How can I help my child with phonics?


Letters-and-sounds-fishing-game-with-ping-pong-ballsIn a recent BBC news article, Save the Children’s chief executive, Justin Forsyth, said that children who are behind at 7-years-old are unlikely to catch up. He also pointed out that some children start school with the odds stacked against them because they lack the ability to follow instructions and have poor social skills. In my opinion, this is why preschools are so important for children especially, as some parents believe that children should not be taught letter sounds or numbers before they start school at all. Research suggests that children who enter school with a good knowledge of the alphabet and letter sounds become better readers and that it is beneficial to teach pre-schoolers phonics in a fun way (Phillips et al. 2008).

Most preschools teach letter sounds but a parent can help their child become more familiar with them at home. If you are not sure how to say the letter sounds, there are DVDs that go through letter sounds for children in a fun way. CBeebies also has a programme called ‘Alpha blocks’ which teaches letter sounds and how to blend sounds together to make word.

Children who become good readers at school often have good phonological and phonemic awareness. So what is phonological and phonemic awareness?

Children who have phonological awareness can: identify and make up rhymes; they can clap out the number of syllables in a word and they can recognize words with the same initial sounds like ‘money’ and ‘mother.’

Children with phonemic awareness can recognise individual sounds (phonemes) in words. For example, the word ‘mat’ has three phonemes m/a/t. Phonemic awareness is one of the best predictors of how well children will learn to read during the first two years of school instruction.

So how can parents develop their child’s phonological and phonemic awareness? Here are some ideas:

1) Show two cards with the word ‘mice’ on one and ‘ice’ on the other. Ask your child ‘if you take away ‘m’ from the word mice, what is left then?’ The cards could have pictures on to enhance the learning.
2) Say a single speech sound such as ‘t’ and show six pictured words. Your child then has to pick the picture that begins with ‘t’.
3) Present two pictures of similar sounding words to your child such as ‘cat’ and ‘hat’. You then say such just one of the words and your child has to pick the correct picture.
4) Change the letter ‘c’ in the word ‘cat’ to ‘m’, and ask the child what the word becomes.
5) Get your child to think of as many words as they can that rhyme with ‘fox’.
6) Get your child to clap out the syllables in a word so that they recognise how words are made up of different sounds e.g. you could clap the three syllables in ted-dy-bear.
7)Play ‘I spy’ to help your child focus on the letter sounds at the beginning of words.

Children often know when they are behind and this affects their self-esteem. So don’t get frustrated with your child if they don’t get how to blend letter sounds together even after a number of attempts. Go away and think of a way to make the learning fun. Remember that children (and adults) have different learning styles. Some children are visual learners and take things in by reading and looking at pictures, some children are auditory learners and learn through listening, and some children are kinaesthetic learners and learn through movement. Kinaesthetic learners may only get phonics, if they learn it in other ways than on paper.

Here are some ideas to make phonics learning creative and fun:

1) Chalk out letters on your garden patio. Get a children’s golf club and ball. Your child then has to hit the ball onto a letter, say the letter sound and think of a word beginning with it to score.

2) Chalk out words on your garden patio. When you say a word, your child has to kick a football onto the word/hop to it/throw a disc onto it/hit a tennis ball onto it/skip to it etc.

3) Chalk out letters on your garden patio. Show your child pictures of certain words, your child then has to think of the letter sound the word begins with and spray out the letter with a water gun.

4) Put lots of foam letter sounds or words in the bath and get your child to find them as you say them.

5) Put white stickers on Duplo with different letters on and put the Duplo together to make different words.

6) Make letters and words out of play dough.

7) Make biscuits in the shape of letters and form words with them.

8) Write letters on ping-pong balls and place them in a water play basin. Get your child to bat certain letters across the water or pick them up with a water jug.

Some of these ideas come from a blog ‘Train up a child’, which I really recommend.

So should parents be pushing their child to read as early as possible?

Research suggests that children who are taught to read early do not have an advantage (Sharp, 2002). Children in some countries do not start formal learning until 7-years-old but it does not seem to be a disadvantage. However, these children have been taught reading skills such as a good understanding of letter sounds and rhymes at kindergarten so they are ready to read when they start school. This research suggests that there is no need to push a child to read early. On the other hand, if your child is interested in letters and blending them together then don’t hold them back. Every child is different. All parents need to remember, is to keep learning fun. So don’t push your child to do anything they don’t want to do and make sure your child is in the right mood.

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Parents express concerns about levels on their children’s preschool and reception class reports


Preschool story time children transformed into...

Preschool story time children transformed into Easter Bunnies (Photo credit: San José Library)

I am on my son’s preschool committee and this year many parents have expressed concerns about the way their children’s progress is being reported in the Early Years Curriculum. Some parents say that although they know their child has good personal, social and emotional skills that their child has not been reported to be working within the 40-60 month bracket. Other parents have said that although they know their child can read very well for their age, their child is still not working within the 40-60 month bracket for literacy. When I have talked to the preschool teachers, they have said that even when children are performing above average overall, if they don’t meet all the criteria for the 40-60 month bracket they must be placed in the 30-50 months bracket. The preschool teachers admitted that there are problems with the way the assessment bands have been labelled. However, as the assessment areas and bands have been set by the government, it is not within their control to change it.

One anomaly with the labelling of the bands in the Early Years Curriculum is that teachers say that most children starting reception are unlikely to be working within the level 40-60 months old even though the children are at least 48 months old and some are 60 months old if they are born in September. I personally cannot understand why the framework does not go to 72 months old? I also think it would have been better if they assessment bands had been labelled as level 1-4 rather than as age bands. Then parents would feel less upset when they hear that their 60 month old child is still not working within 40-60 months.

The problem with the labelling and assessment of the bands seems to continue all the way through reception. I have heard many parents complain about their children’s reception reports too. One of the problems seems to be that children at the end of the reception year are only expected to be able to count to 20 and to be able to work out one less than or one more than a given number. The parents of reception age children are telling me that they know that their children can do much more than this and that they can count to 100 easily and do addition and subtraction at a higher level than one more than or one less than. In contrast, there seems to be much higher expectations for literacy at the same age. Children by the end of reception are supposed to be able to read and write simple sentences. The same parents that feel that their children are way ahead of expectations in mathematics are at the same time worried that their children are lagging behind in literacy. This suggests to me that there are problems with the way the Early Years Curriculum has been written and that the levels have not been adjusted to match the average child. The emphasis on literacy rather than numeracy is also slightly strange as mathematical ability is a much better indicator of later achievement than literacy.

My son is due to start reception next year, I hope that I will be able to ignore the way the reports are written and not get too worried about the bands when I do receive his report. Especially as I know that children in some countries who don’t start formal education until 7 years old are easily able to catch up with us in terms of literacy and numeracy. However, the government should reduce parents’ stress by re-labelling the bands and making sure the mathematics and literacy criteria match the average child.

‘Psychology for parents: Birth to teens’ is for sale as an e-book on Amazon,, Barnes and Noble, Kobobooks, Sony ebookstore and Apple ibookstore.


Related articles:

Is the UK school starting age too young?

Why are childcare ratios so important?


Laurel Tree House childcare centre

At one point the government proposed to allow childminders to look after two babies under one, instead of one. They also wanted to increase the number of children between 1 and 5 years old that childminders could look after from three to four.

The plans would also have allowed nursery staff to look after four babies instead of three and six 2-year-olds instead of four. The government argued that it would not lower standards of childcare because staff would have to have higher level qualifications to care for children but it would drive down the costs of childcare. However, there is no evidence that relaxing childcare ratios would lower childcare costs as nursery staff may demand higher wages for looking after more children and childminders may charge parents the same amount.

So why do I think that low child-to-staff ratios are so important?

Young children need to form a secure emotional bond with the adults caring for them. This is why nurseries and pre-schools have a key worker who is responsible for each child and the first person to attend a child when they are upset. Higher child-to-staff ratios mean that staff would find it harder to deal with each child’s individual needs. If one member of staff is the keyworker for six children rather than the current four, the chances of them having to deal with two distressed children at once is higher. It also means that they have less time to share happy moments with each child and to give them individual attention and stimulation.

Childminders have to walk children to and from schools and pre-schools every day. Higher child-to-staff ratios means greater safety issues on these walks. It would be very difficult for a childminder to manage two babies, two under-fives and up to four other children under eight at road crossings and in unenclosed playgrounds but this is what Truss suggests. This is not to mention the fact that childminders would have less time to pay attention to each child if they have more to deal with.

Good carers enable babies and young children to feel confident in themselves, encourage them to communicate and talk, to think and have ideas, and to learn and discover. All this becomes more difficult with higher child-to-staff ratios.

For all these reasons I am glad that childcare ratios are not going to be relaxed.

Related articles:

The importance of family meals

How to deal with tantrums

Choosing a nursery

Childcare ratios a French perspective




Should aggressive make believe play be discouraged?


English: Palestinian boy with toy gun in Nazar...

Recently my son has been playing lots of aggressive games. The characters in his games get shot, covered in volcano lava, eaten by sharks and killed by pirates. This has led me to ask myself whether I should play along with this aggressive make-believe play or discourage it. So what does psychological research say? Landy and Menna (2001) compared how mothers of non-aggressive children and aggressive children played with their children. The mothers and children were observed playing with a variety of toys through a one-way mirror. Dinosaurs and a crocodile were included amongst the toys to encourage aggressive play themes. Landy and Menna found that mothers of aggressive children were more likely to stop aggressive make-believe play. They were also more likely to say things like ‘That’s not nice’ or ‘That’s unkind’. In contrast, mothers of non-aggressive children would play along with the aggressive play, taking on the voice of certain characters and pretending to be scared, killed or eaten by crocodiles and dinosaurs. The mothers of non-aggressive children were also more likely to talk about the character’s feelings during the play, saying things like ‘I think she must be upset’. In addition, these mothers were more tuned into their children’s feelings during the play, so if their children started to show that they were uncomfortable with the aggression in the make-believe play, the mothers would suggest things like ‘the crocodile wanted to be friends now’. This study lends support to the idea that play enables children to work through their anxieties. Landy and Menna suggest that children become more aggressive if they cannot act out their aggression during play. If aggression is not released during play, then it ends up being acted out physically through hitting, biting and pushing. Cohen (2001) in his book ‘Playful Parenting’ argues that children use play to come to terms with their own and other people’s aggression. He believes that if aggressive play is forbidden it leads children to become more aggressive in real life. However, Gordon (1993) found that some children’s play can entirely revolve around killing and destruction.  This seems very much like some of my son’s play recently. Landy and Menna (2001) suggest that playing with children as much as possible and getting them to extend the themes in their play so that having a nice dinner or going on holiday are incorporated into the aggressive play can help children move away from repetitive aggression. Having read these studies I have allowed my son to engage in aggressive make-believe play as much as he wants to and I have also tried to reflect the feelings of the characters my son wants me to pretend to be. I know that he has learnt many of these games from the older boys at his preschool including words such as ‘Shoot, kill and die’ so I am allowing him to understand what these words mean at home in a pretend situation. He has also been quite upset recently by some boys saying ‘I hate you’ to him (I have spoken to his preschool about this) and I think allowing him to engage in aggressive make-believe play at home has helped him deal with his emotions. I am pleased to say that his play has become a little bit less aggressive this week but this seems to have happened naturally as things have calmed down at his preschool. However, I know that I shouldn’t be worried either way.

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Why is a play-based approach in schools a good idea?


Sand Play Therapy/ Sandspieltherapie nach Dora...

Sand Play Therapy/ Sandspieltherapie nach Dora M. Kalff (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are sound educational reasons as to why a play-based approach is a good idea in the early years of school. Young children may switch off from learning if all activities are teacher-led and they have to sit and listen for long periods of time. Play also develops children’s thinking skills. Children learn to think through problems, rather than learning facts. Knowing facts is not that useful in new situations. On the other hand, teaching children to be able to think creatively about a problem, without worrying whether they are right or wrong is a valuable skill. Many schools now teach thinking skills in their lessons but young children learn this through play. Fisher (1992) analysed the results of a number of studies into children’s play and concluded that children who are engaged in more pretend play perform better on tests of cognitive, language and creativity development.

Many schools in America are now implementing a ‘Tools of the Mind’ curriculum, which places great emphasis on play. The curriculum promotes make-believe play and suggests that children should develop play plans. Children and teachers sit down together in advance of play and talk about what they want to role play. For example, the children might plan that they are going to go to the moon and what they will need to get there. The children decide in advance what roles they are going to play, with rules about how to act (the astronauts have to carry out certain tasks such as collecting samples from the moon).  The theory is that the play plans help children to think ahead and also to avoid conflict during the role play. Children are also encouraged to use symbolic props rather than real ones to develop their imagination, so for example, the children might use Lego or wooden blocks to represent the trains. Teachers encourage the children to say what they are doing during the play to develop language skills. Bodrova and Leong (2001) argue that play helps children to learn self-regulation so that they are better able to control their emotions and aggression. The ‘Tools of the Mind’ curriculum also encourages children to write on their play plans to help them develop their writing skills. Diamond (2007) found that children in ‘Tools’ classrooms had better self-regulation and achieved more on standardised tests than matched children in a traditional classroom.

Research also suggests that children need to have time for free play without constantly being involved in activities. Children can become anxious if they have too little time for free play. Barnett (1984) assessed children on their level of anxiety on their first day at nursery school. It was found that the children who were able to play freely had lower levels of anxiety than those who had to listen to stories. This supports the idea that play allows children to work through their conflicts and anxiety. Warren et al. (2000) found that the themes expressed in the play of 35 children aged 5 corresponded with the children’s anxiety at school and at home. Play was a way for the children to work through their worries. Another case, reported by Axline (1947) demonstrates the importance of play. At the age of 5 years old, a boy called Dibs was referred to Axline, a clinical psychologist specialising in play therapy for very disturbed behaviour. Dibs’ parents thought he might be brain damaged. Axline watched Dibs’ play carefully to look for emotional reasons for his disturbed behaviour. Dibs often played with dolls that represented his family and in one instance, he buried a doll representing his father in the sand. This was interpreted as hostility towards his father. Axline was able to uncover Dibs’ conflicts and problems through the therapy. Dibs’ relationship with his parents improved as did his behaviour at school. Dibs’ IQ was tested after the therapy and he scored in the top 1% of the population. By then he had no emotional difficulties.

I do think it is important to teach children to read, write and count at school at an early age, if they are willing. Research suggests that disadvantaged children can particularly benefit from learning literacy and numeracy at preschool. However, it must not be forgotten that children can learn through play. Perhaps the middle ground is for schools to adopt a ‘Tools of the Mind’ approach, which promotes more thoughtful, planned make-believe play alongside literacy, when children are young.

‘Psychology for parents: Birth to teens’ is for sale as an e-book on Amazon,, Barnes and Noble, Kobobooks and Apple ibookstore.