About Paul Watthey

Director and Website Owner - Focus on Phonics Ltd

Alba Series – Phonic books for reluctant readers aged 8 – 12


 

Alba Series is a brand new phonic reading series for girls and boys aged 8 – 12 who are reluctant readers. The series runs parallel to the very successful Totem series, and is designed to appeal to older readers with exciting and motivating stories and illustrations.

Alba Series provides an exciting, fresh start for older pupils that builds up their reading skills from CVC (consonant/vowel/consonant) level through to vowel digraphs (Phases 2-5 of Letters and Sounds). This highly-structured, cumulative series includes 12 books which cover the essential phonics foundations that a ‘catch-up’ reader will need.

Take an adventure with Alba, a tiny hero in a huge world. 

Alba is a smart, empowering heroine who has to use her wit to overcome literally HUGE odds. Alba’s dad is a scientist. A breed of superbugs is destroying all the apple trees in the world and Alba’s dad is working hard to save them. He has the last apple pip left in the world safely at home in his flat. Max, from the lab, sneaks into the flat and tries to steal the pip. Alba escapes with it but Max shrinks her to 10cm tall! She has to get the pip to her dad in the lab and save the apple trees. She will need to dodge Max who is following her. 

Will she succeed in crossing the city and getting the pip safely to Dad? Will she ever be a normal size again?

The  books include the essential phonic foundations that a ‘catch up’ reader will need.

Features of the series:

  • clear phonic focus in each book
  • 3-4 lines of text for reluctant readers
  • cream backgfound to make text reader friendly
  • dyslexia-friendly font
  • strong female character
  • exciting and motivating story and illustrations
  • multi-syllabic words chunked for the reader
  • comprehensive workbook complements the series

These exciting new books can be found on the website here.

 

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trugs – Teach Reading Using GameS

Every so often a fantastic resource comes along that just has to be added to the website. I had read good comments about trugs card games from teachers and literacy specialists, so when I had a chance to see the games last week for myself, the decision was easy.

Trugs games were developed by Joanna Jeffery, a hiqhly qualified teacher and literacy expert.

The synthetic phonics structure has been put into 15 stages and Guess itMatch it and Take it card games are played at each stage to make reading practise easy and fun . Each stage builds on the one before, making it easy to follow. The best thing is that parents and children can forget about phonics stages and jargon and just enjoy playing simple traditional card games, so this great resource enables you to help your child through the process of learning to read without needing any training!

Readers of all ages, not just those with dyslexia, can improve their reading by playing trugs.

There are 3 boxes for use by parents at home or by tutors on a 1:1 basis and 3 boxes for use in schools. The great thing is that virtually all the words are different in the home and school boxes so the range of words available to read is vastly increased. There are also two boxes of ‘tricky words’ card games for helping children practise the high frequency words that they need to read early on.

If you have been searching for a simple, effective, fun and quick game to play to boost reading ability, then trugs games are the answer!

For more details of these games, you can find them on the website here

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Wordless Picture Books

At this time of year, many children will be very excited to be taking their first book home from school. Depending on the school, this may be a book for you to read to your child, a book with simple words that your child is expected to read to you, or a wordless book for you to share together.

Before starting school, some children will already have started on the road to reading – they may know lots of letter sounds and be able to read simple words or books. For others, this will be the very beginning of their journey on the road to reading – for some even their first introduction to books.

Realistically, if you have taken the time to read this blog, it is likely that your child is one of the former and you may be disappointed that the books that are appearing in the book bag are wordless picture books as this may seem like a step backwards. You are not alone – many parents struggle with the idea of wordless books and what to do with them.

Learning to read involves reading the words on the page (through decoding by phonics) and understanding what has been read (comprehension). 

Wordless picture books can help develop these important comprehension skills and they are particularly useful for children with language problems. Whilst looking through the book and taking time to discuss what is happening in  the pictures, there is no pressure to focus on trying to read the words. It is a perfect time to develop vocabulary, follow up on questions, and encourage your child’s own storytelling. It is a useful way of learning about story structure and sequencing of events.

One of the potential problems with using wordless picture books is that once books with words are introduced, children may have more of a tendency to rely on picture clues which in turn may lead to guessing words rather than actually reading them. This will tend to happen when reading schemes are used that are not decodable (i.e. can be read by sounding out the letters and blending them to read the words) but include lots of high frequency words so children have to learn to read them by sight. So when your child moves on to books with words (hopefully from a good phonically decodable reading scheme), they need to realise that they must sound out all through the word to read it, rather than looking at the first letter and guessing what it might be from the picture.

Many heated discussions routinely take place between those who teach purely with phonics and those who like to encourage children to use all the clues available to work out what words might be. On the face of it, it sounds a logical argument that children should use every clue available to read words, but the reality is that children then get distracted from actually developing an independent strategy for reading the words – something that becomes more important as they progress when there are no longer any pictures to help.

Your child’s teacher will no doubt be assessing their new class in the first few weeks to find out what skills they do have. Meanwhile, try to make the most of having the chance to have some stress-free time helping your child develop a love of reading books.

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Focus on Phonics Pinterest

Focus on Phonics now has a ‘Pinterest‘ page!

Pinterest is a pinboard-style photo sharing website that enables you to find and pin images from the web. You can create ‘boards’ to organise your pictures and you can link it to sites such as Twitter and Facebook to share pictures with others.

Our Pinterest page includes ideas for phonics activities and useful resource websites – hopefully it will grow over time into a useful phonics information area.

Click here to visit our Focus on Phonics Pinterest page

 

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Magic Belt Series – Phonic Books

We have just added the latest series of Phonic Books to the website. The ‘Magic Belt’ is a series of 12 books for older pupils who would benefit from starting a phonics programme from the very beginning, providing a prequel to the very popular ‘Totem’ series.

Starting at CVC word level, it progresses in small steps to CVCC, CCVC and CCVCC word levels and then introduces one consonant digraph at a time (ch, sh, th, ck, ng, wh, qu), allowing practice and consolidation at each level.

A fantastic reading resource for older beginner readers – more details can be found on the website here .

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Why ‘good’ readers might have performed poorly on the Year 1 Phonics Check

If threads on Mumsnet and TES are anything to go by, there appear to have been significant numbers of children with above average reading ability who did not reach the required standard on the phonics check (correctly reading 32 out of a possible 40 words).

So should parents be concerned if their child did not perform in the check as well as they were expected to, based on their current reading levels?

One of the aspects of the check that has caused a lot of debate has been the use of ‘pseudo’ or ‘alien’ words.

It appears that some able readers could decode the words but got confused when it was a word they’d never heard of. If they did not recognise it as a ‘real’ word, they changed it to something recognisable. Even if they had decoded the word correctly (e.g. ‘strom’) but then changed it to a real word (‘storm’), their final answer had to be taken and teachers were not allowed to give any help with this.

Some children will have been used to reading these pseudo words prior to the test (some phonics schemes routinely use them) and all children should have been made aware exactly which words in the test were real and which were not – maybe some teachers administering the check did not make this clear enough.

Setting this issue aside, there are more important reasons for a lower than expected performance.

  • Firstly if the child has poor phonic decoding skills and is reliant on whole word and context strategies, they would probably not have performed well on the check. This can lead to literacy problems later on, so it is useful to have it highlighted so it does not lead to future difficulties.
  • Secondly, if the child is not reading accurately, they may be flying through books, getting the general gist of the text but missing or guessing words as they go along. This may not present itself as a problem – particularly if the child reads silently – but as the texts get more challenging in Key Stage 2, this can become a problem. The habit of glossing over words is quite difficult to break once it has become entrenched, so again it is useful to highlight the problem of inaccurate reading now.

If a child is strong at writing and spelling, poor performance on the phonics reading check may be no real cause for concern. If a child has performed poorly on the check and their writing ability is not matched to perceived reading ability, it is likely that the check has highlighted a problem that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. This will enable the school to provide additional phonics support in the coming year.

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Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) – information for parents

The Early Years Foundation Stage is the time in your child’s life between birth and age 5.

This is an important stage as it helps your child get ready for school as well as preparing them for their future learning and successes.

Nurseries, pre-schools, reception classes and childminders registered to deliver the EYFS must follow a legal document called the Early Years Foundation Stage Framework. This sets the standards that all early years providers must meet to ensure that children learn and develop well and are kept healthy and safe.

The framework sets out:

  • The legal welfare requirements that everyone registered to look after children must follow to keep your child safe and promote their welfare
  • The 7 areas of learning and development which guide professionals’ engagement with your child’s play and activities as they learn new skills and knowledge
  • Assessments that will tell you about your child’s progress through the EYFS
  • Expected levels that your child should reach at age 5, usually the end of the reception year; these expectations are called the Early Learning Goals (ELGs)”

There is also guidance for the professionals supporting your child on planning the learning activities, and observing and assessing what and how your child is learning and developing.

The seven areas of learning and development are:

  • Communication and language development involves giving children opportunities to experience a rich language environment; to develop their confidence and skills in expressing themselves; and to speak and listen in a range of situations.
  • Physical development involves providing opportunities for young children to be active and interactive; and to develop their co-ordination, control, and movement. Children must also be helped to understand the importance of physical activity, and to make healthy choices in relation to food.
  • Personal, social and emotional developmentinvolves helping children to develop a positive sense of themselves, and others; to form positive relationships and develop respect for others; to develop social skills and learn how to manage their feelings; to understand appropriate behaviour in groups; and to have confidence in their own abilities.
  • Literacy development involves encouraging children to link sounds and letters and to begin to read and write. Children must be given access to a wide range of reading materials (books, poems, and other written materials) to ignite their interest.
  • Mathematics involves providing children with opportunities to develop and improve their skills in counting, understanding and using numbers, calculating simple addition and subtraction problems; and to describe shapes, spaces, and measures.
  • Understanding the world involves guiding children to make sense of their physical world and their community through opportunities to explore, observe and find out about people, places, technology and the environment.
  • Expressive arts and design involves enabling children to explore and play with a wide range of media and materials, as well as providing opportunities and encouragement for sharing their thoughts, ideas and feelings through a variety of activities in art, music, movement, dance, roleplay, and design and technology.

Assessment

If your child attends an Early Years setting, they will have a Progress Check between the age of two and three. This will identify their strengths and any area where progress is less than expected and where additional support may be needed.

All children are assessed at the end of the Early Years Foundation stage (in the summer term of their reception year). This assessment is called the EYFS Profile and gives a full picture of a child’s knowledge, understanding and abilities, their progress against expected levels, and their readiness for Year 1.

For more information on the EYFS and how you can help your child at home in supporting their learning and development, visit the Foundation Years website.

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English Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling Test (Key Stage 2)

The Department for Education has announced a new English grammar, punctuation and spelling test for pupils in Year Six. From 2013, the statutory test will replace the current English writing test that forms part of the National curriculum tests taken at the end of Key Stage 2.

Changes will also be made to GCSEs, so that from 2013 there will be marks awarded for spelling, punctuation and grammar in key subjects.

The new Key Stage 2 test will assess:

* vocabulary
* sentence-grammar
* spelling
* punctuation
(handwriting may also be included – this will be determined later in the year following trials)

One thing that seems to be apparent from the sample questions is that children will be required to know a lot of grammatical terms to enable them to do well in the test (adverb, subordinate clause, suffix, active v passive voice etc.).

The National Association for the Teaching of English has said that a revised focus on spelling, grammar and punctuation will “impoverish” teaching and turn pupils off the subject, claiming that grammar is best taught in context rather than through formal exercises. This is an argument that will surely be supported by others, as the question of whether formal grammar is an effective way of teaching children to write is a longstanding debate.

The new test reflects the Government’s beliefs that ‘children should have mastered these important aspects of English by the time they leave primary school, and that appropriate recognition should be given to good use of English throughout their schooling’.

Earlier this year a CBI survey of more than 500 firms showed that 42% were dissatisfied with school leavers’ use of English and 12% of employers provided remedial literacy training for graduates. Hopefully this new test in its final format can provide the basis for addressing these weaknesses.

Examples of the format of test questions can be found here

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English National Curriculum – Draft Proposals

Michael Gove has announced draft proposals for the English National Curriculum (Key Stage 1 and 2) that will be introduced to primary schools in September 2014.

The main aims of the new curriculum are to raise standards in English, whilst at the same time getting children reading for enjoyment.

There has been a lot of anti-phonics press lately, particularly leading up to the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check. Much of this is because of the emphasis being placed on decoding words rather than on encouraging reading for meaning and reading for pleasure.

The draft curriculum has obviously been designed with these criticisms firmly in mind. There is a strong emphasis on phonics, but also on other reading skills. It explicitly states that different kinds of teaching are needed for word reading and for comprehension.

I hope that this will be well received. Something drastic needs to be done to raise the reading standards in this country. It is shocking that so many children are still leaving primary school unable to access the curriculum due to poor reading skills. It is also sad that there is so much vitriol whenever the subject of reading and phonics is discussed by those in favour and those against placing undue importance on it.

If the new curriculum can reduce the arguing and achieve what it is setting out to do, then the future could be brighter for many more young readers.

Detailed information has now been published in the national curriculum consultation document published February 2013  – see here

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Year 1 Phonics Check – revisited

There has been an enormous amount of interest over the past few weeks from parents looking for information on the Phonics Screening Check (test).

I have to admit to actually turning off the paid Google ad for this due to scarily high click-through rates!

The main thing to remember about the check is that the sole aim is to measure your child’s competence in decoding words – saying the sounds from left to right through the word and blending the sounds to hear the whole word.

During Reception and Year 1, your child will have been taught the basic code of the English language and common spellings of the advanced alphabetic code. If you want a detailed summary of this, see The English Alphabet Code (Author – Debbie Hepplewhite).

If your child already reads well, they will still take the test. It will check whether they are using their phonic knowledge to read words, or have learnt lots of words from memory and now have a good sight vocabulary. That is why the nonsense (or alien / fake) words are included – to make sure children actually sound out all through the word to read it. The test will spot any gaps in phonic knowledge and where additional support might be required.

There is already a lot of testing in schools, but despite this, a large number of children are still leaving primary school unable to read properly. Until now, there has not been a test for the very skill that underpins all the other reading skills such as reading fluency, reading with expression or reading comprehension. These are vital skills, and highly important so your child understands what they have read, but your child needs to learn how to actually read (decode) words first.You can only understand what you have read if you can read it in the first place.

This latest test will hopefully pick up any problems at a very early stage. All good schools will have been doing a routine phonics check, but until now it has not been compulsory.

At the end of the day, the results will show if a school is teaching children the basic skills they need to read. Can’t really argue with that can you……….?

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