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Teaching early literacy through play
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Teaching early literacy through play

Research 7 minute read

Dan Cloney and Kellie Picker explore practical literacy activity ideas designed to build children’s oral language skills.

The Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation (ALNF) has engaged ACER to investigate how preschool services support children to develop language and literacy skills and help them get ready for school. The Overcoming Disadvantage in Early Childhood (ODEC) study helps describe the benefits gained by children when they attend high quality early childhood services.

The study focuses on the impact of the ALNF’s Early Language and Literacy Program, which aims to equip educators, parents and community members with the knowledge and tools required to develop children’s foundational language and literacy skills. The Early Language and Literacy Program includes an accredited Certificate IV course for educators that combines speech and language pathology and early years education best practice.

“The idea is for children to have fun while playing with and thinking about the words and sounds”

The study is targeting early childhood education and care (ECEC) services on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales (NSW), where children are receiving fewer hours of ECEC on average than other children in Australia – more than 30 per cent of four-year-old children on the NSW Mid North Coast are missing out on the 15 hours offered under the Universal Access to preschool policy. The ALNF’s Early Language and Literacy Program has been delivered in schools and ECEC services in this area for more than ten years.

In the first two years of the ODEC study, the ACER team worked one-on-one with 442 children from 22 early childhood centres and more than 40 schools to measure their growth in oral language and literacy skills, paying particular focus on skills within the areas of vocabulary, phonological awareness, comprehension, oral language, print conventions, reading and writing.

Below we take a closer look at phonological awareness. Research shows that phonological awareness skills, in particular phonemic awareness, are important foundational skills for later literacy development. In the activities we complete with children, we are looking to see if children can demonstrate the following kinds of skills. For each skill we give an example of how children may demonstrate their ability.

Phonological awareness skills Activity ideas
Word awareness
  • Clap each word in a given sentence: Vary the sentence length, beginning with short sentences, e.g. I like dogs
  • Jump up and down or through hoops or on carpet squares for each word said/heard in a sentence, e.g. ‘It is time for lunch’ involves jumping up and down five times.
  • Pick up an object that rhymes with a word, e.g. find something that rhymes with ‘log’ and the child picks up the ‘dog’
  • Play ‘Eye spy’ with rhyming words, e.g. I spy something that rhymes with cat – ‘hat’
  • Touch chin for every syllable in a multisyllabic word, counting how many times their chin touches their hand, e.g. ‘Mon-day’ their chin touches their hand twice
  • Tap out the syllables in familiar compound words, using instruments, e.g.  football, batman, surfboard, hallway, butterfly, pancake or each child’s name
Phonemic awareness – Isolation: initial sounds
  • Ask children to stand up and wash their hands if their name begins with a certain sound, e.g /f/, /s/, /l/ or play eye spy with initial sounds, e.g. I spy someone whose name begins with /r/ - Rebecca
  • Read alliteration stories, or create alliterations by thinking of things that begin with the same sound, e.g. Brown bears bring big berries
Phonemic awareness – Phoneme segmentation
  • Play ‘Simon says’ where children are asked to say a consonant vowel consonant (CVC) word slowly, so all the sounds can be heard, e.g. Simon says, say the word ‘cat’ slowly so I can hear all the sounds - /c/ /a/ /t/
  • Count, clap or jump for each sound in a given CVC word, e.g. cat, dog, Sam, ham, sat, sit, pot, dot, pat, pit, cup, pup, bag, mum, dad, get, set, fit, hop pet
Phonemic awareness – Phoneme blending
  • Ask the children to pick up the object you are saying slowly, e.g. find the /f/ /ish/ or find the /f/ /i/ /sh/, the child then picks up the ‘fish’
  • Play ‘I spy’ by saying a CVC word, such as ‘dog’, slowly, sound by sound e.g. I spy something that is an animal, I spy a /d/ /o/ /g/? What do I spy?

The activities are listed from the easiest at the top, to the more difficult at the bottom. The idea is for children to have fun while playing with and thinking about the words and sounds they use in everyday life.

There are similarities between these activities and the activities used in early childhood programs. That is because the activities take into consideration Outcome 5 of the Early Years Learning Framework, Quality Area 1 of the National Quality Standard and the English strand of the Australian Curriculum. These kinds of activities are also seen in the ALNF’s Early Language and Literacy Program, including the 7 Steps to Phonemic Awareness strategies and game kit.

Ensuring that the skills described above are embedded within other literacy activities, such as nursery rhymes, poems, finger plays, stories, songs and themes, is an important step to ensure all children get access to high quality early childhood experiences. ■

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