After the Year 1 Phonics Check: working with individual students

Grouping students of varying abilities

A useful first step for teachers is to group students into three groups according to their results on the Phonics Check. These three groups are fluent, developing and struggling decoders.

  • Fluent decoders: correctly respond to most words in sections 1 and 2. They display well-developed decoding skills. This corresponds to a score of 28-40 on the Phonics Check.
  • Developing decoders: correctly respond to most words in section 1 but are challenged by some or much of section 2. They display basic decoding skills. This corresponds to a score of 20-27 on the Phonics Check.
  • Struggling decoders: experience high levels of challenge in section 1. They display minimal decoding skills. This corresponds to a score of 0-19 on the Phonics Check.

Decoders

Fluent decoders

Fluent decoders display well-developed decoding skills. They correctly respond to most words in sections 1 and 2 of the Phonics Check. These students should continue to be systematically instructed in letter–sound knowledge in the mapped and agreed sequence, alongside decoding skills crucial for word recognition. This can include:

  • increasing the complexity of phonemic awareness development, such as practising the more complex skill of substituting phonemes instead of simply identifying initial sounds
  • increasing the exposure to structurally more complex words to include multisyllabic words with larger consonant strings, for example, CVC to CCCVCC.

If any errors persist, this may indicate that the sounds in particular words have yet to be taught or need review and consolidation. Errors may also indicate the need for instruction in particular rules or exceptions in spelling and reading.

Fluent decoders are moving towards reading a wider range of more complex texts and will be learning to read and spell more complex words. Their vocabulary and comprehension will be developing to match their strengths in oral language development.

Teachers need to ensure that these students have comprehension and vocabulary skills on a par with the texts they can decode.

Case studies: fluent decoders

Two case studies featuring fluent decoders focus on students Aylam Kaib and Eden Wilkey.

Fluent decoders – Phonics Check records and teacher analysis shows the results achieved by Aylam and Eden and how the teacher interpreted these results then noted next steps for learning for each student.

For example, Aylam needs specific instruction in r-controlled vowels (ar, ir or ur). He also needs practice with phoneme deletion and addition in order to build phonic skills in more complex words.

His teacher will continue to provide opportunities for Aylam to develop his vocabulary and comprehension skills. Providing books and oral language activities that match his interests would be a good way of developing vocabulary, as research has shown that reading volume is the prime contributor to differences in students’ vocabularies (Cunningham and Stanovich, 1998).

Further advice on working with fluent decoders

Teachers working with students who are fluent decoders can use a range of effective strategies.

Phonics concepts and phonics automaticity

Teachers can extend students’ knowledge of phonics concepts and improve their phonics automaticity as they explore increasingly sophisticated content, conceptual thinking and more challenging vocabulary.

Comprehension skills

Some students can become expert decoders without necessarily developing their comprehension skills: for those students, teachers should consider employing more strategies to support comprehension development and to extend their functional vocabulary. The teaching and development of fluency becomes more of a focus as students read a wider range of lengthier texts.

Writing activities

Teachers can gain valuable insight by observing which letter patterns a student chooses to represent sounds in their writing. This will demonstrate how well they are applying their growing knowledge of correct letter–sound relationships.

Research shows that writing activities can contribute to alphabetic knowledge, phonological awareness and reading capability. Consistent mistakes, such as ‘grownd’ for ‘ground’, provide evidence for the next teaching point in the spelling/writing program. In this case, the letter sequence for ‘ground’ has not been securely mapped in the student’s long-term memory and requires further practice.

Writing activities can also include a focus on the morphology of words to help students with spelling conventions. For example, the past tense of ‘jump’ is not ‘jumpt’ but ‘jumped’, where -ed is the morpheme used for past tense.

Cunningham AE and Stanovich KE (1998). ‘What reading does for the mind’. American Educator, 22(1–2):8–15

Developing decoders

Developing decoders display basic decoding skills. They correctly respond to most words in section 1 of the Phonics Check, but are challenged by some or much of section 2.

These students are still consolidating their phonics learning and need targeted lessons to help them address specific gaps in phonics concepts and skills, such as blending and segmenting.

Teachers can examine their Phonics Check results to identify the particular letter–sound relationships the students do not know. Some particular grapheme–phoneme correspondences may need further explicit teaching for many students in this group.

Developing decoders may also need more regular planned reviews of phonic concepts and specific instruction in blending and segmenting.

Pay close attention to the student’s success in decoding pseudo words. This acts as the authentic application of the student’s phonic knowledge and skills.

Case studies: developing decoders

Two case studies featuring developing decoders focus on students Khalid Nouh and Amy Schleck. Developing decoders – Phonics Check records and teacher analysis shows the results achieved by Khalid and Amy and how the teacher interpreted these results then noted next steps for learning for each student.

For example, both Khalid and Amy need activities that will help them consolidate their knowledge of vowel digraphs and less common sounds.

Phoneme deletion and addition activities will help them build phonic skills using CCVC and CVCC words, prior to moving to more complex words.

Further advice on working with developing decoders

Teachers working with students who are developing decoders can use a range of effective strategies.

Intentional practice

Plan intentional regular practice sessions in blending sounds for the agreed grapheme–phoneme correspondences seen in section 2 of the Phonics Check. This will ensure all students are systematically introduced to, and become familiar with, each type of blend.

Extend this intentional practice by providing students with opportunities to immediately practise their knowledge and skills using decodable texts.

Modelled reading

Provide modelled reading, such as big books and partner reading, to reinforce phonics as the first strategy to use for working out words and demonstrate the decoding of ‘target words’ within the text.

Target words can be chosen to revise and consolidate the grapheme–phoneme correspondences that have been explicitly taught.

Identifying morphemes, such as highlighting the use of -ing or adding -ed or adding an -s to make a plural form, is a very useful technique to demonstrate when using the modelled reading strategy.

Multisensory activities

Students should experience multisensory activities that combine listening, speaking, reading and a tactile kinaesthetic activity, as these developing decoders require additional strategies to consolidate their learning in phonics.

These kinds of activities (such as magnetic letters and other visual-touch and visual-auditory tools like Scrabble tiles) can be quite motivating and engaging to many children and can reinforce grapheme–phoneme correspondences and blending.

Working in a group, students can each be given grapheme cards related to the phonemes they have been taught and asked to position themselves in front of the class to make a word. Students then blend the sounds in the order they have created. (If students get the order wrong, make it a teaching point by reading it out ‘incorrectly’.)

Nonsense words

Some literature uses nonsense words; examples include books by Dr Seuss or Roald Dahl. Nonsense words are designed to provide the reader with fun and entertainment. They provide opportunities for a fluent or a developing decoder to decode unfamiliar words, just as they do with the pseudo words in the Phonics Check.

Phonemic awareness training

Developing decoders also need further phonemic awareness training. First, students need to master the basic skills of phoneme segmentation and blending. They could divide the word /clap/ into the phonemes /c/ /l/ /a/ /p/ and blend the phonemes back together to form the word /clap/.

Then they are ready for the advanced phonemic awareness skills of manipulating phonemes. This includes:

  • deleting phonemes: for example, say /cat/, now take off the /c/. The word is (pause for student response) – /at/
  • substituting phonemes: for example, the word is /cat/, but instead of /c/ say /s/. The new word is (pause for student response) – /sat/
  • reversing phonemes: for example, say /pat/. Now say /pat/ backwards (pause for student response) – /tap/.

Teachers will find Kilpatrick’s one-minute activities or Heggerty’s phonemic awareness activities invaluable as they can be easily implemented across the teaching day with little preparation time.

Intervention for developing decoders

Where developing decoders have made a large number of errors in the Phonics Check, the In-depth analysis to support intervention for developing and struggling decoders will assist teachers in responding with the appropriate intervention. It is also helpful for examining inexplicable errors. It can be hard for teachers to interpret errors if an incorrect response displays a variety of difficulties.

To understand how difficult it can be to distinguish between errors consider this example for the word ‘jazz’. Students can make errors when they:

  • are unaware of the sound of j
  • confuse the look of j with the look of g
  • confuse the name of the letter g and the sound and look of j
  • read a like an article as in ‘a hard word’ or as the letter name
  • read the digraph zz as two separate sounds
  • read one z as a sound and say the letter name
  • read ‘jazzy’ due to poor awareness of the digraph zz.

Kilpatrick DA (2015). Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley

Heggerty M (2020). Phonemic awareness: the skills that they need to help them succeed (3 versions – Kindergarten, Foundation & Primary). Queensland: Literacy Resources

Struggling decoders

Struggling decoders are at risk of serious and prolonged reading difficulties without targeted and intensive intervention. These students will require extra teaching time, either in a small group or one-to-one setting, in order for them to acquire the decoding skills required to be successful in reading and engage with the whole class activities and the rest of the curriculum.

Struggling decoders display minimal decoding skills. They experience high levels of challenge in section 1 of the Phonics Check.

These students may find it difficult to blend the sounds together, even though they can say the individual phonemes. This might indicate that the student needs some specific one-to-one support to develop blending skills.

You may also find inconsistencies in their learning (identifying sounds in some words, but getting them wrong in others) which indicate that there needs to be further practice and consolidation of skills.

If any of your students fall into this category, and you are confident that good phonics teaching has been provided, including practice with decodable texts, decide whether there may be a pattern of errors that indicates a specific knowledge deficit. This can give teachers a specific place to start explicit instruction.

A phonological screening test should be administered in order to determine exactly what the student needs. Kilpatrick’s (2015) Phonological Awareness Screening Test (PAST) is very useful as it has four versions which enable tracking of the student’s progress throughout the year.

Further suggested activities to strengthen phonological and phonemic awareness will provide teachers with useful ideas to support struggling decoders.

Additionally, consider whether the student:

  1. is in the process of learning English
  2. may have any visual or auditory acuity difficulties, including intermittent hearing loss
  3. has short-term memory difficulties and so needs more opportunities to rehearse and consolidate grapheme–phoneme correspondences
  4. currently attends school on an irregular basis, and has done so in the past.

Case studies: struggling decoders

Two case studies featuring struggling decoders focus on students Quoc Nguyen and Diedre Hunt. Struggling decoders – Phonics Check records and teacher analysis shows the results achieved by Quoc and Diedre and how the teacher interpreted these results then noted next steps for learning for each student.

For example, Quoc will benefit from revisiting the vowel sounds in Standard Australian English and from practice with blending and segmenting sounds.

With Diedre, an assessment of her phonological awareness as well as her phonemic awareness needs to be checked as it may be that she is not able to distinguish the sounds of speech.

Further advice on working with struggling decoders

Teachers working with students who are struggling decoders can use a range of effective strategies to support their students and engage in further investigations to more closely identify individual student needs.

Dyslexia and other learning difficulties

Particular students who have identified speech, language and communication needs, or other specific learning difficulties (including dyslexia), may not be able to process the sounds that are essential for acquiring phonic knowledge and skills.

Dyslexia is a lifelong neurological disorder that primarily affects the phonological component of language. It presents itself through difficulties with:

  • accurate or fluent word recognition
  • spelling
  • decoding.

In the classroom, students with these learning difficulties may struggle with remembering letter sounds, blending and reading words with more complex letter strings. Additionally, students with dyslexia can have poor working memory, which affects organisation and the ability to follow teacher instructions. These students are often articulate and have strong verbal skills.

With the systematic synthetic phonics approach, dyslexic students can learn to read; however, this will take time and repeated practice. It is vital that teachers seek advice and support from leadership and support services.

Attention and listening

Interventions for struggling decoders may need to focus on more than phonics, since they may also have significant difficulties with attention and listening, remembering sounds and words, discriminating between sounds, recall, and phonological awareness.

It is important to provide multiple opportunities for struggling decoders to experience phonological awareness activities, such as rhymes, chants and songs; segmenting and syllabification activities; phoneme substitution and other phonemic awareness skills; and regular explicit practice.

Blending vowels

Students who have reading difficulties may find short vowels harder to discriminate. Hence, students may find it easier to work first on blending long vowels, rather than short vowels. If students are struggling with blending, start with words that have continuous sounds (a, e, f, i, l, m, n, o, r, s, u, v, w, y, z). If the sound can be held continuously, hold the sound for 1 to 2 seconds and blend it smoothly into the next sound in the word.

For example, for the word ‘man’, say mmmmmaaaaannnnn. If the sound cannot be held continuously, say the sound once; pause briefly for 1 to 2 seconds; and then say the next sound in the word, elongating it for 1 to 2 seconds if possible. For example, for the word ‘pin’, say p [1 second pause] iiiinnnn.

Multisensory approaches

If students find it difficult to recall grapheme–phoneme correspondences, multisensory approaches could be beneficial. These could include using magnetic letters, writing the letter at the same time as saying it, and using mnemonics that help them to recall the sound, such as a hissing snake for the sound /s/.

Students may also benefit from practising grapheme–phoneme correspondences beyond the point at which they appear to have been mastered. Revision is helpful for all students.

Short-term memory

Some students with short-term memory difficulties struggle to hold a sequence of sounds in their mind. If the student cannot hold in mind more than say, three phonemes, they should be encouraged to sound and blend no more than three at a time to reduce the load on memory. For example, they could blend /s/ /t/ /a/ in ‘stand’ and say sta, then adding the /n/ and say stan, then add the /d/ and say ‘stand’.

Decodable texts

Ensure that students are using decodable texts as their main reading material. Decodable texts are specially constructed short texts made up of words that the students can decode.

These texts may also include high-frequency, irregular words that students have been taught. Decodable texts support these students to become more self-reliant readers.

One-to-one and small-group tutoring

Time-limited, sustained one-to-one or small-group tutoring may be required for students who are easily distracted or who find it difficult to concentrate. Students may benefit from explicit support for listening and attention skills. Such problems may be associated with speech, language and communication needs or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Tutoring can commence by checking whether the student knows the fundamental concepts of print, such as the difference between a ‘letter’ and a ‘word’, as well as left to right reading at both the single word level and at the line level.

Parent and carer engagement

Make parents and carers aware of these reading difficulties as early as possible and provide them with resources and support strategies that they can use at home to encourage children and to strengthen the home–school partnership.

Intervention for struggling decoders

Where struggling decoders have made a large number of errors in the Phonics Check, this in-depth analysis to support intervention for developing and struggling decoders will assist teachers in responding with the appropriate intervention. It is also helpful for examining inexplicable errors. It can be hard for teachers to interpret errors if an incorrect response displays a variety of difficulties.

Featured resources

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Scoring the Phonics Check

Teacher guide

Tips for how to score the Phonics Check.

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In-depth analysis to support intervention

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Observation criteria

This resource provides more in-depth analyses of student results.

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Fluent decoders

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Observation criteria
Case study

Two case studies showing results of students who are fluent decoders.

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Developing decoders

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Observation criteria
Case study

Two case studies showing results of students who are developing decoders.

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Struggling decoders

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Observation criteria
Case study

Two case studies showing results of students who are struggling decoders.

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Further suggested activities

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Lesson activity

Some further activities for phonological and phonemic awareness.

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More student support resources

These links can provide additional information about supporting students: