January 24, 2024
By Patrick Cragg
Being a parent isn’t just a learning process, it’s a re-learning process. So much of what we do every day without even thinking – walking, talking, using a knife and fork, kicking a football – must be painstakingly learnt from scratch by children. And of course, in seeing them try and fail and try again until they succeed, we recognise just how tricky all this business of getting through the day really is. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the process of learning to read and write.
At Tooled Up we’ve been reflecting on early literacy following two brilliant webinars, from Early Years teacher Natalie Kneller on the different skills that underpin early handwriting, and reading psychologist, Professor Kathy Rastle of Royal Holloway University, who gave an overview of phonics instruction and its importance in teaching reading. It won’t come as any surprise to learn that writing and reading are complex skills that take years to master. But as Natalie made clear, the journey doesn’t begin with sitting down and picking up a pen. She quoted the author Sally Neaum as saying “Young children do not learn to sit still by sitting still.” A lot of physical components go into sitting down to write: sitting upright in a chair in a controlled way, grasping a pen or pencil, reaching across the “midline” of your body, controlling your hand and arm – these all require muscle strength, movements and motor skills that take time to develop. And, of course, there’s plenty that parents can do to help.
Every child in the UK who enters school will encounter phonics, the successful, research-backed system which, in Dr Rastle’s words, “teaches how the alphabet works”. The idea behind phonics is a simple one: children learn to recognise how letters, and patterns of letters, correspond to particular sounds. That’s all English words are, really: a record of a sound encoded in the symbols we call letters. Once you can “sound out” or “decode” a word from its letters, you can identify which word it is.
As a parent, I have seen first-hand how learning phonics has empowered both my children to read and make sense of the world of words around them. It gives us a shared language, too, to talk about unfamiliar words and help with vocabulary. So much of parenting is an act of faith: how far away are those milestones I’m so keen to reach? Will what I do with them now really make an impact later? But the joy of watching young children is watching all the little pieces and experiences come together into moments of visible learning and growth.
Literacy is a key skill that unlocks all other skills. I reflected in a previous Wednesday Wisdom on the link between reading for pleasure and academic success (not to mention other benefits linked to emotional wellbeing). And phonics is the foundation of that fluent, pleasurable reading later on. According to research cited by Professor Rastle, phonics performance in Year 1 is the strongest predictor of reading comprehension in Year 5, beyond many other economic and educational factors that we might expect to have an impact on progress during school.
There’s plenty we can do with young children, well before they set foot in school, to give them a secure physical grounding in the skills that later enable handwriting. All sorts of movement and physical activity are beneficial, especially those which encourage spatial awareness and interaction with objects. Throwing or rolling balls, stacking bricks, play-dough, cooking with utensils, or even yoga help children to develop the motor skills and core strength that later on enable them to sit securely and handle a pen. And, of course, mark-making of any kind!
Research indicates that handwriting has wider benefits for children beyond just being able to form letters neatly. Writing helps with letter learning and spelling and is associated with better reading comprehension. Most parents are aware of the importance of modelling reading and having books in the home, but we can also try to create an environment where writing has a privileged place. Let children see you write: letters, postcards, notes.
Another element crucial to developing literacy is talk. As educationalist James Britton puts it, “Reading and writing float on a sea of talk.” Exposure to spoken language from early childhood is essential for children’s sound recognition and the growth of their vocabularies and facility with language. Talk with children, though, not just at them! Ask children to expand on what they’re saying, and when you chat to them allow them plenty of “turns”, prompting them to add detail and new ideas.
It’s important to acknowledge that some children can find reading and writing particularly challenging. The British Dyslexia Association has useful introductory material on dyslexia and is an ideal first stop to learn more. Similarly, in children with dyspraxia, the types of movement and spatial awareness required for successful handwriting can be affected. Find out more at the Dyspraxia Foundation’s website.
There are many resources online that support early reading and writing. The Literacy Trust carry Early Years resources for both teachers and parents, and these are a rich source of ideas and inspiration as well as giving an insight into how children in that stage learn.
If you are looking for inspiration for storytime at home, BookTrust maintains reading lists arranged by age including those suitable for very young readers.
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If reading and writing grow from talking, then we should be looking for opportunities to develop spoken language in young children. Our podcaston Oral Language in the Early Years with Professor Julie Dockrell is packed with more information for educators. Teachers can also hear more of Dr Kathy Rastle in her webinar Separating Fact From Fiction in Early Reading. More staff CPD is available from child development researcher Keya Elie in her webinar on Early Reading Development.
To learn more about why some children find the process of writing more challenging, our interview with Dr Carolyn Dunford and Dr Mellissa Prunty on Developmental Coordination Disorder gives a helpful introduction on how DCD makes learning motor skills difficult and frustrating.
Children with dyslexia experience difficulty in mapping speech sounds to letters and words. Dr Rebecca Gordon of UCL gave an overview of the science behind dyslexia in this webinar.