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Reading and Writing in the Early Years
By Dr Michelle Hill, Assistant Principal of the Primary School

I was recently in the UK in the Lake District, in the north of England. We decided to go for a hike up to one of the many peaks in the area and found a walk in a guidebook to a place called Loughrigg. Now I’d forgotten that walking the UK is not the same as in Switzerland and there was a distinct lack of signs. It soon became necessary to ask someone if we were on the right track. 

So how do you pronounce the ‘Lough’ in ‘Loughrigg’? Does it rhyme with ‘rough’ or ‘cough’? Or is it Lough as in ‘through’? Or does it come from the Gaelic and is therefore pronounced Lock? It could be Lor, as in ‘thought’, or Low as in ‘though’. According to the locals, it rhymes with rough (so is pronounced Luffrigg) and we made it to the top – which was well worth the effort!

Loughrigg, pronounced Luffrigg, in the Lake District

This experience reminded me again about young children learning to read and write and the particular challenge of words they come to in a text or words they want to write that are not ‘phonically regular’. As emergent readers and writers who are learning language, learning about language and learning through language, they face this challenge many times.

Young children are developing their knowledge of letters and the sounds they can represent (decoding). Think of:

  • The letter c in cat, in ice, in church, in circle
  • The letter a in apple, in ace, in air, in car
  • The digraph ‘ea’ in bear, in fear, in read (I just read) and in read (I will read)
  • The ‘ough’ in though, in thought, in through, in cough, in rough

They are also developing their knowledge of the sounds that can be represented in many ways (encoding):

  • The long ‘a’ sound in hay, in they, in weigh
  • The ‘or’ sound in door, more, saw, thought, taught, sure,
  • and the letters that don’t have any sound in a word but are still necessary for spelling (‘e’ in love, ‘k’ in knight, the second ‘p’ in happen, the ‘gh’ in high)

Here is a beautiful example of a child in Kindergarten putting their current knowledge of letters and sounds into practice to present some interesting facts about tigers:

This piece of writing, when analysed by the teacher, provides a wealth of information about this child’s current knowledge and understandings about letters and sounds.

So how do we teach ‘phonics’ at ISZL?

We sometimes hear a concern that we do not teach phonics at all! On the contrary, we do teach phonics but this may not look the same as in a national school context. It is true that we do not use published ‘schemes’ (such as Jolly Phonics or Letterland) to teach phonics to the whole class. These schemes are written for particular school or national contexts and for a particular pedagogical approach. They come from the assumption that all children of a similar age come with the same knowledge and experience of literacy and that they all learn in the same way. This assumption does not align our beliefs about teaching and learning or with the inquiry approach we use in our work with children.

We see children learning the sound/symbol relationships gradually as they read and write, rather than being taught those sounds in isolation prior to reading. This mainly happens in Kindergarten and Grade One as children show a developing interest in literacy, but begins in Early Years 1 as children begin to develop an awareness of letters as symbols and continues through to Grade Two as children develop and extend their vocabulary and the range of texts they read.

In Kindergarten and Grade One teachers and teaching assistants may:

  • Plan short whole class sessions for the teaching of specific letter sounds 

Eg. During writer’s conferences with children the teacher notices that many children only use the single letter k to represent the /k/ sound at the end of some words. In a class meeting the children are asked to make a list of all the words they can think of that end with the /k/sound and then they sort these into lists of words ending with ‘k’, with ‘ck’ and ‘c’ eg back, music, look. The lists are displayed for reference and the children are encouraged to come up with a rule for when to use ‘k’, ‘ck’ or ‘c’.

  • Work with small groups of children as needed 

Eg. The teacher assistant takes a small group that the teacher has noticed would benefit from a focus on words with the /ar/ sound, and gives each child a selection of letters cards. The assistant reads a sentence and asks the children to make a word from that sentence eg the children have the letters a, j, r, s, t, and c. “Make the word jar in the sentence ‘the jar of jam was on the shelf’.  Change one letter to make the word car ‘the car was parked in the street’. Add a letter to make the word cart, ‘the horse was pulling the cart’. Take away the c and add two letters to make the word ‘start’, ‘I start my day by eating breakfast’.

  • Work with individual children as needed

Eg. During guided reading the teacher notices a particular child is unsure about the digraph ‘ea’. She asks the child to find all the words with the diagraph ‘ea’ on a page and they talk about the sound represented each time. The teacher selects another text she knows that focuses on the ‘ea’ digraph and reads it with the child, pointing out the digraph each time it appears.

At ISZL our teachers value the knowledge and understanding that children all bring with them when they join us. They assess children’s prior knowledge and carefully select texts or use children’s own writing as a focus for teaching and learning. In this way, they continually focus on what each child already knows, understands and can do. 


If you are interested in finding out more about our Early Years programme, or you would like to talk about registering your young child, we would be delighted to help you. Please contact our Admissions Team.

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