Whilst the focus for students upon school entry or even earlier, continues to be teaching children to read and write, the factors that bring a child to the point where they want to learn to read and write and will be successful at it, are largely overlooked. If you ask the general populace, how best you might prepare a child for school entry, their answer is most likely to include something about teaching letters. I have met many parents of children due to start school who proudly told me “My child knows their letters”. At this point I hoped that this would not refer to the robotic naming of each letter, but invariably it did. This can result in, for example, a child when presented with the word ‘hat’ and asked to read it, will say ‘aitch’, ‘ay‘, ‘tee’. It is important that children also learn the sounds that each letter represents when reading and writing; a process referred to as ‘phonics’, mapping each language sound (phoneme – of which there are forty-four) to their corresponding written form (grapheme – of which there are over 250) and how to blend and segment these letters and sounds to form words. Each language sound is not consistently represented by one symbol; there is not a one-to-one correspondence as can be seen in some other languages for example, Italian and Arabic. The process therefore, of learning to read and write in English is not as simple as ‘learning letters’.

The purpose of learning to read is to comprehend written materials, and as demonstrated, simply learning letter names does not facilitate this process. Even a head teacher once told me “But, children must learn letters in order to read and write”. Indeed, they must. However, letters alone serve little purpose. They are merely shapes, squiggles on a piece of paper, meaningless scribbles.

Some time ago, I joined a class to ‘learn Arabic’. I assumed that I was going to learn how to converse. I learned all the letter names and sounds and how to write them, neatly, from right to left; some joining and others not. The letters assumed different shapes depending upon their position in the word – initial, medial and final and there was no upper case. But what could I do with this knowledge and newly-learned skill? Nothing. I still can’t understand, speak, read or write in Arabic. I can only tell you the letter names and sounds of the letters and write them beautifully. This illustrates perfectly, the importance of sound before symbol, (the title of a book I wrote a few years ago). It is vitally important that children possess good language skills upon school entry if they are going to learn to read and write successfully. Good language skills consist of the possession of a receptive and productive vocabulary which is appropriate to child’s age and the ability to comprehend and formulate grammatically correct utterances. The ability to be attentive to language sounds and to be able to discriminate between individual sounds, helps to differentiate similar sounding words such as ‘heel’ and ‘hill’. Children must be aware that there are multiple sounds within words before they learn to read and write. This is termed ‘phonological awareness’. Without this awareness each word is seen as a complete unit and must be learnt by sight. Children who learn to read and write this way have difficulty with substituting or adding letters to make new words, such as adding a ‘t’ to the word ‘rain’ to make ‘train’. Their brains also become saturated such that they struggle to take on more words in their visual memory.

There is little point in learning to decode text if children are unable to comprehend that which they are being asked to decode and no chance of success if children are asked to write a sentence from their heads which they can’t form orally first. Reading aloud words which are not understood is termed ‘barking at print’. The reader is able to decode and read the word, but with no comprehension there is no intonation or stress and a sentence is reduced to merely a string of words. This is a pointless exercise, yet one which is often promoted and hailed as ‘reading’. Without comprehension a child is not actually reading, they are merely decoding.

The importance of proficiency with spoken language is crucial, and for second language learners and children who are multi-lingual, a longer time is required for them to assimilate more than one language and an extended time to learn possibly more than one alphabet system and the corresponding sounds to symbols.

Spoken language, whilst pivotal, is not the only pre-requisite to literacy learning. Children need cognitive abilities – the ability to understand their world and concepts suitable for their age level, to memorise visual and auditory sounds and patterns, to be able to pay attention and focus on what is going on around them and what they are being told, the ability to perform tasks automatically, (this leads to reading fluency) and an understanding of sequence and how to continue predictable patterns both in sound and vision. Visual discrimination is required, in order to recognise letter shapes and also when a shape becomes a different letter when it is presented at different angles, as is the case for the letters, b, d, p and q.

Children must also possess efficient motor skills. The ability to move in time to a rhythm has been correlated with the ability to detect rhythm in speech sounds. Children need an awareness of the rhythm of language to identify syllables in words; this ultimately helps with spelling. Hand-eye co-ordination is required and research has shown that children with good co-ordination do better in reading and writing than those who are not so well co-ordinated. Fine motor skills are also required for the effective manipulation of a writing implement.

Children also need bibliographic knowledge, knowledge of how a book works, which way up it is to be read, the direction of the print (this is not a natural skill) and the purpose of text. In Arabic for example, text is read from right to left, so a book opens at the left hand side as opposed to a book in English which opens at the right. Whilst learning to speak is innate, learning to read and write is not and must be taught in a systematic and logical way.

Most of these skills are expected to be acquired in the home or in a pre-school setting before children enter formal schooling. Children learn through play and from their experiences of their environment and interactions with it and via their senses. However, children seem to be entering school without these essential pre-requisites. There are children who are ill-equipped for school entry with poor language skills and little literacy experience to draw on. Maybe schools are ill-equipped for them. The expectation that children should be ‘school-ready’ and at a point where they will start learning letters is maybe unrealistic or educationally unsound. In Finland where children do not begin formal literacy learning until the age of seven, they are at the top of the PISA scale in education. It does not seem that this policy is holding back children in any way; it is providing essential time for the foundational knowledge and skills required to be embedded.


In addition to a base of proficient language, children who are good at literacy also possess phonological awareness. This is an awareness of the sounds within words, which can be identified at various levels:

1 The ability to syllabify – being able to chunk words into syllables. A syllable is part of a word with a vowel sound. Every syllable has one vowel sound. A word may have one or more syllables. With a hand under the chin, say a word, for example, ‘dinosaur’. The hand will move as each vowel is enunciated. There are 3 syllables in the word ‘di-no-saur’. Children can practise syllabification by clapping, stamping or banging out the syllables on a drum of any favourite names, what they had for breakfast, animals, superheroes or any category of words they find of interest. The physical movement in this task helps to reinforce the ‘feel’ of the syllables in a process known as ‘embodied cognition’; the working of the mind and body together. Children can be given pictures to categorise into boxes labelled with the syllable number. The word ‘kit-ten’ would go in the box labelled ‘2’, ‘ba-na-na’, ‘3’ and ‘al-li-ga-tor’, ‘4’ and ‘hip-po-pot-a-mus’, ‘5’. Alternatively, children could be shown pictures and asked to hold up the number of fingers corresponding to the number of syllables in a word. This may also improve vocabulary as children must know the name of the item on the card before they can sound it out to count the syllables.

Being able to syllabify helps children to break down longer words when they are reading, into more manageable or recognisable chunks. It also helps enormously when writing as it is much easier to produce the small number of sounds in each syllable and spell them, than to say and try to spell a multi-syllabic word all at once.

2 A syllable can be further broken down into its onset and its rime (note the spelling of rime). The onset is the consonant or group of consonants that precede the vowel. For example, ‘c’ in ‘cat’ or ‘sh’ in ‘shop’. The rime is the vowel and the following consonant or consonants, for example ‘in’ in the word ‘tin’, or ‘out’ in the word ‘shout’. Some syllables consist only of rimes, for example, ‘in’, ‘on’, ‘an’, ‘is’, ‘at’, ‘am’. The words ‘a’ and ‘I’ consist of only one sound and letter. There are many rhyming activities to help to promote this skill. Rhyming stories, such as ‘The Gruffalo’ and ‘Room on the Broom’, nursery rhymes, songs and rhyming phrases (See you later alligator) are wonderful for drawing children’s attention to rhyming endings as well as helping to foster listening, language comprehension and production skills. Items with names with matching sound endings can be placed on a table for children to match up, for example, candle, sandal; rope, soap; shell, bell; stick, brick; mug, jug; plate, slate and so on. Note that the words have the same ending sounds and how they are spelt is not relevant for this task. Phonological awareness is about attending to the sounds in words, not spellings. Any activity which involves movement, adds further to its learning value, such as skipping, action rhymes and puppetry. Adding music, further assists learning, as music is motoric, attention grabbing and helps memory retention; thus musical activities are an ideal learning vehicle for young children.

The ability to match and generate rhymes is required so that children can match sound patterns to their corresponding written patterns, for example, the words ‘fright’, ‘bright’, ‘sight’, ‘plight’ and ‘might’. At this juncture only the sounds are important, the words ‘sandal’ and ‘candle’ rhyme; the spelling is irrelevant. Matching sounds to corresponding symbols comes later, when words with the same spelling patterns should be taught together. Children should not be taught homophones together such as ‘sight’ and ‘site’, as this only leads to confusion.

3 Onset and rimes can be further broken down into the smallest, individual sounds within words – phonemes. Phonemic awareness is the greatest predictor of literacy success. Children must be able to identify the individual sounds within words in order to sound out the sounds within a word to read it and to write the individual letters or groups of letters (graphemes) which represent those sounds in written form. There are forty-four (or more depending upon accent) phonemes in the English language. Children must know that there are three phonemes (sounds) in the word ‘c-a-t’, which are represented by the letters named ‘c’, ‘a’ and ‘t’. When children have difficulty with this task they can be helped to use sound boxes (Elkonin boxes). For a three-phoneme word (cat, goat, fish), a child is presented with a printed grid of three boxes and three counters. When shown a picture, the child is required to name the item on the picture, for example, ‘horse’, then as they say each sound in the word they push the counter into the boxes in the order of the sounds from left to right. The word ‘horse’ would be ‘h’, ‘or’, ‘s’. Again, the spelling is irrelevant, this task is about identifying the sounds in the word. I stress that the counters should be moved in order from left to right as I have seen children go from right to left (Arabic speakers). This is not a natural skill and implicit instruction must be given. The movement from left to right helps to consolidate the way words are read and written in English and the movement whilst saying the sounds in the words helps to further consolidate learning.

When equipped with bibliographic knowledge, proficiency with spoken language, the ability to discriminate shapes visually, fine motor skills which enable a child to form small shapes as directed and phonological awareness, then children are ready to receive instruction in phonics. It is no wonder that headlines suggesting that ‘phonics is failing’ are being seen, despite research which informs that phonics is the best way to teach children to read and write. It is not ‘phonics’ which is failing but the absence of the securing of a foundation upon which children are ready to receive, assimilate and use this instruction which is the cause of failure. Until this fact is acknowledged and action is taken to secure the necessary literacy foundations, the ‘reading wars’ (how best to teach children to read) will continue as they have over the last sixty years, when this is no longer the question which should be being posed. It should be accepted that phonics offers the best initial instruction to children for learning to read and write, but that it can only be successful if the foundations for literacy are laid first.

Early years classes (as they are in Finland, for example) should be filled with literacy-rich experiences – stories, songs, rhymes, drama, conversational opportunities and adequate time for physical, creative and social play which support a child’s holistic development and give them chance to learn about text, the world and language such that when letters are presented, they are in fact as easy as ABC.

By: Maria Kay

Educational Consultant

About the author



Leave a Comment