A two-armed cluster randomised trial: Evaluation report
The Flexible Phonics intervention aims to help reception class teachers and teaching assistants (TAs) to deliver new strategies designed to optimise the teaching of reading to all reception pupils (aged four to five years). The intervention fits around existing phonics programmes, with strategies being incorporated approximately three to four times a week or even daily. Flexible Phonics approaches teach children to add another step after they have blended phonemes, to recognise whether they have successfully identified a word or if they need to use alternate strategies to do so. This ‘set-for-variability’ approach could enable children to read unfamiliar exception words independently (words that break phonic rules, such as ‘the’, ‘two’, or ‘above’).
The programme developers, Professor Savage and Amy Fox were based at University College London at the time of the trial. The project duration was from September 2020 to July 2021, with intervention delivery from January 2021 to July 2021. During delivery, between January and March 2021 schools were closed to most pupils due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The three half-days of initial training for teachers and TAs took place online due to restrictions. The three follow-up sessions offered to each school were also delivered remotely rather than using in-person school visits as intended. Schools received books to implement intervention strategies with pupils and they could access an online resource bank and ongoing virtual support — by email and over Zoom. The intervention delivery time was reduced from 20 weeks to 14 weeks due to the pandemic. When classes resumed, the pandemic continued to disrupt programme delivery.
Flexible Phonics was evaluated using a randomised controlled efficacy trial looking at the impact of the programme on children’s word reading. A total of 123 schools were randomly allocated to the intervention or to continue their ‘business as usual’ provision. The initial pupil sample after the randomisation was 3,166. The process evaluation included training observations, case study interviews, online surveys, and interviews, which were remote rather than face to face due to the Covid-19 lockdowns.
The programme's key conclusions included the following:
1 Pupils who participated in Flexible Phonics made the equivalent of one month less progress, on average, in early word recognition than pupils who did not receive the programme.
2 Pupils who participated in Flexible Phonics made the equivalent of zero months’ progress, on average, in reading comprehension and correcting deliberately mispronounced words than children in other schools.
3 Pupils who were eligible for free school meals who participated in Flexible Phonics made the equivalent of no months’ additional progress in word recognition compared to similar children who did not receive the programme. There was marginal evidence that in Flexible Phonics schools that also received the Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI), pupils made more progress in word recognition than in Flexible Phonics schools that did not register for NELI.
4 Teachers and TAs in Flexible Phonics schools reported that it was relatively straightforward to integrate the programme into existing phonics practice. However, a minority of educators were unclear about which elements of the programme were compulsory to deliver, so future delivery could seek to emphasise these aspects.
5 Around 100 teachers and TAs surveyed in Flexible Phonics schools suggested that there was no change in their confidence or overall practice regarding phonics teaching, although confidence was already high at the start of delivery. They indicated that children engaged in activities well and approached reading with confidence and increased resilience.