IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Flexible Phonics

Flexible phonics aims to train Reception teachers and Teaching Assistants (TAs) to optimise and complement their existing phonics teaching.

Girl reading book. Image: Jerry Wang via Unsplash

This is the first UK trial of this programme and focuses on improving how schools teach children to read in Reception classes. 

The programme is an educational trial funded by the Education Endowment Foundation and developed by IOE.  


    Collaborating partners

    The Institute for Employment Studies (IES)

    IES is an independent, international centre of research and consultancy in education, public employment policy and organisational human resource management. They will independently evaluate the impact of the Flexible Phonics programme.

    • Dr Anneka Dawson and Dr Helen Grey, Principal Investigators
    • Dr Clare Huxley, Project Manager

    Education Endowment Foundation (EEF)

    EEF is an independent charity dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement. They run projects which test the efficacy of education interventions to generate new evidence of what works.

    • Sarah Tillotson, Programme Manager
    About the project

    Flexible Phonics fits well around existing phonics programmes. 

    A novel aspect is that it provides children with more strategies to flexibly read all words, enabling them to independently read novel exception words (words that break phonic rules such as ‘the’ ‘two’ ‘between’).

    Children then use phonics with texts to become confident and motivated readers.


    The strategies used in this approach were tested in a 2018 study in Canada (Savage et al).

    Children at the same developmental phase of reading as children in English Reception classes received the programme in small groups (119 pupils).

    They were found to make greater progress in:

    • word reading (around +5 months’ additional progress) compared with pupils in the control group
    • reading was also retained four months later (around +3 months’ additional progress).


    Strategies included as part of the programme aim to:

    • suggest how to optimise the order graphemes are taught
    • encourage children to use their understanding of the meaning of words to support their decoding
    • provide teachers with appropriate short texts and introduce a new grapheme for the children to practice applying their knowledge - on the same day.

    Flexible phonics is a randomised controlled trial and is an efficacy trial. Schools will be randomly chosen to either receive or not receive Flexible Phonics for their Reception classes (roughly a 50:50 split).

    Using randomly assigned groups is the best way of evaluating if a programme has an impact on pupil outcomes, as the two groups can then be assumed to be the same, therefore any differences in outcomes found can be attributed to the programme. 

    Participating schools

    Why should my school take part?

    Participating schools allocated to the Flexible Phonics programme will receive:

    • free children’s books to the value of £400 per school
    • free professional development training in winter 2021 from Professor Robert Savage, who has run successful reading interventions in the UK, Canada and Australia 
    • a programme that has the potential to improve pupils’ reading attainment and prevent reading difficulties.

    Participating schools that are allocated to the control condition will receive:

    • £1000 on completion of the study as a thank you for taking part.
    Who can take part?

    We are recruiting 120 primary schools in London and Greater London.

    Primary schools that meet the following criteria can take part in the trial:

    • primary schools in London and outer London
    • schools not participating in any other EEF trials or not a Department for Education English Hub or English Hub partner
    • schools who have stand-alone Reception classes (i.e. not mixed Reception/Year one).

    Email flexiblephonics@ucl.ac.uk to sign up and for more information, places are limited. 

    What, how and when?

    Those who are allocated to receive the Flexible Phonics programme will receive three half days of professional development training (remote training using a virtual meeting platform such as Zoom), a hard copy of a Teacher Manual and access to the UCLeXtend Flexible Phonics online platform. 

    The online platform includes videos of training, FAQs, training slides and other teaching materials developed and shared by participating schools. Schools will also receive free children’s books to the value of £400 per school which can be used to implement the strategies. 

    Each school will have dedicated Flexible Phonics Support Partner who will provide bespoke guidance and support to help them to plan, implement and deliver the Flexible Phonics programme in their setting. Three short online support appointments will be carried out through the MS TEAMS or Zoom video conferencing platforms at times which are convenient for school staff. Support partners are always on hand and can be contacted by email or telephone as and when schools need support and advice with the programme.  

    Those schools that are allocated to the control condition will not receive professional development training in Flexible Phonics and teachers will carry out their regular teaching as usual. Children will be assessed at the beginning and end of the study, irrespective of their school’s allocation. Control condition schools will receive £1000 on completion of the study to thank them for taking part.

    Participating schools will be provided with a letter to send to parents. Parents will also have the opportunity to withdraw their child from the study at any point.

    Project timeline

    March - July 2020 
    Schools sign up to the project with a formal Memorandum of Agreement outlining commitments

    October 2020
    Schools send the information sheet to parents and submit pupil data 

    October - November 2020 
    In school pre-testing of chosen classes (IES)

    January - February 2021
    Delivery of training to half of the schools begins (IOE)

    End of May 2021 
    School’s assessed delivery of the Flexible Phonics programmes ends 

    June - July 2021
    In school post-testing of chosen classes (IES) 

    February 2022
    Results of the trial are published (EEF)

    How will the trial be evaluated?

    We will use short reading and related language assessment tests and qualitative feedback from teachers and parents to evaluate impact. 

    At least one of your reception classes will receive a pre and post-test (a standard reading assessment which will take no longer than 10 minutes at pre-test and 20-30 minutes at post-test per child).

    You will be informed which classes have been chosen for testing in September or October 2020. External researchers will come into your school to deliver these assessments. 

    Register your interest

    Email flexiblephonics@ucl.ac.uk to sign up and for more information, places are limited.

    Frequently asked questions (FAQS)

    How are schools selected?

    All schools that register interest and meet the eligibility criteria will be invited to join the trial (until the participant limit is reached).

    The evaluator IES will randomly allocate schools to an intervention flexible phonics’ group or control group.

    What will it cost my school?

    Participation is free. 

    How much time will it take my school?

    The programme will be implemented entirely by your Reception school staff - who will receive online training.

    Schools will be required to:

    • send out a parent information letter provide pupil level data
    • enable all Reception staff (teachers and TAs) to attend the online training (multiple training dates will be made available) 
    • facilitate pre and post testing in schools that are delivered by trained researchers
    • take part in online support appointments to discuss the programme with researchers from IOE
    • participate in two short online surveys.

    The evaluation team (IES) may request to visit your school to better understand your experience.