At five years old, Ben was at the beginning of his early reading journey; but he hated it.
After just one term in Reception, he already knew he found it hard. Try as he might to blend those sounds together, he just couldn’t do it.
I watched Ben struggle through his reading book, persevering through the school’s validated phonics programme ‘keep up’ sessions. His class teacher told me that phonics just didn’t seem to ‘stick’ for Ben, no matter how many times he practised. She wanted some answers.
We’ve all taught children like Ben; I bet you can picture somebody as you’re reading this. The advice given in almost all validated phonics programmes is for children to ‘do’ more and more blending until they catch on.
I find it fascinating that, rather than ‘just doing more’ of the thing which is so challenging, the conversation rarely seems to consider the deeper learning processes which may be holding children like Ben back.
After all, if I asked you to run a marathon, and you could only walk to the front door, the solution wouldn’t be to keep making you run marathons! The developmental steps, or gaps in experience, which make learning to blend so challenging for children like Ben, have somehow been erased from the conversation.
For Ben, and millions of children like him, it’s a case of knowing what a pre-phonic progression should look like, in order to diagnose what’s making blending such an issue. This is where there was a problem with the original Letters and Sounds Phase 1 (DfE, 2007).
In this well-loved document there was no way of knowing which aspects of pre-phonic development were becoming embedded, and which weren’t, or even in which order to teach things.
Focusing on games rather than a progression of skills always leads to gaps in learning. Most of us have played Silly Soup more times than we care to remember, plonking the listening ears on our unsuspecting three year olds, with the hope that they’ll hear and respond to a passing ambulance or aeroplane.
They’re great games, if a bit tired; but prone to creating gaps in learning due to the lack of a coherent sequence of developing skills.
When considering Ben’s difficulties with blending, and mitigating these for children in the future, it’s important for us to consider the skills of auditory discrimination and auditory memory.
Can Ben, and children like him, hear and say the similarities and differences in any spoken sound that they are exposed to? Or is the difficulty more likely to be one of auditory memory, holding small chunks of spoken sound in the working memory long enough for the blending process to occur?
Babies discriminate between sounds from very early on, whether it’s turning their head in response to a familiar adult, or exploring the noises made by a favourite rattle.
At its most basic, this is where Ben’s phonics journey began. Over time, experiences build which create a bank of memories comparing everyday sounds. Could it be that Ben, or children like him, are struggling in this area?
After all, the abstract similarities in spoken sounds made by ‘f’ and ‘th,’ or ‘m’ and ‘n’ are unlikely to be determined if children’s experience in exploring sounds has not been established in concrete, real life situations.
In talking to Ben’s Reception teacher, though, it appeared that this wasn’t an issue. In isolation, Ben seemed to be able to tune in and match letters to sounds easily; he could even say them one at a time as he matched them in words.
Ben’s problem looked more like this: on trying to blend to read the word ‘cat’, he would try ‘c-a-t….at’ or ‘c-a-t…..ta’, or ‘c-a-t….ca’ or, when all hope was lost, ‘c-a-t…. rabbit’! Sound familiar?
This leads us directly to the area of auditory memory; the ability to remember all of those separate spoken sounds, in the right order, long enough to process the whole word.
Like auditory discrimination, auditory memory also builds from birth. Young children develop a vocabulary of words by listening to, and talking with, responsive adults.
Noisy books, toys and instruments also build memory of sounds matched to objects through repeated play.
Auditory memory is practised as children become familiar with stories, songs and rhymes, so much so that they can fill in rhyming gaps or sing a song off by heart.
Copying rhythmic patterns with movements and actions, repeating and chanting simple tongue twisters, and following simple two- or three-part instructions, all help to exercise this critical learning muscle.
Today’s children are growing up in an age of heightened visual stimulation. Constant content is beamed into their lives, competing with opportunities to listen and remember.
Auditory memory is becoming less of a necessity in everyday life, too. The phone numbers, directions and dates we used to remember are increasingly managed by our phones - so children are observing their adult role models listening, remembering and recalling less frequently.
Ben, and all of the children like him, are finding blending hard because somewhere along the line their auditory memory hadn’t been exercised enough - but his story does have a happy ending.
We can, and must, support the development of auditory memory easily and effectively in our early years settings. We need to be mindful of its importance to our children, providing ongoing opportunities through fun and meaningful, repetitive activities.
Any traditional listening, remembering and joining in games and activities are a great place to start. It’s the clarity of purpose and the progression - ensuring the game becomes increasingly more challenging as you play – that are most important.
Is it possible for children like Ben to learn to blend by ‘doing more’ of it? In the end, yes! Could we make this easier by purposefully practising auditory memory skills every day in preparation for phonics? Definitely.
Learn songs from memory without visual aids. Using video can seem like a great time saving resource but it strips away the need for children to remember the order of the words, or the tune, from memory. Treat song time like a brain training activity and cut back on the visual content.
Learn and say 3- 4- and 5-word tongue twisters. Try it! Even articulate children with well developed vocabularies find this harder than you’d think.
Practise increasingly complex clapping patterns or rhythmic movement matched to songs. Start with easy patterns, progressively becoming more complex over time. This shouldn’t be just a means by which we gain children’s attention, rather, it should be seen as a listen, remember and repeat activity.
Play circle games like ‘I went to the shops and bought…’. ‘I went to the shops and I bought…’ is the initial sentence stem, which can be swapped for other contexts like ‘When I went on holiday I took….’ or ‘When I went on the bus I saw…’ . For children needing support, use real objects to help them remember the order of items added to the repeated phrase.
Play a circle time whispering game. Pass a super simple sentence from child to child around the ring by whispering. It’s a classic party game we all played as children, often underestimated for its opportunities to hear, remember and repeat.
Emma Spiers is ‘The Learning Lady’; an early education consultant, and author of Super Sounds, a prephonics programme for preschool and nursery aged children.