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Insights | Focusing on Phonics at Huili

14 Oct 2018

Phonics, the method of teaching reading, writing and spelling of the English language, is understandably a central focus of our efforts at Huili School Shanghai to deliver a truly bilingual education experience to all of our pupils. Our teaching staff have worked incredibly hard to develop a phonics programme that caters to the linguistic abilities of each and every Huili pupil, ensuring that they can access the whole of our curriculum to the fullest. Given its importance, we feel that it is valuable for our parents to have a firm understanding of how phonics is taught at Huili School as your child progresses through the different grades. Not only does this allow you to understand the challenges and materials that they are currently exploring, it also presents opportunities for you to support their efforts at home. Introducing the Read Write Inc Programme Set up by Ruth Miskin, Read Write Inc is a proven synthetic phonics programme that is taught in over 5000 schools in the US and internationally. In keeping with Huili’s educational philosophy, our adaptation of this combined reading, writing and spelling course fuses the best elements of the British and Shanghai curriculums. Read Write Inc is designed for children as young as four. Once they have mastered each element of this course, we consider them ready to move on to our language and literacy programme (see below). How long this process takes depends on the individual child. As soon as your child arrives at Huili, we conduct a quick yet accurate assessment of their English language ability level, to see where they should begin. We then reassess each child every 8-10 weeks, to make sure that they are best placed to make the most of the phonics programme as their confidence and abilities increase. This means that children who are progressing very quickly are constantly encouraged to improve by taking on more challenging words and skills, while those who are struggling are identified and receive one-to-one attention so they are never left to flounder.

Many children arrive at Huili already knowing their letter sounds and names, but this is not essential. Read Write Inc focuses intently on teaching children their letter sounds as a top priority. This is because understanding letter sounds is essential in allowing pupils to sound out words: if you cannot recognise letter sounds, you cannot sound out words, which means you cannot effectively spell, subsequently stopping you from being able to write. This is why letter sounds come first. From there, we introduce letter names, building towards spelling, sentence structure and grammar. A very important tool in this process is “Fred Talk”. Fred is our friendly frog puppet who only speaks using letter sounds, never in full words. When speaking to the children, Fred would never say “cat”, but instead would sound out the letters “Cuh-ah-tuh”. This idea of “Fred talk” is critical for allowing pupils to use what they have already learned to try to spell any word they encounter by sounding it out. We are trying to eliminate the question: “Teacher, how do you spell this word?”.  We want pupils to always feel like they can attempt to spell the word themselves. This teaches them to take responsibility for their learning, to use their sounds to build their words. Furthermore, it encourages them to go back over work, to check, edit and improve. These are all essential skills needed for lifelong learning.

Our most important consideration at this stage is ensuring that each child works with other children at the same level. We focus on providing them with exactly what they need at every stage of their phonics development journey. The programme is helpfully divided into eight colour-coded books for this purpose of easily measuring and tracking their progress. Once they have mastered all eight books, the pupil is considered to have all the necessary skills to move on to the language and literacy programme. Advancing to the Language and Literacy Programme Given that English is the second language of all our pupils, we would expect them to be starting it in grade 2 or 3. Once again, our staff use their expert knowledge of both programmes to accurately assess your child’s progress, ensuring that they only enter the language and literacy programme once they are fully prepared. The programme is designed to take fluent readers and extend their abilities towards analysing texts, writing and spelling more confidently, preparing them for a deeper understanding of the English language. We discuss and explore each new text read in class, encouraging pupils to apply its ideas and lessons to their own lives and experiences. Our teachers always try to bring each new story to life by acting it out, having fun with the characters and situations so that the listening pupils can visualise the story more fully.

The key is encouraging enjoyment and engagement with reading. We want pupils to love exploring new books and stories, leading them to become independent and creative thinkers who are able to form and express opinions about what they are reading. We aim to take them beyond a basic understanding of the story and enable them to summarise, ask questions and make inferences about what is happening, even if the book does not explicitly tell them everything. Each text is read through multiple times and discussed deeply as a class before moving on to the next. Grammar is also introduced at this stage, often “by stealth” rather than explicitly! By this we mean that grammatical concepts are introduced naturally through the stories being read, so pupils learn about them without needing a dedicated lesson full of technical jargon and long, complicated words. This prepares our pupils to engage with more complex writing tasks. Writing is often considered by most pupils to be the hardest and scariest part of learning English, but by this point the children are confident enough to tackle it, as they think back to what they have already been doing with partners or in group work. Some form of writing is completed every day. Often it might be just a few sentences, though we also introduce extended pieces of writing. These tasks are supported by lots of talking in class about what the pupils want to write; speaking and listening in this way is proven to build confidence in pupils before they begin challenging writing tasks.

All of the activities in the programme are supported by daily writing and grammar homework, which helps solidify what they know. To help with this element, pupils have their learning logs which come home with them. The learning log for a writer is much like sketchbook for an artist. It allows them to engage with new concepts, trial new ideas and keep track of their progress. Grade 6: Moving beyond the L&L programme By the time pupils arrive at grade 6, they are ready to take on much more advanced and involved reading and writing tasks. For example, the first unit being taught in grade 6 right now is “biography and autobiography”, focusing on the story of Boy by Roald Dahl about his own experiences as a schoolchild. Each lesson focuses on different aspect of writing: expanded noun phrases, compound sentences, tenses and so on. By the end of the current half term, grade 6 pupils will be set the task of writing an autobiography-style extended piece that uses all of the various skills and elements they have learned.

How to help your child at home As always, we welcome your support and input in your children’s education. Since children only get better at reading, writing and spelling with practice, it is always important to give them the opportunity to practise at home. Reading stories with your child is one of the most effective aids to phonics learning. It’s also perfectly okay to be reading their favourite stories over and over again. Reading at home should not be overly difficult, it needs to be fun and pacey. If your child is struggling over multiple words, they are most likely not understanding or enjoying the story, so make reading at home fun, light and not unduly challenging. Engaging with your child’s learning log is another great way to help them. Read through their log with them while asking questions about the activities they have been doing, perhaps testing them on occasion. However, the key is to demonstrate interest and encourage them to interact with the log frequently.

We hope that this has been an informative overview of how phonics is taught at Huili School Shanghai. We thank you for your unwavering support for all our efforts and we hope that you enjoy witnessing your children develop into confident, talented and creative readers, spellers and writers.