Phonics – Systematic & Incidental



There are approximately 175 spellings of the 44 sounds in the English Language.  A high-quality systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) programme will provide a sequence of sound-spelling correspondences; this sequence should be taught logically through a basic code in EYFS and a complex code in KS1.  

A basic code usually offers 1 spelling for each sound (e.g. children are taught that in words like ‘sat’, ‘sit’, ‘stop’, ‘dust’ and ‘spring’, ‘s’ represents the sound /s/):


A complex code includes the spelling alternatives for sounds (e.g. ‘rain’, ‘play‘, ‘cake‘ and ‘great’) and pronunciation alternatives for spellings (e.g. ‘great’, ‘dream’ and ‘thread’):


Students should have access to decodable readers (phonically controlled texts) so that they can develop their reading automaticity.  (I teach phonics through Sounds-Write, and I use decodable readers written by Sounds-Write and Phonic Books.)


Phonics teaching should not be limited to, or by, your SSP sequence.  Students will inevitably encounter words, that they are expected to read and spell, that contain sound-spelling correspondences that they have not yet learnt.


star words `1

(vocabulary from a Year 1 Mathematics Mastery lesson)

This includes, but is not limited to, ‘Common Exception Words’.  A student working on the simple code will have learnt that ‘e’ sounds like /e/ in words like ‘egg’, ‘bend’ and ‘stress’, so words like ‘he‘, ‘she‘ and ‘me‘ are exceptions for that student, as they have not yet learnt /ee/ as an alternative pronunciation for ‘e’.


(extract from the first 100 HFWs)

So, how should teachers approach these words which contain unknown sound-spelling correspondences?  Simply, teach the sound-spelling correspondences! For example:

Child (reading): ‘h’…’e’… heh?
Teacher: In this word, this is /ee/
Child: ‘h’…’ee’… he

The exchange above would take approximately 10 seconds, and is exactly how I would teach phonics incidentally as and when the need arises.  Similarly, writing provides the perfect opportunity to teach code beyond the SSP sequence:

Child (writing): How do I write the /ee/ in dream?
Teacher: In ‘dream’, you spell /ee/ like this *writes ‘ea’*

This is in-line with advice from the Department for Education (2014), who recommend drawing pupils’ attention to sound-spelling correspondences ‘that do and do not fit in with what has been taught so far’. 

Every reading and writing experience with a child is an opportunity to teach the code incidentally, but teachers need excellent code knowledge to be able to do so.  Refresh your knowledge of the consonant sounds and spellings here and the vowel sounds and spellings here.


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