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