This question is something that may have been floating around your head for a while. It is a question that can bring to the surface lots of debate and concern - ‘Just let them play!’, ‘They are far too young for Phonics’, ‘They have more important skills to learn’, ‘Phonics is taught when children start school, not in Nursery’. These are maybe just a few of the comments that you have heard or even thought of yourself. There has been a lot of discussion around this subject recently, and educators are becoming confused about knowing when to start phonics.
We need to be realistic and understand that two- and three-year-olds have a lot to take in at Nursery; new environments, new people, new routines and new learning experiences. Therefore, throwing in unnecessary expectations will inevitably take the enjoyment out of children’s experiences and learning, and probably cause you no end of stress and overthinking.
To avoid this stress and keep learning purposeful and enjoyable, the key to teaching Phonics in Nursery is bearing in mind the 3 ‘E’s’ -
‘Experience and Exposure, but no Expectations’
‘What does that really mean?’, I hear you say - Well let me explain…
It means to provide Nursery children with lots of experiences of letters and sounds, give lots of opportunities for children to develop an interest in signs, their names, words in stories through play and exploration and exposing children to reading and writing - all this said, these Experiences will have been carefully thought out and provided, but (and it’s a BIG ‘but’!) it is exactly that - it’s the Experiences and the quality of these Experiences that matter, not having unrealistic, pressurised Expectations that may stifle the natural learning process. We don’t Expect children to retain the letters, sounds, words or phrases that they explore. If some children do, it’s a bonus and shows that they are ready for that learning; some children will learn naturally to read and write before they start the Reception year - we need to provide for their interest in words for reading and writing, however, those that don’t - don’t sweat it!
When children reach Reception, their personal phonics knowledge may differ, however the whole class starting point for the systematic synthetic phonics programme will be the same, to ensure gaps in learning are filled and misconceptions addressed - so what I am trying to say is, if some children do not pick up much or any Phonics learning in Nursery at all, it really does not matter, however, the opportunities and provision are there to be explored for any child, at any time.
Why should Phonics be taught in Nursery?
Children’s time in Nursery is crucial in developing their speaking and listening skills and phonological awareness and all of these are part of their phonics journey. The provision that is available to children in your Nursery environment is already contributing to their phonics knowledge, through laying the foundations for language and cognitive development, any deeper phonics learning that comes from this is a plus.
Furthermore, we commend the parents who support their children’s early learning by encouraging learning at home. However, this can sometimes translate into misconceptions being learned through parents teaching their children how they were taught or knowledge that is thought to be beneficial, like learning letter names before sounds, often a result of learning to sing the alphabet from online videos (which are normally in an American accent!). Therefore, this means that the more quality exposure to letters and sounds in the correct way at Nursery, the better for the children’s education in the future, as we won’t need to do as much ‘unlearning’ of incorrectly taught knowledge.
Introducing letters and sounds to children in Nursery can also reduce the proportion of children attending Reception with low cognitive and language skills which put them at risk of a poor start to learning, as mentioned by Jim Rose in his 2006 review of reading. Giving children a good quality start to their reading learning is crucial to opening learning opportunities in their future.
It is our job as educators to ensure that we provide the best learning provision possible for the children in our care and ensuring that these opportunities are worthwhile, enjoyable and purposeful for both the children and you! Enabling exploration of letters, sounds, books and writing and everything in between is the least that the children in our care deserve, and if children retain some of this learning then this can only be a good thing!
‘Experience and Exposure, but no Expectations’ - always keep this in the back of your mind, print it out, stick it above your desk and anyone who questions you, point to this and that will tell them everything that they need to know! Have confidence in the amazing phonics opportunities that you provide for your children and watch their learning soar!
by Grace Kleanthous, AST phonics consultant
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