What Comes Before Phonics? By Dr Sally Neaum

Alistair Bryce-CleggGiveaway, Phonics162 Comments

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.





162 Comments on “What Comes Before Phonics? By Dr Sally Neaum”

  1. Sally was one of my lecturers at uni. Brilliant lecturer with a great deal of knowledge and a very interesting read.

  2. Awareness of the impact that Glue Ear has on the ability to access language and differentiate sounds is all to often overlooked in the Early Years context. 80%of all children under 7 years will have at least one episode with grommet surgery being the most common operation in this age group. It is so much more complex than many are led to believe.

    1. That is so true, and often overlooked or misunderstood, especially in a noisy early years setting. Excellent comment and reminder.

  3. I missed the deadline for this giveaway so disappointed but still will buy it. This blog is amazing and completely echoes exactly what I have been and continue to teach my teams and encourage them to share this with families. You have given me some more training ideas – thank you!

  4. Many parents are wanting us to teach their children phonics and writing … they find it difficult that the children need a solid base to build on and far better st this stage to develop pre reading and writing skills. Be great to read this book so to then pass on information to parents and recommend the book to them.

  5. This has been an interesting read as I’m a School Direct PGCE student and I’ve just finished my second placement in a mixed Reception/Year 1 class. I’m sure there are many more books I should be reading at this stage, but this one seems far more interesting and an area I’d love to learn more about!!

  6. Great to see a publication which is grounded in research. Would love to have to book to help spread the knowledge amongst my team.

  7. What an interesting read and already given me much food for thought. As an NQT, new to Early Years, phonics has been an area I want to develop my skills in so I can give my children the best start possible. Thanks for your blog post!

  8. Will make a really interesting read that undoubtedly will go against Bold Beginnings. Could be very useful.

  9. Having recently attended a Professional Development day on a system for systematic, explicit and direct synthetic phonics instruction, I’d love to read this book as a counter balance. From the brief article, it just makes sense to me. Not sure if you can post a book to Australia though! Either way, I’ll be getting my hands on a copy.

  10. Great blog. As a teacher in a special school I find some children struggle with phonics and am always looking for ideas to move forward.

  11. Would love to read this book. Love the iceberg symbolism. We do so much essential learning in E/Y which is not always valued by those on high.

    1. Congratulations Bernie – You won! Please email the delivery address you would like the book to be sent to and I will pass it on to Sage so that they can get one in the post…

  12. Thank you for this! Again highlighting the rich experience of play and our role in that.
    Would love to read more!

  13. How fantastic! I am a Phonics SLE and completely agree with your blog. Would love to have a read and then recommend this book to my colleagues who keep introducing phonics to Reception children who are still not ready to learn phonics in a more formal way.

  14. A great article. It confirms what we are doing in the early years is right. Looking forward to reading more of this .

  15. This article really shows the developmental stages children need to go through before beginning more formal phonics sessions. This would be an interesting read! ?

  16. In EY we need to be able to articulate the foundational learning and development children need before phonics and this article does this brilliantly. Thank you.

    1. Congratulations Janice – You won! Please email the delivery address you would like the book to be sent to to alistair@abcdoes.com and I will pass it on to Sage so that they can get one in the post…

  17. Sounds a Truly wonderful book, wouldn’t it be wonderful next year to hear the impact this book will have made to six different establishments through you giving six copies away. Good luck everyone our places of work should all have copies of this book to enable all workers to be singing from the same hymn sheet. X

  18. Great blog, relates to the current situation in my setting, I shall be sharing this, thank you.

  19. This is excellent reading and provides provocations for future research and reading. It would be great to win a copy of this book- so good luck to all. 🙂

  20. A thought provoking article that reminds us what we should be doing, extremely interesting, thank you

  21. This snippet makes me want to read more! The core fundamentals would support classes far beyond EYFS.
    Synthetic phonics alone won’t support our readers and we must share a variety approaches to support the variety of learners and individual needs.

  22. This will be so interesting to read and then share with colleagues even making an Inset day theme from it! Finally someone said it straight! Thank you for writing it !

  23. It is so interesting to read the blog and it makes me realise the things I believe in are so important… I want to read more on this

  24. Great read. It is so important to remember that they are 4 years old! Children need to be given many opportunities to learn in a way that they understand. Would love a copy of this book!! ??????

  25. Thank you, these are the skills that need to be better understood by pre-school staff and childminders …but also by parents who are so keen to get their children reading up the levels and bookbands without understanding what goes in to it.

    1. Congratulations Rosie – You won! Please email the delivery address you would like the book to be sent to to alistair@abcdoes.com and I will pass it on to Sage so that they can get one in the post…

  26. As an early years specialist with HE I concur with the article. We must present children with opportunities to play with language as they explore their world. Good foundations have never been so important.

  27. In early years we are the engine room – we must ensure all our children have the fundamentals embedded. Let’s walk confidently before we race off – get it right from the start and the learning potential is amazing.
    Stand up for our little ones they are our future – we want them to love learning for life.

  28. So glad to read this would love to read the book as it underpins lots of things I have tried to get across to parents and staff. Have just been asked to help with phonics in a reception class and would love to be able to share with the staff what the children might require as a strong base before starting a program based on scoolification.

  29. This epitomises the Early Years Foundation Stage perfectly. Putting in place those very first building blocks that create the secure foundations on which to build literacy skills. Thank you so much for the clear explanation – It confirms all that we do in our pre school. Not only a good read for EYFS practitioners but also KS1 and Senior Leadership!

  30. Thanks for this blog. It’s such an important matter to address as schoolification is definitely trickling down through the education system to younger children. I was really pleased you addressed the sensory learning needs of children as my son struggles with this. He is now in year 2 and I have seen that each year as learning has become increasingly sedentary his sensory needs are intensifying. I have also been thinking of how phonics learning needs to be taught with context. I would love to read the book.

  31. As phonics lead, a passionate nursery teacher, EYFS warrior, and soon to be (fingers crossed) EYFS lead I couldn’t agree more with the words of wisdom in this blog and would share this book with my team and everyone else in my school. It is true to every child no matter what their age but their stage of their learning journey in phonics.

  32. Completely agree that phonics is just one part of Literacy / C&L development, that phase 1 phonics is something that can be taught and encouraged during Learning through play time and a myriad of other PD / Lit and C&L opportunities be present as well.

  33. Thanks for the article, and for making explicit a lot of thinking and wondering we’ve been doing at our school in regards to best supporting the literacy development of our students. Always interesting and a great reminder to reflect on the role that physical activity has on the development of children. Often we as teachers can fall into the trap of listing criteria such as “sits still in class” or “doesn’t fidget” as signs of great learners. The challenge is to shift this thinking and instead consider how great learners can build these “physical foundations of learning” through the programs and taught curriculum which we offer. Thanks for the insight and the provocations!

  34. A great blog post and one that all practitioners need to read not just early years teachers. By understanding language development we can provide our young minds with the right diet for learning to enable them to be successful. Thank you for sharing. X

    1. Congratulations Trudy – You won! Please email the delivery address you would like the book to be sent to to alistair@abcdoes.com and I will pass it on to Sage so that they can get one in the post…

  35. Thank you this is great, this will be a perfect article to share with colleagues at a busy time of the year as it is succinct, thorough & engaging.

  36. Such a good read. Would love to have this book. I would definitely share nuggets with my reception parents. Thanks

  37. This was a great blog to reassure early years practitioners that what they are doing is right and it is okay not to be doing formal phonics until the children are ready. . I’d love to share this with the team I work with as well as colleagues in school. I think it would surprise a lot of people! Thank you for a great post!

  38. Great blog. I think it is all too easy to get lost in the importance of phonics itself, rather than creating those strong foundations. Thank you

  39. I would really like to read this book. I am preparing for my masters and will be researching reading motivation in accordance with developmentally appropriate practice in EY.

  40. I would really like to read this book. I am preparing for my masters and will be researching reading motivation in accordance with developmentally appropriate practice in EY.

  41. Really interesting blog. Phase 1 phonics is massively over looked – some children have to be taught to hear despite being surrounded by constant ‘noise’!

    1. Congratulations Lindsey, you won a copy of the book. Please email me the delivery address you would like it to be sent to (alistair@abcdoes.com) and I will pass it on to Sage who will pop one in the post.

  42. Thanks for the blog Gregg. Such vital information. I will be using this for my PGCE. I will also would like to know more. Could you please spare me a copy as you come to Uganda? I will be grateful.

  43. A most interesting blog – whetting the appetite for Sally’s book. There is a dearth of material dedicated to ‘development of literacy’ except for ‘boring phonics’ – quote from a five year old! I love Sally’s list of what comes before formal learning – and as a Froebelian I would naturally advocate this be done through play….and isn’t early years meant to go up to age 8? So I would be encouraging child led exploration and active inquiry based learning to underpin all learning.

  44. A recent quote from a cluster of Reception teachers “Children should enter reception at Level 3 phonics”! Scary! Thank you for the blog.

  45. Thank you for this blog post! Really useful information that I’ll be sharing with staff and parents.

  46. I am glad I came across this piece. I have been constantly thinking about when is the right time to introduce formal literacy instruction and even then how can it be done in a way that is meaningful to the children. Would love to learn more about each of the areas mentioned.

  47. A thought provoking post! There’s so many pressures on practitioners now that it’s good to really focus on what children actually need.

  48. Something I believe passionately about- would be interested to read this book.
    Thank you for sharing the blog post.

  49. As an early years leader in a a school setting with 2-5 year olds, this is really food for thought about how to plan our curriculum and ensure our children are given the necessary learning opportunities before the introduction of phonics. Would love to read more to support staff training and development.

  50. This has been on my reading wish list for a while so enjoyed finding out more on this blog. I think that this reassurance that these are the very important foundations of literacy in the early years is much needed, particularly in the light of Bold Beginnings and debate regarding ‘school readiness’. Often think these are the areas that practitioners skillfully support but dismiss as ‘just what we do’ when they should be presenting them with confidence to OFSTED/ parents rather than feel pressurised into more formal ‘teaching’.

  51. Really interesting read. Glad to hear some common sense. Would certainly be interested in reading more.

  52. Absolutely, sounds like a great read to back up effective and meaniful practice.
    Would love to read more.

  53. As an early years teacher working in a special school… this makes so much sense for children who are not yet ready to access ‘phonics’. Will definitely be sharing with colleagues and adding this book to my reading list!

  54. Hurrah! Love the way this is divided into sections to explain that there is so much before formal phonics. A lot of children have not experienced these rich opportunities at home so it’s important that they are addressed at nursery. Thank you

  55. This makes so much sense! It’s so frustrating with pressure to start phonics schemes with children who don’t have the phonological awareness. Especially when certain schemes seem to make the assumption that all children have the same starting point!

  56. I’m currently working on creating a series of documents for our Preschooler parents on aspects of the dreaded ‘school readiness’. This blog confirms my beliefs and will be very useful in trying to get the message across about what is truly important. Thank you.

  57. A really interesting read as I am a big believer in phase 1 phonics and listening for sounds as being the foundation in the nursery. This blog backs up my beliefs 100%.

  58. I love that the physical aspects of children’s development are the first thing mentioned. Getting muscle ready for the world and then writing is so important.

  59. Interesting read. As a childminder so much more is expected of us delivering the EYFS with no formal training. I would love to win the book.

    1. Congratulations Michelle, you won a copy of the book. Please email me the delivery address you would like it to be sent to (alistair@abcdoes.com) and I will pass it on to Sage who will pop one in the post.

  60. Found this blog interesting as I was a big believer in doing different aspects with Pre schoolers before they went into learning letters and letter sounds one each week. I’m a big believer in Pre phonics and not just rushing into phonics. Will be passing in to colleagues xx

  61. An interesting blog I would love a look at her book to see how we can help get our children in fsu phonics ready.

  62. What a great blog and resource. I wonder if the book includes examples of each of these areas for teachers to build upon?

    1. Hello Crystal,
      Yes, the book has a chapter on each of the areas outlined, which includes the evidence base and lots of practical ideas about what this looks like in practice.
      I am delighted to read all the posts, which confirm what I knew -that we in early years know what we are doing, We just need to remind ourselves occasionally and be resolute in the face of pressure from people who know less than we do!

  63. Thank you for an interesting article
    I have just changed jobs and they keep asking how I teach phonics and I know it’s not the way they are expecting sitting and teaching jolly phonics, this blog reassured me that I am on the right track

  64. A really good post. It’s a common theme to all early years staff in resisting year 1 pressure of formal learning and senior management who are obsessed with data.
    This article confirms our eyfs values and I will be sharing this with staff next week.

  65. This is so reassuring to read, to know that I’m on th right track with my children-creating the best possible environment for them to absorb phonics through play. A great blog post, thanks

  66. i love your thinking i do try to deliver this way of teaching in my group your book would enhance this thanks

  67. What a great blog! I will definitely be sharing this wth my parents via my newsletter and up coming open evening. So many parents (particularly those with older siblings in primary school) have expectations of pre-school to have their children reading & writing! We (staff & practitioners) so often feel undermined and question our own judgement with ‘School ready’ expectations and this blog helps confirm what we do know! The breaking down of skills & knowledge required pre-phonics is really helpful. Thank you for sharing ABC and for support Sally Naeum ?

  68. I work in a setting delivering 2 year old provision and will be sharing this with my colleagues. A great reminder of why we do what we do, many thanks.

  69. All makes perfect sense and really validates what we already do in our ‘early, early years’….although there is the whole ‘school ready’ issue to consider, I think it’s more the ‘later, early years’ who are sadly being pressurised into schoolification. If only we could educate the politicians on these early pre-phonic requirements so that they could allow children the time to aquire these skills and the teachers the luxury of being able to nurture these requirements!
    Fantastic Blog Sally and good luck with the book!

  70. This is really interesting and perfect for using as the basis of a parent workshop on building skills for early literacy. Makes me want to find out more.

  71. It is a concern, especially in light of the Bold Beginnings document, that more and more downward pressure is being put on nursery and preschool teachers to do more formal phonic teaching. But those firm foundations outlined in this post are so necessary. As early years professionals we must have confidence in what we do and ensure appropriate age related pedagogy.

  72. I’ve just been made phonics lead in a primary school and find that because of the screening check we are expecting the formal part of phonics to be started much earlier. This book and blog post will open the eyes of many people

  73. I’ve just been made phonics lead in a primary school and find that because of the screening check we are expecting the formal part of phonics to be started much earlier. This book and blog post will open the eyes of many people

  74. I think I shall be printing this to show to all at our setting. Have always felt uncomfortable with phonics for many of our children, knowing that they just aren’t ready. Really useful, Thank you x

  75. This is so refreshing and reassuring. I teach in an SEN school with young children who already have so many obstacles to their learning. Though I feel a sense of pressure to introduce formal phonics. I found a great pre phonics programme that I have adapted but reading this post is challenging me to continue to question are my little ones actually ready for formal phonics or do I need to continue what I am doing to ensure a firm foundation is being built. I love the idea of this book and will definitely be reading it! Thanks!

  76. What a fab post, definately one to print for the staffroom wall, and maybe the basis for a patent workshop too. Many thanks.

  77. I would love to read more to empower staff at our setting! There is so much talk about ‘school readiness’ and the misconception that preschoolers should be learning ‘letter of the week’ style programme. Starting too soon can turn children off. How exciting to have a book that values these activities to raise awareness and standards of teaching!

  78. Just what I needed to hear. I am currently trying to persuade those higher up that the large group of 5 year olds I am working with are not ready for the formal phonics programme that I am having to deliver. Failure should not be an option, but it’s happening. Your book sounds exactly what I need. Great blog. Thank you

  79. This is a really difficult area I think. It often seems that nursery is the new Reception and teachers are put under pressure to deliver phonic skills before children are really ready. This blog reinforces the fundamental importance of listening.

  80. Really informative – emphasises how many different and crucial elements need to be nurtured – would love to read more

  81. A very interesting blog post, thank you. As an early years teacher I am always going on about formal education being far too early & the impact that this can then have.

  82. Changing from formal planning to planning in the moment i still feel like the children need letters and sounds groups but after reading this blog it has made me think that if practitioner are knowledgable then all this underpinning can be done through following the childs lead x this could be a lovely book to add to our staff library x

  83. Always fighting the top down pressure to get children who aren’t ready for writing to “learn phonics”. This is a great article.

  84. Very interesting and I would love to read more into it. We have implemented changes into our reception class this year and would be be very interested to develop this further.

  85. Thank you for a great blog. We are focusing a lot on communication and language across our setting and are keen to ensure that our children have and are able to develop these underlying phonic skills to support their future learning.

  86. Very thought provoking blog -as a Head Teacher who is trying to balance an outstanding early years setting with a need to increase standards in KS1 it would be easy to simply introduce more formal phonics to Early Years but this should not be the answer. Thank you.

  87. Thank you for you blog post. It has made me think about why some children are struggling with phonics in Year 1..

  88. This article really underpins everything that should be happening in an early years classroom. Fabulous article.

  89. A great blog post, all of these skills are so important and as a nursery teacher the article really struck a chord with me.

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