Fun with Phonics by Georgie Tennant
As a secondary school teacher, phonics wasn’t something I knew a great deal about until recently. Children arrive in my classroom, aged 11, on the whole, being able to decode the sentences and paragraphs put in front of them.
When a local publishing company I had had some contact with, got in touch and asked if I would be interested in doing some freelance phonics writing for a new reading scheme, I was reticent. Egged on, though, by some of you lovely lot – “you’ll get the hang of it quickly…eat microwave meals if time is short!” – I soon accepted their offer of work.
And here they are, in their full, published glory.
With Covid restrictions and hold-ups, they were a long time in the making, but
how wonderful it felt, a few weeks ago, when these arrived on my doorstep, with
my name on the cover as the author. I always felt that the first thing I had
published with my name on it would carry a little more gravitas than a
collection of stories about harassed Dads and feeble princes rescuing feisty
queens, all told in 100 words or less but we all have to start somewhere,
My Facebook announcement of the arrival of my book babies provoked a kind flurry of interest and congratulation, so I thought I’d write this month, about how these phonics readers came to be birthed.
How did the opportunity arise?
I was in touch with a local publishing company, BookLife, who knew I was interested in some freelance work. The reading scheme they were working on was a big project and they needed extra writers to take on some of the work.
How did they pay me?
I recorded the hours I worked and there was a guide for how long each book should roughly take to write and it was pretty accurate. They paid me an hourly rate.
How did I know what to write?
The books were written to a very strict pattern of phonics, relating to the phases taught in primary schools. I had to spend a lot of time on phonics websites such as this one, swatting up on what was allowed in each phase: http://www.letters-and-sounds.com/phase-2-resources.html
The leader of the team I was working with, would assign me a particular book at a particular level (the scheme is split into coloured bands) and it would then be my job to come up with two stories to include in that particular book.
Which bands did I write?
The books I wrote were in the Pink, Red and Yellow bands. The guidance for these was as follows:
Pink: 12 pages per story, 3-5 words per page, mainly monosyllabic words, CVC (which, for those not in the know, is Consonant, Vowel, Consonant words, such as pop, pip, sit etc).
Red: 12 pages per story, 5-7 words per page, mainly monosyllabic words, CVC, plus lots of repetition from the Pink band words.
Yellow: 12 pages per story, 7-10 words per page, mainly monosyllabic words, introducing some polysyllabic, such as CVCC (e.g buzz, fizz, naps, pops).
Each book in a band focused on a particular set of sounds within that phonics phase. My “red” book, for instance had to include a lot of ll/ss/j words.
How did I go about writing the stories?
Honestly, it was a lot harder than it looks! We probably all have memories of reading mind-numbingly dull early readers with our little charges and one of the briefs was to try to make it fresh and interesting – a huge challenge with hardly any words at my disposal!
Additionally, the words available for use really were limited. Children at this stage of reading haven’t yet encountered pronouns he, she, they, or the past tense (-ed) or words with -ing on the end and certainly not “the,” “that” or other words we use with high frequency, such as “was” and “were,” – though the odd one of those was allowed, listed as a “tricky word” in the book for the relevant phase.
What I ended up doing, was entering the letters I was allowed into a scrabble word finder and writing them across a page of my notepad. I then perused the words carefully to see if any particular themes or stories sprung to mind. To the delight of my two boys, Ben and Sam, their names, both worked as names in the Yellow books, so I was able to write two stories featuring my very own children.
Once I had a basic story, I typed it up, checking the word count and had to write illustration suggestions for each page, that would help carry the essence of the story that so few words were struggling to convey.
What did I write about?
I had so much fun writing these stories. Highlights for me, included my Yellow band book, which was focused on “ee” and “ai” sounds. I called it “Wait,” and, in it, my two boys, Ben and Sam keep holding me up from going on a shopping trip through various means. When they are finally ready to go, “Mum needs a wee!” Anyone who knows me well, will know that this book is as close to autobiographical as a phonics reader can get! My other favourite is my Red band reader, focusing on ll/ss/j sounds, which contains two stories of a Dad who will go to great lengths to get 5 minutes peace and a warm cup of tea.
I aimed, throughout, for stories that would make adults chuckle and recognise familiar scenes in the books, as well as be enjoyable for fledgling readers.
Would I do similar work in the future?
Absolutely! I loved it. It was something entirely different to anything I had ever contemplated writing before, but I consider it a valuable addition to my writing CV, it was great fun and I am proud to have been published at last – even if not in a way I ever dreamed of.
Where can you get hold of these books?
If you are a primary school teacher or know one, do have a look at the Book Life website: https://www.booklife.co.uk/collections/reading-schemes. Or individual copies of books can be bought from most places books are sold.
Thank you for encouraging me and celebrating my slightly off-piste achievement with me! I couldn’t have done it without you all.
Georgie Tennant is a secondary school English teacher in a Norfolk Comprehensive. She is married, with two sons, aged 12 and 10 who keep her exceptionally busy. blog: