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  • Writer's pictureAnn Sullivan

Taking the /or/ out of phonics

The sound of a baby crying, a dog barking and that awful chattering that magpies make are all alarm calls that urge us to do something – feed me, run away or (according to the great Agatha Christie) hide the family silver, that sort of thing. I have another one to add to the list. It’s, “Aw…”

When I hear it, I know that the person I am speaking to is probably very, very, VERY lovely and terribly well-meaning but is not thinking in quite the same way as me. My call to action is to, as kindly as possible, shake them up (metaphorically).

Before I focused entirely on phonics and reading/spelling I worked for many years as an outreach/advisory teacher. I worked on a small team that supported the inclusion of pupils with physical disabilities and complex medical needs in mainstream primary and secondary schools in a large city in the North of England. It was the second-best job in the world (the first being what I do now, of course). We supported schools to manage and meet the needs of pupils with significant challenges to accessing the school environment, social interaction, the curriculum and learning.

I encountered ‘Aw…’ quite a lot.

Imagine the scenario… I have just been introduced to a young person and I am chatting to them and also observing and thinking about what they are able do. The person who is doing the ‘Awing’ is usually thinking about the wheelchair, the talker, the splints, the walking frame, the helmet etc. and is focused on all the differences in mobility, behaviour, learning, speech and communication and what they can’t do. They are usually anxious about not knowing, anxious about the unfamiliarity and anxious they will ‘get it wrong’. As a result of this cognitive overload, thoughts become parcelled up with a good dollop of ‘sympathy’ and expressed in a single phrase, “Aw…”

Unfortunately, with “Aw” comes a whole bundle of unintended things trailing behind… low expectations of achievement, quasi-inclusion and social isolation, to name but three.

Possibly I have watched too many Agatha Christie adaptations on TV, but I do sort of see myself as something of a Miss Marple in these situations. I refer here to her detective skills, not to her capacity to repeatedly find herself at the epicentre of a murder or two. When I meet a young person professionally like this, a mental list runs through my mind: what can they do independently? what could they do with the assistance of a piece of kit or modification to the resources or the environment? what could they do with the assistance of a peer buddy or adult? and what could they do with significant adaptation and some creative thinking? The whole point of this forensic analysis is to find a way for the young person to access the curriculum alongside their classmates.

This process alone will not yield good results unless, like Miss Marple, I have collected lots of information and made some decisions based on the evidence. I need to know as much as I can about the young person and their needs, from education and healthcare professionals, parents and family but most importantly from the child themselves. One of the most important questions we can ask is, “How would you like to be supported?” To. The. Actual. Person.

My somewhat pragmatic, problem solving approach, coupled with modelling an open and straightforward dialogue with the young person about all manner of things usually starts the ‘shake up’ process (kindly I hope) in the adult who is 'Awing'. Empathising with the youngster that splints are a pain (literally if they have had a growth spurt) but are super important, might be something simple that the supporting adult has shied from talking about. I have seen many a secret eye-roll cross the face of a young person in response to something that is said about and around them. Open communication is crucial and once the adult sees the purpose of the equipment, looks at it from the child’s perspective and sees beyond it, then there is that subtle shift in relationship to the benefit of all. I have supported some amazing teachers and teaching assistants over the years and watched them develop from ‘anxious to expert’ rapidly as their confidence grows. Alongside this, their pupils blossom.

The impact of ‘Aw’ can also be seen when we look at learning to read and write. There are still those who see these as things that pupils with complex additional needs cannot achieve. They can’t do phonics because:

· they can’t focus and attend for long

· they can’t hear sounds (they have a hearing impairment)

· they can’t hear sounds (they can’t isolate phonemes)

· they can’t process sounds and work with them to blend etc

· they can’t speak

· they can’t hold a pen to write

· they can’t type to write

· they can’t see the letters (they have a visual impairment)

· they are visual learners, so phonics doesn’t cut it


· ‘Aw’ they are too…. disabled

Actually, academic research is gathering pace and showing that all of these things are not true. The plain fact is that historically we made assumptions about these learners, assumptions that have not just taken root and grown, they have become a forest. Many young people have simply never been given the opportunity to learn to read via phonics. This, despite the fact that research evidence strongly indicates that phonics (knowledge of the alphabetic code and phonemic skills) is crucial to the development of a fluent competent reader. I can’t fly a plane… not because I am inherently incapable of learning how but because I’ve never had the opportunity to do so.

The reading landscape in England changed significantly with the Rose Report in 2005 and the subsequent DfE policy on teaching the foundations of reading (and spelling) via phonics. This has applied to mainstream schools since, but special schools slipped under the radar. Thanks to the views bulleted above, phonics hasn't been widely taught in special schools and strategies that have been largely discredited by research, such as multi-cueing and whole word learning, prevail. This has been exacerbated by the fact that appropriate, accessible phonics teaching materials and resources were never developed so there has been little to encourage teachers to try. With the publication of the DfE’s Reading Framework in 2021 special schools are only now moving towards phonics instruction for their pupils (firmly embedded in the wider view of reading as represented in Gough and Tunmer’s The Simple View of Reading or Scarborough’s Reading Rope, of course).

Sadly, in my role as a reading/phonics ‘person’ I am still encountering ‘Aw’ and I am still (kindly I hope) shaking stuff up. Miss Marple assembles the suspects and takes out the guilty party. So, my plea is, let’s take out the ‘Aw’ (but not the /or/) from phonics.

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