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Heard instincts

One of the problems with a national curriculum linked to children's ages rather than their developmental level is that it gives the impression that certain types of teaching are appropriate only for certain age-groups. "Phonic knowledge", for instance, is covered almost exclusively at key stage 1, with the natural implication that you don't need to teach it at key stage 2.

As KS2 teachers know only too well, this is not true. Many children in Years 3 and 4 still need a lot of input about phonics, and a fair number continue to need it to the end of primary school and beyond. Despite the protestations of the back-to-basics brigade, most primary schools teach phonics - but it does seem that children don't always learn it.

This could be because many children aren't developing "phonological awareness" in the pre-school years - that is, they aren't becoming aware of the significance of sound in words. Nursery and reception teachers frequently comment that today's young children seem to have more trouble with listening skills than in the past - that they are attuned to watch rather than to listen, and seem to have poorer auditory discrimination and short-term memory.

If children aren't aware of the sounds of words, they won't see the links between patterns of sound in speech and patterns of letters in writing - so a lack of phonological awareness in the early years could have a knock-on effect for delayed phonics learning throughout primary school.

There are lots of reasons phonological awareness may fail to develop - intermittent hearing loss is quite widespread, for instance, and children who can't rely on their ears may fail to recognise the importance of sound in the ways we convey meaning. Social changes may also be playing a part. Many pre-school children nowadays spend less and less time at their mother's knee and more and more in front of an electronic babysitter - the video machine or all-day children's television. They then arrive at school without the old repertoire of nursery rhymes, songs, and silly games ("Eeny meeny miny mo", "Round and round the garden" and so on) which have played such an important part in familiarising previous generations with the sounds of language.

Nursery and reception teachers already know the value of songs, chants, nursery rhymes and jingles in attuning children's ears to the sounds that will help them learn to read. However, if schools are now starting from a lower baseline of pre-school experience, we need to put even more emphasis on these activities. And perhaps the time spend in nurseryreception will not be enough: for some children it may be necessary to provide phonological awareness activities for much longer - until they are clearly ready to respond to more sophisticated phonics teaching techniques.

A recent handbook from the United Kingdom Reading Association - Phonological Awareness: Classroom Strategies by Frances James - lists many ways in which we can help sensitise children to sound, for instance:

plenty of reading aloud, especially of rhymes and poems with which children can join in. As well as "hearing the reading", parent-helpers can be trained to read to groups of children, encouraging interactive listening and participation

games which emphasise listening (such as Simon Says and Chinese Whispers) and other listening activities, such as hiding a range of objects that make a noise behind a screen so that children can each choose one to make a sound for others to guess

activities involving alliteration: such as collections of objects pictures that begin with the same letter; inventing alliterative advertising slogans for imaginary products; games like "My name is Barbara, my boyfriend's name is Bill, we live in Birmingham and we eat brown bread and bacon".

activities involving rhyme, like "I spy with my little eye something that rhymes with hen" (say, pen); card games such as Pairs and Snap using "rhyming pictures".

Once formal phonics teaching is underway, teachers can use methods and materials which continue to stress sound patterns in words - like onset and rime (the bit of a single syllable word before the vowel and the rest as in c-at and th-at: see TES2, April 19 p14). This way, stragglers who are still not quite getting the point of the phonics can still be enjoying - and hopefully benefiting from - hearing the alliteration and rhyme.

Above all, if we can't assume that all children will learn everything they need to know about phonics in the infants, it's important that all teachers in primary schools have a good working knowledge of the subject which has implications for both initial and in-service training.

Sue Palmer's Language LIVE Roadshow for schools includes a presentation for teachers. For details send SAE to Language LIVE, 11 St George's Road, Truro, Cornwall TR1 3JE.u Phonological Awareness: Classroom Strategies by Frances James is available from UKRA, Unit 2 Station Road, Shepreth, Near Royston, Herts SG8 6PZ (01763 261328), Pounds 5 to non-members, Pounds 4.50 to members.

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