Catching Up on Phonics After Lockdown

Teachers in the Northern Hemisphere will soon be completing their students’ phonics assessments and more than a few teachers will be realising how much ‘ground’ has been lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. While it’s common for students with specific learning difficulties to struggle to meet literacy benchmarks, now – as a result of school closures and lockdowns – many students who ordinarily would be meeting benchmarks are not.

phonics-catch-up teacherOne of the many joys of teaching in 2020!

In my role as a phonics tutor, I am sometimes called in when a child has had school absences and needs to catch up – quickly. Requests for that sort of ‘phonics catch-up’ have increased significantly due to COVID lockdowns. Some of my Australian students have only physically been at school for ten weeks since January!

These are challenging times for teachers, so, in this blog, I’m sharing my 5 top tips for a rapid phonics catch-up. I am hoping that this will also be helpful for Year 2 teachers in the UK, whose students have to complete the autumn Phonics Screening Check.

Tip 1: Assessment Should Inform Your Planning

If you have limited time, you cannot waste it re-teaching what the child has already mastered. You should:

  1. Firstly, identify the letter-sound correspondences that have been mastered.
  2. You will then need to assess the ability of the child to blend sounds and to segment sounds. Ideally, you will assess blending and segmenting with real and nonsense words, in order to ensure that the child is using phonic skills and not relying on visual memory.
  3. Lastly, you will need to assess the reading and writing of irregular camera or ‘tricky’ words.
using assessment for phonics catch-up

Use your data to begin instruction at the point of need.

A Phonics Hero Teacher Account provides you with free assessment resources for each of the literacy areas mentioned. You might also find my deep dive into Phonics Assessment helpful, too!

Tip 2: Prioritise – Address the Most Significant Gaps First

Determine what the priorities are for the student and focus your instruction on these. Reading and spelling depend on knowledge of letter-sound correspondences, so if these aren’t known, a focus on blending or segmenting is futile. If the child has mastered letter-sound correspondences but struggles with blending or segmenting, then make that your skill focus.

blending-targetA laser-like focus on the missing skills is critical.

Practice in word segmenting and reading/spelling of irregular words is not required in preparation for the Phonics Screening Check, so UK teachers who are trying to prepare students for that should probably give priority to letter-sound correspondences and blending.

Remember that prioritising doesn’t mean that you’re ignoring other aspects of literacy. The goal of reading is comprehension, but if the student can’t decode, then comprehension is unlikely. Decoding must have priority over comprehension skill development. Reading great literature with students is still important but that can be done later in the day while you focus on phonic skills in the morning.

Phonics Hero breaks phonic skills into 6 key areas, each addressed separately, so is ideal for skill-targeted practice.

level-6The six skills taught across a level in a Child Account:
the sounds, reading, spelling, tricky word reading and spelling and sentences.

Tip 3: Individualise Where Possible

Catch-up is always more rapid when instruction is individualised. As I said earlier, you need to meet children at their individual point of need, but that can be difficult if you don’t have resources that allow one group to work independently while you work with another!

blonde-girl-counting-soundsChild Accounts enable teachers to support each student as an individual.

Phonics Hero facilitates the individualising of programs. When children start playing on their Child Account, they take a Placement Test that identifies the most appropriate level for them to start on. Teachers can set levels for each individual child and schedule learning as well as access all of our 220 worksheets (both supported and independent) for free. Take a look at these examples:

For parents, Worksheet Packs can be purchased for Parts 1, 2, and 3 of Phonics Hero, allowing students to work at their own pace and level.

Tip 4: Revise and Practise to the Point of Automaticity – Carpe Diem!

Students need to be automatic decoders in order to fully comprehend text. The key to automaticity is practice. Seize every opportunity to give students more phonics practice – do a little bit, often. Use people resources (grown-up helpers) as well as material resources.

  • Use our interactive, click-and-go Phonics Lessons for a Teaching Assistant or other adult to practise speed reads.
  • speed-read-wordsOur no-prep Phonics Lessons Fast Read activity:
    How quickly can you read each word before the car zooms away?

  • Use a Learning Mastery Folder with each student. Learn how.
  • Replace ‘finishing off’ time with ‘phonic fun’ time. You can increase your use of Phonics Hero this way.


  • Have phonics-based board and card games available for play before school and at rainy lunchtimes. Older school students could produce these for you as a school/community service project.
  • Encourage productive use of screen time at home with our Child Accounts (you can trial them for 30 days).
  • If possible, use peer tutoring before, during or after school – older students can play phonics-based games with younger students.
  • Send home phonic skill games that parents can play with their child. You can find lots of low-cost games on

Tip 5: Make Teaching and Learning Multisensory

The more senses we involve in learning, the more likely it is that information will be retained. Movement and the use of colour not only make learning fun, but aid memory. Use colour to highlight the difference between vowels and consonants, to draw attention to ‘tricky bits’ in irregular words. Here are some learning activity ideas that involve movement:

  • Hopscotch – write letters or words on the usual hopscotch grid in the playground and have students say these as they hop on each square.
  • Bowling – use Velcro to attach letters or words to each bowling pin and have the students try to knock down specific pins.
  • Twister – use Velcro to attach letters or words to each spot on the mat. The student must read before placing a limb on the letter/word.
  • Relay games like Tunnel Ball or Captain Ball – students have to read/say a letter-sound correspondence or word before passing the ball on.
  • Write letters on Lego and have students identify letter-sound correspondences and build words with the blocks. Kids love it! Read our Lego Phonics blog post for ideas.
  • hopscotchPhoneme Jumping!

Lots of card games can be adapted for phonic skill development. Our Home Reader cards use single words and are ideal for printing off to use in games. You might play:

  • ‘Snap’ – students must say each sound or word as they place their card.
  • ‘Concentration’ – students turn up cards containing letters or words two at a time and try to locate a pair.
  • ‘Happy Families’ or Go Fish, with multiple spellings of a sound making up the family.
  • ‘Find Your Match’ – students have to walk around the room trying to match their letter, word or sound representation, reading the ones they encounter in their search.
  • reading-rings-previewAn example set of our Home Reader cards

You’ve Got This

2020 has been full of challenges but phonics skill catch-up is achievable. Keep your phonics focus laser-like and the practice consistent and you’ll soon see gains. From one teacher to another, you’ve got this!

Author: Shirley Houston

With a Masters degree in Special Education, Shirley has been teaching children and training teachers in Australia for over 30 years. Working with children with learning difficulties, Shirley champions the importance of teaching phonics systematically and to mastery in mainstream classrooms. If you are interested in Shirley’s help as a literacy trainer for your school, drop the team an email on

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