Children who still need phonics

Children who are still working on the phonics phases, need to be taught at the correct phase for 15-20 mins each day. Without this they won't catch up. Different schools organise this in different ways. Some schools stream spelling/phonics sessions so that children in need of phonics get their teaching whilst the rest of the class are working on spelling. Others, include all children in the spelling session (with some differentiation - see below) but ensure that children are taken out at another time of day for their phonics session. Each method has pros and cons to be aware of. Streaming involves a lot of (trained adults) being available at the same time and requires a lot of rooms (phonics groups needs quiet spaces away from other groups so children can hear the phonemes), it also requires careful organisation to get all children to their groups quickly otherwise almost the whole session time can be taken up with getting to and from groups. On the other hand, when phonics groups go out at other times of day, this can be disruptive and care needs to be taken that children don't miss out on other subjects. Perhaps the biggest consideration is that when children are being streamed, they are getting 'alternative' spelling teaching compared with the rest of the class. They will make progress but as the rest of the class will be progressing at a similar speed, they are unlikely to catch up. When children are getting a (differentiated) spelling session PLUS a phonics session they are getting 'additional' spelling teaching. This gives them a better chance of progressing more quickly and catching up with the class.

There is no one size fits all solution. What is important is to constantly monitor provision. If children (especially whole groups of children) aren't making good progress and aren't 'getting' phonics then something is going wrong. At this point, use assessment data to figure out which children are affected, which bits of learning they aren't getting and dig deep to figure out why. Adapt and make changes to ensure that all children are getting the teaching that they need to make good progress.

Regardless of how the phonics input is delivered, it is vital that whenever children are being taught by someone other than the class teacher, the class teacher knows what the children are working on and how they are doing. Without that feedback the class teacher can't plan in applying opportunities using the correct phonemes/graphemes. Without applying opportunities, phonics learning (or any learning for that matter) tends not to stick.

Supporting children within spelling sessions

All the word lists for the Y2 units on SpellingPlay have been designed wherever possible to include words that involve revision of Phase 5 phonics. It is therefore very easy to adapt sessions to include children who are working at Phase 5.

Differentiation will depend on the specific unit being tackled. Lessons on adding suffixes can be adapted to suit children working on phonics as long as the suffixes (or prefixes) themselves are straightforward. For example, it is easy to find plenty of words ending with the -ing suffix for children working on Phase 4 - helping, jumping, punching, thumping, waiting. They can then play phonics games with these words whilst other children are exploring the way root words change when adding this suffix. Similarly, in the apostrophe unit, there are words with apostrophes that are learned as HFW at the earlier phases that children can play games with.

Sometimes there are sessions that can't easily be adapted for children working at a much earlier stage. For these sessions, and for other times when you may need independent activities for these children, ensure there are phonics games easily available that the children know how to play independently and word cards working on the phonemes they have been learning recently. It can be handy to ask any adults who teach a phonics group to save any word cards that they have used in sessions and at the end of the week put these in the drawer with the phonics games and then the following week swap these cards for a new set of word cards. It is also handy to have word and picture matching cards for each phase that children are working on. These can be used to play a range of games: snap, matching pairs, sorting games etc. If you have some timers handy, often a favourite game is simply to try matching the words with the pictures against the clock and then do it again and again trying to beat the best time.

The most obvious barriers to learning in spelling lessons are those related to phonics and spelling skills. However, these are most definitely not the only barriers to learning in spelling sessions. It is important to think about how to differentiate in ways that can help children overcome some of the other barriers that can cause problems. Vocabulary, motor skills, social skills, speaking and listening, vision and hearing are just a few areas in which barriers to learning in spelling sessions can arise. Some children may need extra support to understand what words mean (if you don't know what a word means you will never use it so being able to spell it is pointless). Other children may require additional intervention and/or special pens, pencil grips, writing surfaces or wobbly cushions to aid with motor skills. You may need to teach children some basic social phrases to help them communicate over spelling games or you may need to think carefully how to group children and how adults can best facilitate the social aspects of learning. You may just need to think carefully about the best location within the class for a child to sit. Paying close attention to the individual learning barriers that individual children may have and then putting things in place overcome them is the starting point for ensuring that all children are able to make good progress.

Extending children within spelling sessions

The nature of English spelling means that making things a bit harder is usually no problem at all. When children are confident with the basics of a spelling convention they can be encouraged to become familiar many other words that follow that convention, explore how similar conventions can be applied in other situations or begin to investigate exceptions to the conventions. Children should also be encouraged to have a really secure understanding of words and be able to apply them accurately and effectively. They can be encouraged to make posters, leaflets and games that go beyond simply demonstrating a convention and instead try to explain it. Perhaps most importantly, children who spell confidently should be encouraged to really reflect on how they learn to spell words - this can be a particularly tricky thing to figure out for children who feel like they just 'know' how to spell words. However, if they are going to become better learners and learn something new each lesson they will need to develop and reflect on their learning skills and challenge themselves to improve all the time. To prevent children who are 'naturals' at spelling from stagnating in spelling lessons, it is important to develop a classroom environment where learning is the aim. It is easy for children to value getting 10 out of 10 on a spelling test of 'easy' words (that they didn't actually have to learn at all - they already knew them) rather than valuing getting 6 out of 10 on a test of words that challenged and stretched them and that they learned a lot from.

Differentiation traps to avoid

  • Short, commonly used words are not necessarily easy (in fact they are often a bit of a pain) and long, unusual words are not necessarily hard. Don't fall into the trap of differentiating by length of word.
  • Spelling lessons don't have to get more boring as they get more advanced. Don't fall into the (very common) trap of thinking extension activities should be serious and a bit dull. If some children are using fun, interactive, physical, engaging games and activities to develop their spelling ability then everyone should be.
  • Weird and wonderful words may be tricky but they quite probably won't be useful. All children need to be expected to use words that they are learning in spelling in their own independent writing. By trying to choose challenging weird and wonderful words, it is possible to fall into the trap of choosing words that children simply won't use and therefore are unlikely to retain. Try to use words that children will actually use in their own writing. Consider adapting the learning in other ways such as trying to explain why a particular convention works, diving into applying these words really thoroughly or inventing a game for learning these words by really thinking about how they themselves learned them (and could therefore go on to learn other words).
  • Try to steer clear of making assumptions about which children will need support and which will need additional challenges in any session. Obviously, you will have some good general ideas about particular aspects that certain children may struggle with or find easy but be open to surprises as well. Wherever possible ensure that support is in a form that can be accessed by anyone who needs it (e.g. examples on the walls, simplified versions of games, peer support etc) rather than just giving specific different resources to particular children. Similarly, instead of introducing extension activities or additional challenging success criteria as being only for certain children or certain groups, try introducing them as being there for anyone to have a go at once they have confidently achieved the main success criteria. Be prepared to be surprised - possibly very surprised - at who tackles (and succeeds at) the extension activities.
  • Finally, try to avoid falling into the trap of thinking that differentiation should look the same way in each lesson. Differentiation isn't a single, simple, easy to define concept. It can look and feel completely different in different lessons. When attempting to to start from a fixed idea of what differentiation should be and setting out to make all lessons look like that (e.g. always having a set number of groups and word lists decided upon before the revisit part of the unit has shown what children actually need to learn), things often end up going a bit pear shaped.

Making it workable

Try keeping three simple(ish) questions in mind whilst planning and in particular whilst adapting planning in the light of the revisit part of each unit:

  • What does each of the children actually need to learn?
  • What barriers will they face in trying to learn those things?
  • What can be put in place to ensure that those barriers don't prevent them learning?

Tackling differentiation in this way can take a little time to get used to but actually saves a lot of time in the long run as the planning, teaching, assessing and differentiation are tightly tied up together rather than each being tackled as a separate job. Also, a lot of these processes can happen within the lesson where the children can be actively involved - making the learning more personalised whilst also saving teacher time.