‘Flexible Phonics’ aims to train Reception teachers to optimise and complement their existing phonics teaching to improve children’s word reading.
Flexible Phonics approaches include teaching children to add another step after they have blended phonemes to recognise whether they have successfully identified a word and if not that they will need to use alternate strategies to identify it. This ‘set-for-variability’ approach could be particularly powerful in enabling children to independently read novel exception words (words that break phonic rules, such as ‘the’, ‘two’, ‘between’, ‘above’).
The second strategy ‘direct mapping’ involves children reading texts that include several examples of the Grapheme Phoneme Correspondences (GPCs) that they have just learned, and overtime integrate with children’s texts to become confident, motivated, readers.
The EEF funded this research because positive findings were found for the programme’s impact on children’s word reading in a study in Canada when delivered to small groups of struggling readers.
More broadly, phonics approaches have been consistently found to be effective in supporting younger readers to master the basics of reading, with an average impact of an additional +5 months’ progress in our Teaching and Learning Toolkit.
Pupils who participated in Flexible Phonics made the equivalent of 1 month’s less progress, on average in word recognition than pupils who did not receive the programme.
Pupils who participated in Flexible Phonics made the equivalent of zero months progress, on average in reading comprehension and correcting deliberately mispronounced words than children in other schools.
Exploratory subgroup analyses found pupils who were eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) who participated in Flexible Phonics made the equivalent of no month’s additional progress in word recognition, compared to similar children who did not receive the programme. There was marginal evidence that in Flexible Phonics schools where some pupils also received the Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI), pupils made more progress in word recognition than in other schools.
Teachers and TAs in Flexible Phonics schools reported that it was relatively straightforward to integrate the programme into existing phonics practice. Around 100 Teachers and TAs surveyed in Flexible Phonics schools suggested that there was no change in their confidence and overall practice regarding phonics teaching, although confidence was already high at the start of delivery. They indicated that children engaged in activities well, approached reading with confidence and increased resilience.
Please note that this trial took place during the COVID-19 pandemic (the 2020/21 academic year) so some aspects of Flexible Phonics delivery were changed to accommodate this, e.g., the length of programme delivery. There were partial school closures from January to March 2021 and subsequent studies have shown impacts on children’s language and communication skills from these. This may have affected the impact observed from Flexible Phonics in the study.