EYFS training: part 9 – Literacy - The write way

Charlotte Goddard
Sunday, September 15, 2019

What training is available to help practitioners support children’s early literacy? Charlotte Goddard reports

  • Literacy is the lowest achieving area of learning in early years and is a Government focus
  • Access to training can be dependent on geography
  • Training should cover child development and play-based learning

In 2018, literacy was the lowest achieving area of learning for the early years. That same year, the Government set out its ambition to halve the proportion of children leaving Reception without the early literacy, language and communications skills they need.

A Centre of Excellence for Literacy Teaching is developing a national network of 34 English Hub schools, sharing free DfE language and literacy support in Reception, but is only available to schools.

Literacy is one of the four specific areas of the EYFS. The EYFS framework says literacy development involves encouraging children to link sounds and letters and to begin to read and write, and states that children must be given access to a wide range of reading materials to ignite their interest.

Many in the sector feel the current Early Learning Goals (ELGs) for literacy are set too high. However, the new ELGs have not improved matters: Early Education, for example, has expressed concerns that the new goals have too much of a focus on phonics and handwriting, and do not make it clear that the root of literacy lies in communication and language.

This July saw the launch of a national campaign to tackle early literacy and communication, bringing together a coalition of organisations to support parents to play a bigger role in their child’s early education. Early years settings are the focus of some of this work – Pearson, for example, is providing free early years vocabulary intervention kits to 500 nurseries in areas of high deprivation.


One popular early years literacy training programme is Helicopter Stories, designed to boost literacy, confidence and communication skills in the EYFS and KS1. Delivered by MakeBelieve Arts, the approach is based on the work of early childhood education expert Vivian Gussin Paley, who died in July this year aged 90. Another is NDNA’s Literacy Champions.

Chloe Francis, deputy manager and early years professional at Portico West End Day Nursery in Lancashire, transformed her setting’s book corner into a Bat Cave after taking part in the training. Boys’ literacy was a particular problem for the setting. ‘The training helped us understand why boys behave the way they do, and encouraged us to draw on their interests, as well as giving us ideas on how to enhance our environment,’ she says. ‘One little boy was talking about Batman and we decided to go for it, it really encouraged boys to go in and pick up a book where before they were spending time in the construction area.’ Ms Francis has just finished revamping the area again, this time as a tree house with toadstool seats.

The programme was particularly effective in boosting staff confidence, she says. ‘Literacy is such an important area of child development and staff confidence was a big issue – if staff are not confident, they will not help to improve the children’s outcomes. As staff gained confidence they became more interested, and this has had a huge role in improving outcomes; we have definitely noticed an improvement in our data.’

The NDNA’s Literacy Champions programme aims to fit in with practitioners’ needs, with training modules, including videos, and banks of resources available online, including phonics activities, activity rhymes, letters and sounds, support for children with EAL, and home learning. Initially those taking part attended an induction day but many found it challenging to take time out of the setting, so the NDNA has developed an induction video covering the same information.

Settings nominate a champion to lead the programme, and they complete an audit of their setting to find out which areas need support. ‘We look at how literacy-friendly the environment is, the confidence of the staff, what literacy resources are available,’ says Fiona Bland, early years adviser for the NDNA. ‘The setting creates an action plan and the literacy champion decides the best person to action these areas.’

The setting can then access a range of training courses. ‘One area highlighted by practitioners has been phonics – staff said phonics was not covered in the average Level 3 course but it is in the EYFS, and they are concerned they don’t have enough knowledge to do it properly,’ says Ms Bland.

There are a number of literacy training programmes but many are targeted to particular postcodes, such as areas funded by Better Start or Opportunity Area grants. Much training focuses on specific programmes, with phonics providers, for example, offering their own courses. However, early years experts say literacy should be seen holistically, and that quality training should cover a child’s development and the journey they take to literacy, looking at child-centred learning as well as the mechanics of phonics and decoding.

‘Literacy development links to the Unique Child, Positive Relationships, and the Characteristics of Effective Learning,’ says Ms Bland. ‘When you think about how children play and develop, you can’t separate it out.’

EXPERT’s VIEW: Kym Scott, trainer and consultant

kym-scottGood training will focus on the basics like how to teach children in developmentally appropriate ways to decode and eventually spell words, but also on how to engage them with experiences that make them understand the purposes of reading and writing and develop a love of it.

There should be a balance – too much training focuses only on decoding or phonics skills, while some training just looks at ‘let’s make literacy fun!’ and doesn’t give practitioners the content knowledge they need. Literacy training also needs to look at how language and communication underpins both reading and writing.

We have an understanding of the skills children need when it comes to literacy, but I know from visiting settings there is a gap in confidence around knowing how best to teach literacy. I always tell people not to just look at the ELGs as they give a very narrow view. There are competencies that children have that can be missed if you are only looking for phonics and handwriting - noticing what a child is interested in, for example. Similarly many practitioners have a strong understanding of phonics and how to teach that, but the challenge is really being aware of children developing a love and understanding of what they read and knowing how to move that on.

There is a paucity of recent research about the early teaching of academic skills such as literacy, because most countries decide against formally teaching children this young to read and write and so do not need to research it. If we are going to insist upon teaching these things earlier, we have to help our educators to understand how we can do this in ways that don’t damage children.

Funding for literacy training tends to focus on specific phonics schemes. Good, developmentally appropriate phonics teaching in school is an important part of the toolkit but funding going to one particular programme is not necessarily encouraging that balanced approach to literacy.

resources and guidance

Preparing for Literacy: Improving communication, language and literacy in the early years By the EEF.


EYFS Sets out the ELGs for literacy.


Development Matters Describes how adults can support learning.


PACEY members can access resources including a Literacy Practice Guide.



Literacy Champions (NDNA) Support includes online audit tools.


Reach for the Sky!Inspiring young writers in the EYFS.


Also see this reading-focused course


Helicopter Stories (MakeBelieve Arts)Training sessions are running in Hartlepool, Bury, Hucclecote, Tyneside, Richmond-upon-Thames and Cowley through October and November.


Building blocks to communication and literacy, Early Education, London, 8 October 2019. One-day training.


Making Marks: communication and expressing through children’s graphicacy, Early Education, London, 11 October; Bradford, 13 November.


Early Words Together (National Literacy Trust)Trains early years staff and volunteers to work with parents and children aged three to five.


Early Years Summit Early years training specialist and author Kathy Brodie will host a free online summit focusing on literacy from 28 October, with speakers including Sally Neaum on ‘what comes before phonics’ and Julie Cigman on ‘mark making and boys’.


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