Teaching and learning

Do formal phonics really encourage little bookworms?

If reading is what we’re aiming for, our youngest need to take a different route
Adult and child reading about phonics
June 2, 2021
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In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

  • It's time to take it back to the basics and ask - why are we trying to teach phonics to our youngest? If we're trying to encourage a generation of little readers, formal phonics instruction in the Early Years falls short.
  • From missing what rich vocabulary children already do have to decoding words that don't have any meaning to them, formal phonics don't take the individual child into account.
  • We've got some top tips on how to create that  spark to encourage children to love reading. And maybe, just maybe, we can make reading magical again.

In 2018, 1 in 5 children in England left primary school unable to read or write properly.

Teaching children to read can be a real challenge, and we have a huge role to play in the Early Years. But to solve it, we need to realise that teaching phonics and making children into enthusiastic readers aren’t quite the same thing - particularly when they’re only four.

We’re not diving into the debate around formal phonics at any age. But does it have a place in Early Years? Why do we feel the pressure to do formal phonics with children who aren’t ready? And what can we replace it with?

If we’re going to ask even more of practitioners, we’ve at the very least got to have a good reason. That’s why it’s worth revisiting why we brought phonics to classrooms in the first place - to get children grabbing books and getting lost in the worlds within them.

It’s time to put the magic back into early literacy, and Early Years phonics isn’t the place to start. 

What are phonics?

In their simplest form, phonics teach children which letters go with which sounds. They aim to break down words into chunks, what ‘sh’ ‘ph’ sound like when they’re within words for example. 

You might already know these phonics teaching programmes: 

  • Jolly Phonics: begins with the sound of the alphabet letters, with actions for each of the 42 letter sounds. Children learn to decode words by associating sounds with letters in their smallest chunks, blending them with words, then reading whole words.
  • Letters and Sounds: a DfE developed programme which starts children off by getting them to listen to and repeat sounds, rather than focusing on words. Letters and sound correspondence is then introduced, and children are encouraged to make words based on these sounds and letters.

There’s nothing wrong with phonics, and all children need to learn how letters and the alphabet sound. But Early Years phonics don’t seem to be getting children enamoured with letters and language. Statistics show a steady decline in children and young people’s enjoyment of reading - it’s now only at 53%.

Formal phonics shouldn’t be the beginning and the end of teaching children how to read. And, more importantly, they aren’t the way to inspire little bookworms.

The big ideas

Ticking boxes

Before we dive into formal phonics teaching, we have to talk about phonics screening.

In England, all Year 1 children are assessed on their knowledge of phonics. It’s a 40-word, four-page test that includes ‘nonsense’ words to assess if a child can decode words that they’ve never seen before. It was initially introduced to gauge children’s general ability to read, and nothing more. 

Ofsted state that teaching phonics before reception is not expected, but the pressure of ‘preparing’ children for these tests has slowly trickled down into the Early Years. Some practitioners feel obligated to introduce formal phonics to children as young as 2.

It’s completely understandable that, as a practitioner, you’re anxious about preparing children for these tests as best as you can. But this tick-box approach is now at the heart and centre of pushing and encouraging children to read. 

This dilutes the reading experience down into a game of jumping through hoops to reach attainment goals. Instead of sparking joy and interest in words, stories and writing, it becomes an exercise to check if a child is ‘succeeding’.

The issue with formal phonics in the Early Years

For Kathy Goouch, Emeritus Early Childhood professor at Canterbury Christchurch University and co-author of Teaching Early Reading and Phonics, these formal approaches don’t focus on the unique child. Family, culture and home life play a huge role in children’s abilities when we talk about reading, vocabulary and remembering words.

“I grew up with the catechism, prayer books, hymn books, but little in the way of children’s books like Enid Blyton. I probably wouldn’t have been able to decode ‘ginger beer’ but might have known the shape and sound of the word ‘Hallelujah’.’”

Let’s look at how this might look in your setting:

  • One child comes to your setting already loving books. They clamour to read picture books with you and adore story time. They’ve had stories read to them at home, as well as constant conversation with their parents.
  • Another child has never held a book, and hasn’t had a language-rich environment at home. They struggle with words and aren’t particularly interested in story time.
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Introducing formal phonics too early can fail both of these children, as their unique needs aren’t taken into account. The first may become disinterested in reading as they’re not challenged. The second might be overwhelmed and frustrated as they need extra time to process the amount of new language, words, and environment.

In short, both children might not develop that spark, that fascination and love for stories and language - which is the supposed point of formal phonics teaching. 

And what’s more, initial phonics instruction disregards those children who may have an undiagnosed reading disorder, like dyslexia. It’s estimated that 1 in 10 people struggle with some form of dyslexia in the UK. 

Dyslexic children often have extreme difficulty connecting language and printed words, which is the base for many standardised phonics approaches. The repeated teaching of written-words-to-sounds can cause immense frustration and an avoidance of reading altogether. And if they avoid it in the Early Years, it’ll be difficult to get them excited later on. 

Just like play, eating habits, behaviour and emotional development, each child is completely unique and deserves an approach that takes those needs and individual strengths into account. 

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Putting meaning back into reading

Children learn to read when it matters to them to do so.

When children only read ‘to get the words right’ in formal phonics coaching, they’re far less likely to remember or use the new words they’ve learnt. In fact, it’s been suggested that children are more likely to learn what’s meaningful to them. If their dad is a farmer and they know all about sheep-shearing, then learning about farm words will be a lot more meaningful to them than learning about breakfast foods or boats.

If we don’t get to know the above child or take the time to assess what they might already know beyond the ‘traditional’ phonics words, like the decodable ‘Satpin’ words in Jolly Phonics, we might miss the rich vocabulary and understanding they already have. 

According to Kathy, early literacy is building on what the child knows and has experience of - like farming or cooking vocabulary. We need to place the emphasis back on the child, and how we can use what they already know to extend their knowledge. 

How to inspire little readers

If there’s one key thing to take away, it’s Kathy’s top tip: “The most important thing that we do is to naturally, intuitively, demonstrate language and words in our everyday lives so that watchful, curious babies and young children see its purpose and meaning,” she says. 

When it all comes down to it, it’s all about doing what’s best for the children, not phonics screening tests or parental expectations.  

As Kathy puts it: “The most important teaching to do for all children is to tell, read and share books and stories and provide time, opportunity, resources and space for choice, play, and companionship in their literacy journeys.” 

With that in mind, here are a few things to think about:

  • Get to know your children. “My experience is that we often know little of what children know if we don’t help them to tell us or show us,” states Kathy. As an experienced practitioner you’ll already be doing this, but pay special attention to the words they use, what you know of their home life and what words they tend to prefer. And ask the children themselves!
  • Get parents involved. Even your daily conversations, like explaining why you’re peeling potatoes, have a massive power in giving children that early language instruction. Communicate with the parents that their interactions, words and conversations are the base for early reading skills, and they can help their children become avid readers by simply being aware of that.
  • Think about following the child’s interests.  Young learners need to interpret and make sense of all learning in their own terms. If one child is obsessed with elephants, think about how to extend that and use elephants in your stories, your play setup, your activities.
  • If possible, have a wide variety of children’s literature. Give children that choice and range to let them browse and choose - these are two skills that are crucial for reading development. Choose different topics, different levels, different illustrations.
If possible, have a wide variety of children’s litera
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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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