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Primary School Phonics: Keep-Up and Catch-Up

For a multitude of reasons, a child can have difficulties learning to decode even though the school is using a high-quality phonics programme taught expertly. It is essential that the school implements some keep-up tutoring as soon as it is noticed that the child is failing to keep up with his/her classroom companions. Ruth Miskin, an early reading expert, explains:
”I think there will always be a small group of children who will need one-to-one tutoring – even with the best synthetic programmes, the best training and best implementation; there are some children who have particular needs that cannot be met in a group – and not just SEN children. We tutored some children with SEN at my old school forever until they could read well. We also tutored children with behaviour problems, long-term absentees, new arrivals just to mention a few. These children were always given more of the same and not something different. No amount of group teaching helps a child once they fall behind their peers – though you can sometimes teach in pairs if they are at the same level. If we want to be truly inclusive schools must plan for these children as a matter of course and not just hope for the best. Synthetic phonics is not a simple panacea – it takes determination to get every child reading. As soon as a child fails to learn the first letter on the first day – quick tutoring should take place”.
Ruth Miskin also recommends that those children who need tutoring, ”receive ten minutes of one-to-one practice before the lesson so they are confident from the start” (italics added. Ruth Miskin. SEN magazine 47)

”Children at risk of falling behind are identified within the first three weeks of their starting in their Reception year. They should continue to be assessed until they can read fluently. These children have extra daily phonics practice with a well-trained adult.” (DfE. The Reading Framework 2023. p70)

At East Hunsbury Primary School, struggling readers are provided with Sounds-Write phonics teaching three times a day to enable them to keep up: a before-school pre-teaching session delivered by a fully-trained TA, participation in the whole-class phonics lesson and an after-school Phonics Club.
(Sounds-Write Case Study. 2022 https://sounds-write.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/East-Hunsbury-Primary-School-Northampton-UK.pdf)

”I love the pre-teaching. I find that even a brief front-loading for children who have difficulty can be effective at easing uncertainty/anxiety and results in a higher level of engagement during that main lesson.” (Lindsey Bates. Twitter/X)

Sounds-Write podcast: Episode 8: Literacy Intervention (keep-up and catch-up) with Jacinda Vaughan

Without rapid and effective remediation it is common for struggling readers to develop feelings of anxiety, shame and low self-esteem. Unnecessary activities, although not directly harmful to reading and spelling acquisition, supplant effective practice and cause further delay. Time spent in one-to-one or small group work must make a discernible difference to all involved, FAST.

”Do Poor Readers Feel Angry, Sad, and Unpopular?”

”Time is not just precious, it is finite. Reading interventions must never waste students’ time” 
(Dianne Murphy)

Dr Steven Dykstra points out,
”There are only 2 ways to improve any treatment effort: 
1. You can identify better ways of doing things and do more of them.
2. You can identify less effective ways of doing things and do less of them.
The two often go hand in hand since there are only so many hours and resources.  We must almost always do less of something in order to do more of something else.  So, if we want to provide more effective instruction we must go through the process of identifying those things which are less effective or even harmful. Unfortunately, no one likes it when their way of doing things loses out and is selected for extinction”
Options for Intervention: Keep-Up and Catch-Up:

1. In-school intervention:

”Children who are at risk of falling behind need extra practice to consolidate and master the content of the programme. Programmes should provide guidance on how to support these children so that they keep up with their peers. Options for support could include 1 to 1 tutoring. They should not suggest or provide a different SSP programme for these children.”
(2021. DfE’s ‘Validation of systematic synthetic phonics programmes’ Note 9.)

The DFE’s Reading Framework states that ‘’To enable children to keep up, they should be given extra practice, either in a small group or one-to-one, whether or not a specific reason has been found. The extra practice should:

  • take place in a quiet place, at a regular time every day so that the children become familiar with the routine
  • be a school priority, with maximum efforts made to avoid disruption or cancellation
  • be provided by a well-trained adult: teacher or teaching assistant
  • be consistent with the school’s mainstream phonics programme
  • include activities that secure the important phonic knowledge the children have not grasped.”

2. Only for the affluent or for the few who can obtain an LEA grant – an independent school with ‘specialist dyslexia’ teaching:
This often involves the child attending a boarding school, which can be an extra trauma for an already unhappy child, and there is no guarantee that a specialist (dyslexia) school or teaching centre will use a high-quality phonics intervention programme to teach reading. Some of the methods used to teach reading in these schools (see examples below) are best described as ‘quirky’.

”Brooks (2007) has described ratio gains of between 1.4 and 2.0 as having ‘small impact’ and being ‘of modest educational significance’; ratio gains less than 1.4 he classes as being of ‘very small impact’ and ‘of doubtful educational significance’. On this basis, all the results reported from studies in UK specialist [dyslexia] schools and teaching centres would be regarded as disappointing (or even disregarded altogether) since the largest ratio gain was only 2.0 (except at Moon Hall School)”, which uses a linguistic phonics programme. (italics added. Singleton 2009. p74)

Two ‘specialist dyslexia’ schools – examples of methods used to teach reading:
Maple Hayes:
”The Maple Hayes technique sorts words into morphemes (units of meaning). These are either spelt conventionally by a combination of letters, or represented by simple images called icons. The approach uses only one sense at a time, to block out distractions. Reading is visual rather than aural (early lessons are almost silent), while writing practice is by touch, using cursive script where the pen stays on the paper. To help pupils concentrate, they will be blindfolded at first.” (TES)
Fairley House:
”Multi-Sensory Approach: To help learn words beginning with “squ”, pupils squeeze oranges. For “shr”, they shred paper.” (Telegraph Education. 02/03/2007)
”A pupil at Fairley House, Pimlico has used his mouth to retrieve a raisin from a bowl of flour. The ‘what have you found in the mound of flour?’ reinforces the use of the vowels o and u.” (Times article)

3. Use an alternative therapy on the basis of personal anecdotes and testimonials:

Alternative therapies for reading difficulties/dyslexia, ”generally have a weak (or non-existent) evidence base and poor efficacy, and often rely on the superficial attractiveness of a promised instant (and comparatively effortless) ‘cure.’’ (Singleton 2009. p22). 
”Testimonials are the number one tool of choice for those who do not have evidence.” 
(Guy Chapman. Guardian comment) 
Even if the alternative intervention is non-harmful, there is an opportunity cost for students (and often a financial cost to parents) and a residue of negative emotion for both parents and the child when the intervention has no discernible effect. (K. Hempenstall) 
See Room 101

4. Private tuition:
Carefully chosen 1-1 tuition, where the tutor uses a high-quality phonics programme, can be the solution if it can be afforded and as long as the child is happy to attend. Specialist phonics tuition can take place legally off the school premises, during school hours at the discretion of the school, as an ‘Approved educational activity off-site’. For the youngest children, 6-7 yr. olds, this is essential as they are usually far too tired after school. Parents should approach the school in a spirit of cooperation and negotiate a mutually agreeable regular time to withdraw their child from school to enable tuition to take place. It is, after all, in the school’s interest to have their pupils able to read and write effectively.

In law, it is always the parent’s duty to provide a suitable education for their children, including catering to any special needs (Education Act 1996 Section 7). Normally, parents delegate this duty to a school. If parents believe that the school is failing to provide their child with a ‘suitable’ education, they are obliged to do something about it. By arranging specialist tuition during school hours, they are acting responsibly and are trying to fulfil their lawful duty by setting up what the school cannot/will not provide. The school needs to have a very good reason to withhold consent.

Choosing a specialist phonics tutor: Make sure that the tutor uses a high-quality phonics programme and fully decodable reading practice material as the basis for their teaching. Avoid any tutor who claims to ”tailor the lessons to a child’s individual learning style” or uses a programme that includes whole word memorising, multi-cueing (guessing) strategies, onset and rhyme exercises or strange procedures such as spelling words backwards or drawing around words to create shapes. Don’t use a tutor who suggests that, in addition to tutoring, your child’s decoding difficulties would benefit from glasses with tinted lenses, vision training, balancing exercises or any other unfounded ‘dyslexia’ therapy….see Room 101

The phonics intervention programme must work rapidly, with positive advances to the child’s reading and writing skills being perceptible to all involved – parent, child and tutor – within a short time. Furthermore, the tutor should, ”Involve the parent…directly in homework so that she has a positive role and can maintain gains between sessions and after sessions have ended.” (D. McGuinness WCCR p320)

Caution: If your child is receiving tuition using a high-quality phonics intervention programme, in school or out, it is always beneficial, sometimes vital, in order for the intervention to be fully effective, that your child is not confused by ‘mixed messages’ as a result of being expected to use the balanced word reading approach (multi-cue word-guessing) when literacy activities occur at other times during the school day.

”Missy says the private tutoring helped Matthew. But she felt like the balanced literacy instruction he was getting at school was undercutting what he was learning from his tutor. His tutor was teaching him how to decode words. At school he was being taught the cueing system.”
Episode 5. https://features.apmreports.org/sold-a-story/

Attention during learning. ”It’s really not fair to him that adults are teaching him two contradictory things. I teach him to sound out every word, but Reading Recovery encourages sounding out only as a last resort, and teaches children to attempt to read words beyond their decoding level (so, of course, the only thing they can do is guess)”

5. For prevention or intervention – teach your child yourself:

Parents can teach reading and spelling to pre-schoolers -> 6yrs old:
Teaching reading pre-school

High-quality phonics programmes: some provide training that is open to non-teachers
-see Phonics resources and programmes

Cumulative phonics intervention tutoring using Phonic Books: a slower-paced linguistic phonics intervention to help kids who have very poor memories to more easily remember the spelling alternatives: