[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society J28 2000/2 pp16-18]
[See Journal, Newsletter and SPB articles by Chris Jolly and link to Jolly Learning web.]

The Jolly Phonics story.

Christopher Jolly.

Foto of Chris Jolly.
Christopher Jolly is Chairman of the Simplified Spelling Society, and his publishing company, Jolly Learning Ltd, published The Phonics Handbook in 1992. Its success led to the development of the wider Jolly Phonics programme which has contributed to a change in attitudes to phonics. This change, from a culture that was deeply antagonistic to phonics, has potential messages for the spelling reform movement.

Phonics and the Initial Teaching Alphabet.

Today the term phonics is widely embraced. It is in the National Curriculum and the National Literacy Strategy in the UK, it is mandated in Californian schools (but see the following article by Patrick Groff in this issue), and it is increasingly accepted around the world.

Back in the early 1990's this was not so. True, Beginning to Read (Adams, 1990) was published at this time, but the book had to include a critical Afterword to achieve publication. Sponsored Reading Failure (Turner, 1990) was also published at this time, but it endured severe criticism - which cost Martin Turner his job. Its basic premise, now acknowledged, was that lack of phonics leads to reading failure. In this atmosphere it was a questionable time in which to launch a teacher's book on phonics. Indeed the events leading to it owed much to chance.

One of Chris Upward's achievements in the Simplified Spelling Society has been to develop our links with other organizations. One of these links was with the United Kingdom i.t.a. (initial teaching alphabet) Federation and Chris asked me to join him for a meeting with their committee one Sunday in October 1989.

At that time the i.t.a. was still in use in a few schools in England. At the meeting I met Sue Lloyd, who later became the author of Jolly Phonics and who was teaching with the i.t.a. at the time. She impressed me because she was clearly producing excellent results in teaching reading and writing, and had used standardized tests to establish this.

Sue was a primary school teacher in Lowestoft (East Anglia) where she had taught for some time. She had a particular interest in preventing reading failure. Over the years, she and her colleagues had two major breakthroughs. The first was to find that teaching all the letter sounds explicitly at the beginning made a huge difference. This might have seemed obvious, since the school was using i.t.a. However, i.t.a. teachers generally were not doing this: they were using the teaching style they were familiar with, mostly look-and-say. Telling teachers to use their previous method allowed a more accurate evaluation of the i.t.a. by the research.

First steps to research.

The second breakthrough came from a research project that involved Sue Lloyd's school. Dr Douglas Pigeon, a Director of the i.t.a. Foundation, had asked if the children could be made to listen for all the sounds in words before they started reading and writing stories. For example they should know that dog is made up of d-o-g. This exercise helped the children considerably, particularly the weaker ones.

Armed with her results, Sue Lloyd enthusiastically told her LEA (Local Education Authority). The response was one of indifference. No one came to see the results or how they had been achieved.

I had started the Jolly Learning company just two years before, and by then had published 12 reading games written by Betty Root, a well-known reading expert. I had no real experience of publishing, having a background in consumer marketing. However it seemed to me that Sue Lloyd might have something of value. I suggested we should research her ideas in other schools. This proved to be immensely helpful, not just in developing the material, but also in establishing our ethos as a team.

We wanted the research to be externally evaluated, and put this to Professor Geoffrey Brown, of the School of Education at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. One of his MSc students, Rosemary Roberts, agreed to carry out the research. Rosemary thought through the evaluation procedure and decided to use a standardized test combined with feedback from the teachers. There was general agreement that the ideas were going to be evaluated on their effectiveness in teaching, rather than on, say, what the National Curriculum set out, or on what "teachers say they want".

Letter-shapes varied to show pronunciation.

Sue Lloyd's programme would teach all the letter sounds of English. I also wanted the research to test the use of new letter shapes for the digraphs and Sue agreed to this. These new letter shapes would distinguish, for instance, between:

These new letter shapes would test the idea that they would help children identify the digraph letter sounds. They were designed to be relatively unobtrusive, and to achieve this, so far as possible, by using the discrete alternatives of different letter shapes that are in common use. Curiously enough the idea came from studying a book of farewell messages written by patients to a retiring doctor, a book which included each of the alternatives above.

Sue Lloyd suggested the testing should be in pre-school. Her experience indicated that children at this young age of around 4 could pick the method up well. It would also provide a more challenging test. The programme involved 'actions' for each letter sound. Such activities could work well with the younger children. For the letter sound SH for instance, the children pretended they had to be quiet because of a sleeping baby, put their finger over their mouth, and said 'shshsh'.

So we set out to find nursery classes of 4 year olds, hoping to find three experimental, and three control classes. I wrote to all the LEA (state) schools in North Suffolk, the area which included Sue Lloyd's school. We were able to obtain interviews with a number of headteachers, and indeed to recruit some of them to the research. However this promising start soon collapsed. The LEA, having seen something of the proposals, wrote to all the schools telling them they should have no part in the research. The reason given was principally the use of phonics, which at that time was not encouraged. We had been blocked!

First experiments in schools.

However, a chance meeting with a cousin of mine who had a Montessori school in Norfolk, led to a new door opening and a mailing list of all the Montessori schools in East Anglia. We contacted these schools and some independent nursery schools. To this day I have vivid memories of long evening drives to one nursery school after another in East Anglia to make a presentation with Sue Lloyd. These were formative times. At the end we achieved just one experimental school, and three controls. Interestingly, the head of the experimental school asked for a presentation to the parents to win their approval. This was successful, and their only request was for a presentation of the results when it was all over, which we provided.

For the experimental school we supplied a range of materials. For each letter sound there was a photocopiable 'Sound Sheet' that included a picture of the 'action', an illustration for colouring, and the letter itself for copying. The illustrations had been drawn by a wildlife artist, but although excellent, they were not 'friendly' enough for young children. This was one of many lessons, and all the illustrations had to be redrawn by a children's artist.

The new letter shapes appeared on these 'Sound Sheets', and in a specially adapted set of the New Way readers. Each piece of text in these reading books was covered over with the same text in the new letter shapes.

When it came to testing, Rosemary Roberts found, unfortunately, that no test was sensitive enough for such young children. The minimum reading age in her selected test was six years, and yet these children were not yet five. So we had to use teacher evaluations of their progress. Although subjective, they did indicate that the experimental children were doing much better than the children in the control classes.

Evaluation of the new letter shapes gave some mixed results. On the one hand the experimental children's results appeared to be better than the control children's. On the other, we found a poor understanding of letter sounds generally among teachers. They would need a much stronger phonic knowledge to be able to use the new letter shapes in their teaching. Sadly this meant that we should not use the new letter shapes. Indeed we would need to focus on explaining the phonic teaching clearly to teachers, which was another key finding.

By October 1991, two years after our first meeting, I was busy compiling The Phonics Handbook, Sue Lloyd's resource book for teachers. She had brought in Sara Wernham, a relatively new teacher at her school. Together we had created the 'actions' for each of the letter sounds, while Sara had a talented eye for creating child-friendly activities on the page. The alternative letters had not been included, but even so, some letter shapes were slightly adapted. The letters OO were extended horizontally for the oo sound in moon. The same letters were also 'squashed up' horizontally for the OO in book. We did the same for the TH in thin, and the TH in that.

I had expected objections to these shapes, but to my surprise there have never been any. I can only suggest that it is possible to have public acceptance of alternative letter shapes if the reason for them is understood.

Immediate public impact.

The Phonics Handbook was just one of several new products I was to launch the following spring. Although I was very pleased with it, I thought the book was too extreme to sell well and the other new products would do better. How wrong I was!

In January Sue Lloyd mentioned that a TV crew was coming from the commercial breakfast TV company, TVam, to film for a report on phonics teaching. If they could have a copy of the book in advance they might show it. After many long nights and great support from the printer I delivered a copy just days before. The TV feature duly included Sue Lloyd, among others, finishing with a full picture of the new book and with the standard line "available at all good bookshops". Only, of course, it wasn't!

We had the first phone call soon after 9am that day from someone wanting to buy the book. Before long it was a torrent. Throughout the day there was an average of just five seconds between calls! It was not really worth putting down the receiver, just a finger on the button was enough! TVam had their lines jammed that day and for days after. They put our name on the screen the next day, and our name and phone number the following day. Books in the Media, a trade information magazine, described it as the biggest event since the Sunday Times launched a slimming book that did not exist! Our first print run was sold out in about three days.

When the euphoria had subsided the sales continued to be high, but were teachers using the programme, and did it work? The first letter came from a teacher in South Devon to say just how well it had performed. Over time it has been followed by many others. Professor Alice Coleman wrote a review saying this was a book that 'could change the course of educational history'. We seemed to have reached through to people in a very positive way.

The benefits of teaching with Jolly Phonics have been shown time and again in academic studies. There have been the major studies by Professor Dale Willows (in Ontario), by Dr Rhona Johnston and Dr Joyce Watson (in Scotland) and by Dr Morag Stuart (in London Docklands). Other university-based studies have been done in New Zealand and Hong Kong. Let me describe how events can lead from these studies to the widespread adoption of this programme, and the difficulties we still face.

Successes overseas.

Particularly influential has been the work of Professor Dale Willows in Canada. We produced an edition of The Phonics Handbook for the US and Canada a year after launching the UK edition. I had heard of Dr Willows and her interest in a more 'balanced' approach to teaching reading (ie, more phonics). I visited her that spring and indeed she was most enthusiastic.

She trialed it with special needs children that spring/summer. The results were so good she was able to persuade some teachers to follow it up with a whole year group in September. Again the results were wonderful, with faxes coming through to me full of exclamation marks! Sue Lloyd visited Canada at this time, and teachers were invited to choose between her and the US author of another phonics scheme that was also presented to them. In the event I am pleased to say they chose Sue. More studies were done with younger children and Professor Willows has now had two sets of postgraduate students doing doctoral studies using Jolly Phonics.

At much the same time I was able to achieve feature articles in the Toronto Globe and Mail (Canada's national newspaper), the leading Ontario teacher's magazine, and the leading Canadian parents' magazine. We also published case studies on individual Canadian schools which led to further publicity. The net effect is that the programme is 'on a roll' in Canada where 22% of elementary schools now use it.

The main driving force leading to schools using us has been the success of just a few schools, followed by word of mouth, and publicity. This has been especially true in other oveaseas markets. One New Zealand teacher has achieved amazing publicity in the main national newspaper and in a leading magazine. She also runs courses for teachers. The result is that we are probably used in around 15% of primary schools there.

Further developments in the UK.

In Scotland, Dr Rhona Johnston and Dr Joyce Watson did a study in Clackmannanshire. They compared the teaching using synthetic phonics (where children learn all the letter sounds, and work out the sounds of words with them) with analytic phonics (where children learn to read whole words, and then pick out phonic patterns - not phonics at all, some would say). The children taught with synthetic phonics had used Jolly Phonics, and had reading abilities 12 months ahead of the analytic phonics children after one year. It lead to some wonderful publicity, including the BBC 9 o'clock news. This has boosted our usage to 29% of UK primary schools at the last survey, a figure which continues to grow.

After The Phonics Handbook we launched a range of other materials. There were colourful board books called Finger Phonics books, a Wall Frieze, Videos and Workbooks. However we did not have a generic brand name and people started using different descriptors. In Canada it was 'The Phonics Handbook project', in New Zealand the 'Finger Phonics scheme'. I asked Sue Lloyd and Sara Wernham to decide on a generic name. After some delay and discussion they suggested Jolly Phonics and said they were using the name at their school. It seemed good to me, and indeed it has become widely recognized since.

In amongst all this good news, are there shortcomings? While sales and usage continue to grow, professional approval of this kind of teaching is still only weakly established. Time and again we hear of advisors and teachers who feel the best way to teach reading, if you possibly can, is just to read to a child. The British government's Literacy Strategy has brought about a fundamental shift towards the use of phonics. However it still has not embraced the synthetic phonics methodology, and is more closely associated with analytic phonics. For instance, it provides lists of sight vocabulary words that should be worked out from their sounds.

So what have these developments shown, which could be of value to spelling reformers? Perhaps surprisingly, we have found it easier to make change among teachers than with policy makers. For the teachers themselves it has been the results they achieve that has been the most pursuasive.


Adams M J (1990) Beginning to Read. Cambridge, Mass, USA. MIT Press.

Johnston, Rhona & Watson, Joyce (1997) What sort of phonics? Language and Learning, Autumn 1997, Birmingham, Questions Publishing.

Lloyd, Sue and Wernham, Sara (1992) The Phonics Handbook, (1994 onwards) Jolly Phonics, Chigwell, Essex, UK, Jolly Learning Ltd.

New Way readers, Nelson Thomas Ltd, Cheltenham, UK.

Turner, Martin (1990) Sponsored Reading Failure, Warlingham: IPSET Education Unit, Warlingham Park School, July 1990, reprinted October 1990.

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