The Importance of Disciplinary Literacy in Addressing the Post-Pandemic Phonics Gap

Infographic of a man teaching phonics to children.

The importance of disciplinary literacy in addressing the post-pandemic phonics gap

Effective teaching of phonics is essential as phonics forms the building blocks of reading. Phonics isn't the only skill that skilled readers need but it's certainly the foundation. Think of it in the same way as building a wall, without a strong foundation at some point that wall will fall down. So young readers, who rely too much on sight recall and context cues, without that strong foundation in phonics, will at some point crumble and fall down in the same way. We’ve spoken about the importance of phonics instruction before but it’s an issue that keeps coming up.

There are multiple reasons why this issue keeps resurfacing. Firstly, we are still in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic; with lockdowns stalling the development of essential skills for many learners, phonics skills for learners who missed out on key elements of primary education have been particularly hampered. These learners have now moved up to secondary schools where the deficit in their reading skill has widened further. They will now encounter more informational rather than fictional text, yet have insufficient reading skills to access it. At the same time, secondary schools are also focusing more on literacy as a whole-school initiative with an emphasis on disciplinary literacy.

As a result of this, phonics is even more vital for the learners who have fallen behind and education establishments need to act quickly to get their learners caught up.

How the pandemic affected our students

It comes as no surprise that the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent numerous lockdowns have affected education significantly. The effects are being felt in every facet of education, in every subject. Literacy is no exception to this.

In fact, until learners are caught up with literacy, it’s unlikely that we will see other gaps close. This is because reading and writing is at the core of every subject across the curriculum. It is important to acknowledge that learners gain the vast majority of their knowledge through what they read, so we must have learners who are confident, competent readers.

This year, Key Stage 1 phonics dropped for the first time since they were introduced in 2012. That effect has run through several age groups; this year’s SATs showed that nearly 175,000 pupils did not meet the expected standard in reading. These learners have since moved up to secondary school meaning around a quarter of all Year 7s still have a reading age below 11.

When we think of phonics, we tend to consider its place within tier 1 vocabulary; the social language that is acquired in early years and primary. Due to the pandemic, we may need to change this way of thinking.

At secondary, there is a focus on tier 2 and 3 academic language but phonics is necessary here too because it supports all tiers of vocabulary.

To further enhance and support the development and confident use of tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary, there is a need to couple phonics instruction with morphemic analysis. Phonics isn't just d/o/g, it needs to be age and level appropriate, while remaining unpatronising for learners who have missed out on the development of this vital skill.

Literacy and phonics as a whole-school challenge

Literacy should not only be the English department’s duty to teach. It’s now recognised that literacy is a whole-school issue. However, there is a problem with that approach too. Literacy is a huge concept made of numerous skills, each with their own skillsets, like Russian nesting dolls of reading and writing. Alex Quigley talks about this in his blog “Why Whole School Literacy Fails”:

“We wrongly offer it up as something extraneous, to be done in the corner of training days and to begrudgingly audit during the flagging final weeks of the summer. Instead, we should see reading, writing, vocabulary, speaking, listening, debate, and more, as the complex tapestry of great teaching, enacted in every lesson, in every phase and subject domain, by every teacher.”

All of this is to say phonics is part of whole-school literacy. It’s part of building skilled readers. But it’s important not to miss the wood for the trees, we can sometimes be guilty of referring to reading as a basic skill, it’s a basic right, but basic skill suggests it's easy.

The 5 pillars of reading displayed here illustrates how, in fact, to be a skilled reader, requires a set of complex sub-skills. ​

So, when learning about phonics and how to teach it, especially within the secondary classroom, it is important not to get lost in the all-encompassing term of ‘whole-school literacy’ and to know where phonics instruction sits when learning to read. For this we can easily refer to the 5 pillars of reading.

The importance of disciplinary literacy

There are things that can and need to be done across departments to promote phonics, specifically disciplinary literacy. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) defines disciplinary literacy as such:

“An approach to improving literacy across the curriculum. It recognises that literacy skills are both general and subject-specific, underlining the value of supporting teachers in every subject to teach students how to read, write and communicate effectively in their subjects.”

This underlines the importance of phonics across the curriculum. It’s important to be mindful that teachers teach their subject for a reason. They’re passionate about it, they have a desire to ignite the love of their subject in the hearts and minds of their learners. So disciplinary literacy should not mean that everyone needs to become a literacy specialist or an English teacher.

But it must recognise that language is at the heart of every curriculum. There needs to be focus on a subject’s content whilst considering which words are involved in said subject. If students can't access the words, they can't access the content.

The amount of knowledge that learners need to consume to be well-equipped by the end of secondary school is vast. It is not possible to cover it all in lessons alone; nor is this desirable, if we think to Cognitive Load Theory.​

Therefore, developing independence in learning must be one of the major goals of education, and it's obvious that those with access to reading have a much greater chance of success.

Conversely, learners’ ability to access knowledge is greatly reduced by weak reading. ​

If they don't have the independence and necessary skills to develop their reading and increase their exposure to new words, we are limiting their experiences.

This is another reason why phonics is vitally important, to give learners that platform of independence. Disciplinary literacy, therefore, helps with the teaching of vital skills in a time-efficient manner.

But how is disciplinary literacy achieved? The EEF has an extensive guide on this entitled ‘Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools’. The guide includes tips such as literacy intervention programmes for struggling learners and how to timetable disciplinary literacy learning. But it also specifically touches on how to teach it:

“Teachers can use approaches to vocabulary instruction based in etymology and morphology to help students.”

This is where programmes like Lexonik’s come in.

How Lexonik can help

We fully support and advocate the use of systematic synthetic phonics programmes (SSP) and, if delivered well, there will be fewer children needing additional support later in their education.

However, with the effects of the pandemic and the fact there will always be learners who have not picked up the initial phonics teaching for whatever reason, there will always be a place for intervention. Learners may have missed out on instruction because of poor attendance, health reasons, weakness in phonological skills or it may be that they have recently arrived in England and have had little, if any, English tuition. For learners who have fallen behind, they need to have access to fast, effective catch-up interventions. We can't just simply deliver the same systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) programmes because they will run out of time; they need to catch up quickly because the curriculum doesn't wait!

This is why we at Lexonik have developed our own methodology. It allows learners of all ages at all levels to quickly catch up with their peers. Lexonik Leap focuses on the essentials. We teach individual letter sounds; we don't teach the letter names. Because letter names don't help you to decode words, they don't help you to spell.

Leap doesn't cover all vowel digraphs, but we do rigorously teach the common ones. This ensures these common sounds are thoroughly embedded. We like to think of this as building a strong literacy skeleton. By teaching the common sounds and building this strong skeleton, the 'flesh' i.e. the less common sounds which should be taught at the point of need, will strengthen the skeleton as their reading develops.


Teaching phonics should most definitely continue throughout all Key Stages and with a focus on disciplinary literacy because, looking at the data coming out of schools currently, something needs to be done.

Phonics instruction needs to be robust and delivered with fidelity and, therefore, specialist external providers are best placed to offer CPD to ensure staff are able to support their learners effectively.

Learners have had their education disrupted due to the pandemic and they need to quickly catch up. This group of learners will include those with SEND but there are many, many more learners who are not reading to their ability. They need phonics teaching, but phonics that is appropriate for their age and their need. Without a strong knowledge of phonics, how on earth can they be expected to read the new, challenging terminology in the secondary curriculum? In line with the EEF’s advice, they need to be taught very clearly, very explicitly how to decode using syllables.

We believe our literacy programmes can help. Check out Lexonik Leap or, depending on your teaching needs, check out our other literacy programmes. If anything catches your eye, contact us.