MyCollege Logo

Research Projects

Discover opportunities to participate in research projects and collaborate with researchers

Original article by:

Lowry C, Leonard-Kane R, Gibbs B et al. (2022) Teachers: the forgotten health workforce. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 115(4): 133–137. 



Amidst rising rates of mental illness among children, this commentary highlights the role of teachers as the forgotten health workforce. According to the Mental Health of Children and Young People in England (MHCYP) survey, teachers are the most common source of mental health support for children (NHS Digital, 2017). Although children are well placed to access help in schools, staff do not receive the necessary training to promote mental health or respond to problems (Byrne et al., 2015; Sibieta, 2021). Furthermore, disproportionate numbers of teachers themselves experience mental health problems (Lowry et al., 2022a). 

What is the research underpinning it?

Research indicates that teachers have an important role as public health professionals, promoting long-term health. School connectedness, or the extent to which children feel valued by their teachers and peers, has a long-term impact on the physical and mental health of pupils (Lowry et al., 2022a). Particularly important for adult health is the quality of the teacher-pupil relationship (Kim, 2021), whilst teachers can also play an important role in the promotion of pupils’ social and emotional learning (SEL), which in turn has a positive impact on GCSE results (Lowry et al., 2002b) and lifetime earnings (Flèche, 2017).

Teachers also have a further role to play as primary care professionals, providing frontline health and wellbeing services. Teachers are identified as ‘tier 1’ of the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) professionals, alongside general practitioners and social workers. However, training for teachers in England is notably lacking. A national scoping study of mental health provision in English schools found that the main staff supporting pupils in schools had no specialist mental health training (Vostanis et al., 2013). 

Impact on practice

The authors argue that funding is required to support schools to fulfil their public health and primary care roles, which could come directly from the health sector (Jani et al., 2022). Specifically, the authors propose three recommendations:

  1. Train the workforce: training in child development, health and wellbeing should be integrated into ITT and the Early Career Framework. This training should be complimentary for current teachers, with different training pathways tailored to specialised roles (e.g. form teachers, pastoral managers, health education teachers and school leaders).
  2. Measure what matters: it is important to regularly measure all the modifiable factors relevant to children’s long-term success. Anonymous school-level data on pupil health, wellbeing, and SEL, pupil–teacher relationships, and teacher wellbeing and workload should therefore be collected regularly. This data can be used to understand and respond to the needs of both pupils and teachers.
  3. Create child-centred services: investment is required to enable pupils to access essential children’s services in school, from social workers to social prescribing link workers.

Key takeaways:

  • teachers perform both public health and primary care roles
  • however, teachers are not adequately trained for these roles
  • funding is required to support and equip this forgotten health workforce. 

Joanna Johnson, Associate Trainer (Grassroots Suicide Prevention), ASIST Trainer (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills), Papyrus Volunteer (Prevention of Suicide in Young People), and  Head of Department and Psychology Teacher, Monmouth School for Girls, UK

If you were asked what the leading cause of death was in young people, what would you say? Drugs or Alcohol? Car crashes? Gang fights or violence in the home? It’s actually death by suicide. Alarmingly, around 4 children a week, some only 10 years old, die by suicide in England and Wales (ONS, 2022), with research by Papyrus in 2017 stating that on average students are sharing suicidal thoughts with teachers once a term or more (Papyrus, 2017). This may well have increased following COVID-19 and the cost-of-living crisis.

Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) are overwhelmed, with many children and young people with mental health issues desperately needing support. Over 190,000 0–18 year-olds were referred to children and young people’s mental health services between April and June in 2021, up 134 per cent on the same period the year before, and 96 per cent on 2019 (97,342) (Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2021). Moving forward, the longer-term impact of the pandemic on young people is still being examined, however research from Cambridge indicates that ‘increases in stress across the entire population due to the coronavirus lockdown could cause far more young people to be at risk of suicide than can be detected through evidence of psychiatric disorders’ (Polek et al., 2020). It is so distressing and we, as teachers, give our absolute best to help our pupils. But we are not mental health professionals, and it can be frustrating when we can’t refer them for the specialist support they so desperately need.

On 13 March 2023, Parliament debated whether suicide prevention should be a compulsory part of the school curriculum (House of Commons, March 2023). Minister for Schools, Nick Gibb MP, responded to the debate and outlined current measures to ensure pupils’ emotional wellbeing within the curriculum: ‘as part of taking a comprehensive, evidence-based approach, we will make sure we speak to the experts in the field. We plan to start the review as soon as possible.’ If this does come to fruition, it could have a profound impact on rates of suicide in children and young people. But we must also examine what this means for us in our role as educators, how we embed this in the curriculum, and how we support pupils in the most effective way, with the most useful training.

Suicide is such a complicated and difficult area. The ripple effect of the death of a child or young person is of course unsurmountable, and research by Clinical Psychologist Julie Cerel shows that, on average, around 135 people are affected when a person dies by suicide (Cerel et al., 2018, p. 5). This figure, however, is erroneous when considering the impact on a community, as it depends on the connections in that community, and in particular such a close-knit community as a school.

I trained a group of counsellors and trainee counsellors on suicide prevention in South Wales – an area that suffered a particularly devastating 26 deaths by suicide in 2007/2008 (Luce, 2012).  Many of the suicides were teenagers aged between 13 and 17 years. The community was shell-shocked and there was public outcry to try and find out why, with many blaming the media. There are now helpful media guides when reporting suicide, compiled by the Samaritans (see resources section), but suicide is a complicated issue, signified by a complex interplay of genetic, biological, psychological and social factors, so it is not wise to take a reductionist view of the causes, or the ways in which to help.

So, what can we do?

Tailored training which equips people to run an intervention with a young person is the ideal. And there are a number of courses I would highly recommend, in particular the ASIST Course, delivered by Grassroots Suicide Prevention, which I deliver (ASIST key studies 2007 – 2017). ASIST is a 2-day intervention course designed to equip people with a practical, credible model based on psychological concepts and extensive research. Not only does it provide a clear structure for educators to follow, but also offers the opportunity to apply the model to scenarios tailored to your environment/specific role in school. The intervention training will develop your confidence when holding conversations with a young person experiencing thoughts of suicide, and in developing a suicide safety plan.

In addition to ASIST, there are organisations, such as Grassroots Suicide Prevention, who will devise tailored suicide prevention training programmes aligned with your needs. There is an award-winning StayAlive App – see resources section (Grassroots Suicide Prevention, 2020) – which is packed full of information to help someone stay safe, whether they are having thoughts of suicide or concerned about someone else who may be considering suicide.

If you are interested in suicide prevention training, then please do not hesitate to get in touch. In the meantime, however, here are some key strategies to help, which are based on psychological models and key research studies.

Turning to some common misconceptions, it is often assumed that asking about suicide somehow puts the idea in their head. No research has shown this. In fact, it can have completely the opposite effect and act as a protective factor (O’Connor 2021, p. 52).  If asked clearly, and directly, it can actually encourage the person to seek the help they so desperately need. An effective way to integrate this into the school community is to practise asking the question. This could form part of inset training for staff on mental health which incorporates a workshop on suicide prevention and could be run by accredited organisations such as Grassroots or Papyrus.

Another perception of people who have suicidal thoughts is that they want to die. This is not necessarily the case. Part of them will want to live and through an intervention, you can work with the young person to identify this will to live (O’Connor 2021, p. 53). The main emotion they often feel is ambivalence, plus ‘tunnel vision’ where they can’t see any other way out and feel ‘trapped’. The eminent Psychologist Edward Schneidman spoke of ‘cognitive constriction’ which is a narrowing of perspective, a dangerous reduction of the person’s range of problem-solving options, and a form of ‘psychological myopia’. The individual focuses on day-to-day needs at the expense of forward thinking (Jobes and Nelson 2006, p. 5). If a young person starts speaking about the future or anything that has meaning for them, such as family or pets, encourage that conversation, as it can be a connection to life, which can lead to a way out of this ‘narrow thinking’ process.

In your school community, your pastoral leads are undoubtedly dealing daily with children and young people with mental health issues. According to the 2022 Digital NHS report into Mental Health of Children and Young People in England (NHS Digital, 2022), 18 per cent of children aged seven to 16 years, and over 1 in 5 (22 per cent) of young people aged 17-24 years had a probable mental disorder, with many of these vulnerable young people more likely to report self-harm (28.3 per cent of 7-16 year olds and 68.6 per cent of 17-24 year olds with a probable mental disorder had tried to harm themselves).

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, self-harm is the single biggest indicator of suicide risk and provides a crucial opportunity for intervention. People with a history of self-harm are at increased risk of suicide, and self-harm is increasing in young people, particularly girls, according to the Incidence, clinical management, and mortality risk following self harm among children and adolescents report published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists (2017). Every mention of self-harm should be taken seriously, but the link between self-harm and suicide is not straightforward.

According to the Child Mind Institute (2023), self-injury can be used to feel better rather than to end life. Indeed, some people who self-injure are clear that it helps them to avoid suicide. They state that there are marked differences between self-injury and suicide, such as intent, means, frequency, level of damage caused and the amount of psychological pain experienced (Child Mind Institute, 2023). In essence, however, self-injury is a risk factor, especially when combined with other risk factors, such as a history of trauma, alcohol or substance abuse, adverse childhood experiences, childhood abuse, attachment disorder and high emotional sensitivity, as well as mental disorders and previous suicide attempts, according to research on Suicide and Youth: Risk Factors (Bilsen, 2018). The advice: hear their story, ask the question – are they thinking of ending their life?

So, what are we looking for?

What contributory risk factors and behaviours should you look for, monitor and follow up?  Changes in language can be a sign, such as being a ‘burden’ to others, that they are ‘trapped’, ‘struggling to cope’ or ‘they’ve had enough’. Behaving out of character, such as giving possessions away, stopping clubs/activities, mood changes – either withdrawn, or elation (they can feel relief). A traumatic life event, such as bereavement, abuse, relationship or family breakdown.  Unsurprisingly, academic pressure (especially exam pressure) is a risk factor, and they may express suicidal ideation verbally, or through indirect means, such as creative writing. Self-harm mentioned alongside a risk-taking behaviour is an important indicator. This list is not exhaustive, but knowing students well can help to identify behaviours that may be ‘out of the ordinary’, acting as a warning sign (see NSPCC Guide in resources section – learning from case reviews).

Issues around sexuality can be a risk factor. Stonewall’s LBGT in Britain – Health Report (Stonewall, 2018), based on YouGov research with 5000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people across England, Scotland and Wales about their life in Britain today, found that half of LGBT people (52%) said they’d experienced depression in the last year, and one in eight LGBT people aged 18-24 (13%) said they’d attempted to take their own life in the last year. Almost half of trans people surveyed (46%) also thought about taking their own life in the last year, and 31% of LGB people who aren’t trans said the same.

Importantly, though, take every small mention of suicide seriously. You don’t need to solve all their problems; just listening and showing you care can really help. An important message that has come across in many training sessions I’ve attended, is to reverse the phrase ‘attention-seeking’ to ‘seeking attention’ – they are asking for help for a reason. You don’t need to have all the answers or be concerned about saying ‘exactly the right words’; just be that person they talk to, and show compassion.

One of the most effective strategies that I’ve learnt throughout all the training sessions I’ve attended/delivered, is the importance of listening. As teachers, we frequently want to jump to a solution in order to help, and I had to learn to put the brakes on and let someone simply tell their story. The story that is painful, the story that may be aired for the first time, the story that gives some release to that young person in psychological pain, the story that may save their life.

So, how can we embed this in the curriculum?

These are some suggestions, certainly not exhaustive, nor prescriptive. In addition, Papyrus has produced a helpful guide for supporting schools and colleges to be ‘suicide-safe’ (see resources section). We can all potentially help to save lives, by involving the whole community and empowering people to have conversations with children and young people, and to listen.

  • Develop a School Suicide Prevention Policy (is suicide prevention in your School Development Plan?)
  • Working groups, or a suicide prevention specialist intervention team (you may already have a Wellbeing Working Party that could incorporate suicide prevention)
  • Involve a range of people: e.g. governors, SLT, safeguarding/pastoral/wellbeing leads/local authority/health boards, public health/nursing/boarding/parents/pupils/key local organisations/Papyrus/Grassroots.
  • Training for colleagues (a cross-section of professions in the school community – not just teachers) during inset/suggested as CPD
  • Do you have ‘safeguarding hubs’ in the community – could training be delivered to key people from several schools? (which would potentially save costs and reduce cover requirements)
  • Incorporate in your PSHE programme
  • Incorporate in mentor training for prefects, and/or enrichment programmes. Do you have wellbeing or mental health prefects?
  • Enhance current safeguarding reporting methods: e.g. do pupils have ‘go-to’ people they can easily talk to – identify any barriers to them speaking to someone about their concerns
  • Compile a ‘flow-chart’ of immediate action/key contacts to ensure colleagues know exactly what to do if they are concerned about a child or young person who has expressed suicidal thoughts
  • A list of key organisations – both local to your community and UK-wide – with relevant helplines, accessible for everyone, including parents (you may wish to include a statement that you are not responsible for the content)
  • ‘Help’ cards (credit-card sized), or ‘Help’ apps for students – with key contact numbers etc.
  • Get involved with Suicide Prevention campaigns e.g. fundraising events, to raise awareness and reduce stigma
  • Audit what you currently do in school – there will already be good practice taking place
  • Audit your current reporting systems and run through potential scenarios to ensure they are fit for purpose.

It is, I know, so difficult in our profession. We are constantly holding fleeting conversations in corridors, or in the staffroom, rushing to meet deadlines and planning ahead. But if you can pause, just for a moment, and take the time to ask (you may have noticed a risk factor), listen, really listen, to that child or young person. There may be a chance for a turning point you spot, perhaps where they speak of hope, or you help them to identify a connection to life. It can work. You can save lives.

Thank you.


Suicide prevention: Useful resources and links

Grassroots’ award-winning app StayAlive, packed full of useful information to help you stay safe. You can use it if you are having thoughts of suicide or if you are concerned about someone else who may be considering suicide. In addition to the resources, the app includes a safety plan, customisable reasons for living, and a life box where you can store photos that are important to you.

Stay Alive App - Grassroots Suicide Prevention (

Grassroots Suicide Prevention | Educating, Connecting, Campaigning (

Grassroots Suicide Prevention (GrassrootsUK) profile | Padlet


Papyrus’ Building Suicide-Safer Schools and Colleges A GUIDE FOR TEACHERS AND STAFF.

Schools guide | Papyrus UK | Suicide Prevention Charity (

Papyrus also runs a free helpline, which you can give to the young person to call, use for support during a conversation with a young person, for a debrief after an intervention, or any time you need advice on suicide prevention for children and young people.

HOPELINEUK: Call: 0800 068 4141, Text: 07860039967, Email:

Opening hours: 9am – midnight every day of the year (Weekends and Bank Holidays included)

Papyrus UK Suicide Prevention | Prevention of Young Suicide (


Samaritans 116 123 (available 24 hours)

Contact Us | Samaritans

Research evidence shows that certain types of media depictions, such as explicitly describing a method, sensational and excessive reporting, can lead to imitational suicidal behaviour among vulnerable people. In contrast, coverage describing a person or character coming through a suicidal crisis can serve as a powerful testimony to others that this is possible and can encourage vulnerable people to seek help.

Samaritans' media guidelines for reporting suicide | Samaritans

Promoting and supporting mental health and wellbeing in schools and colleges - GOV.UK (


NSPCC Suicide: learning from case reviews

Learning from case reviews briefing: suicide (

Frankie Bisset, Emily Giubertoni, Jodie Jethwa

Our setting is a voluntary-aided non-selective secondary school for ages 11-18 in Birmingham. We are a Catholic school, catering to around 1200 students with approximately 26 per cent on free school meals (FSM).

As Ofsted (2022) recently described, 'the way in which pupils relate to each other online can have a significant impact on the culture of the school’. It is important therefore that we teach and support a positive behaviour culture on social media, just as we would in the physical classroom.

On a day-to-day basis, there are behavioural issues surrounding the complexities of social media. Although it is illegal for many of our students to be on many social media platforms, in reality many students have multiple social media accounts. Students lack the maturity to use these accounts properly, and are placed at risk through their usage (NSPCC, 2022). We have seen students set up fraudulent social media accounts using another person’s profile; online bullying; sexual harassment; sexting via social media such as inappropriate nudes.

We take the same approach to the dangers of social media as we do to any safeguarding concern: that it could, and likely does, happen here. We have designed an approach which ‘promotes a whole-setting approach to safeguarding, giving children and young people the space to explore key issues and the confidence to seek the support of adults’ (UK Council for Internet Safety, 2020).

Our response to keeping children safe on social media is therefore both preventative and reactive. We have a preventative spiral curriculum designed to equip students with the knowledge and skills to identify and avoid dangers on social media.

We have increased our PSHE provision hours to one per week as suggested by the PSHE association who have evidenced the many benefits of ensuring PSHE involves 'regular lessons on the timetable like other subjects' (PSHE Association, 2019). We have also ensured students have the same teachers across Key Stage 3, to build relationships and teacher expertise (OFSTED, 2013).

Inspired by the PSHE association report on 'Handling complex issues and creating a safe learning environment', we have mapped out our PSHE coverage across a five-year curriculum, which is age appropriate and builds awareness over time. As a result, Ofsted recently found that in our school, 'The personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education curriculum is thorough and well organised. It is delivered thoughtfully and skilfully by staff’ (Ofsted, 2021).

In brief, students are introduced to issues in social media in Year 7 PSHE autumn 1, then in spring 1 revisit these themes in IT lessons; a drop down day in Year 8 emphasises the physical and mental impact; Year 9 have PSHE timetabled lessons on social media awareness; in PSHE lessons Year 9 cover issues of personal safety online; in Years 10 and 11 students have assemblies on age-specific dangers of social media and an awareness day. This curriculum is set out for all staff in an overview document which is reviewed and updated yearly (see Figure 1).

Year 7 Year 8 Year 9 Year 10 Year 11
Autumn Term – Safety Online (lesson and Assembly Spring Term – Online Safety and Gaming Six lessons

Assembly on Safety

Spring Term –

Social Media/ Toxic Masculinity and Hate Crime

Assembly on Safety

Autumn Term –

Safety Assembly and Form Resource

Autumn Term –

Safety Assembly and Form Resource

Spring Term IT – Online Safety in Computing Personal Development Day (May) Law and Social Media Personal Development Day (April) Safeguarding online and Grooming Personal Development Day (July)

Online Grooming and Law

Personal Development Day (October)

Dangers of Online and the Perception of Reality

Figure 1: overview of the curriculum plan

Alongside the classroom curriculum, we invite visiting speakers into school 'to enhance teaching by an appropriate member of the teaching staff, rather than as a replacement' (Department for Education, 2019). Effective speakers are identified through the police and the local authority. We bring in the greater expertise and knowledge of professionals matched to year group needs. An example from 2022 was an external session for Year 11 on the Prevent agenda. Furthermore, vulnerable students are identified and take part in workshops with external experts, again as part of our preventative agenda.

Despite the extensive preventative curriculum in place, some issues will inevitably occur. We have designed a raft of responsive measures to support students in need, and to support staff in helping them.

  • Where issues seem to be widespread, assemblies are designed to address key issues
  • We don’t want to crack a nut with a sledgehammer –often individual or small group approaches are more effective than a whole-year group response
  • Collecting evidence and screenshots of misuse of social media
  • Invitations to parents into school to see evidence and agree support
  • Safeguarding referrals to be followed where necessary
  • The pastoral team in our school receives high quality training on specific social media issues, usually in an off-site venue to ensure the training is high status. Training will also cover what we consider PSHE delivery basics following PSHE Association guidance (PSHE Association, 2018) such as distancing techniques and signposting.


An example of this process in action can be illustrated through an incident when a group of Year 8 students posted inappropriate pictures of other people through social media. We felt that this required a whole year group response. An assembly was created, focussing on the legal context for social media misuse. The assembly was crafted to be of benefit to all students, whatever their experience, so built from exploring the gap between social media and reality, to harder hitting legal implications. Many students were unaware that by forwarding an inappropriate image, they too could be criminally responsible. Students find it a challenge to understand the concept of joint enterprise, and so the assembly stressed the responsibility to report an inappropriate image, and that not doing so could leave them equally responsible.

We monitor all incidents, and are able to analyse the data on social media issues to track impact. We have consistently seen a positive impact between the interventions outlined above, and the reduction in social media incidents.

For all years, continuously, we signpost reporting processes and how to access support to all students. We emphasise this constantly through assemblies, PHSE lessons, form time announcements, newsletters, and posters around school. As a result, students are able to confidently articulate what their responsibilities are, and where they should go for support. As our most recent Ofsted inspection found, students ‘trust staff to support them, for example if they experience bullying or other problems’ (Ofsted, 2021).

John Bald (FCCT) Independent educational consultant. Former tutor in charge, Reading and Language Centres, Essex Education Department.


Controversy over methods of teaching reading and spelling began with the spread of state primary education in the nineteenth century, and soon occupied similar ground to that of today (Parker, 2021). Should children be taught to recognise whole words, or should they build them by blending the sounds indicated by letters (phonics, now generally known as synthetic phonics)? These issues dominated professional discussion until the late 1960s, when two American writers, Professor Kenneth Goodman (1968) and the magazine journalist Frank Smith (1973), developed an approach using the new academic discipline of psycholinguistics in which they argued that readers do not pay attention to individual words as they read, but lightly sampled the text, checking that they were making sense, and using clues (or cues) from context in order to identify words. I will argue these approaches are based on misconceptions and a misunderstanding of the operation of the alphabetic system, and will offer another, based on accurate presentation of the use of letters and of phonic correspondences in English.


The alphabet and the English language

The key feature of alphabetic writing, developed in ancient Greek and Latin, is the representation of sounds by letters. This distinguishes it from pictographic systems. The movement from left to right as we write probably also reflects the fact that most people are right-handed, so that the hand holding the pen or stylus does not obscure the writing and people can see what they are doing. Latin and Greek have, as far as can be determined without recordings of ancient speech, a high degree of phonic regularity, which is reflected in the direct letter-sound correspondences in most longer words derived from them, a feature that I called phonics’ ‘second wind’ in my first book, The Literacy File (1997).

The use of the Latin alphabet in English is, however, complicated by our history. In the 300 years following the Norman Conquest, English was flooded with French. This has continued over centuries. The computerisation of the Collins-Robert French-English dictionary showed that around thirty per cent of English words, many of them very common – table, fruit, garage, centre – are either identical to French or very nearly so, though their pronunciation is different. These words are phonically regular in French, but not in English. I discussed the issue with the Finnish ambassador at a conference last October. He asked me if I thought English would be regular, as Finnish is, without the Norman Conquest. An excellent question. David Crystal (2012) has shown that old English writing has a high degree of phonic regularity, but there are also influences from Northern European languages, in words like ‘answer’, that show that English spelling is, and always has been, a hybrid. The thread of sound-symbol correspondence runs through it, but with significant variations.

Handling this has dogged the teaching of reading and spelling since the late nineteenth century. Earlier practice had been simply to present the material without explanation and have children learn it by heart, with rewards for successful memorisation and punishment for failure. An early protest against this approach was appropriately titled, ‘The Futility of the Spelling Grind’ (Rice, 1908). In the 1920s, whole word recognition approaches emerged, with the idea that children might learn to read through its shape – e.g., in French, écureuil, squirrel, has an unusual shape and could be supported by a picture. Whole word approaches, supported by flash cards, became widespread in the fifties, notably, in the UK, with Ladybird Key Words and the Janet and John series. The most recent challenge to phonics has come from ‘psycholinguistic’ theories (Goodman, 1968; Smith, 1973), which presented reading   as a ‘guessing game,’ in which readers made predictions based on light sampling of text, rather than paying attention to each word. Variations on these are ‘multicue’ and ‘Searchlights’ theories, in which children are encouraged to guess at words from ‘cues’ in context and pictures.

These theories were shown to be erroneous by research, beginning with Schatz and Baldwin’s (1986) demonstration that context clues did not help accurate word identification, continuing with the Clackmannanshire research (Johnston and Watson, 2005) that proved the benefits of early phonics and perhaps culminating in   Castles et al. (2018) showing the importance of early phonics in establishing the ‘alphabetic principle’– that we read by using the information contained in letters, and not by guessing.

A final point is a personal observation by Ruth Miskin that around half of all children are likely to learn to read, whatever approach is taken. My experience supports this view and research – notably, but not only, Clay (1965) has shown that some children who read early see patterns for themselves with minimal support and quickly learn to spot and correct their own errors. Others require much more explicit instruction before they can do this.


Initial phonics and whole phonics

Initial phonics teaches children to blend the sounds of individual letters from left to right in order to read words. This is essential, and the Ditties in Read Write Inc (Miskin, 2016) provide an excellent introduction, as their construction ensures that the approach works with them all the time. Problems begin when it doesn’t work – e.g., that ‘t’ no longer represents the sound ‘t’, as in ‘top’, when followed by ‘h’, or table, where the last two letters represent the order of sounds in French, rather than English. We also have around 25 voice (vowel) sounds in English and only seven letters – aeiou, ‘y’ (an alternative to i, known as ‘Greek I’ in European languages) and ‘w’, which can operate as a companion vowel. Whole phonics lists the alternative ways of representing a sound – e.g. sum, come – and expects the child to learn these.

This approach is cumbersome and confusing. A child approaching an unknown word does not know which variation or combination applies. They can’t use what the teacher has taught them – blending from left to right – because it won’t produce a word unless they pick the right variation or combination. They don’t know what this is unless they’ve already learned the word. Home and come – words children will hear every day - use the same combination. Only by learning which applies can the child learn the word, or they are in two minds, and hence lost. 

Blakemore and Frith (2007) explain what is happening in the brain. The activation of the phonic processing area of the brain is sufficient when reading Italian, which is phonically regular. Reading English requires the use of the ‘wordform’ area of the brain, dedicated to interpreting the information contained in letters as we read. Put simply, reading in English puts particular demands on the brain, which it develops in order to meet them. To understand the information contained in letters when reading in English, we must know how they are used in English. This requires knowledge of language, as well as – not instead of - phonics. The wordform area is less active in people assessed as dyslexic, which will be the subject of a later paper.   


Explaining English spelling and grammar without jargon

There is very wide variation in the language knowledge and experience of children starting school. Some can handle new technical vocabulary, such as grapheme, phoneme and correspondence with little difficulty, while others have almost no spoken language at all. All need to learn to read. It is easy to explain to children, in terms of their own experience, that letters sometimes operate on their own, and sometimes work in groups. They know that they are likely to behave themselves most of the time, but not all the time. This is human. Letters are human constructs, and similarly do not always behave as we might expect. Saying that letters help us most of the time is accurate. Saying, or implying, that they always tell us all we need to know is not. Simple qualifications such as this allow us to teach initial phonics without setting up false expectations. They enable children who are already having difficulty with reading to adjust their thinking so as to handle variations in spelling in the same way that they adapt to variations in people. I have extensive case study evidence of the effectiveness of this approach in reading and spelling, including a 16-year-old girl, assessed as dyslexic, for whom it removed a writing block that was preventing her from expressing herself properly in English. After two telephone lessons, this student’s English grades improved to A* in English language and literature. I used this case as evidence for my fellowship of the Chartered College of Teaching, and have many more.

While this paper is concerned with phonics, similar considerations apply to the teaching of grammar. The principles of sentence construction can be explained with a very few technical terms, and without the language of academic linguistics, which is completely foreign to the experience of most children, and indeed most teachers.



Making phonics the basis of teaching initial reading, backed by the phonics check, has improved provision and reduced the numbers of children unable to read. This is the evidence on which current and previous government initiatives has been based, and is summarised in Castles et al (2018). Phonics, on the other hand, must be presented in a way that is clear and understandable to children. Teaching children to blend from left to right, as every initial scheme must, needs to be accompanied by telling them, right from the start, that this works most of the time but not always. Children don’t behave perfectly all the time, and neither do letters. 

I have been making this point for almost thirty years – see Sue Palmer’s TES article on teaching her daughter (1996), and Slimmed Down Spelling (2002), but it has made no impression on either of the two opposing camps, which cling to their respective views that phonics is the whole story or next to useless. The outcome of this conflict, which now spans a century and a half, is that learning to read is more difficult than it should be, and for a significant minority of pupils almost impossible. These pupils’ difficulties, whether or not they are assessed as dyslexia, affect the whole of their school work, causing anxiety at best, truancy – why go to school if you can’t learn – and, at worst, serious psychological and behavioural problems. 

The two TES articles (Palmer, 1996; Bald 2003), and material on my website,, show how to make immediate and significant impact on such problems by means of clear and simple explanation of the way the alphabet operates in English and the reasons for its variations. Doing this from the beginning, teaching children that they should not expect the language to be perfectly consistent, but should use its consistent features while being ready for letters not always to behave as we expect, would conserve the benefits of the phonics first policy, and avoid some of the problems it has encountered.  


Note. This article is an amended version of a paper originally written for presentation to the UK Department for Education, under the title: Technical Paper: Whole Phonics, or Phonics + Knowledge and Understanding of Language?

Chartered College members might be interested in the following opportunity with NFER:


The EEF (Educational Endowment Foundation) are interested in undertaking research to support teachers with the use of worked examples/model answers. NFER (National Foundation for Educational Research) has been commissioned to explore the feasibility of a research trial in this area.

We are currently consulting with KS3 English teachers, and would like to invite you to take part in an individual consultation of 30- 40 minutes with one of our research team. We are keen to hear from a range of teachers about your practice, whether or not you use worked examples or model answers.

Individual consultations will take place by telephone or Teams, at a convenient time for you over the next few weeks.

We will explore:

  • whether/how you currently use worked examples/model answers in KS3 English
  • practical arrangements for KS3 English teaching and assessment in your department (eg teaching hours, tests used)
  • the value and feasibility of different designs for a research trial (eg teacher interests/ questions about using worked examples and model answers, and willingness to adopt specific approaches)

All consultations will be conducted in confidence, and neither you nor your school will be named in any of our reports. You can find information on how we will lawfully process any personal data in our privacy notice on our project website.

We hope you will help us to shape future research in this important area of teaching. Please email me at if you are interested, I will then be in touch soon to arrange a good time. Please email me if you have any questions.