There is "no expectation" that providers should teach phonics before children reach Reception, Ofsted has said.
The watchdog's specialist adviser on the early years and primary school, Phil Minns, revealed today that Ofsted is aware that the reading method is taught to some children before they start school.
But, speaking at an early years education conference in central London, he also made clear that this is not necessary.
“We would have no expectation of seeing phonics being taught before children are in Reception. We know that it happens sometimes," the HM Inspector said.
Background: 13 things you need to know about phonics
"We would hope most children start phonics quite quickly when they are in Reception – we'd also hope that they're ready for that.
"And we'd hope that staff are knowledgeable enough about phonics and their children to do it in a way which really suits those children's needs.
"Phonics doesn't have to be an unpleasant experience for those children. It can be a short, sharp experience where they're learning skills."
He made the comments during a question and answer session after early years consultant Sue Allingham said: "I do know that schools are suffering under – I don't know if it's a misconception – that phonics has to be drilled in from day one in Reception classes.
"It's having an impact on the non-maintained sector...that this phonics push is being driven down."
Dr Allingham told Tes that providers feel pressure to teach the reading method early in preparation for the phonics screening check, a statutory test taken by children in Year 1.
The screening check is made up of 40 words, one half of which are genuine and the other half are pseudo-words, such as “spraw” or “meck”. Pupils read the words to their teachers, who mark the test and return the results to their local authority, which submits them to the Department for Education.
"[The early introduction of phonics is] definitely screening check driven," Dr Allingham said. "That test tells us nothing and is nationally disliked as an unnecessary hoop to jump through.
"There is nothing wrong with teaching phonics when it is stage appropriate," she said, adding: "If children are not yet secure with speaking and responding, and the listening skills needed to hear words and tune in, then learning phonemes and digraphs literally falls on deaf ears.
"Emotional wellbeing and language must be in place first. Reading is not the same as phonics, which is about decoding."
Asked to expand on Ofsted's position, Mr Minns told Tes: "In the first four years of the EYFS [early years foundation stage], we wouldn't necessarily see phonics, and we wouldn't expect phonics to be taught.
"We know that some places choose to teach phonics early on, but we would hope that that's always because those children are ready for it, and it's done appropriately, and it's done in negotiation with [whichever] school or setting they are moving on to. So it's actually part of a curriculum.
"We do expect children when they get into Reception class to be coming across phonics quite quickly, but we'd say that in an appropriate way, in a well-managed way, in a way that the children can enjoy and engage with well.
"Because phonics [is] just a key skill. Those children are really advantaged by having those key skills as early as they can get them."