The Shift from Letters & Sounds Phase 4: Understanding the Evolution of Systematic Synthetic Phonics programmes
The English language's alphabetic code is intricate and fascinating. To teach children how to read and write effectively, systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) programmes were introduced. One of the key players was 'Letters & Sounds (DFE, 2007),' a six-phase teaching programme (although arguably this was never a full programme, merely a skeleton framework). However, a noticeable shift has occurred in newer SSP programmes, particularly moving away from the usage of Phase 4 of 'Letters & Sounds.' But why is this? And what were the inherent problems with Phase 4?
Phase 4 of 'Letters & Sounds' was primarily designed to consolidate children's knowledge. At this stage, no new grapheme-phoneme correspondences were taught. Instead, children were encouraged to practise blending and segmenting longer words with adjacent consonants, such as 'stamp, twist, grasp,' and polysyllabic words. Although this phase was important for boosting confidence and enhancing fluency, it had its shortcomings.
1. Lack of New Learning Content
The most significant concern about Phase 4 was that it introduced no new phonemes or graphemes. Instead, it focused on repetition and consolidation. While revision and practice are crucial, this phase extended over a four-to-six-week period, which was a considerable duration for young learners to engage with no new phonics elements. The absence of new content for an extended period can potentially lead to a lack of engagement and stagnation in progress.
2. Insufficient Complexity
Phase 4 put heavy emphasis on blending and segmenting words with adjacent consonants. However, it did not offer enough challenge or diversity for children who master these skills quickly. In synthetic phonics, children need to progress from simple to more complex code knowledge. A phase that focuses primarily on repetition, without incorporating new or challenging learning aspects, does not cater effectively to all learners' needs.
3. Ineffective Transition
Another issue was the ineffective transition from Phase 4 to Phase 5. Phase 5 introduced new graphemes for reading and alternative pronunciations, which was a huge leap from the repetitive and practice-based nature of Phase 4. The lack of new content in Phase 4 didn't prepare children for the complexity of Phase 5, creating a disjointed learning progression.
Consequently, newer synthetic phonics programmes, such as Reading Planet's Rocket Phonics, have shifted away from using Letters & Sounds Phase 4, addressing these limitations by introducing new learning content and ensuring a smooth transition between phases. These programmes incorporate a more comprehensive approach, seamlessly blending the reinforcement of learnt phonemes and the introduction of new ones. They ensure that learning remains engaging, stimulating, and well-paced, reducing the risk of disengagement or learning plateaus.
Newer programmes also focus on a structured and coherent learning progression, ensuring each phase builds on the last and prepares for the next. This approach helps children make consistent progress in their phonics journey.
The shift away from Letters & Sounds Phase 4 has primarily been driven by the need for continuous learning, challenge, and a smooth, effective transition across phases. As synthetic phonics programmes continue to evolve, the primary aim remains to create the most effective, engaging, and inclusive learning journey for all children.