footer-booksEarlier this year I was asked what I thought of The Hornet Literacy Primer. I did not know about it then. Now I have looked at the materials and found out more. I have not examined data about how successful the programme has been with students, but I can give an opinion on how effective it is likely to be, based on my knowledge of what works.

Its full name is The Word Wasp Hornet Literacy Primer and it is “a companion text” to The Word Wasp. “Wasp” stands for: Word Articulation, Spelling and Pronunciation. The authors are Harry Cowling and Marie Cowling.

Harry Cowling was co-author of Toe by Toe, a well-known programme for teaching those with reading difficulties. I used it several years ago and found it very effective. My only important criticism was that it did not teach spelling as the reverse of reading. Harry Cowling and Marie Cowling noticed this and so they developed first The Word Wasp and then The Hornet Literacy Primer which teach reading and spelling together.


If you teach older students who cannot read and spell words well enough to progress academically or function in a literate society, and you teach them one-to-one, and you have not already made a successful start with a different reputable phonics programme, The Word Wasp or The Hornet Literacy Primer would certainly be worth trying. They conform to the principles of synthetic phonics teaching, which are known to be effective, are not expensive and would be easy for most people to understand and use.


Harry Cowling’s introduction in The Word Wasp includes the story of how it came to be and recognition of the joy it brings teachers and students to teach and learn successfully. He is angry about how teaching has been taught in the past and is still being taught. “We do not have the right to condemn students with literacy problems to learn a service language which will do little more than allow them to fill in a form or sign a cheque!” he writes. He points out that the many reasons given for poor literacy skills are “a matter of complete indifference to the individual with the problem”. I agree! It is a waste of a student’s time to do numerous assessments in order to diagnose a cause or allocate blame. It is better to get on with teaching and quickly reward students’ efforts with success.

How The Word Wasp and then The Hornet Literacy Primer are the same: 

  • They are both for one-to-one teaching.
  • They are suitable for older students and adults, because there are no pictures and they do not include activities or texts designed to appeal to young children.
  • The materials are simple – just one text book for teacher and student, as well as an exercise book, scrap paper, a pencil and a pen.
  • They are systematic and highly structured.
  • Many studies demonstrate that teaching synthetic phonics is the best way to make sure students learn to read and write. These programmes conform to synthetic phonics teaching principles as follows: They are based on an understanding that to read and write it is essential to know how letters correspond to sounds and how to use this knowledge to read and spell. Every word in the texts for students can be decoded or spelt using knowledge of the letter-sound correspondences that have been taught. Words which are “not phonically regular” (equivalent to “exception words” or “tricky words”) are taught with reference to the parts of the words that are not as expected. Students are not asked to memorise whole words.
  • They are prescriptive programmes. The instructions are clear and simple. Every lesson follows the same routine, so students get to know and trust the routine and no time is wasted repeatedly explaining and learning new activities. There is always a tick for a correct answer, a dot for an incorrect answer and only one attempt to be marked per day. I followed these instructions with Toe-by-Toe and I found them successful, especially with students who were disillusioned about their ability to succeed and students who were used to guessing.
  • The teacher is called “coach”. According to the authors, the coach can be any literate person. I would qualify that. As well as being literate, the coach must be firm, consistent, clear and unpatronising, in order to remain calm and supportive while sticking to the procedure and avoiding the temptation to give credit when it is not due. This is because students who are used to failure need to trust that they will succeed by following the procedure and that they do not need to bypass it to avoid failure.
  • Low-frequency words are used to make sure students practise using phonics to read accurately and do not guess from context or from a few letters they recognise from familiar common words. Similarly, sentences with unpredictable words are used, and some of these are funny and might lighten the lesson with humour, which always helps. Here is an early example from The Word Wasp: “Embellish a mess with radishes or jam.” Here is a later one: “The steak was very tough and the crocodile thought that her teeth were about to break. ‘You have overcooked this teacher,’ the huge reptile growled angrily. The waiter, an impolite tiger from Bengal, picked his claws disdainfully: ‘You complained yesterday that we had left the watch on the referee from Watford.’ ”
  • Reading and spelling are taught together and the link is clear. “Encoding teaches decoding.”
  • I like the instructions for spelling, which are the same as I use: First listen to the spoken word, then repeat it, then say the sounds and write the word.

Differences between The Word Wasp and then The Hornet Literacy Primer 

  • The Word Wasp moves quickly from words with simple letter-sound correspondences to more complex words, covering all common and many less common letter-sound correspondences by the end of the book, including spellings for the schwa sound and for suffixes.
  • The Hornet Literacy Primer is like The Word Wasp, but it is for students who need to go more slowly and it stops at an earlier stage. The pace is slower, because there is more to practise at each step. There is additional guidance. For example, student and teacher are told to look at each others’ mouths when spelling – good advice.
  • The Hornet Literacy Primer is said to be for students from the age of six. I would not use it with children as young as six, only because the texts are not child-friendly. Here is an example of an early text: “Export an ox in a thick red box.” I have tried using similar texts with young children and have found that difficulties understanding the words, grammar and humour get in the way of learning to read easily and result in less enjoyment. However, I think the texts would work well with older students, who might feel patronised by more child-friendly texts and would benefit from the way these texts force them to read accurately without guessing.


Some of the descriptions of “rules” would not be acceptable to some proponents of synthetic or linguistic phonics. They prefer to describe correspondences between sounds and letters in a simple and tidy way, saying only that a grapheme or a range of graphemes correspond to a phoneme. In addition, some of the terms used in these programmes would not be approved of by some. For example, The Wasp programmes explain “the power of the vowel” which makes the vowel “say its name” (as in “like”, “hope”, etc.). Some say that this explanation is wrong and that the vowels in these words should either be taught as phoneme-grapheme correspondences with no further explanation or that the term “split vowel digraph” should be used. I do not agree. I have come to the conclusion that explaining all spellings only as phoneme-grapheme correspondences may work well, but is no more correct than other explanations. I have read that the “e” at the end of words like “hope” was originally added to indicate a long vowel sound; later, pronunciation of long vowel sounds changed (from Spell it Out by David Crystal). Now these vowel sounds are the same as the names of vowel letters. The spelling known as a “split vowel digraph” was never a digraph that had been split. The relationship between sounds and letters in English is a muddle, due to history.

The cost

The Word Wasp costs £25 per book; The Hornet Literacy Primer is considerably less at £14.50. For a large number of students, both programmes are expensive and training and materials for most other phonics programmes would cost less. However, The Word Wasp and The Hornet Literacy Primer are not meant for large numbers. As one-to-one programmes, they are good value for money.

(see for further information)


Elizabeth Nonweiler

Teach to Read

A Review of “The Word Wasp” and “The Word Wasp Hornet Literacy Primer” by Elizabeth Nonweiler