Reading in the Early Years- More than Phonics

In the last week I have read three mainstream media articles about phonics “failing” primary school pupils. I wanted to dig deeper, is it phonics failing children or the system? Reading in the Early Years is crucial to developing a wide range of skills and is the new DfE focus on phonics narrowing the curriculum?

Now you won’t be surprised to hear that I am a fan of phonics teaching in schools… I have been a phonics lead teacher and implemented many of the phonics changes that have been reeled out in the last 10 years. However, I have also seen the narrowing of our reading curriculum and the move away from high quality texts and exploring whole stories to the dreaded guided reading carousel and an ultimate focus on phonics. It has also become obvious that has time goes on, this phonics focus is filtering down into our nursery and preschool settings who are feeling the pressure to have children reading and then missing the key pre reading skills. Find my Pre Reading Planning here.

For me, the issue lies not in the phonics but in the policy that surrounds the phonics…

The Phonics Screening Test

One of the main phonics failures that has been highlighted is the Phonics Screening Test at the end of Year 1. The test measures consistency, results, and progress… based on reading words that are not real?! I have witnessed some of the most able and fluent readers make errors in this non sensical test, due to try to make sense of the words and use their wider reading skills.

The screening test has been described by academics as counterproductive. It encourages children to rely on only one method of reading- phonetic decoding and encourages teachers to “teach to the test”. Children, as young as 4, are being primed ready to take the test aged 5 or 6, which is then used by various agencies and outside bodies to judge the reading teaching and performance of key stage one pupils.

I have been a victim of this. I was grilled by an external advisor as to why there had been a dip on the phonics screening results in 2021… The children could read, they enjoyed reading and they were working at an age-appropriate level. They had also been through two extensive periods of lockdown in their short school career, yet my leadership, my teams teaching, and the children’s reading ability was judged on the children being able to read “nonsense words”.

Children need more to learn to read. Embed reading enjoyment, story acquisition and pleasure!

Scheme Validation

A further way that the Early Reading Curriculum is being narrowed is through the phonics scheme validation and the linked book schemes. School leaders feel pressured to invest in one of these “validated schemes” and these are then accompanied with a vetted selection of books. These reading schemes certainly serve a purpose in supporting children in learning to read but this restricted reading diet in the classroom and in books taken home can be counterproductive to encouraging children to read and lead to them losing a pleasure in books.

I have witnessed with my own reception age daughter that books aligned to the phonics scheme used by her school have “turned her off” the process of reading. She has good segmenting and blending skills for the single sounds and some digraphs and will apply this in attempting to read a massive range of texts. She loves trying to decode some more complex words and will utilise a variety of skills to do so. However, the reading scheme books come out to groans of “I’m not in the mood Mummy” “They’re boring”. I worry that this same issue is played out all over the country as children are provided with narrow and unengaging texts, not just at home but also for class based reading.

This issue with scheme validation is further compounded when you take into account how the DfE uses OFSTED to enforce this focus on schemes and phonics.

Heavy Emphasis

The review carried out by Professor Wyse and Professor Bradbury (UCL, 2022) highlights the shift in England’s educational policy which has narrowed the focus to synthetic phonics. The favoured approach seems to stipulate that phonics and reading teaching is taught separately from whole texts. This change in policy they say is not “evidence based” and instead pressures teachers to place a heavy emphasis on synthetic phonics. Their questionnaire found that 66% of teachers asked felt that there was a focus only on phonics and just 1% said they used whole texts. This shows just how marginalised the other vital aspects of teaching reading have become.

So, What next?

Bradbury, A (2022) highlights the pressure that teachers feel to focus on phonics above all else. However, it is clear from the systematic review published by UCL (2022) that integrating phonics and comprehension results in the best impact on reading. The evidence from studies suggests that effective reading and phonics teaching is delivered holistically as this is the method which delivers statistically greater gains. Wyse, D (2022) has said that making sense of texts is crucial to “improving children’s life chances” and one of the most important “tasks of primary and EYFS settings”.

A letter containing 250 academic signatories has been presented to the DfE asking for reading policy to be reviewed and informed by the most current and robost evidence. It asks for them to reconsider its obsession with phonics as a way of teaching children to read and consider a more holistic approach, incorporating phonics and comprehension of texts.

In the Classroom

The evidence is clear- as practitioners in the EYFS we need to give children a rich diet, one that incorporates phonics and comprehension and allows children to access a broad range of exciting texts. There is absolutely a place for phonics- it is a fundamental strategy for teaching children to read and they need time to embed this into their reading through phonetically decodable reading books. Yet, it is also clear that when we consider how we teach reading, strategies for age appropriate comprehension are vital to ensure children develop a love of stories.

How will “Is it Time to Play?” help?

I want children to learn to love reading. I want them to not only be able to pass tests by decoding words but understand what they have read and have an appetite to read more. I want children to feel confident in their reading skills and be provided with the opportunity to access a wide range of texts that help them to develop skills far beyond reading, including the understanding of language, personal, social and emotional skills and the building of cultural awareness.

In 2021, I began work on a new set of reading plans for children in the EYFS. My aim was that children develop their comprehension skills alongside apply some of their phonics strategy. I want a reading comprehension scheme that embraces high quality and engaging texts that promote children’s love of reading and that moves us away from the traditional guided reading practices and only using fully decodable texts. I have been lucky enough to get several schools and EY Providers step forward to trial this new product and look forward to moving forward with them, so that I have something to present to you all later in the year.

Michael Morpurgo Storytime


D. Wyse & A. Bradbury (2022), “Reading Wars or Reading Reconcilliation? A critical examination of robust research evidence.” BERA

Weale, S. (2022), “Focus on phonics to teach reading is ‘failing children’, says landmark study” The Guardian UK