Positive relationships

Pre-phonics is the key to early reading

Is a language rich environment the best way to prepare for early reading?
October 6, 2021
Reading time:
a light bulb with the letter p inside it

a black and white image of two hearts

famly icon - piggy bank

a black and white image of two houses



a black and white image of a bunny and a bottle


a black and white heart icon

With Famly since

In a rush? Here’s a quick run-down: 

  • Creating a language-rich environment is critical in helping children develop those early communication skills - but what about when it comes to formal phonics? 
  • Emma Davis dives into everything that comes before phonics, and why making sure children are fully prepared is arguably just as important as the actual phonics.
  • From getting children talking to developing physical skills, there’s a lot to talk about. And Emma’s got some fantastic tips at the end for you, too.

When we talk about the prime area of ‘communication and language development’ in the EYFS, it’s central to all other areas of child development, including more structured phonics teaching. But building communication and language skills starts well before direct phonics teaching. Unfortunately, this is often side-lined. 

For some children, they will be thrown into phonics teaching before they are ready.  The reason for this? Top down pressure can be a driving factor, as well as the influence of social media and what other teachers are doing. And don't forget the increased testing including the Baseline Assessment on entry to reception, as well as the phonics screening in year one.

Prior to direct phonics teaching, there are several factors that should be considered. It’s so important to remember that we need to be ready for the children rather than have them be ready for us. So let’s take a look at how to provide children with a solid foundation before they get to phonics. 

A mother teaching her daughter

Get children talking 

Learning to read and write begins with a firm foundation in speaking and listening. Children should be confident communicators, both in speaking and listening, before they start learning phonics. As how can children learn if they have difficulty listening to their teacher, the sounds around them, instructions?

Listening is a skill that not all children find easy. For some, it can be a real challenge, requiring extra input from the adults around them. They need to develop the ability to discriminate between sounds, recognise sounds in the environment and hear syllables and sounds in words.  

All of these skills enable children to blend and segment ready for reading and writing.  Children also need to be nurtured to become confident speakers, to engage in talk, grow their vocabulary – the more words they know, the more they’ll have to use in their writing. 

But they can’t do that if they aren’t emotionally ready. They are more likely to tune in if they are happy, settled, curious and confident. That’s where your role as a practitioner is incredibly important. Creating a communication-friendly environment is the very first step.

A communication-friendly environment

A communication-friendly environment enables children to develop those all important communication and language skills to be ready for phonics teaching.  And the good news is, most of you already have a communication-friendly environment. 

Think of the way children act when they play - they’re imaginative, developing role play scenarios, bringing a narrative into their games, incorporating props and listening to the ideas of others. And practitioners know when to stand back and observe the play and when to join in as a play partner, scaffolding learning. 

But it’s through these interactions that children’s communication skills grow from knowledgeable others.  They practise serve-and-return conversations and develop their vocabulary and phonological awareness, all through quality language exposure. A playful approach to learning is ideal, with lots of word games, letter hunts, clapping syllables, rhyming, alliteration and music play, as these all develop children’s developing communicative skills.

What this might look like in a setting:

  • This could be a lot of singing and rhymes, which encourages a multi-sensory learning experience. Children can become familiar with rhythm, pitch, repetition and vocabulary which all come together to help children become able to recognise patterns of language and develop sound discrimination. 
  • Practitioners can incorporate rhymes and songs into daily routines, such as carpet time, tidying up, sleep time, lining up to go outside and saying goodbye at the end of the session.  All of these transition times are opportunities to promote children’s rhyme awareness. This is particularly critical as research shows a relationship between knowing nursery rhymes and a child’s reading and spelling ability by the age of eight. 

Adult reading a book to a kid

Developing physical skills

Children also need time and space in which to develop their physical skills before they get to phonics. It may not always be acknowledged, but phonics, and being able to read and write, requires a good level of physical development.  

From birth, children start developing their physical skills that feed through into future development, ready for reading and writing. Babies learn to hold up their head independently, roll over, sit up, crawl and then walk. In achieving each milestone, children start to gain control over their body. They develop strength in their muscles, coordinating their movements. They become more dexterous, and improve their posture. They’ll learn to throw, catch, jump, climb, balance, ride a bike and run, all developing important muscle groups not only to read and write but have the core strength to sit up and cross their legs. 

And fine motor skills are developed through smaller, more intricate movements, such as threading, exploring loose parts, manipulating play dough and using tweezers.  These activities are absolutely key for children to build strong finger and hand muscles reading for writing, and need to be mastered as the first step. 

The role of the practitioner

Children need responsive, sensitive adults who tune into them and their interests, recognising their skills and knowing where and when to offer support.

They benefit from a literacy rich environment with adults who understand and recognise what this looks like within an Early Years setting.  It isn’t just labels on anything and everything, and overstimulating displays. Instead, it’s an environment which values talk and listening.  A space where children have time to talk in different contexts, are listened to and have time to listen to others; a setting where communication and language is embedded into practice.  

Leaders in settings can support this through the process of supervisions. By observing their practice, leaders can identify areas where practitioners might need additional support or together. They might decide on specific professional development to support an interest in communication and language development.  

By improving knowledge and understanding within the team, leaders can build a setting where promoting a communication friendly environment is part of the ethos and culture.  Everyone recognises the value of talk, not just in their interactions but the provision which supports early learning and development.  

Children sitting on chairs

Top tips for starting your pre-phonics environment

A successful environment which fully supports the value of communication development before phonics has some distinguishing features: 

  • Have quiet, cosy nooks that children can retreat to for quiet time or to chat and share stories.
  • Have books in all areas, not just a reading corner. This will encourage children to develop positive attitudes towards books and stories.
  • Promote mark-making throughout your provision, rather than a specific area – children can write shopping lists, take orders at the mud kitchen and draw plans in the construction area.
  • Have opportunities available for children to engage in collaborative play where they can share ideas, develop narratives and be creative. This could be through small world set ups, sensory experiences, story sacks, role play areas and construction resources.
  • Limit distractions as much as possible. While interruptions are of course natural and happen from time to time, the fewer distractions a child has the more they’ll be able to build up their concentration and focus.
  • Get families involved. The more we communicate with families about the importance of giving children time to get ‘ready’ for phonics, the better. Why not share your favourite books with families, and encourage children to bring in books from home.  Send home words to rhymes for families to practise together. You can also for ideas of rhymes from the home language of families – you could all have a go at learning these as a class.

Finally, pre-phonics teaching should be fun, occurring in a safe, happy environment where children are respected for their individuality. Practitioners should recognise that children enter the provision at different stages in their learning.  They might have been exposed to different levels of language in their home environment, and each of them have unique life experiences.  And remember, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach. 

The big ideas

download pdf
graphical user interface, text, application
Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

Picture of a Guidance document
UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

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.

Learn more about Famly

Find out below how Famly improved parent communication at N Family Club, and see what we can do for you in a personal demo.