What makes an effective phonics programme and how is it validated?

The news that the DfE won’t be publishing a full Letters and Sounds programme, or an updated progression, might have got you thinking about your school’s phonics provision. But what does it really mean when we talk about a ‘phonics programme’ and what should yours consist of? We’re here to help you break down the key elements that equip you for effective phonics teaching and to fill you in on the criteria the DfE uses to validate phonics programmes.

What should your phonics programmme contain?

An effective phonics programme (sometimes known as a systematic synthetic phonics or SSP programme) is made up of three key elements:

  • A teaching progression – like Read Write Inc. Phonics or Floppy’s Phonics, which provides a structured route for you to cumulatively teach children how sounds are represented by letters and how these sounds can be blended together to make words. You might be following a published programme’s progression or it might be one developed by your school over time, perhaps based on Letters and Sounds. Typically these programmes contain classroom resources such as flashcards and activity sheets, as well as support for assessment and for learners who are not making the required levels of progress.
  • Training – it’s important that all school staff understand the principles of synthetic phonics and the best way to support developing readers. Fully-trained staff understand what high-quality teaching looks like, which gives them the confidence to lead enjoyable lessons and to ensure that all children make progress.
  • Decodable readers – children need to practise their developing reading skills using books that gradually introduce letters and sounds. These texts should be closely matched to children’s secure phonics knowledge and should not require them to use other strategies to work out words. You may also want to consider using additional phonically-based readers, which match the progression of your phonics programme and also include a controlled number of words that aren’t yet decodable. These books contain extra vocabulary that you can pre-teach; they may be useful for stretching the top 20% of your class.

Why is it important for decodable books to match your phonics teaching progression?

Using books that do not closely match your phonics progression runs the risk of children encountering a large proportion of words that they have not been given the skills to read. This can inadvertently encourage them into using unhelpful strategies such as guessing from the picture or the context, or the first letter or shape of the word, and can undermine their confidence. Closely matching books to children’s phonics knowledge, on the other hand, increases the likelihood that they will experience success and increases their motivation. Ofsted’s views on the teaching of early reading can be found in paragraph 344 of the school inspection handbook.  

What is a validated phonics programme?

Since the DfE’s announcement, you might also have heard something about the ‘validation’ of phonics programmes. Between 2011 and 2014, the DfE asked publishers to submit their programmes for validation to prove that they had met a set of government criteria. This process has been re-opened, with a full list validated programmes due to be confirmed in Spring 2022. In the meantime, any that were previously validated, like Read Write Inc. Phonics and Floppy’s Phonics, will remain validated until they are submitted for re-validation.

Validated programmes will be those that have met all of the most recent DfE criteria for an effective phonics programme and have been tested and assessed to be of high quality. You can read the DfE’s full validation criteria here, or start with our quick overview. 

To be validated, phonics programmes will need to: 

  • Be a complete phonics programme, following a consistent framework, and using systematic synthetic phonics as the main route to reading unknown words.  
  • Start teaching phonic skills early in Reception, providing a structured route to passing the Phonics Screening Check and meeting expectations at the end of KS1.
  • Be designed for daily teaching sessions, with extensive teacher-child interaction that involves a multi-sensory approach, and which is adaptable for online delivery.
  • Offer a clearly defined, incremental sequence, cumulatively covering all the major grapheme-phoneme correspondences in English.
  • Teach children to identify and blend (synthesise) individual phonemes.
  • Teach children to segment spoken words into phonemes for spelling, and provide spelling practice through dictation.
  • Teach children to write words made up of learned GPCs, followed by simple sentences.
  • Teach children to decode and spell common exception words. 
  • Provide resources, including decodable readers, that enable you to deliver the programme effectively.
  • Enable children’s progress to be assessed, with clear ways to meet the needs of those who are at risk of falling behind.
  • Provide full guidance and programme-specific training to support your effective delivery of the programme. 

It is not mandatory to use a programme from the DfE’s validated list.  

Phonics is complicated, but we’re here to help!

Oxford offers you choice with Read Write Inc. Phonics and Floppy’s Phonics, plus a wide range of decodable readers matched to Letters and Sounds. To help you make sure you’re using the best option for your school, book a free, no obligation, Phonics Review with your dedicated and trained local Educational Consultant. 

Book a free Phonics Review >

You can get a useful overview of all our phonics support here.