The problem with phonics in EYFS - and how to solve it

The teaching of phonics is given huge importance but there is a lot that's beyond a teacher's control. However, there are some ways to make life a little easier

Helen Pinnington

A new Ofsted survey highlights a lack of experience in teaching phonics

One of the most common discussions within EYFS is the teaching of phonics. Whether it is an argument about its place within reading, or at what point the teaching of phonics should begin, it is always a hot topic.

The difficulty for me is that too much emphasis is placed on the teaching of phonics and so there is huge pressure for Reception and Year 1 teachers. 

It can feel at times as though we are overly judged, measured and monitored in this aspect of teaching, which is quite disproportionate considering the full breadth within the EYFS framework.

Outside influences

While a pressure exists to demonstrate the highest quality of teaching and to produce ambitious data, it feels unfair when there are many external factors that contribute strongly to children’s outcomes in phonics.

The first and most obvious is the home learning environment. Does this make a difference? In my experience, it absolutely does. Whether a child has experienced listening to songs and rhymes, sharing books and engaging in quality talk will contribute strongly to their readiness for learning.

Age is another big factor. How old are they? The number of summer birthdays will influence the cohort. If I told a Reception teacher that they would have a whole class of summer borns, I can imagine the response...

The most critical factor for me is the quality of pre-school learning experience. I always ask feeder settings about this during transition. It is really useful to the sorts of experiences the children have had before they come to us.  Do you provide letters and sounds sessions? How regularly? What does this look like?

Over the years, I have found a range of answers to these questions. In some scenarios the children are very well prepared. In others...let’s say that we have a very different understanding of the term "letters and sounds".

I do recall one pre-school manager telling me that she played the Jolly Phonics song on the CD player from time to time. 

A critical issue for me is not so much whether they have been taught, but whether they are taught properly: it is frustrating to find children using hard sounds quite frequently "muhhhh"  instead of "mmm", for example. 

Another noticeable skill lacking is the ability to orally blend and segment.  In the past, this has been an area that we needed to revisit and consolidate in September.

Reaping the benefit…

However, this year we have had lots of success with the teaching of phonics in Reception. I put this down to the fact that we are fortunate to have a teacher-led nursery on site. I work closely with the team and we reap the benefits. The children have been really well prepared in learning a wide range of key skills in preparation for teaching phonics.

Key aspects of practice include: 

  • Letters and sounds sessions are delivered daily in small groups.
  • The emphasis is on practical, play-based learning.
  • Regular training is delivered for nursery practitioners and Reception TAs.
  • All staff are trained to model correct articulation.
  • Many of the sessions are active (we use lots of beanbags, hoops, balls etc).

The nursery class have a structured programme for teaching "phase 1" skills. This is covered throughout the year on a daily basis for short 10 minute sessions. Lisa, our nursery teacher, ensures that the children develop a range of skills from phase 1 of the letters and sounds programme.

We don’t deliver ‘phonics lessons’

It is really important to us that these sessions are not formal. We provide appropriate, short activities with very young children in mind. We use multi-sensory teaching and aim for the children to have fun.

As I walk through the classroom, I typically see children marching around to the beat of a drum or playing a game outside involving running and jumping.

They use lots of rhyme, singing and music but the key things is that there is a clear focus.

Children learn to identify rhyme, they can discriminate sounds, they are secure with oral blending, they articulate correctly.

All of these things give us a head start in Reception and help to reduce the pressure…ever so slightly.

Helen Pinnington is early years foundation lead at St Thomas More’s Catholic Primary School in Bedhampton, Hampshire

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