. They have since expanded their collection every year so that classes have their own full sets.
Government grants have been used by some schools to fund buying readers for their students. Others have strong parent involvement who are fundraising to supplement the schools literacy budget.

Which phonic book does a student start on?

As mentioned before, the testing material available for most schools has been running records. Running records on PM readers, due to the different types of text to phonic readers, the number of sight words and repetition of words, may not give you a clear indication of specific decoding skills, particularly for beginning readers. There are some other tests that you can use to identify the students’ skills when they are reading phonic materials. Dandelion has their own decoding test, containing decodable non-words, which will give you diagnostic data on the student’s sound knowledge and blending ability. An appropriate reader can then be selected based on those skills. Jolly Phonics has its own reading assessment pack.

A couple of examples of tests available that include non-word decoding include:

Once you have tested students on their letter-sound knowledge and decoding ability, you can choose readers that help the student practice those skills.

The focus on decoding is incorporated in ‘The Big Six’ as a skill that underpins fluency and comprehension. Those who cannot decode well with automaticity struggle with fluency and comprehension and this is the ultimate goal –to read well and to understand and enjoy what we are reading. So students have to get the underpinning skills right first.

For those students who struggle, it is important to secure the skill of decoding before bombarding them with sight words. This is another good reason to start students off on phonic readers, which contain less sight words than levelled readers. Teachers have been naturally concerned about students who don’t move on in their reading levels. Students need the support that phonic readers provide by building on their knowledge of individual sounds and blending sounds together to make words, rather than relying on memorising words, using picture cues and relying on repetition of sight words and phrases. This builds great word attack skills needed later when readers move onto books with longer texts, longer unknown words and without pictures.

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Choosing phonic readers and synthetic phonic readers

Some publishers that claim to publish phonic readers do not introduce the sounds gradually as synthetic phonic readers do, so it is important for schools to be aware of what they are buying. Some considerations are:

Does the phonic reader define which sounds and skills are introduced in the reader?

A well-structured phonic reader will guide you to the sounds a student needs to know before they can start reading the reader. The sounds will be clearly stated on the front or back cover or inserts of the reader and a student would be encouraged to read the sounds or practise decoding a word before they start reading the main body of text.

Is the book decodable or is the child still relying on pictures to decode the text?

When reading a phonic reader the words need to be able to be decoded by the student. Pictures are something that you can use for comprehension after the child has concentrated on decoding the text e.g. in a simple decodable text using the sounds s,a,t,i,p,n , a child might read the word Pat, the picture might be a picture of a dog and it’s kennel. If the child has been taught to look at a picture to help them guess a word they can’t read, the child might think ‘Pat’ is the word ‘dog’.

After decoding the sounds P-a-t and blending the word ‘Pat’, questioning can extend the reading activity by asking, “Who is Pat?”, “How do you know the dog is Pat?” and perhaps even explore other known words for ‘kennel’, e.g. Dog House.

pat

Are sight words introduced prior to reading to add success?

To make a sentence coherent, sight words or tricky words are sometimes used in decodable text. A good phonic reader will alert you to those words before reading the text, so that you can discuss them before reading. This helps to avoid confusion for a child trying to decode a word which has sounds they haven’t learnt yet, or a tricky word where the sound pronounced is different from what they see as they decode e.g. ‘said’ says s-e-d. The sight word can be written on a card to remind the student when the word appears in the text.

The types of ‘Phonic readers’ you might steer away from are those that are more like levelled readers, using a mix of decodable words that follow no structure in how sounds will be introduced to the student learning to read. These books also often have many sight words that a student will get confused about as they read. They may start to memorise words as a strategy and this can hide the fact that the child hasn’t learnt to decode.

Which phonic books could we start with?

The following readers introduce sounds gradually (note this is not an exhaustive list)

  • Dandelion Launchers, Readers and Catch-up Readers
  • Decodable Books Australia
  • Little Learners Love Literacy
  • Jolly Phonics
  • SPELD SA Phonic Books
  • Fitzroy Readers
  • Getting Reading Right
  • Pocket Rockets

Other resources may have phonic, decodable words within the text using sounds the students haven’t learnt. Teachers need to take care in organising their resources to ensure success with beginning readers. For students that are needing intervention, readers need to be more tightly controlled so that learning is accumulative, structured and successful.

Can running records be performed on phonic readers?

This is a commonly asked question of the staff at SPELD SA from many schools. To our knowledge there is no current resource that would support running records of phonic texts. This doesn’t mean it cannot be done! An example of this was, one teacher found that a student had not progressed past level one in two terms of school. The student was trying to sound out and decode the text, but unable to give any correct responses and so scored below level 1. The teacher instead created a record sheet using the text from a Dandelion reader and tested the student on that text. This enabled the teacher to record the decoding skills within a text along with his reading behaviours like a running record. Although this method could not be recorded as an official running record, the teacher had some diagnostic data to identify gaps in the student’s learning. Phonic books were then chosen for this student based on the letter-sound correlations that were known and intervention put in place for skills in phonemic awareness, oral blending and phonics.

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