Pre-Literacy Skills for School Starters

In a few short weeks, thousands of 5 year olds will be starting in P1 at school. Central to success at school and in later life is learning to read and write. Did you know that the key skills for successful literacy development are built on our speech processing skills?

Photo of popular childrens' books , Zog, Bear Hunt and Dinosaurs Love Underpants

Some popular children’s books used in schools across the UK

Most young pre-school children are aware of words as whole chunks and that words help them communicate with others, however, they are not typically aware that each word is made up of smaller bits like syllables and individual speech sounds. As they approach school age, they start to become more aware that there are divisions within words and might start to experiment with syllables and rhyming (word endings). These broad divisions are the beginnings of phonological awareness for literacy.

Our spelling system in English is ‘alphabetic’ which means that there is a letter or sometimes a group of 2 letters like ‘sh’ that corresponds to each spoken sound. To be able to match sounds to letters for literacy, children need to be able to divide words up into individual parts, a bit like taking apart a jigsaw to see how many pieces there are. Because the first sound in a word is emphasised by virtue of being the first one you hear, children typically learn the concept of ‘begins with’ as the first step in this process. They then go on to break the word down further and start to realise that there are sounds at the end and in the middle too. It is easier for children to pick sounds out of a word if it is said on its own rather than in a sentence. There is now a lot of research which shows that well developed phonological awareness is linked strongly to later success in learning to read and write.

So, what skills does phonological awareness involve? Well, for typically developing pre-schoolers about to go into P1 or reception class, the following are core skills:

  • Attention & listening – it may seem obvious, but before we can do any form of learning at all, we need to be able to pay attention to what we hear! Related to this is the ability to listen to spoken information and to discriminate between sounds that are the same or different from one another.
  • Auditory memory – before we can start to break what we hear into smaller chunks, we must have enough capacity in our short term memory to hold onto what we’ve heard while our brains process it. Most 4 year olds will be able to remember a spoken instruction with up to 4 key parts. If you would like to look at auditory memory/attention/listening averages in more details, click HERE to go to Ellen A. Rhodes’ Auditory Developmental Scale: 0-6 Years.
  • Segmentation – when we are talking about spoken language, segmentation means breaking long strings of spoken language into smaller parts. Unlike written language, spoken language does not typically have nice, clear spaces between words. The first thing we need to do as language learners is to be able to break the speech stream into separate words. Once we have established where the word boundaries are (most typically developing children can do this well before starting school), we can start to break words into smaller parts like syllables, onset/rime and individual speech sounds.
  • Speech sound discrimination – in order to match a sound to a letter, you need to be able to hear it and know which sound it is. Some of the speech sounds used in English are clearly acoustically distinct from one another, like ‘s’ and ‘m’ or ‘k’ and ‘b’. Others are much harder to distinguish between on the basis of sound alone like ‘m’ and ‘n’, ‘s’ and ‘f’ or ‘d’ and ‘g’. Obviously, you need to know which sound you are hearing to be able to match it to the appropriate letter and therefore read and spell correctly.
  • Sound Sequencing & Manipulation – In order to read and spell, we need to know what sound a word begins with as well as which sounds follow and in what order. Another essential skill is the ability to manipulate sounds and sections of words to do things like swap a sound to make a new word (eg swapping vowels to give foot, fat, fit, fight and so on) or swap the first sound or syllable to make a rhyme, for example, if we take ‘f’ away from ‘fight’ to leave ‘ight’, we can add ‘l’, ‘n’, and ‘r’ to make rhyming words ‘light’, ‘night’ and ‘right’. Knowing ‘tricks’ like swapping initial sounds like this helps us to be more efficient in our reading and spelling.

This is by no means a definitive list of phonological awareness skills, however these are the core skills that children rely on when learning to read and write. If you are concerned that your child is not developing these skills and their speech is still difficult to understand at 4-5, then I would recommend requesting an assessment by a speech and language therapist so that any problem areas can be identified and addressed.

If you are happy that your child’s speech is developing well but you’d like to give him/her and extra boost with those pre-literacy skills, check out Top Tips for Early Phonological Awareness & Pre-literacy Skills on my website for some simple and practical ideas.

My child has difficulty pronouncing certain sounds, will this affect his/her school work?

It can, yes, although this does depend on the type of speech problem your child has so do ask your child’s speech & language therapist for their opinion. Phonology problems are more likely to and often do go along with difficulty reading and spelling. As described in the previous question, Phonology is a bit like a computer program that tells your brain how to break down words and how to add sounds together to make words. If there is a ‘bug’ in that computer program, you are likely to have problems first with speech, then with reading and writing.

Early treatment by a speech & language therapist can help reduce the impact of a speech problem on literacy learning.

What’s the difference between articulation and phonology?

  • Articulation is the physical act of producing a speech sound. This is affected by how your mouth and tongue are shaped, how strong the muscles in your mouth are and how well you can co-ordinate fine oral movements.
  • Phonology is a bit like a computer program for producing speech. When you speak a word, your brain has to work out which sounds you will need, what order they go in and how your muscles will need to move to make the sounds. Like all computer programs, this can sometimes get a bit muddled!