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What comes before Reading - Pre-school Phonics

We can all focus far too much on our children being able to ‘do’ things by a certain point. Unfortunately there is often not enough focus given to the process in which they need to get there. Reading and writing are prime examples of this and there just is not enough information out there for parents on the real and natural ways they can help their children from birth before mastering the concrete skills of reading and writing. There is a whole wonderful and masterful process children go through. Process over product.

Many parents suddenly panic before their child starts school - are they ready? Should they be able to read? How will they compare to the other children? What can I do about it? I have 6 weeks!

I am a firm believer that we should NOT force learning letters and sounds before children have the foundations. Children have a lot to learn in a playful way before they start school. Getting a ‘head start’, or getting ‘school ready’ should not involve quickly buying in to a scheme or getting some flash cards or workbooks to memorise letters and sounds. The teachers at school will quickly start teaching phonics and will discover those who are learning more rapidly or slowly and will teach them accordingly. That is their job! Your child will start bringing books home when they’re ready. 

In my opinion, what you should do first and foremost is to learn the basics yourself. You are your child’s biggest influence and along with the Reception teacher, if you educate yourself and feel confident, your child will make the progress they need. 

What comes before Reading? 

Many people assume that the sooner their child can learn what the letters are, the better they will be at reading. This is a huge misconception. The knowing the letters is the product. However there is a whole host of processes from birth that need to take place to enable a child to easily understand how to ‘read’.

So what are these processes and how can you help? Besides the swathes of research advocating the need to talk to you your babies, these pre-reading skills are things such as tuning in to sounds around you (auditory discrimination), listening to and remembering sounds (auditory memory and sequencing) and talking about sounds (developing vocabulary and language comprehension). These are referred to as Phase 1 phonics and are part of a whole stages and phases document used by many schools called Letters and Sounds

Knowing the importance of the earliest years of a child’s life, I gave up teaching and now work with under 5’s as a Childminder. There is so much you can do with children of this age that will impact their development and ability to learn to read later on. 

Sadly, Phase 1 is not often given the credit and time it deserves, probably because it is not something concrete that can be explicitly taught.  Training is not always consistent for childminders, pre-schools and nurseries and certainly not for parents. I have seen first hand the difference between those who have had access to Phase 1 activities and those who have not when I was teaching and especially in my role as Literacy Intervention Teacher. Those who had a lot of phase 1 phonics input were by far better equipped to learn to read more rapidly and easily than those who didn't. For the latter children, the process could be frustrating, difficult and confusing and took longer.

What is Phase 1 Phonics? 

Phase 1 of phonics is what needs to come before reading. It is all about being able to really listen  and tune in to sounds. Being able to remember sounds and respond and talk about sounds. Not letter sounds but ANY sounds. Educators (nursery staff, childminders and pre-school staff) should all be following a programme of activities to build up children’s skills and understanding. These may sound like simple skills but they are fundamental and involve various processes. As mentioned, children that do not have enough input in these areas and move on to Phase 2 (learning letters and sounds and the formal reading of words), will struggle. 

There are many things that will help you to support your child become attuned to sounds and prepare them for the more formal learning of phonics when they start Reception. Below are a few examples of the pre-reading activities and skills that I am talking about. Very simple things that can be done at home little and often and will have a huge impact.

1) Read to your child (from birth!) - Children that hear the written word from their very first moments will acquire an ear for the English language other than the spoken, everyday language used at home (which is equally as important). They will hear the rise and fall of your voice as you read, which includes alliteration, rhythm and rhyme as well as vocabulary you may not otherwise use. However tedious you find it, read the same books over and over because children love familiarity and they will begin to anticipate and join in. 

2) Sing to your child (from birth) - Nursery rhymes are dying a slow death unfortunately. However nursery rhymes are so important because they teach children repetition, rhythm and rhyme and cater for short attention spans. Children can remember them, helping with memory and quite simply, singing can alter a mood too. Hearing these simple songs over and over will help your child start to discriminate between sounds (a skill absolutely necessary for when they start phonics), and help teach communication and language skills. They are also a great way to introduce concepts such as counting and rhyme and imagination. 

3) Have decent books available - to a young child a book is a toy. The excitement of turning a page and seeing a new image or having some flaps to open is enthralling to them. A book has a greater impact on brain development than any kind of screen. Not only this however, but being able to turn a page and open a flap requires skill for their fine motor development. Don’t turn the pages for them! They also very quickly learn to hold a book the right way up and start from the ‘beginning’, learning that we read left to right, and top to bottom. This needs practice. The skills involved in holding and reading books with us are above and beyond scrolling on a screen and the rewards with each page turn cannot be beaten. The closeness they feel to you when you have reading time is incredibly special to them. If a child has a favourite and wants to read it 10 times in a row, then read it but make it more interesting (for yourself if nobody else!) by talking about what’s on each page “oooooooh look at the Cat’s long fluffy tail!”. 

4) Quiet, waiting and listening time - teach your child how to ‘wait’ and to ‘listen’. I do this with the youngest of children, something I learnt from a wonderful Monkey Music Instructor Rebecca when my youngest was small. Create tiny moments of anticipation (waiting for a song to come on, a train to pass, or watching somebody jump in to a swimming pool or pushing a toy car down a ramp). I say ‘wait’ and put my hands up in a ‘stop’ position and then I say ‘listen’ as I touch their ear lobe. The child will learn to stop and really listen. After a time they will start to touch their own earlobe to demonstrate they are listening. As I’m sure it doesn’t need saying - teaching children how to actually stop and listen is paramount for all learning! Listening and paying attention are a life skill and teaching this early will mean they will be able to regulate themselves and tune in to different sounds around them. Again - absolutely necessary when being able to hear the sounds in words when learning to read later on.

5) I spy -  Car journeys are great for this and your child doesn’t actually need to be speaking properly yet to get something from this game. Just listening to you playing it as parents or with older siblings will help them tune in to the idea of hearing the initial sounds in words “something beginning with ssssss -s -s -s” followed by guesses of things beginning with ‘s’. When my youngest was ready to start joining in with this game he would take a turn and obviously get things wrong. He felt confident saying the sound ‘d’ so would always say “I spy with my little eye, something beginning with ‘d’. Just hearing our guesses  - all things beginning with ‘d’ eventually helped him understand and make that link. Even if at first he would proclaim “noooooo, the answer is car!”. We would all say “ahhhhhhh why didn’t we think of that? Well done!”. The imperative thing is not to correct the child but encourage them and give them confidence to try and try again. Process over product. If they aren’t developmentally ready to understand, then correcting them will shatter their confidence in trying next time. We need children to keep trying. When they are developmentally ready (when they can finally ‘hear’ the initial sound rather than guessing and that lightbulb suddenly turns on), BAM, they will start using appropriate words and guessing appropriate answers. With you modelling this to them, it will suddenly click! A key skill in phonics later on.

And lastly, and very importantly...

6) You need to learn the sounds properly used for Phonics - Now this is slightly harder because you will have to take some time to learn these (they are not as obvious as you may think), but you doing this will make all the difference to your own confidence and to your child especially as they start asking questions and when they start school. They will start learning the sounds in Reception, however, if you know the sounds and are confident, you can use them casually from any age, for example when reading to them or doing an alphabet puzzle.



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