The winning combination: Systematic Synthetic Phonics foundations + strong book culture

‘Best Primary Schools’ have been selected from the SUNDAY TIMES BEST 250 PRIMARY SATs 2 STATE SCHOOLS for 2016. Additional DfE ‘Compare Schools Performance’ data has been added from 2017 and 2018. A reading score of 110 during one of the 3 years is a minimum requirement for inclusion. (Average school reading score is 103/104.) Information about individual schools is taken from school’s own website.

Most top-performing schools understand that the Alphabetic Code is paramount – the code is sound-based and is taught accordingly. In general, schools emphasise language development and wider reading as a deeply embedded part of their agenda. Spelling receives surprisingly little attention on schools’ websites and – with the exception of Christ Church, Chelsea – few top-performing schools, as far as I can ascertain, appear to follow logical sound-based spelling during initial teaching. (Kate Nation in TES recently noted the importance of language as well as phonics and stated that spellings are organised around the interrelation of morphology, etymology, and phonology after initial teaching.) Most schools appear to follow the half-hour phonics timetable, followed by one hour literacy.

Virtually all successful reading schools use established SSP programmes – Letters and Sounds, Jolly Phonics in Reception followed by L&S or ReadWriteInc.

A selection of schools with high rates of Pupil Premium (20%+)

St Stephen’s East Ham London E6 1AS
Reading Score 2016-2018: 111, 111, 111
387 pupils.
Letters and Sounds, Nursery. Jolly Phonics, Reception. Letters and Sounds Yr 1 Phase 2-5. Yr 2 4-5.
Website information sparse – emphasis on phonics, reading meetings with parents, weekly h/w planning.

St Antony’s RC Newham London E7
Reading Score: 111, 111, 111
484 pupils.
9th best state primary results.
Number of clubs extensive.
Scant information on phonics. Lunch-time reading club. Over 20 TAs and volunteers, 9 HLTAs, school therapist, detailed info on grammar, ‘additional phonics and reading support and RW resources across school’.

Edward Pauling Feltham TW13
Reading Score: 113, 107, 110
10th best state primary results.
2 form entry.
From Requires Improvement to Outstanding: ‘Our school has won the regional and national award for 2016, congratulations to all staff, governors, parents and pupils for the exceptional achievement.
Please see for more details.
Our daily Guided Reading takes place within KS1 and KS2 using “Project X”. In addition we also use Project X Code and Project X Origins as intervention programmes to support our more and less able readers. Our parent volunteers come into school to support our pupils with their reading development by hearing individual readers and small guided groups on a weekly basis.
Discrete teaching of phonics takes place throughout the Foundation Stage and Key Stage 1, following the RWInc scheme Additionally, the phonics skills are applied through daily literacy lessons and across the wider curriculum.
We have created our own spelling system based on the National Curriculum 2014 requirements.
Writing skills are taught daily throughout discrete literacy lessons, as well as through science and humanities lessons. Pupils are assessed on their progress in writing by completing a Big Write at the end of a unit of work. Vocabulary, Grammar and Punctuation (VGP) are taught as a pure subject once a week in KS1 and KS2, as well as daily through small group work and lesson introductions where necessary.’

Thomas Jones Paddington London W11
Reading Score: 112, 112, 111
11th best state primary results.
‘Analysis of national test data shows there has been no relationship between the achievement of pupils and Free School Meals status since 2006.
Both the technical aspects of decoding language and the opportunity for pupils to develop a love of literature, is one of the most important aspects of school life here at Thomas Jones. The school’s approach to the teaching of reading has been documented in the Ofsted report Reading by Six: How the Best Schools Do It and through the launch of the Ofsted Moving English Forward report and Building an Outstanding Reading School. Our success with the teaching of reading can be seen through our national test results.

Through the Foundation Stage and Key Stage One, our pupils follow a rigorous system of synthetic phonics, based on the Jolly Phonics scheme. Alongside this, pupils in this phase of the school have access to high quality books, both to study in legitimate English lessons and to read independently. The school follows the Pearson Bug Club reading scheme, supplemented with other high quality books banded into the scheme.

By Key Stage Two, the great majority of pupils are reading independently.’

Boutcher Southwark, London SE1
Reading Score: 111, 112, 110
=72nd best state primary results.
l form entry.
All Pupil Premium funds allocated to literacy and speech & language programme. Letters and Sounds with additional Jolly Phonics.
‘At Boutcher Phonics is taught daily throughout the Early Years and Key Stage One. Children then continuously build and apply this phonic knowledge throughout Key Stage 2. We teach phonics through the songs from the Jolly Phonics scheme, from Phase 4 we follow the Letters and Sounds scheme from DfE Publications.’

Christchurch Ilford
Reading Score: 111, 111, 110
26th best state primary results.
5 form entry.
Jolly Phonics.
‘Yrs 2-6 Some children may still require a Jolly Phonics books to support their learning but most will simply have a weekly Oxford Reading Tree book. These are used for guided reading and will be changed on a weekly basis. As the children progress onto more challenging books they may keep them for longer than a week. In addition to scheme books, children also have the opportunity to take home Free Readers, which are non-scheme books appropriate for the child’s reading level and ability. These will still be sent home and used for Guided Reading.’

Smaller % of children with Pupil Premium

Hotwells Bristol
Reading Score: 107, 109, 113
‘We use the Read Write Inc scheme to support the teaching of early phonics at Hotwells. The scheme is introduced in Reception class and used throughout Key Stage 1. Some children need continued support with the learning of phonics in Key Stage 2 and for these children, additional teaching in small groups continues, using the Read Write Inc scheme, until their knowledge of phonics is secure. Every year we organise meetings for parents so that they can become familiar with our approach to teaching phonics and can support their children at home in the same way they are learning to read and write in school. One of the most valuable things parents can do to support learning at home is to ensure that their children read regularly; with an adult when they are younger and independently as they get older.

We also have theme days and weeks during the school year which promote and inspire a particular aspect of learning, for example our pupils have been inspired by Arts Week, Music Week and STEM Week over the past two years. A range of exciting events are organised during these special weeks and many members of the school community become involved, helping to make them a fun and memorable time for all the children.’

Scotts Hornchurch, Essex
Reading Score: 114, 108, 113
2nd best state primary results.
2 form entry.
Letters and Sounds + project based + strong reading emphasis.
‘Teaching our children not only to become proficient readers, but to develop a love of reading is of vital importance at Scotts Primary School. Evidence suggests that children who read for enjoyment every day not only perform better in reading tests than those who don’t, but also develop a broader vocabulary, increased general knowledge and a better understanding of other cultures. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that reading for pleasure is more likely to determine whether a child does well at school than their social or economic background.

At Scotts, we teach our children to read using a systematic synthetic phonics approach. We use the Letters and Sounds Programme, which the children begin upon arrival in Reception.

Guided Reading takes place daily in all year groups. Throughout Reception and Key Stage 1, children read on a one-to-one basis with an adult once a week. Where children are not meeting national expectations for their age group, this may be more frequent. In Key Stage 2, children read individually to an adult once a fortnight.’

Clover Hill Newcastle upon Tyne
Reading Score: 113, 114, 109
4th best primary school result.
Letters and Sounds, with Jolly Phonics actions.
‘Clover Hill Phonics scheme in operation is written in conjunction with Letters and Sounds.

Key Stage 1 Guided reading and reading books for home is called ‘Storyworlds’ and ‘Rigby Star.’ And Jolly Phonics actions in R. and Yr l.

Children read once a week with teachers – reading workshop sessions 5 times a week – independent activities during guided reading designed to support & consolidate phonics already covered.

Children in Year 2 record their phonics work on mini-whiteboards. Children will attempt to write daily, using their phonics knowledge, at their stage of development in all areas of class work. Children’s phonic activities will be predominantly delivered through games and through activities set up in class. Tricky words are taught alongside phonically decodable words…

Discreet phonics lessons twice weekly.

We see parents as the primary educators and therefore use their talents, interests, ideas and expertise to contribute to the children’s learning wherever possible. Working in partnership with parents is a key contributing factor in the achievement of our children.’

St Stephens London W12
Reading Score: 113, 113, 111
=5th best primary results.
Letters and Sounds curriculum (Jolly Phonics and Phonics Play).
Strong emphasis on readers with love and appreciation of books and literature. Very active school library and reading events with parents.
Home learning Policy involves teachers, parents and children working together.
What Books Should I Read? e.g. Year 3
Weekly Spelling lists for home.
‘Phonics is taught daily to all children in EYFS and Key Stage 1. Phonics is also taught to children in Key Stage 2, who require further support with phonics and reading.

Much of our phonics teaching takes place in small groups which are targeted to the needs of particular learners.

We use a combination of the following reading scheme books in the Early Years and Key Stage 1:

• Oxford Reading Tree
• Rigby Stars
• Collins Big Cat
• Project X
• Phonic Bug Club’

Lowbrook Academy Maidenhead
Reading Score: 111, 112, 110
=5th best state primary school
Little information on website.
‘Reception Homework We will be changing your child’s reading book on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday but please re-read the books, as repetition is the key to early reading. They will have a library book once a week which they will choose themselves and can keep for the week.

Communication, Language and Literacy To begin with we will be doing a lot of work on traditional nursery rhymes. Each day the children will be learning a new rhyme. We will then begin to learn single letter sounds, learning how to blend these words together to read and how to segment words into individual sounds to help them to write words. Throughout the year speaking and listening skills will be developed through various activities.

The children will be reading individually and in small groups. They will be learning about story language through reading a range of books together. Reading well-written stories is a very important foundation for their own future story writing. As well as hearing your child read every day, we encourage you to continue sharing stories together.’

Ludgvan Penzance
Reading Score: 113, 108, 108
=5th best state primary results.
RWInc and Topic curriculum.

Our Lady of Victories RC London SW7
Reading Score: 112, 112, 112
8th best state primary results.
Little info on website; lots of clubs, staff mainly Afro-Caribbean(?).

Park Road Sale Manchester
Reading Score: 110, 109, 109
16th best state primary results.
Letters and Sounds + Jolly Phonics. Very broad curriculum.

‘Phonics is taught in half hourly sessions from Monday to Friday in Reception and Key Stage 1. Each child’s phonics knowledge is assessed every term. Children from Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 are taught in 9 mixed groups so that we ensure that teaching is matched to their stage of learning for this important skill. Our teaching is based on the Letters and Sounds scheme and incorporates resources from various companies.

Phonics sessions take place every day in Year 1. If children need to continue with phonics strategies in year 2, they are taught the strategies needed on a daily basis. Phonics activities are practical and fun, to encourage learning – they follow the Letters and Sounds progression. During shared and guided reading, phonics work is reinforced in the context of real texts. Writing activities follow on from shared reading.

Phonics is taught daily and follows the Letters and Sounds document (a systematic synthetic phonics approach). Jolly Phonics is used to support the letters and sounds approach. It covers all the pre requisite skills for reading such as sound identification, sequencing, reproduction and discrimination.’

St Mary and All Saints Beaconsfield, Bucks
Reading Score: 113, 108, 109
17th best state primary results.
Letters & Sounds + Jolly Phonics.
– v. comprehensive info for parents
– talk4writing Pie Corbet and also Corbet’s grammar progression
– Comprehensive explanation of L&S on website
– Comprehensive book list for each year

St Elizabeth’s RC Richmond on Thames
Reading Score: 111, 112, 110
19th best state primary results.
Letters and Sounds, with Jolly Phonics to supplement learning.
Observation: Traditional foundational skills and progressive learning. (Is this balance easier to achieve in an area of great wealth where most children will benefit from book-rich, language-right homes…?)
Reception: Children learn through play in Reception. Play is very important since it demands from the children concentration, perseverance and mental and physical effort. We aim to encourage children to explore, experiment, question, take risks, make and learn from mistakes, and provide them with opportunities for listening, reflecting and praying. We want the children to have fun and enjoy learning. The role play area is frequently changed to match the topic taught within the classroom, and performances and acting are actively encouraged. There is a ‘Show and Tell’ session each week where children can bring in an item that is special to them or an object relating to a topic which they would like to talk about. Every child is given this opportunity and encouraged to think of open ended questions to ask their peers.

Yr l: Literacy, Mathematics, reading and handwriting are taught daily and the remaining curriculum subjects are taught using a topic approach. The children continue to receive daily Phonics, often led by Fuzzy Phonics the puppet Macaw and in the Summer Term each child’s phonic knowledge is statutorily assessed… Pupils continue to develop their creativity and imagination by exploring the visual, tactile and sensory qualities of materials and processes. They learn about the role of art, craft and design in their environment. One of the topics that Year 1 children really enjoy is designing and making their own room which gives them a wonderful opportunity to use their imagination.

Children are particularly encouraged to improve their communication skills by speaking and listening carefully.

Homework (Yr 6): Reading It is expected that children will read for 30 minutes each evening. We ask that children write the date, title of the book and a comment in their reading records. To encourage independence, children are responsible for bringing their reading books home in their packets each evening and ensuring that their reading packet is taken into school each day. In addition, children will be issued a class core text, which remains the property of the school. This should be kept in their reading packet and be available for reading in school every day. Children may be asked to read selected passages of this text at home at the teacher’s discretion and related work may be set. This book must be returned to school when requested in the condition it was issued. Missing copies will need to be replaced. A comprehension task will be set on a Friday and returned to school on Monday.

Spelling books will be sent home each Friday. The spelling pattern/rule that these words follow should be discussed with an adult. Other words that follow the same pattern/rule should be explored. Using the words brought home, the children should complete a spelling activity from the spelling menu which is found in the front of your child’s spelling book. Spelling books should be returned by Monday. Please use the school handwriting style to complete the spelling activity. In each half-term holiday the children should revise all the spelling patterns/rules learned during the previous half-term. Your child will be given the Year 6 National Curriculum word list to become familiar with and should be encouraged to spell these words correctly in his/her writing.
In Year 1 children will enjoy a rich and diverse curriculum, enhanced by a variety of inspiring workshops and visitors. Children will also enjoy memorable visits to The Discovery Centre in Bracknell and a local area walk to Richmond Park.

Two well resourced libraries [and] a number of popular lunchtime Book Clubs…with over 100 children currently attending across the school. Each month [the Librarian] selects a book that is suitable to be read aloud to children in both Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2. Details about the book will be published together with links to associated activities and games that can be enjoyed as a family.

Read Aloud initiative. Parents encouraged to read to their children including Yr 6.

There are many events for the children throughout the course of the school year to promote literacy and reading for enjoyment, including Roald Dahl Day, National Poetry Day, Book Week and the Termly Reading Challenge. In addition, there are several creative writing competitions as well as the ‘Star Readers’ initiative.’

Hampton Gurney London W1
Reading Score: 111, ??, ??
12th best state primary results.
l form entry.
Letters and Sounds, RWInc, Jolly Phonics & Nessy.
‘Reading is a complex skill with many components. Successful approaches to the teaching of reading should encourage children to use a variety of strategies in their pursuit of meaning with phonics as the way of decoding. Jolly Phonics is used in Nursery and Read Write Inc is used in the rest of the school. Reading should be a valuable and rewarding aspect of the children’s learning and consequently should open the door to a world of knowledge.’

Bourne Cambridge
Reading Score: 112, ??, ??
=20th best state primary results.
Small village school.

Lightwoods Oldbury, West Midlands
Reading Score: 111, 104, 106
=20th best state primary results.
Letters and Sounds. One of few schools to specifically mention spelling other than either LCWC, and/or unstructured spelling h/w lists.
‘Other texts, not linked to a scheme, by well-known authors, are also studied to ensure children experience a wealth of literature.

‘No Nonsense Spellings’ are taught in class to secure understanding of spelling rules. Speedy Spellings are sent home on a weekly basis. These spellings are linked to sound patterns and tricky words and are personalised to meet the needs of your child. Practising spelling at home helps to reinforce and consolidate learning.’

Holy Cross Sutton Coldfield
Reading Score: 112, 111, 107
=20th best state primary results.
Small school – little info on website.

Saint Bedes Redcar
Reading Score 112, 115, 107*
24th best state primary results.
No information about the school apart from a glowing Ofsted from 2009.
*requires improvement 2019

Tennyson Road Luton, Bedfordshire
Reading Score: 110, 115, 107
‘At Tennyson Road we are proud of our reading results from reception to Year 6. The children are immersed in a ‘book’ rich curriculum which opens their worlds to a million different experiences each and every day. Through the wide variety of texts that we explore we teach a complexity of grammar and punctuation skills to our children; this means the children naturally use it in their own work helping them to develop exciting, creative and mature pieces of independent writing. At Tennyson Road we know ‘How to teach guided reading like a boss!’ which is a new guided reading programme which enables us to explore challenging texts, music and images as part of our morning sessions each day. The programme enables the children to independently develop 4 core English skills: Identify, Compare, Contrast and apply. We are proud to follow the programme and are seeing exceptional progress across all year groups.’

Other Points

Pupil Premium information
It would be helpful if all school websites could detail how Pupil Premium funds are allocated – for instance, Three Bridges school in London is exemplary in the detailed information it provides. The school spends £75,000 of its Pupil Premium (211 pupils eligible) employing 2 part-time reading teachers to support lowest attaining pupils in Yrs l, 2, 3 – £15,000 on phonics-based books for EYFS and Yr l – and ‘whatever it takes’ training in Sounds-Write for new staff.

Commitment to book culture

Thomas Jones and a number of high performing schools such as Christ Church, Chelsea, convey the seriousness of working to the highest standards, with ambitious reading lists, some with librarians, if employed, with detail of approaches to reading – including cases of guided reading, silent reading, and aiming to ensure that all children read in every lesson.

Importance of understanding of generic SSP

Practical, long-term solution to making sure that teachers have a comprehensive understanding of generic synthetic phonics so that when changing school there is no difficulty for staff in adjusting programme content and structure. Hubs will, I understand, chose a specific programme for training under performing schools. Yet we know that in areas of high poverty there is an even greater turn-around of staff than is normal in primary schools. If teachers have a good generic training, they are in a position when changing schools to adapt their SSP teaching.

See for website providing explanation and examples of generic training.


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