Early years

If you’re reading this, it’s probably safe to assume that you’re looking for ways to help young children connect sounds in spoken words (phonology) to letters and letter patterns (orthography), to maximise everyone’s chances of quickly learning to read and spell well.

That means explicitly and systematically teaching about all 44 sounds that make up our spoken words (phonemic awareness) and how these are represented by 26 letters plus dozens of two, three or four letter patterns (graphemes) in written words. Often there are several ways to spell a sound e.g. the “ou” sound in “out”, “down” and “drought”, and many spellings are shared by a few sounds e.g. the spelling OU in “out”, “soup”, “young” and “cough”.

It’s also important to teach about meaningful word parts (morphology), like:

  • The plural “s” in “dogs”, which sounds like “z” but we write “s” because it’s a plural,
  • The third person “s” in “lands”, again sounding like “z” but spelt “s” because of its grammatical role,
  • The past tense “ed” in “jumped”, “grabbed” and “batted”, which sounds like “t” after a voiceless sound, “d” after a voiced sound and “ed” after “t” or “d”. Speech sounds tend to blur together, as the mouth is a mushy place.

Sometimes teaching about word origins (etymology) can help with apparently-crazily-spelt words like “two” – the “w” was pronounced in the olden days, as in “twin”, “twice” and “twelve”.

Has anybody taught you about all this?

Teachers often tell me that they were taught little or no phonology, orthography, morphology or etymology at university. They say terms like Phonemic Awareness and Phonics sometimes didn’t even get a mention.

Some Education faculties seem to be lifting their game now, but it’s a bit late for that to help existing teachers. However, several groups run regular training suitable for teachers in explicit, systematic linguistic/synthetic phonics:

Linguistic/Synthetic phonics teaching materials

You may have limited access to high-quality Synthetic Phonics resources like decodable books and phoneme-to-grapheme word-building activities and games, and it might be hard to get the person holding the purse strings at your school to let you buy some. Don’t worry, there are some free and cheap resources you can use.

Locally produced programs and resources reflect the local accent, and are most likely to have locally relevant vocabulary and topics. So if you’re in Australia, see if you can find suitable Australian-produced resources. I’ve marked the country of origin on most items on my phonics resource lists.

Lots of UK programs and resources are available in Australia, and because our accents are similar (no final “r” sound), they’re generally OK to use, though their topics might include hot school dinners, badgers and other things outside most Aussie kids’ experience.

American English sounds and spellings are fairly different from Australian English (particularly because they say final “r” sounds), so please be cautious about buying literacy teaching materials written for the US market.

Click here for a list of programs/resources suitable for the early years, and if you know of a good resource not listed, please let me know too, so I can help spread the word.

5 thoughts on “Early years

  1. Judy Johnson

    I was directed to your utube click by my principal as a way to show us that we are on the right track. I have just returned to teaching r1 after 12 or so years teaching year 4/5. Yes I love the change. I was worried that I need to be more up to date so I have been looking for evidence to prove that phonics is still ok to teach. I have loved your site and will recommend it at our next JP hub group meeting. Thank you Judy.

  2. jude

    Hi Alison,

    I have just begun working through the level 1 booklet. At what point should I start playing your games, and in what order, please? Lesson 1 was today and it went very well, despite having 8 students. Luckily I have an aide to help me.


    1. alison Post author

      Hi Jude, I’m sorry that I can’t give you a very precise answer without knowing a bit about your students, which of course you can’t discuss in any detail on a public website. My guess would be that they are Tier 2 students who know at least one sound for each letter but are poor at segmenting and blending rather than absolute beginners, in which case I’d introduce the games about halfway through the book, and be a bit selective about which sheets you use to begin with, for example on the sheets with first sounds missing there are two games with only digraphs at the ends of words, and no “tch” or “dge” trigraphs (sheets 3 and 5, I should renumber them so they’re 1 and 2 I suppose), so you might like to use those before using the others with trigraphs on them. Or you might like to give the sheets with trigraphs to the more able students in the group and use the others with the students who are struggling more. It really depends on how many of the graphemes on the sheets the students know, you might have some students who don’t know anything beyond one letter equals one sound, in which case you’d need to do the whole workbook before using the games much. Hope that’s helpful, your group sounds like fun. I guess you have decodable books and other CVC games and activities you’re using in the group too?

  3. Raelene

    Hi Alison,
    I am enjoying your website and the robust comments you have presented. And your strength and passion for helping children crack the code .
    But I’m just interested why you haven’t listed Thrass as an organisation that provides fantastic training that aligns very strongly with what you are presenting as the key to successful literacy ?

    1. alison Post author

      Hi Raelene, I did have THRASS listed originally but then a lot of people told me that it’s not really a systematic, explicit synthetic phonics program, and I met a lot of kids attending schools using THRASS who still had serious problems with spelling. I’m not trained in THRASS but I’m cautious to recommend something that I’m not confident will get the strong results with kids with decoding and encoding problems need. The feedback I get is that it’s OK for kids with strong phonemic awareness, but too focussed on declarative knowledge (knowing in your head) and not focussed enough on procedural knowledge (knowing how to do something). However there are some good things about it and it’s certainly a big step up from guessing, memorising and initial/incidental phonics.


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