Phonics for Two Year Olds? – I think NOT   19 comments

Those who know me well – will know that I volunteered to take part in the pilot inspections for the revised EYFS.

This was like a real inspection – complete with feedback and a report – although both the report and the grade are not ‘for real’ and my current report and grade will stand until my next ‘proper’ inspection – any time really – but most likely after October 2013.

As part of the feedback the inspector mentioned that I did not take the opportunity to introduce early phonics with the children in my care.

I should mention that I had 4 children in my care on inspection day and all 4 were only just 2 years old – or almost 2.

The ‘recommendation for improvement was;

‘ Enhance the opportunities provided within children’s play for them to improve their understanding of letters and sounds to support even better progress in communication, language and literacy’

Now I have enough common sense to know that it is not necessary to sit the children down to repeat letter sounds after me or to buy an expensive ‘phonic’s toolkit’. Nor do I need to get them to colour pictures of images to go with said phonics toolkit, nor do I even have to break down every word I say into its phonically correct  components.

And if I didn’t just ‘know’ this – I could refer to the Early Years Foundation Stage – where it says under the PRIME AREAS – that is the areas that I must concentrate on for the under three’s

Communication and Language

Listening and attention: children listen attentively in a range of situations. They listen to stories. accurately anticipating key events and respond to what they hear with relevant comments, questions or actions. They give their attention to what others say and respond appropriately, while engaged in another activity.

Understanding; children follow instructions involving several ideas or actions. They answer ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions about their experiences and in response to stories and events.

Speaking; children express themselves effectively, showing awareness of listeners needs. They use past, present and future forms accuratley when talking about events that have happened or are about to happen in the future. They develop their own narratives and explanations by connecting ideas or events.


That means children who are FIVE not TWO!!!

But hang on – where is the mention of ‘letters and Sounds’ in communication and language?

Is it me or is it not mentioned?

Oh of course silly me – I need to check the guidance document – which of course is just for guidance but even so it seems to be mentioned a lot. Off to check – back soon!

Back – so in communication and language – the Prime Area – there is no mention of letter and sounds or phonics.

So my knowledge appears to be spot on – NO phonics or letters and sounds needed for two year olds  (or indeed any child up to end of EYFS ) in the prime area of communication and language.

I am curious though now – I keep reading in well respected childcare magazines and from well known experts about the government ‘forcing’ young children to undertake phonics  ‘instruction’ and to follow the letters and sounds pack .

Off to check the specific area of ‘Literacy’ – back soon!

Ah – I have found it! The mention of phonics / letters and sounds

It is in the guidance for those children aged 40 – 60+ months but interestingly NOT for those children aged up to 50 months

So unless my understanding of written English is ‘not secure’ the governments own documents both the statutory framework EYFS 2012 AND the supporting guidance document DO NOT say we must teach the children phonics – they DO NOT say we must introduce letters and sounds at 2 or 3 or even 4 years of age.

It says that by offering opportunities and experiences such as those mentioned in the guidance document – that somewhere between 40 and 60+ months of age the children will be able to confidently use the skills they have achieved through play, through speaking and listening, through stories and rhymes – to decode words and start the process of reading and writing.

It even suggests  by not including the statements about phonics or letters and sounds in the 30 – 50 m age group – that we SHOULD NOT be introducing these aspects until a child is over 50 m (so 4yrs and 2m as a minimum age) unless of course the child shows an interest and WANTS to find out more about the make up of words.

I will go further and say that – in my opinion –  any child not in full time school – should NOT be introduced to phonics or letters and sounds unless the child wants to.

Once in full time school – they will have a full school year to become familiar with phonics and letters and sounds before the end of early years foundation stage profile is completed.

The Early Learning Goals are for children aged 5 – lets not forget that – and although I still think that for some children 5 is too young to have mastered these skills – and that there is A LOT MORE to reading, writing and understanding the written word than just phonics – PLEASE  follow the governments statutory requirements and guidance documents (and your professional judgement about when a child is ready to start the road to discovery of the delights of the written word, rather than the hype giving in training, in books and in childcare publications and websites.

There is a lovely sentence on the bottom of every page of the guidance document which enforces one of the overarching principles in the statutory Framework. It says;

Children develop at their own rates, and in their own ways. The development statements and their order should not be taken as necessary steps for individual children. They should not be used as checklists. The age / stage bands overlap because these are not fixed age boundaries but suggest a typical range of development.

Finally – some may regard my opinions as uninformed or as just personal opinion – however my ‘credentials are based on over 34 years of childcare – both with my own children, my grandchildren and the many (well over 150) children that I have had the pleasure of caring for – plus knowledge gained over involvement in many aspects of early years including that of trainer,  adviser and assessor.

Just using my own children as my evidence

Daughter One – Was not taught using phonics – she was taught via the ‘Peter and Jane’ books. She was an avid reader by age of 6 and was described by teachers as having an extensive vocabulary and an excellent understanding of what she was reading. However she was not interested in academic studying.  Being an excellent reader did not lead to a university education.

Daughter Two – Taught herself to read at age of 3 (by joining in with reading time with her sister who was two years older). So also learnt through Peter and Jane. She was also an avid reader and got through mountains of books. By age 8 she had read all the books in school reading scheme and a lot of library books. She went to university.

Daughter  Three – Learnt through having a good memory – and sight reading. The school used the Oxford Tree scheme with Biff and Chip but she was not that interested in reading the books. She is also an avid reader – but not bothered about school in general and dropped out in sixth form. So being a excellent reader did not help her achieve academic success.

Daughter Four – Struggled could not really read beyond first stage books until 8 or 9   despite the use of phonics. However she had a dream – she wanted to go to university to become a teacher. She continued to struggle but despite this she got into university and was tested there for dyslexia – and found to have a reading age of 14 . So not being able to read at an early age did not prevent her from achieving her dream.

Each daughter was treated as an individual, each was encouraged and supported – but the age at which they were able to read and their success and enjoyment of reading – did not indicate their future academic success.

Oh and myself?

Janet and John reading scheme for me – no phonics at all – I was taught with the C A T method – but I still learnt to read.

So in conclusion  in my opinion – Phonics do have a place but are not essential. Early reading does not provide an indicator to academic success and neither does late mastering of reading indicate low academic achievement.

Those of you who have excellent reading and writing skills will have noticed that I don’t. Spelling terrible (even with spell check) grammer ?- well enough said. My guess is that I also am dyslexic – but never been tested. I do find writing a challenge because I am aware of my difficulties – BUT that does not stop me from running a successful business or from expressing opinion on this blog or indeed anything else.

I would love to read your comments on this – am I alone or do others agree with me?

Posted August 11, 2012 by psw260259 in Phonics for children under five

19 responses to “Phonics for Two Year Olds? – I think NOT

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  1. Oh I completely agree with you on this one, our pre-school children are still babies, and should be enjoying all of their pre-school time playing, having fun, learning loads of amazing and fantastically interesting things that capture their interest and imaginations, which should in the majority be child led. There will be some children who are very interested and ready to learn all about phonics, but I believe that they are in the minority. I do feel that sometimes parents are accountable for insisting that their children learn certain skills before their friends children of the same age – it has become too competitive.
    Did you question your recommendation with the inspector?

  2. Hello Francine
    I agree with you comments as well – parents do feel pressured and all the talk of ‘school readiness’ is not going to help.

    No, I did not question the inspectors recommendation because it was only a pilot inspection – and I knew she had to put something – and it was the ONLY thing she could think to put! I also knew that I did not have to follow the recommendation because as I pilot it did not count nor would be put on the website.

    If it comes up at my next inspection – I will not only question – I will challenge using the points I mention from the governments own documents.

    Thank you for taking the time to comment on the blog – much appreciated.

  3. Interesting point to add to this mum. It may be that there is a lack of info on phonics in the EYFS as government can’t make their mind up. If you look for letters and sounds document it has the usual big red box above it saying this is not current and is previous government (well did the last time i looked anyway), that’s pretty stanhard but if u search phonics teaching methods etc in google the news results that come up basically say that they are yet to make their mind up. one document on Department for education saying they don’t work as although children’s ability in being able to recognise words has risen their actual overall reading skill hasn’t, and then another later on saying yes phonics is the way forward and teachers to choose how they teach it (again last time i looked anyway). Yet more mixed conflicting advice.

    • Thank you Rosie – for those of you who don’t know Rosie is daughter 4 – the one who had a dream to be a teacher. She did qualify (with a 2.1) and her specialist area? – Early Years.

      Rosie is of course right – the government don’t know what they are doing – they keep changing their mind – and no wonder people get confused – and / or are not up to date as it depends how often you check the internet

      There is a huge amount of debate about phonics – but the latest info I read was that all children are subjected to a phonics reading test in June at the end of year one. So I am assuming (without further research) that at the moment phonics are still part of the curriculum and therefore – still part of EYFS.

      Micheal Rosen – has a lot to say about this testing – take a look at his blog

      Thanks for your comments Rosie

  4. All I can say is that I know Archie is in good hands at Penny’s Place. I don’t know all the government guidlines and rules to follow with regards to Early Years, but Archie’s vocabulary and understanding of words at just 2yrs and 4months is amazing. He learns so much in at Penny’s Place, I don’t care that his pronunciation isn’t yet perfect, but already he is extending words from ‘copter’ to ‘helicopter’ and knows the difference between similar objects like helicopter, aeroplane and rocket – this all comes from Pennys Place, for which I am very grateful!

    • Thank you Catherine – At this very moment Archie is sat by me with a book looking at the pictures and telling me what he can see – and as you say he is increasing his vocabulary – and on a daily basis. He knows which way up books go, he knows how to turn pages and he knows how to care for books – in fact the book he is reading at the moment has flaps – but he is very careful and it is very rare that we have any accidental damage. He has just told Erin and Alex ‘Look telephone’ and they have come over to look – they are now looking at the pictures and discussing them together.

      Oh he is off to do play with the new cars now – but as you know Archie will continue talk about what he is doing and to make appropriate ‘car’ noises – so he constantly developing his language skills and laying the foundations for both reading and writing.

      As Archie’s childminder – I am delighted that you are happy with his childcare provision and his development.

      Well the children are now moving away from the sofa and so I must put down the laptop, so I can supervise them more closely – oh and any minute now – there will be the call ‘snack time’ as they all have a very good awareness of the routines of the day, and so I best also go and chop the fruit.

      See you tonight when you collect Archie

  5. Hello Penny,
    When I read your remarks about phonics, I felt it was time for me to have my say. When your sister Alison was in primary school they were coerced into using the phonic system of reading,this was a disaster and was discontinued after a year. This left many of the children unable to read, several of them
    were so confused they were struggling with writing and especially spelling for the rest of their primary education. In many cases this situation was never improved(Alison’s spelling is worse than yours) In my opinion diction if far more important than phonics.Good diction leads to good pronunciation and subsequently to good spelling. In the childcare setting it is possible to establish the foundation and as you rightly say we do not need rules and regulations for what should be instinctive.
    Keep up your excellent work.

    • Thank you Mum for the information – I had no idea that Alison had been introduced to phonics or the resulting difficulties for her and her peers.

      I think it is a ‘crime’ to still be chopping and changing methods of reading after so many years. You would think that the governments (because not just one political party) would have learnt from all the results of tests on children over the last 50+ years- and not just the current ‘sats’ but the 11+ and the leaving school qualifications that none of these methods are particularly successful – on their own.

      As my mother you know that I failed the 11+, that I did not do very well in my ‘o’ levels and CSE’s, that I never did ‘A’ levels and despite my best efforts I still do not have a degree – BUT – what I do have is a great deal of commonsense and the ability to get to the ‘nitty gritty’ of a situation – and to take on board the main facts about things I read or hear.

      So why if I (and thousands of others) can see that children will learn in their own way as suits the own particular learning style, and it must be stressed in their own time (not when the government tells them they need to learn to read)- can the experts who advise the government not see it?

      I think that maybe offering a range of methods to learn to read would actually result in better readers – oh but I am forgetting I am not an expert in the governments eyes – I am not paid thousands to come up with suggestion and government policy – and so I fear that many more generations of children will have to struggle and find their own ways not only to make sense of the written word but also to overcome the methods drummed into them – not by teachers choice but by government policy.

      Because despite the frustrations and the delays in learning to read and the lifelong difficulties – most of us – like me, like Alison, like Rosie – do learn to read in the end.

  6. Nice one, Penny. Being Dyslexic as well. We have to remember that every child learns differently. It is about tailoring our support to children’s individual learning style.

  7. Pingback: Fighting talk | Early Years: Nick

  8. Hello, I absolutely agree with you. I think we have a similar background – I was born in 1959 and did my NNEB at the age of 16 – 18. I have worked in childcare of some sort all my working life, including education – and get very frustrated at the way children are pushed to read before showing a natural interest. I learned to read with the Janet and John books, and my children through the Oxford Reading Tree with Biff etc. My eldest son, now 23, was squiggling ‘letters’ (some recognisable, some not) at the age of three and wanting to know what he ‘had written’. So he was ready and I supported that. My 2nd son, with his August birthday (22 today!) had only just turned four when he went into school, was not ready for formal schooling, and very quickly had his self-esteem bashed into oblivion. It took a lot of work from me to eventually get him believing in himself, and he has just graduated in Civil Engineering with a 2:1. My daughter has always trotted along nicely, currently awaiting A level results. I do not have a working knowledge of the EYFS. but have tried to keep abreast of the changes going on in the childcare sector. ( I currently work as a community nursery-nurse with the Health Visiting team.) Keep following your instincts!!

    • Thank you Ann for your comments. Yes a similar background – although I did not do any formal childcare qualification until I achieved my NVQ 3 in 2000.

      I married at 17 and my first child at 19 – and sort of had to rely on my gut instincts – and it has to be said from my own mistakes.

      But instincts and commonsense have provided me with a good base from which to extend my knowledge.

      I was interested to read about your second child (and Happy Birthday to him) asmy twin grandsons will be in a similar position – but with further potential difficulties. They have end August birthday’s, are twins, are boys – and were born 9 weeks prem. I hope the get a good teacher.

  9. Its an an interesting read and so much I do agree with, but not everything. If you look at Letters and Sounds Phase One, there probably isn’t much in there that you wouldn’t naturally be doing with your children.. listening to stories and rhymes; distinguishing and creating different sounds; having fun with nonsense and silly sounds; playing with alliteration. In Phase one, there is little mention of actual ‘letter sounds’ until you get to aspect 7, and yeah I don’t really like that bit either.
    But lets not get carried away with the idea that letters and sounds is ‘all bad’ or ‘all good’ . Life just doesn’t work that way. Phases 2-6, yes too soon for my liking, Id rather wait and start in year one, and spend much more time playing around with the ideas represented in phase one, for longer.

    But the fact that my grandson could tell the difference by sound of an aeroplane and a helicopter at 20 months, and can tell the difference between Grandads car and anyone elses’ (by sound again), is exactly what pats of phase one is about. So lets not dismiss all of it out of hand.

    Also, the EYFS age bands overlap for a reason. Just because the band goes from 30-50 months, isn’t reason to leave everything until after children reach that 50 months. The 40-60 months, includes children of 3 (not 2, of course!!) and many children will be developing within that age band and the skills contained within. We don’t simply wait until they reach the magic 50 months, but we consider each child in our care; and some will be enjoying letters and noticing that car begins with the same letter as mummy’s name etc etc. We’re not going to tell them to wait are we, because they’re not yet 50 months?

    As regards your OFSTED experience, I think that’s down to them not making it clear what they mean, and yes, challenge them to explain what they mean when they make such comments. They write reports from a bank of statements and sometimes they just don’t get it right.

    Good luck with your blog, its an interesting read, and Im glad I stopped by.

    • Hello Jayne

      Thank you for your response – and you have actually caught me between blogs. My next one going to be about the letters and sounds pack. So watch this space! (but as a taster I don’t dismiss the ideas in phase one)

      I think you may have taken a different understanding about my mention of the EYFS age bands from my intention – which I recognise can easily happen with the written word, and I thank you for mentioning it because others may have read it the same way as you – and so it is good to have the opportunity to explain

      I am very aware that the bands overlap and of course we do not hold a child ‘back’ just because they are not the ‘right age’ In fact I did mention a couple of times ‘unless a child wants to’ in other words is ready to move on. I had hoped that I had illustrated this through the description of my second child who I mentioned could read at 3 (she could also do mental and written addition and subtraction with 20 at the same age)

      What I was trying to say is that those that claim the government ‘insists’ that we teach letters and sounds or do phonics with our very young children – are mistaken – that in fact it is not mentioned in the age band up to 50 months because children of that age are ‘generally’ not ready. Those that are should of course be supported to follow their interests and their natural development pathway – and therefore catered for by the 40 – 60 month age band.

      There are so many early years practitioners (and some parents) who think they are helping the child by starting formal pre reading and writing activities without any regard to if the child is ready or earlier and earlier age.

      From what you describe your grandson is experiencing just the kind of environment and individual tailored activities that I believe give a child the best start – and the sort that I aim to provide for the children in my care.

      Re Ofsted – I was not the only one who took part in the pilot inspections to have this recommendation. The inspector actually suggested during feedback that when reading ‘The Gruffalo’ with the children, I should have said ‘Grr, ruff, Grr ruff Gruffalo – however the children in my care were interacting with the puppets and predicting (remembering) the next part of the story – and repeating from memory some of the words. In my opinion lots of very important pre reading skills.

      Any way as I say thank you for your comments – and for pointing out to me that there is more than one interpretation of my wording.

  10. I know this is an old blog Penny but I really enjoyed it and am so glad I am not alone in thinking children are pushed too fast too soon with ‘learning’ to read and write. This is where I think the interest is smashed before it can grow. If a child feels stupid or not as clever as their friend who can read ‘me and it’ they will shut off and not try for a very long time.
    How many parents do you hear say “little Jimmy said dadda today”, “does Lucy talk yet”? knowing Lucy still gargles and babbles but wanting to be the first mum who’s 9 month old spoke at play group first.
    It annoys me when I hear and see parents talk about their children like this especially when the little one’s can hear them and know they are comparing their ability to the little play friend sat next to them, while they both make a picture of each other at play group (scribbling or making shapes that in their eyes are dead ringers of their friends) you get the gist.
    The next comment about the drawing’s from a parent’s mouth will be “oh look at Jamal’s picture you can see it is a boy, there’s the hands and legs, clever boy” I love praising children for what they have achieved but then that same parent’s comment will be “Oh that’s a nice scribble Janey, what is it”?. So in one split second two very happy children have become one very proud child and one deflated child who doesn’t want to draw any more. Yet all the little ones see in each others picture is a masterpiece and dead ringer of their friend.
    The same with reading, “Mary can read really well, she is on book 8 now, shouldn’t Mikey be on that by now they are the same age”.
    Children learn so much more through play than sitting and looking at letters or words that mean ziltch to them. Give them a ball and write the word ball in a basket they get it from and there is more chance of them recognising the two go together and they will have learnt it while having fun.
    My youngest son could read so good when he was in reception class he was put into the ‘Excellence in the Cities’ group to give him more opportunity to read, I don’t know how or when he learnt to read, I never thought much about it to be honest, he liked books and I was happy with that. I certainly wasn’t going to shove them under his nose all day every day. He picked a book when he liked to.
    Like you Penny all my children are different academically, the eldest can read but it takes him ages to read a sentence, but practically he is a genius and can do anything from building a shed to decorating. The second is a wheeler and dealer, reads average for his age but can turn soil into gold. My third, the excellent reader can do school work without thinking about it and gets harassed by teachers to do better! His primary school teacher said he should read more than he does to gain further knowledge, at least 3 books a day (pressure or what), I told him “my son is a 10 year old child he will have plenty of time to sit and read and worry about knowledge when he leaves school and has to pay bills and go to work and I think you should put more time into the children who are struggling with reading than stressing my son to do more of it”. He wasn’t pleased and it was the start of a very awkward parent/teacher relationship. Finally my fourth child struggled to read up to the age of 7 when school realised she needed help and she got it, she has never looked back, loves reading and teaching her cousins and nieces. I have always talked the hind legs off them from being born, in the car seat, in the bath, anywhere and everywhere and I can only think this is why they have all had excellent speech and language always confident to communicate, which is the start of a very young child’s learning I believe and isn’t whether or not they know what a or b looks or sounds like. That all comes later when they are as you say “READY” for it and want it.
    Sorry for waffling, I do this all the time and sorry if my post strayed a bit a the beginning but it was necessary to get to my point.

    • Thank you so much for your comment – which I have read from start to finish. A little common sense and a true understanding of children goes a long way. It is a shame that more people do not show this understanding or common sense that you describe

  11. I am absolutely an advocate of the use of phonics to help children read. But not before the age of 5. I have recently retired from special needs and early years teaching. I finished teaching in a foundation unit where there were several phonics sessions throughout the this was in a school with an intake of children who generally had very poor language skills. Even the three year olds were expected to take part in these sessions. For the youngest children these were usually activities based on listening to musical instruments and distinguishing sounds and eventually playing games with rhyming words and alliterative phrases. The staff were very good at making these sessions fun and enjoyable.
    By reception age the sessions were daily and rather dull. The same children still did not have a good enough vocabulary but were expected to learn how to decode words. Left another year, I believe more of those children would have coped with phonics and made progress more quickly.

    But my point is this – these sessions were mandatory. Time spent doing these quite structured sessions of distinguishing sounds in words meant time not practising other skills that these children would have benefited from more. Skills such as listening to instructions was done incidentally rather than in the teaching sessions. These children really were poor at understanding prepositions, two and three part instructions and had poor vocabularies. They didn’t know any nursery rhymes and were rarely read to at home. They weren’t ready for listing to the sounds in words. We were attempting to redress this balance but in my mind, trying to get them to focus on looking at pictures and finding the matching rhymes was less important than actually developing a good repertoire of rhymes in the first place. These phonics sessions were group activities so there was less time spent in just reading to the children.

    When my children were at nursery many years ago, every play session ended with a story. there was not one day at nursery when they didn’t have a story read to them. I read to them many times a day and at bedtime so by the time they went to school, they had been immersed in literature. There seem to be fewer opportunities for this to be done these days. I was read to at junior school- usually a serialised story. I read stories to my own children like this even till they were 11 and even though they could read the same books for themselves.

    When they were little, I would play I spy type games. My eldest child could never get it. She would respond with ‘car’ for something beginning with b. The younger child ( two years younger )would do this correctly from the age of two.. The oldest one was not able to identify the initial sounds in words until she was 5. Unfortunately, at that time, the school did not teach phonics. When she was nearly six, I decided to teach her phonics myself. The teacher told me her reading age went up 18 months after six months. So she was ready in year one to respond to phonics, and when the penny dropped , because her brain had sufficiently developed, she just flew. If this had been pushed earlier it wouldn’t have made any difference. The brains in most children are just not ready to deal with decoding words at three and four. Time is wasted pushing this, when just leaving it till later would have the same, if not better results.

    I feel very strongly that we are hot housing children. The early years focus should be on real experiences and developing language around those experiences and we should be confident in not teaching reading skills before children are ready.

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