Schoolification – Should phonics be taught in Early Years?

It is an interesting question that may cause great debate! I have seen lots of group teaching times on audits recently, with staff seen teaching letter sounds, writing names, writing letters and much more. Children are sitting down and an adult is sharing the knowledge. It appeared that children had a choice and were engaged, but it raised lots of questions for me.

Schoolification – more teacher-directed time with greater attention to academic content and less play is the definition.

In this blog I will focus on the teaching of phonics with 3-4 year olds. I can hear lots of you shouting at me… 3-4 years are too young to sit and learn phonics, let them play. They do phonics at school or some may be nodding at me saying yes! Our children are ready and want to learn, the children ask us to show them the letters, parents want us to teach them and so on.

According to Literacy Trust the definition is – phonics involves matching the sounds of spoken English with individual letters or groups of letters. Teaching children to blend the sounds of letters together helps them decode unfamiliar or unknown words by sounding them out to learn to read and write.

When on an audit and children are being taught phonics at a table, on a carpet as a group, I pause, watch and have questions spin round my head. I may go on to ask the practitioners some of these questions- Why are they teaching it? What’s your intent for individual children? What led to this learning? Why are you teaching it that way? Have they been taught phase 1 first? Are the children interested? Then question the impact of that activity – What have they learned? What can they do now?

I want to start by clearing up any misunderstanding around teaching of phonics in early years. There are seven different phases to teaching phonics, when I tell you what phase 1 is, then people who say “No! Don’t teach phonics” may have a different perspective.

So what is Phase 1 Phonics?

This phase is intended to develop children’s listening, vocabulary and speaking skills which lays the foundation for phase 2 which is when individual letter sounds are taught.

Therefore Phase 1 phonics is Communication and Language, one of the prime areas of the EYFS. We should be seeing and hearing children talking, playing with sounds, singing, saying rhymes, understanding questions, extending vocabulary and be secure in all aspects of communication and language before even considering phase 2 teaching letter sounds. Obviously we should also be ensuring children are secure in other prime areas too. Like any teaching, children need the right start and your curriculum should be progressive and clearly sequenced.

You should consider – Have the children got the speaking, listening and vocabulary skills first? What about the other prime areas? Are they showing an interest, curiously asking questions such as what is this? When looking at a letter shape in a book or saying mmmmm for mummy or that’s the letter in my name as some examples, then go with what they know already and build on that but ask yourself, does that mean introducing a let’s all sit down and learn the letter of the week?

If you are introducing Phase 2 next then consider these points…

Are staff trained to teach each sound correctly?

I would ensure all team members watch this simple quick video to ensure they say the letter sounds correctly regardless of your views on teaching it so they use sounds correctly. We do not want anyone to say DUHHH for Daddy, we should teach a pure sound.

How will you ensure children have enough experience within Phase 1?

Phase 1

  • Singing – A ‘singing apron’ or ‘singing bag’ is really good fun where an object can be pulled out by a child for example a bobbin for the song; wind the bobbin up or a bus for the song; wheels on the bus.
  • Rhymes
  • Reading
  • Identifying objects to extend vocabulary
  • Listening walks in nature for birds, sirens etc
  • Experiment with body sounds, instruments and other sounds you can make
  • Listen to heavy rain
  • Make up silly rhymes to introduce alliteration, silly suzie sat sniffing smelly socks

For phases 2 and 3 see what fun ways you can teach these that make sense to the individual child, ie Sam has a sausage on his plate at lunch and you say SSSSS Sausage Sizzling Sam or If your name starts with MMMMM Michael go and wash your hands. Do they need to see the letter, write the letter or just listen and say it?

All of the above can be included in all areas of provision and dotted through your day and does not need to be children stationary as a group. It should be through play, throughout the role play, sand, water and not fixed to writing areas.

Think about how you can also involve other areas of learning, get children engaged and moving. Gross and fine motor skills can be incorporated into each song that has actions, you can do rhymes standing up to help develop children’s balance and coordination. The key is it is fun, meets children’s interests and developmental needs.

Partnerships – Ensure you work with local schools on what schemes and approaches they use so not to confuse the children. Every school may have a different approach and the last thing the child wants is to be confused or start feeling deflated if they feel wrong.

Our English language is so complicated and one of the hardest languages to learn. The 26 letters in the alphabet represent either singularly or in a combination of others a whopping 44+ phonemes. As a comparison, in the Spanish, German or Welsh language, one grapheme (letter/s) almost always represents the same phoneme (sound) so there may be mistakes.

Mistakes to avoid…

  • Teaching letter names not sounds
  • Cognitive overload – Ask yourself: will they be engaged, is it purposeful, will they develop a skill?

● Activity choices that can hinder learning – as above – does the fishing for letters in water tray really help them learn letter sounds?

  • Details matter – pegs with a photo of a Penguin for Phoebe (different sounds)
  • There’s more to reading than phonics – enjoyment, language development, understanding

In summary – you need to be clear what your vision for Early Education is, What is your why? What is the impact and reflect on what is best for your children. Some people say actually the schoolification of early childhood education here is not helping children, some researchers support it, some say early literacy and numeracy provides very important foundations. What’s the right balance?

Phase 1 is CL prime area, making the need to start their phonics journey crucial. The teaching of phonics doesn’t be an all or nothing choice. The play opportunities and language development in Early Years helps children begin their phonics journey.

Although it is useful to know what your children will be tackling when they move onto primary school, your role is not to teach it now to prepare them for the transition. There are many ways you can prepare children which doesn’t involve teaching letter sounds (phonics).

I hope I have provoked some questions and your thoughts and comments are welcome.