DUCKS: What Comes Before Phonics?

All of our parents are keen to support their children’s learning in any way that we can, and the topic of phonics comes up regularly. On Wednesday, we held a workshop to discuss what comes before phonics, how this fits with early childhood development, and how we support this in our learning environments.

What is ‘phonics’?

Phonics is only a very, very small part of children’s overall journey to becoming fluent and confident readers. Many parent think that phonics marks the beginning of this journey, but in reality, children develop their ability to read before they are even born.

A phonics programme teaches children to name letters, and make the corresponding sound. They read each letter sound individually (segment), then put those sounds together to read the word (blend).

The research shows that this approach has proven benefits:

‘Phonics approaches have been consistently found to be effective in supporting younger readers to master the basics of reading…Research suggests that phonics is particularly beneficial for young learners (4 – 7 year olds) as they begin to read.’
Education Endowment Foundation (2015)

But research also shows that phonics, while essential, is not sufficient on it’s own.

Language Development

It is very easy to teach children to segment and blend, and progress at this stage is very quick. However, if their language is not sufficiently developed, then they will not be able to understand (comprehend) what they are reading, and progress slows down. There is research to support prioritising the language development of EAL children sufficiently, before starting a phonics programme with them:

‘…the under-developed oral language abilities of children with EAL delays development of their ability to read and understand continuous text. Therefore, a focus on oral language development and comprehension, and reading comprehension as well as phonics, is likely to offer children the best chance of success.’
Stuart, M – Getting Ready for Reading (2004)

Physical Development

An appropriate level of physical development is absolutely essential in order to children to begin to read. This is because the act of formal reading requires children to sit still, pay attention, and remember what they have read. This means that they need to have highly developed proprioceptive pathways, which may not be fully developed until the age of 8. We don’t learn to sit still by being told to sit still, we learn by moving and exploring our bodies, which allows this brain mapping to take place.

Awareness of Print

At an early age, children begin to understand that print carries meaning, and to make distinctions between different types of symbols (letters, numbers, punctuation, pictures). Heightening that awareness of print also allows children to develop their visual processing skills (tracking words from left to right), which in turn develops their working memory and cognitive organisationskills.

Phonemic Awareness

Before children can begin to develop their phonemic awareness (what sound do letters make), they need to be able to tune into, and hear, the different sounds that make up words. This also requires ‘tuning out’ all of the other noises in the environment in order to make that distinction. Phonemic awareness begins with children recognising sounds in the environment, before they can recognise sounds within words, and then be able to manipulate them into rhymes and patterns. This early stage is essential in order to be able to encode (write) later.

What can I do at home?

A frequent question from parents is around supporting their child at home. Here are a few things to try:

  • Listening activities to tune in a focus on sounds
  • Reading and making sounds to accompany stories
  • English books from the library
  • Nursery rhymes – making up own rhymes
  • Open ended questions
  • Talk, talk, talk – introduce new words and develop vocabulary

And remember – your child may not be ready until the age of 7 or even 8.

If you would like to know more about emergent literacy, and developing reading please do feel free to chat to your class teacher, or make a request for a parent workshop. We love to share our knowledge of learning with you.