Phonics remains one of the most controversial literacy instruction topics debated in Australian education. Early childhood prior-to-school settings have not been immune to the phonics debate, usually centered on the first years of formal schooling. Media, policy makers, academics and teachers views often dominate the phonics debate, but parents and carers of young children also want to have their voice heard on this highly contentious topic.
Explicit systematic phonics instruction, including commercially produced phonics program use, is occurring in the prior-to-school years; in some cases with children as young as 2 years of age. This formal approach to phonics does not always fit within the play-based pedagogies advocated by early childhood literacy researchers and teachers in the prior-to-school years.
As a former preschool teacher I was aware of the value of parent-teacher partnerships in supporting children’s literacy education. This motivated my investigation of parents’ perceptions of phonics in prior-to-school settings. In previous research I revealed perceived parental pressure reported by early childhood educators as a reason for including more formalised phonics lessons and commercial phonics program use, with very young children before they start school.
My research project
My survey research investigated the literacy beliefs of parents whose children attended prior-to-school settings including early learning centres attached to schools, community based kindergartens and long day care centres. The survey focused on parental beliefs about phonics in preschools and their expectations of literacy learning in early childhood.
Parental beliefs about phonics
The increase in formalisation of narrow literacy practices continues to create tension between those who favour either adult-led phonics practice or child-initiated play. Just as researchers, politicians and teachers are divided on their views about appropriate phonics instruction, parents also report different views about the level of importance placed on phonics and how phonics should be taught. Overwhelmingly, nearly all parents reported that phonics was important and wanted phonics taught in the prior-to-school years, but not necessarily through explicit, systematic, synthetic methods.
I found many parents expressed concern about task-orientated, narrow teaching approaches and a synthetic phonics first and fast method. These are is similar findings to a previous UK study.
Over 90% of parents in my study reported the belief that the best way for children to develop alphabet letter and sound knowledge is through play-based learning, as the following parents described:
Clair: I truly believe that children attending kindergarten* should be playing…the idea of a kindergarten implementing a literacy program is absurd.
Tamara: I believe that phonics instruction has no place in a pre-prep* context…I’m incredibly concerned by the pressure applied to children to learn phonics.
Dana: My child is so happy at kindy* and I’m not sure he would be if it was too structured and literacy based. If he shows an interest though of course I would have no problem with this (structured phonics).
*Kindergartens, kindy and pre-prep are Queensland’s terms for the years prior to formal schooling. Pseudonyms have been used.
Phonics in early childhood
Parents agreed with research that a child’s alphabetic knowledge is one of the precursors for later reading success. Children’s experiences with alphabet letters and sound learning can vary as phonics can be taught in different ways.
The most common phonics methods are synthetics, (a specific method of teaching sounds and building up to reading words) analytic (breaking down a word into parts if you don’t know the word) and ‘blended’ methods (a mix of synthetic and analytic approaches depending on the teachers’ literacy lesson intensions). Commercial phonics programs often follow synthetic phonics methods with explicit teaching of isolated letter-sound relationships, which are then blended to form words.
The use of commercial phonics programs and synthetic phonics teaching methods are on the rise in Australia. However, an over-reliance on one method for teaching phonics has been critiqued in the research literature.
The issue with synthetic phonics and commercial phonics program use in the prior-to-school years, with children aged five years and younger, is that academic literacy learning should not be separated from play. In other words, with children aged birth-to-five, phonics should be supported, but through contextualised and play-based learning. Contextualised learning occurs when a child’s immediate interests are taken into consideration. For example, when talking about letters in the child’s own name, or the name of the child’s family and friends.
Nearly all parents in my research did not want 2, 3 and 4 year old children sitting down as a whole group, in front of a teacher, responding to flash cards or rote chanting songs.
What do parents want?
- A large number of parents want early childhood teachers in the prior-to-school years to begin teaching phonics, but insist instruction should occur through meaningful play-based experiences, rather than teachers supplying worksheets and using commercial phonics programs. Only a small number of parents agreed commercial phonics programs should be used in the prior-to-school years.
- There was disagreement between parent responses over whether learning all or some alphabet letters and sounds in preschool were important. Around to-thirds of parents believed if children knew their alphabet letters and sound in preschool, they will read more easily when they start school.
- I further found over one-third of parents wanted early childhood teachers to focus more on reading and writing with children, ensuring children could name all 26-alphabet letters before starting school. However, there were also a third of parents who did not share this view, and were against preschool teachers focusing on learning to name, or label, all alphabet letters in the prior-to-school years.
- There were also differences in some responses between parents who chose to send their children to school-based early learning centres, long day care centres, and community based kindergartens. Parents whose children attended school-based early learning centres were more likely to place a higher importance on phonics and name writing, than parents in stand-alone long day care centres and community based kindergartens. Parents of children in school-based early learning centres were also more likely to want teachers to use commercial phonics programs.
- Many parents wanted teachers to support children in learning to write their name. This view is consistent with research on children’s name writing as a way of supporting early phonics learning in preschools.
- Parents also supported their child’s phonics learning at home. Over 70% of parents reported they engaged in shared reading of alphabet books with their children. Half of the parents reported providing their children with access to TV shows and technology that specifically supported alphabet learning, such as Sesame Street and alphabet apps. They also purchased alphabet colouring in books for their children as a way of encouraging familiarity with the English alphabet letters.
A parent-teacher shared view on phonics
Positive relationships between early childhood literacy rich play environments and explicit phonics learning can occur when appropriate adult support and literacy materials are made available for children in meaningful contexts, such as adults drawing attention to letters and sounds in children’s own name and shared picture book reading.
Policy makers, academics and teachers are not the only big players in the phonics debate. Parents want their views heard – ultimately this debate is about their children. Parents are the children’s first and primary teachers so it is important that we understand parental views on phonics, because beliefs impact on the types of literacy practices children experience.
Parents want phonics in preschools, but emphasise the importance of play. A shared parent-teacher understanding and positive partnerships can ultimately support children’s literacy development.
Dr Stacey Campbell is a lecturer in early childhood at Queensland University of Technology. Her research focuses on early childhood literacy, phonics, teacher and parent beliefs and practices. Stacey completed a mixed-methods PhD in code-related literacy and phonics whilst working as an early childhood lecturer at Macquarie University. In addition to her PhD, she has a Masters degree in children’s literature and two teaching degrees, one in early childhood birth-to-eight and another in primary school education. Stacey also has over 10 years experience as an early childhood teacher in both the prior-to-school years and early years of school.
Stacey presented her paper on parental perceptions of phonics at the 2018 AARE conference this week.