Background. Previous studies demonstrate that phoneme awareness training, particularly when combined with letter-sound teaching, results in improved reading and spelling development. Aims. This study seeks to extend previous findings by (a) including children learning English as a second language, who have typically been excluded from previous studies; (b) providing training for whole classes, rather than small groups; (c) using a commercially available programme; and (d) giving minimal training to teachers administering the programme. Sample. Two groups (N = 112) of 5-year-olds, 96 of whom were learning English as a second language, were enrolled into either the experimental (phoneme awareness and phonics) programme or the control programme, which took a more holistic approach based on Holdaway's (1979) use of Big Books. Method. Children were pretested on measures of spoken and written language, phonological awareness and alphabet knowledge, prior to a 12-week intervention using either the experimental or control programme. Children were post-tested on all measures immediately after intervention, and again one year later. Results. The experimental programme accelerated children's acquisition of phoneme awareness and of phonics knowledge, and their ability to apply these in reading and writing. In the year following intervention both groups made comparable progress in most areas; however, at the end of this year the experimental group were still significantly ahead in phoneme awareness and phonics knowledge, and on standardised and experimental tests of reading and spelling. Conclusions. Early concentration on teaching phoneme awareness and phonics can radically improve reading and spelling standards in inner city second language learners.