The best approach to developing children’s early reading skills has been a hotly debated topic for decades. Synthetic phonics have been recommended as the primary method by which children are taught to read since the Rose Report in 2006, which proposed that ‘for most children, high quality, systematic phonic work should start by the age of five’.
However, research carried out by Karen Boardman, head of early years education at Edge Hill University, found that in fact, much younger children are participating in formally taught phonics sessions in some nursery settings and Reception classes, often from the age of just two.
‘It was a surprise to me, and it scared me a little bit,’ she says. ‘Phonics were only ever designed for children over the age of five, but now we seem to be trying to run before we can walk.’
She found several of the graduate early years educators (EYEs) she interviewed across the country were using commercially available phonics programmes – such as Jolly Phonics; Read, Write, Think; and Letters and Sounds – with under-threes.
‘The graduate EYEs in my research project working with two-year-olds do not consider themselves best placed to teach reading, and suggest it is better to use commercial programmes of study as they are “well-written” and advocated by Government,’ she says.
‘I have observed adult-led activities just like this, with “phonics bags” – matching letters to objects – while visiting settings as part of my role as visiting tutor.’
Education consultant Penny Tassoni says she is unaware of settings teaching phonics to two-year-olds, but acknowledges that the practice might be ‘creeping down’.
‘Settings with three-year-olds might take two-year-olds as well, so there might be a blurring of what is appropriate with different ages,’ she says.
However, she warns, ‘If you are linking letters to sounds, that is inappropriate for a number of reasons. Two-year-old speech sounds are very much in development and children cannot produce all the sounds yet, so why would you even attempt it?’
Dr Boardman says ‘top-down pressures’ are forcing practitioners to rely on phonics programmes rather than trusting their instincts.
‘Due to the heavy emphasis on phonics as “reading” advocated by Government, policy and schools, EYEs feel this is the right thing to do,’ she explains.
‘Early reading is rarely separated from phonics, so the wider aspects of young children’s reading development are often not considered, and priority is given to phonics. Early reading for under-threes has not been clearly defined or separated from the teaching of phonics, and has for many decades been confused. There is no clear agreement from researchers for under-threes.’
She adds, ‘Practitioners are, therefore, confused and sometimes do not appreciate that the fabulous work they are already doing with two-year-olds, such as singing, music, stories, puppets and listening walks, is supporting early reading.’
Dr Boardman also believes pressure also comes from parents, who want to see their children achieving early. ‘Some parents are actively looking for settings where children can do phonics because they believe that will help their children do better.
‘Parents want the best for their children and they understand, as it is a DfE priority, that phonics is important, even if they are not sure about the wider aspects of reading. They feel that starting early works, even though it is the opposite for reading.’
Ms Tassoni agrees. ‘Parents don’t always understand the process, and practitioners might feel under pressure, hence doing activities so that they can say “here are the phonics”.’
The emphasis on ensuring school-readiness may also be part of the pressure felt by practitioners. ‘“School ready” used to mean things like being toilet-trained, and now it means reading and using numbers,’ says Dr Boardman. ‘The game has been upped a lot.’
She adds, ‘The Early Learning Goals are designed to be achieved at the end of Reception and not before, but it is understandable that if they are the end goal, practitioners are working towards them earlier. We have become much more focused on the end product than the getting there.’
Official guidance for when to introduce phonics has been minimal, but in January, Ofsted’s specialist adviser on the early years and primary school, Phil Minns, finally acknowledged that the inspection board was aware phonics were being taught to children well before they start school.
Speaking at an early years education conference in central London and quoted in Tes, he also made clear that the inspectorate did not consider early introduction to phonics to be necessary.
‘We would have no expectation of seeing phonics being taught before children are in Reception,’ he said. ‘We know that it happens sometimes.’
The main problem with teaching phonics too early can be that sessions come at the expense of more productive activities, or, as Dr Boardman puts it, ‘One of my main concerns is that phonics seems to be taking over from storytime, which is the bread and butter of reading.’
Ms Tassoni agrees. ‘We have limited time with children to make a difference, so we have to think strategically. It is about sharing books, moments and sustained interactions, and developing repertoires of nursery rhymes and songs. Looking for nursery rhymes with alliteration, strong beats or metre and good repetition would be my phonics.’
Dr Boardman warns that a prematurely systematic approach could simply put children off reading all together. ‘I have nothing against phonics, and children exploring letters and sounds. When children are four, five or six, phonics can be great for them. But we don’t want to switch them off reading before they have even started. It’s like learning to drive without being given a car.’
Ms Tassoni says that while phonics is an important strategy, it is one of many. ‘The most important thing should be to support children through their reading journey, and for two-year-olds that should begin with a love of books and opportunities to develop their spoken word.
‘Very few two-year-olds can enjoy and be actively taught phonics because a lot of their speech sounds are still unclear. It is highly unlikely you will find a fluent two-year-old, although there are always exceptions, so the pure idea of helping them recognise sounds would be without any relevance.’
ONE SIZE FITS ALL?
Heather Burton, senior nursery nurse at Paper Moon Day Nursery in Doddington Park, Lincoln, agrees there is no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ approach.
‘If a child is showing an interest at two years old then that needs to be recognised and [your approach] tailored to the individual child,’ she says.
‘I have a 31-month-old child in my setting who is interested in letters, asking what they are and what words say when looking at books. I answer his questions and help further his knowledge by introducing phonics, by which I mean we have looked at the letter “a” and tried to find items within the room that begin with that sound.’
However, she emphasises this approach would not suit all children. ‘How can a child who doesn’t understand how to look at pictures in a book or who doesn’t get read to be expected to grasp phonics? It’s like potty-training a child who has no concept of what a potty is for. Children need more of an individual approach.’
The Government-endorsed Letters and Sounds programme has no official age range, but is broken down into six phases to help practitioners teach children how the alphabet works for reading and spelling.
Phase 1 activities concentrate on developing children’s speaking and listening skills, phonological awareness and oral blending and segmenting.
Goldie Jones, a pupil premium grant teacher and phonics lead at a setting in Manchester, says the only acceptable phonics approach with young children should be ‘phase 1, phase 1, and more phase 1.’
However, she says even this can be overly prescriptive, when practitioners often have good intuition for what is best practice. ‘I think some of the problem comes from trying to make a “phase” out of what was previously just natural behaviour and good practice when working with young children,’ she explains.
‘The more children hear, speak and move the better, but this should just be what we all do – teachers and parents – before Reception.’
Dr Boardman agrees that practitioners usually know what is best for children. ‘Early years educators are not paid as much as qualified teachers, and that brings a lack of confidence. They don’t always feel they understand early reading and don’t realise that a lot of fabulous things they are doing are working.
‘Practitioners are often highly experienced and knowledgeable and do know what’s best for under-threes. Talking, rhymes, singing and music are all part of early reading, and practitioners are doing all that amazing stuff on a daily basis. Sometimes they just don’t know why. We need to help build their confidence.’