Managing Difference in Phonics Progress

by David Morgan

Most classes have a mix of abilities in them and often a wide range of prior experience. So the question is: how should you manage those differences in your daily phonics work?

Here at All Aboard we have moved towards a policy on this which is different to the most common classroom practice. Our reasoning is based around what is going to get the best outcome for the children struggling most in the class, because we know that the rest of the class will be fine. 

Having a plan for the whole class to be succeeding together at the end of their first two years of literacy development is what fits our mission of 100% success. We believe every child can learn to read without exception.

This policy is also based on the range of practices we have observed operating in different schools and the results achieved by the different approaches.

What Most Schools Currently Do

The natural inclination is to stream the class into subgroups, in order to give the less able  students small group intervention while the rest of the class is doing their daily phonics as a larger group. The logic is clear and based around good thinking, but the results of this are generally less good than the alternative that we suggest below. So we hope you will test our suggestion.

The problem is that this approach generally never leads to a full catch-up and the two, or even three, groups remain permanently split.  They will always be months behind in the phonics curriculum. That means you are dealing with differences all the way through and those less able  children remain behind. This will not only impact their reading ability but all areas of school life.  

With the new intervention resources in All Aboard Phonics, we do not believe that this is necessary. We have often seen children catching up even 2 years of difference in just 2-3 months.  

Tailored interventions need to target the root causes of difficulty alongside the main lessons. Children should be placed into intervention groups immediately at the first sign of struggle. Some learners may only need a few days or weeks of extra help before bouncing out of intervention again.

Our Approach

Therefore, the All Aboard Phonics policy on managing difference is:

  1. The whole class should do the daily session together, whether they are at the level of the session or not.
  2. The class teacher should then also run the interventions with the children who need catch-up input.

We know that this might seem like a challenging change for many classroom teams. So the rest of this article is designed to help you buy into it.

Let’s look at Point 1 first.

The Daily Whole Class Session

It will do no harm for the less able group to be hearing the daily session and some of it will stick enough to be of use to them, either immediately or in the future. What we have seen is that much of it is absorbed and can be employed when their individual challenges are overcome through targeted intervention work.

For instance, often their core challenge is a difficulty with phonemic awareness and blending. Once they have overcome that, mainly with our Word Breaker exercise routine, the GPCs you have been teaching them in the meantime will be there for them to use.

Even if they are currently non-verbal or hardly know any English, they will still be hearing the GPCs you are teaching in each session and absorbing information. Even preverbal babies are doing this with their parents.

While we recommend that they are present in the group, we also recommend that their challenges are recognised and they are not put into stressful situations in front of the group.

Unsure about this? So was the team at Berry Brow initially. But hear what Katherine Burke has to say 6 months into implementation…: 


Ultimately, if you choose a model where the whole class does not stay together, you are likely to have children falling further and further behind, unable to catch up.

Teacher-Led Interventions

Point 2 is equally important. Delivering great reading interventions is one of the most technically difficult tasks in any school classroom. If you have attended our deep dive training into reading difficulties, you will know reading difficulty is not a simple issue. We give the details of nine different possible causes!

Therefore, the right person to be taking on that task is generally the class teacher, because the class teacher has the training and abilities to take it on. It can be very daunting for a TA with minimal training. 

Of course, if you have a TA in the classroom with the right abilities, who has done our deep dive intervention training and fully understands our All Aboard Phonics Plus intervention process, then we are delighted for them to take it on too. We have seen some brilliant TA-led interventions.

Changing Lives and School Stats

These interventions are probably the area where the most concentrated value can be delivered anywhere in the school system. Historically, most struggling readers have never caught up and their whole school career has been blighted by that. But if you do help a child to catch up with reading, then their entire future is transformed.

It is also good to be aware that if you look at the results any school achieves, the foundation to those results will always have been laid at this early stage. Good literacy is fundamental to our whole education system and a child working through the system without it is at a huge disadvantage. That means that the history or biology or physics teacher of a 14-year-old is completely dependent on the foundation created by that child’s literacy teachers ten years earlier.

For that reason, we hope that reading interventions are viewed as virtually a sacred duty (in educational terms) and that some of the most talented teachers in the school are the ones who undertake them.

Saving Effort and Time

Children who drop seriously behind can suck a lot of time and energy from the classroom team, especially when there is a dip in confidence for the children who are struggling. Clear literacy difficulties can even begin to lead to behavioural problems. So there is a huge benefit for the whole team from getting on top of this issue.

By addressing difficulties and gaps early on, even with same day intervention, you are potentially preventing the gaps from forming in the first place. You will quickly sense who is in need of that extra bit of input. An intervention in time saves nine…!