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The Key To Reading and Writing

Sara Wernham – May 2013

I became involved with Jolly Phonics when I arrived, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, at my first teaching job. Jolly Phonics itself was at a fairly early stage of its development; indeed, at that point it wasn’t yet called ‘Jolly Phonics’! Sue Lloyd, the originator of Jolly Phonics, had been developing her ideas over a number of years, while working at the school.  Over time, Sue experimented and discovered that they needed to teach the letter sounds separately; how to put them together to read; and how to listen for the sounds in a word to spell. She also realised that by doing ‘silly’ actions that linked to the sound being learnt, the children remembered them more easily.

I had applied for, and got my first teaching job in the school after going for an interview in the summer term for a junior class teacher. When I arrived the following September I was told there had been a bit of a reshuffle and in fact I would be teaching in reception. Being too naive to know better I smiled, said fine, and stayed – one of the best decisions of my life, as I then became involved in developing Jolly Phonics.

Youth is a wonderful thing. I should have said no thanks and left, as I had no idea at all how to teach a) young children or b) reading and writing, as I had done a middle school teaching course. We knew we didn’t know how to teach reading and writing but had been told not to worry as children who couldn’t read and write weren’t our responsibility. They were obviously special needs.

So there I was with a class of 24 and no idea what to do; no long, medium or short-term plans, as these were the days before such things were common practice. I was also renowned in my family as being an avid reader but an appalling speller. How to spell words was always a bit of a mystery, and no one could understand why. I often used to get told off for not trying, although I was obviously bright and managed to navigate myself through school, O and A levels, a degree and a PGCE. So obviously I just didn’t apply myself to spelling properly.

I always say I really learnt to read and spell with my first reception class.

It sounds ridiculous to say this now, but I had absolutely no idea that the letters in a word had anything to do with how the word sounded. It was a complete revelation when I discovered this. It explained why I couldn’t spell, as I was looking at each word as a separate thing and learning each word as a complete unit. However I realized that it also explained why, despite being a good reader, I had problems with unusual words I had not come across before, such as names or places.

My first reaction on realizing that letters and sounds were linked was anger – anger that I had spent all those years struggling when I needn’t have done.

Despite the handicap of having me as a teacher, and owing to the generous and experienced support I received, as well as being able to use the forerunner to the Jolly Phonics scheme, we all not only survived but thrived. I always say that if I could use it successfully that year then anyone would be able to!

My own experience also makes me very passionate that no one (teacher or child) should be left to struggle for the same reasons I did. Yes, English is a complex language and yes, lots of words and their spellings from other languages have been absorbed into it, but the majority of them are regular if you understand how the language works and have been taught the alternative spellings and how to cope with the complexities. The basic knowledge is taught in the Early Years but that is not the end of the story. It needs to be refined, certainly throughout Key Stage 1, but also beyond that as the children’s abilities and knowledge develop.

Using the Jolly Phonics programme, including Jolly Grammar, the skills they need for reading and writing are built up in a carefully structured way. Some children find learning to read and write easy, others find it more difficult, and some have problems and have to work harder, but all need to know how the language works and how to apply the knowledge and skills they have to enable them to become independent readers and writers.

Sara Wernham – May 2013