I enjoyed Sally’s book What Comes Before Phonics? so much when I read it that I asked her to write me a guest blog post. It makes a great deal of sense and has a REALLY important message for the teaching of phonics.
We all share the aim of enabling children to become literate with ease and success, and the importance of phonics as one aspect of this process is well established. However, there remains significant disquiet about what this means for early years, in particular, how the strong focus on phonics has led to increased schoolification of both content and pedagogy practices in the early years.
Like many in early years, I am concerned about the increasing pressure for early, explicit, formalised teaching; a trickle-down of pedagogical practices that are too-much-too-soon for many young children. This, I would argue, is based on the misunderstanding that ‘earlier is better’; an argument that runs counter to what we know about children’s development and how young children learn. My book, What Comes Before Phonics?, is a response to these concerns, written at a time when, I think, we need remain firm and clear about what we do in early years and how this leads into literacy.
So what should we be doing in early years that is pedagogically and developmentally appropriate for very young children? What do we know about what comes before phonics that will enable children to come to phonics teaching ready to learn and with a good chance of success?
Imagine an iceberg. The visible tip represents reading and writing: the visible products of becoming literate. This is supported by a huge body of knowledge, skills, understandings and attitudes that are not visible in the same way, but the robustness of what is visible depends upon them. Becoming literate with ease and success depends upon a range of knowledge, skills, understandings and attitudes that are developed before, and underpin, explicit, formal, literacy teaching. This includes:
Spoken language. Spoken language, and the ability to listen carefully and respond, underpins all teaching and learning,
including phonics. Children learn language. To achieve this they need rich language experiences that include adults who say more than is necessary, opportunities for silence and careful listening, and play and interaction that enables them to engage in talk.
Physical activity that supports sensory awareness and integration. Physical development is integral to learning. Children need to develop a range of physical skills to be able to engage effectively in learning, including being able to sit still and focus. This includes, balance and proprioception, crossing the midline, and sensory awareness and integration. These skills are not developed by sitting still. Young children be active; to move and have opportunities for vigorous activity to developthese physical foundations for learning.
Meta-linguistic awareness. To access phonics teaching with success children need to be able to think and talk about language. They need to become aware of language as an object that is composed of words and meanings that can be examined, discussed and manipulated. This can be achieved in specific ways in which we interact with children, through language-play, and through reading storybooks in ways that draw children’s attention to language.
An understanding of the functions and forms of print. Becoming literate needs a context. Children need to develop an understanding of why, where and how print (including digital print) is used, so that learning phonics and to read and write are meaningful activities. Children are surrounded by literacy and come to know about the functions and forms of print through engagement with print in everyday meaningful situations, and in their play. Adults need to mediate this engagement to support children’s emerging understanding, and use, of print.
The ability to symbolise. The ability to use one thing to represent another is fundamental to literacy. Writing is the symbolic representation of speech, and reading is the decoding of symbols. Phonics is the symbolic basis of our system of reading and writing. Learning to symbolise requires that children make the cognitive shift from first to second-order symbolism. This is achieved through children’s use of gesture and language, through symbolic use of resources in their play, and in mark marking.
Phonological awareness. The acquisition of phonological awareness marks a child’s earliest move into more formal aspects of learning phonics. Phonological awareness begins and flows from the ability to hear, recognise and label environmental sounds. It becomes the ability to identify and orally manipulate units of language, such as identifying oral rhymes, and an awareness of aspects of language such as words, syllables and onset-rime. The final stage of phonological awareness is phonemic awareness. This is the ability to hear, identify and orally manipulate phonemes. This requires adults to weave learning into activities, experiences and routines by being aware of, and exploiting, opportunities to develop these skills within meaningful contexts.
Brought together this knowledge, skill and understanding creates a framework for what comes before phonics. It is not another set of prescribed outcomes, but a way of foregrounding existing effective practice and provision in early years that is developmentally appropriate and enables children to come to later, more formal phonics teaching with a high chance of success.
Thank you Sally, for a really interesting and informative blog post.