Letters and sounds: a note of reassurance

    Published: 20 April 2021

    Until recently, it looked as though the government were going to reinvest in the widely used Phonics programme, Letters and Sounds, in order to create a restructured and fully resourced version. The DfE originally commissioned Letters and Sounds, and published it back in 2007. Whilst the methodology of this programme is solid, the original resource was not updated alongside the National Curriculum in 2014. If you use Letters and Sounds, you will be familiar with the phases of phonics acquisition that children undertake for reading and spelling. However, whilst the first five phases remain broadly relevant, the current Primary English Curriculum identifies a small number of objectives for Y1 that are not covered in the Letters and Sounds phases usually taught in Y1. Moreover, Phase 6 has been entirely subsumed by the Y2 programme of study for phonics and spelling outlined in the National Curriculum. More graphemes have been added; some have moved year groups. So, whilst Letters and Sounds remains completely workable, it would be fair to say that a refresh was due.

    Over the years, you may have found yourself supplementing Letters and Sounds with resources from providers such as Smartkids, Phonics Play, Collins Big Cats or Twinkle. The DfE recently had this to say about the programme: “The 2007 Letters and Sounds handbook, published under the previous Government, has never been a full Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) programme. For a number of years, effective teaching using Letters and Sounds has relied on schools themselves building a programme around the handbook.” In many respects, this is similar to other aspects of the curriculum: schools may buy into handwriting, spelling, reading and even planning schemes or resources to help them deliver the curriculum creatively and efficiently.

    On 30th March 2021, the Department for Education announced that it was not going to continue with its direct involvement in the restructuring of Letters and Sounds. They said, “This in no way reflects the quality of the work produced, but the Department’s current policy is that SSP programmes should be created by teachers and phonics experts. This means that the Department will not publish a full Letters and Sounds programme, nor an updated progression.” They are accepting submissions from publishers for full Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) programmes to go into an updated catalogue of providers. Last year they commissioned a group of outstanding schools linked to  Little Sutton and Wandle English Hubs, and overseen by trusted phonics experts, to produce a more complete resource for Letters and Sounds. This included videos for home learning and training materials for English Hub partner schools. You may well have made use of the free video lessons available on the Letters and Sounds Website, during periods of lockdown during the pandemic. Earlier this month, Little Sutton and Wandle English Hubs announced that they were driving forward, along with their other phonics experts, to complete the fully revised Letters and Sounds SSP initially commissioned by the DfE. However, there are many other experts also submitting tenders. It is worth noting that the title Letters and Sounds is not trademarked, so there will be no “Collin the Caterpillar Cake” style court cases if anyone uses this familiar name. The only stipulation is that if publishers do use it, then it must be prefaced with their own name. Therefore, Wandle and Little Sutton are producing their resource under the (not so catchy) title of Little Wandle Letters and Sounds Revised SSP. This does not mean it is endorsed by the government or will be the phonics provider of choice moving forward.

    So what does this mean for your school? Perhaps nothing if you are happy that your programme is comprehensive, your training remains up to date, you are aware of any changes the national curriculum has made to Year 1 and 2 learning and very importantly, that your reading books all align with the Phonics Progression outlined in the Letters and Sounds document. Don’t forget that the revised HFL Guided Reading Toolkit shows you how to align your books with the phonics phases (much as publishers have realigned content to match phonics phases for L&S but retained bands to support progression resources). Herts for Learning Advisers were part of the original training and piloting programme for Letters and Sounds and still deliver up to date training to support schools.

    In summary, if you feel that Letters and Sounds is serving you well, and that you have built a ‘programme’ around it that offers support, guidance, resources and training, we can’t see that there is any reason to change it. But what if you don’t feel that your phonics programme is working for you? We would urge you to be cautious before throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The validation process will not be completed until Spring 2022. After this point, there will be a new catalogue of approved providers of SSP programmes. The ones who make the cut will need to provide a full resource of teaching materials, resources, texts and training so you will want to wait to ensure you are investing into quality materials. The government has outlined sixteen criteria for publishers who wish to tender applications over the next few months. Anything they produce will have to satisfy these conditions. You may find it useful to study these, as well as the related footnotes in order to perform an audit of your own phonics provision in school. How far does it align with these criteria? Where might you need to shore things up? If your phonics outcomes are not as you hoped, how far do you analyse your own systems and teaching? When (if at all) did staff delivering phonics teaching last have official training?

    If, after all, you conclude that your own phonics programme does need a radical overhaul, take time to do your research and wait for the conclusion of the validation process. It might be unwise to rush into purchasing an expensive new product that does not ultimately receive official endorsement. Do speak to your link English adviser or contact us directly if you would like any further advice.

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