Interview with Sara Wernham


Sara Wernham



Sara Wernham is a primary/elementary school teacher at Woods Loke Primary School in Lowestoft, England. She developed Jolly Phonics with Sue Lloyd

1) What is a “synthetic phonics” programme?

The term ‘synthetic’ comes from the word ‘synthesise’, which means ‘ to combine’. ‘Synthetic phonics’ is where sounds are combined together to make words. However reading is only one of the skills that children need, they also need to be able to spell and write words, so a ‘synthetic phonics’ programme teaches the sounds in a language, how to blend them together to read words and how to listen for the sounds in a word in order to write them.

2) Can a synthetic phonics approach to teaching reading and writing be beneficial for young ESL-learners?

A synthetic phonics approach is very beneficial for young ESL learners for a number of reasons. There are numerous studies which show that synthetic phonics is he best way to teach reading and writing to young children, whether they are ESL learners or native speakers.

Young children are programmed for language acquisition and so this is the perfect time to teach them. The older we get the more difficult it can be to learn and once the palette is set it can be impossible to make the sounds in a language. By learning and practising the sounds in English the children should end up with a ‘good accent’ or in fact with no accent!

In order to master a language the children need to be able to read, write and speak it. Often a foreign language is taught orally and can be spoken but not read or written. Written words may be ‘recognised’ and their meaning understood but the children have no idea how to pronounce the word and to ‘take it off the page’.

By teaching using a synthetic phonics approach the children are taught the ‘code’ for the language – so understand how to read it, and write it, and to be confident when speaking it.

3) What does it mean to use a “multi-sensory” approach to teaching (reading and writing)?

A ‘multi-sensory’ approach means that all, or as many as possible, of the senses are engaged when teaching. The more ‘links’ that can be made with a new piece of information the easier it is to remember. When learning English obviously they are learning and listening for the sounds, they see the letter and with Jolly Phonics they have an action and a simple image that has a connection to the sound, e.g. for /e/ they have a picture of an egg in a frying pan and they pretend to crack an egg into a pan while saying the sound /e/. There is also a ‘Jolly Song’ for each sound.

4) Is language acquisition and comprehension covered in a synthetic phonics programme?

Language acquisition and comprehension should automatically come into a synthetic phonics programme that is taught properly as the sounds should be constantly related to words and the meaning of the words should be explained. Just learning the sounds is not ‘doing’ a synthetic phonics programme properly. However when teaching English to ESL learners obviously extra time needs to be taken to ensure vocabulary is covered. Even children for whom English is their first language and who hear English around them need to cover and widen their vocabulary. Because a synthetic phonics programme starts by using simple regular words there is a degree of repetition in the words used initially and so this helps to re-enforce the language acquisition and comprehension. Once the children acquire a basic vocabulary it is easier for them to continue to develop their knowledge of English because they are taught how the language works and so they should be able to cope with, or at least attempt, other words for themselves. Teachers should speak to the children in the target language as much as possible, so the children get used to hearing the language and how it ‘flows’. Poems, rhymes and songs are also good for this. They also begin to get an idea of how the words in the language go together, and do not just learn a lot of separate ‘noun’ words.

5) When is the best age to begin teaching reading and writing skills to young children?

The beginnings of the skills needed for reading and writing can be taught when the children are quite young – as they begin to speak. When looking at books, e.g. The Finger Phonics Books’ children as young as two can ‘point to the sun, point to the dog, point to the /ssss/. The learning can be turned into ‘games’ eg, ‘Can you hear the /sss/ in ‘sssnake’, ‘Can you hear the /sss/ in ‘grassss’, ‘Can you hear this word /s/-/u/-/n/?’. The words will probably have to be more or less said to begin with but gradually the children will be able to ‘blend’ the words for themselves and will then be able to apply this knowledge when they begin learning the letters when they are older. They can also be asked ‘Can they /h-o-p/?’ ‘Point to their ‘ar-m’ etc

The beginning of writing skills is to hold a pencil correctly and this again is started as soon as the children pick up any pencil, crayon or pen. The children need to develop their fine motor skills before they can write accurately and neatly and at a small size. They can start from about 3 years onwards but this will depend on their motor skills and should be done gently and with encouragement. As soon as they start writing letters encourage them to form them correctly. To begin with the letters will be big and the formation probably ‘wobbly’ but again over time this will develop gradually and when they are older they will already have some of the skills necessary that they will be able to apply.

6) Would you like to share one activity idea related to a “letter sound”?

When teaching the /h/ sound where the action and picture is of someone ‘hopping’. For very young children (2 – 3 years olds) we ‘hop’ saying /h/ every time they land and then have some hopping races.

For older children (4 – 5 year olds) we play ‘hopscotch’. The ‘hopscotch’ is drawn on the playground using chalk and the numbers written in. (This gives an opportunity to go over numbers and number words as well.) The child ‘hops’ on each square in turn, saying the sound /h/ each time they ‘hop’. On their next go a beanbag is thrown onto square 1 and the child ‘hops’ over square 1 and completes the ‘hopscotch’. On their subsequent goes the beanbag has to be thrown on each number in turn and that square hopped over.

Synthetic Phonics Trainer & Literacy Consultant

Telf: +34 675078723