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  • Writer's pictureAnn Sullivan

Phonics in Special - Keep calm and carry on...

Updated: Jul 23, 2022

The landmark Rose Report in 2006 signalled the change in England to teaching phonics in mainstream schools. Phonics is now well established as being vital for initial instruction in R and Y1, taught in the wider context of The Simple View of Reading (Gough and Tunmer 1985).

Many English speaking countries have been slow to follow suit. Australia, New Zealand, the USA and even our own Wales and Scotland still do not mandate that phonics is taught as the foundation of reading instruction.

But things are changing and they are changing fast. Research (and results from England - sadly hampered by Covid) are starting to influence things and a shift is almost tangible.

Pamela Snow, Professor of Cognitive Psychology in the School of Education at La Trobe University is at the forefront of this in Australia. In her recent post 'Leaving the Balanced Literacy habit behind: A theory of change', she describes the journey of initiating, implementing and securing effective change and, perhaps more crucially, how to cope with 'lapses'.

Professor Snow's post struck a chord with me as a practitioner working in special schools and settings in the UK.

If we look at the overall picture of special schools in the UK, most* are in a similar position as Australian schools are today. For a number of reasons, special schools lag behind their mainstream cousins in take-up of phonics. Where phonics is used, it is often used as one of a number of 'strategies' that include, whole word learning and multi-cueing, which are not supported by research and the science of reading.

In July 2021, the DfE published the Reading Framework and for the first time referenced teaching pupils with moderate to severe and complex needs when talking about phonics in schools. This is a clear signal that special schools and settings are expected to teach phonics in the same way as their mainstream cousins, as the foundation for reading (and spelling).

Special schools find themselves in the middle of a sea change that is both exciting and scary. Professor Snow's blog post is reassuring and pragmatic. I loved her analogy of trying to lose weight or take up a new exercise regime... we all know how hard they are to achieve! She talked about 'lapses' being inevitable when trying to implement any change. Change and evolution is a chance for schools to demonstrate resilience and self-compassion... pick yourself up, dust yourself down, take a deep breath, keep calm and carry on.

* There are, of course, some examples of excellent phonics provision in some special schools.

Schools might find the EEF's document, 'Putting Evidence to Work - A School's Guide to Implementation' helpful, which is an excellent model for introducing any new initiative.

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