Part 2 – Start of Jolly Phonics

Brief details are given about the decline in reading standards, which were attributed to a lack of phonics. At about the same time Christopher Jolly started publishing Jolly Phonics, a synthetic phonics programme.

Part 2: Start of Jolly Phonics


After many years of trying to interest educationalists in our type of phonics, there was still no change in the approach for the majority of state schools. In fact, the fashion against phonics became worse. Many schools went so far as to get rid of structured reading schemes and only provided books for the children to read that were known as ‘real’ books.


These so-called ‘real’ books had no control over vocabulary, or the number of times words were repeated. The expectation was that the children would be so keen to read these exciting books that they would be able to overcome any problems. That was true for the children who could crack the alphabetic code by themselves, but the reality was very different for the other children. These children, who undoubtedly had weak memories or a poor ability to hear the sounds in words – or both – were completely lost. There were so many new words to try and remember and there was none of the word repetition in the reading books to give them support. The failure rate became far worse and the children taught in this way were scoring even lower on standardised reading tests.


This severe decline in reading standards was recognised by educational psychologists. The psychologist chosen to reveal this decline was Martin Turner. In his pamphlet Sponsored Reading Failure, he presented the evidence and attributed the problem to the latest methods of teaching reading. This alerted those in government to look into the problem and was the beginning of bringing back a more serious approach to teaching phonics.


At about this time, I was introduced to Chris Jolly. He was interested in phonetics, as well as the teaching of reading, and wondered whether it would be a good idea to simplify our English spelling system. He listened to my experiences and was impressed with our results. He gave me his card and encouraged me to contact him later. That was when I realised that he was an independent publisher who had recently started a company called Jolly Learning Ltd, a natural choice considering his name was Christopher Jolly. To cut the story short, Chris Jolly asked me to write a handbook for teachers, which later became The Phonics Handbook and the start of Jolly Phonics.


Sara Wernham started at the school where I was teaching just after finishing her PGCE, which is a postgraduate teaching qualification. She expected to be teaching the nine-year-old children. Instead, the headmaster had changed his mind and she started her teaching in Reception, which is the first year in school.


Initially, Sara seemed a little bewildered when we explained how we taught the children to read and write. With a little guidance, all went well and at the end of the year the children in Sara’s class had achieved the expected high standards and were equally as good as the children in the other classes.


It was after this that Sara explained why she had initially been bewildered. It turned out that Sara had been taught to read by memorising whole words and using the first letter and context to help her deduce new words, which was the method used by many schools at that time. She had no idea that there was a link between the other letters and their sounds.


In the whole of Sara’s education, no one had taught her to make this connection. Now, as it happens, Sara is fortunate to have a brilliant visual memory and she was able to cope with reading, skipping over a few words here and there. It was the spelling that caused her major problems. Even her excellent memory was not sufficient to remember the order the letters went in. Her inability to hear the sounds in words also prevented her from looking up words in a dictionary. If only the first sound in a word can be heard, then looking up words in a dictionary is impossible. For that skill, it is necessary to hear at least the second and third sounds, as well as the first [demonstration].


Obviously Sara, at the time she was being taught, had poor auditory skills and nobody had recognised the problem. So when she started at our school and was asked to teach the children to listen for the sounds in words, she really was not sure what was wanted. However, by following instructions and starting the teaching right from the beginning, going through Steps 1 to 3, Sara tuned herself into hearing the sounds in words and cracked the code for herself. This was a huge revelation to her. Sara then realised that all the letters in words were important and, by saying the sounds linked to the letters and blending them, the words could be decoded and read. Initially, Sara was excited and then angry. Why had nobody told her this before?


Now it was at about this time that I met Chris Jolly and he had asked me to write a handbook about how to do the teaching. This was proving rather a challenge for me and towards the end, as I struggled, Sara offered to help me. This was the best thing that could have happened. Sara, Chris Jolly and I have worked together ever since developing Jolly Phonics materials. Fortunately for us, Sara has many talents that she has brought to the projects, as well as an excellent understanding of what needs to be taught. I tell this story, with Sara’s permission of course, because it demonstrates that even highly intelligent children can become disadvantaged by wrong methods of teaching. Sara and I are well aware that if her memory had not been so good then she would have become one of the many children with serious reading problems, as well as spelling problems.


Interestingly, there is another remarkable example of an exceptionally intelligent person being unaware of the alphabetic code and how it works. It makes fascinating reading. To find it, go to or scroll down to the bottom of the screen in the section Sue Lloyd, Part 2 and click on the link The brightest kids need help too by Sally R.