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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Barr (M.A. M.Ed)

Does the Neuroscience Evidence Support the Need for Phonics Programs in the Early Years?

Recently on LinkedIn I replied to post on reading instruction and challenged some of assumptions from the attached article in relation to formal phonics instruction/curricula in the early years. I commented that although I agree with the majority of the article and it's assertion that phonics is a better method than whole language in school settings I disagreed that formal phonics instruction needs to start in the early years as long term research shows starting academic instruction in ECE has no long term benefits/advantage over starting formal instruction in grade 1/around seven years of age (read on to find the links). I was encouraged by the author of the post to see beyond my viewpoint as a play based educator and look at both the neuroscience and cognitive science research for the evidence that phonics should start in the early years. The post author provided me with some links and names to investigate under the claim "there is plenty of evidence to back up strong literacy programs in the early years". This was interesting to me as I haven't looked specifically at neuroscience in relation to reading instruction but i am aware of how studies of the brain support play based learning compared to passive teaching and learning processes found in traditional schooling methods.

My argument is that long term evidence shows starting formal literacy programs in the early years doesn't have any long term advantages over starting formal reading instruction in grade 1. Although I agree that reading instruction shouldn't follow the 'whole language' method when learning to read is 'a main goal' and that a phonics program is more effective, I am still unconvinced about the when. This is something I have written about before (see link below)

Below follows my findings from the links and research I was encouraged to read.

After reading over the links (all attached) and experts suggested to me I was somewhat disappointed to find that I didn't find any evidence contradicting my argument that there are no long term advantages of teaching children in the early years phonics. In the research article (above) 'Reading and the Brain' it said this;

“The behavioral reading literature confirms the importance of early experiences with print to prepare young children for reading instruction.”

“Young children need to be read to and talked with, even before they enter formal schooling (e.g., Hart and Risley 1999)”

Play based educators, from my experience, continually do this and have books not only in a reading area but around the whole environment. We engage in story telling not just with the 'classics' and popular titles but also in telling the children's stories, re-telling what they did and said. This is documentation, the cure to checklists and standardized tests. We do this like the research quote suggests to 'prepare children for reading instruction' not to begin whole class literacy instruction at 3, 4 and even 5 years old. Our books are selected based on the interests of students and not a list from the reading program. We mix both fiction and non fiction so our student learn books aren't just for stories but also sources of information.

“early childhood teachers must implement intentional instruction that ensures students have lots of opportunities to engage with oral and written language in ways that allow them to explore the sounds, sights, and meanings of words.”

What is 'intentional instruction' in ECE? Is it following the phonics scheme that says today we need to learn letter Pp, sing the Pp song and play the recommended games or centers around the letter Pp? Or is it listening carefully to children in play, stretching and adding complex language and finding realistic and meaningful ways to incorporate reading and writing. For example, my previous students (4-5 years old) in an emergent project on airplanes created their own airplane tickets. At first, they wrote a number or mark on a piece of paper they cut. We talked together about what goes on a boarding pass, we examined real airplane tickets and asked questions such as;

"how do we know where to sit on the airplane?, does our name need to be on the boarding pass?, do we need to know where we are flying from and to? etc."

From these interactions the children added to and wrote their own tickets not as a whole group activity but a freely chosen choice when they were ready based on the continuous dialogue we had and allowing them to learn skills based on their interests and combining the real and imaginary in their play. The objective isn't memorizing sounds but rather understanding the importance of symbols, reading, writing as well as engaging with that in a playful and meaningful way for the children.

The next article I was asked to read explores phonics programs in kindergarten specifically, but doesn't offer evidence that starting formal phonics teaching in kindergarten has any long term advantage. It does provide evidence that a phonics program is more effective than balanced literacy/ the whole language approach. The evidence it gives is this,

"At the end of each school year, the Bethlehem school district gives kindergartners a test to assess early reading skills. In 2015, before the science of reading training began, more than half of the kindergartners in the district tested below the benchmark score, meaning most of them were heading into first grade at risk of reading failure. At the end of the 2018 school year, after the principals and kindergarten teachers were trained in the reading science, 84 percent of kindergarteners met or exceeded the benchmark score."

The problem with this type of evidence is it doesn't compare reading levels of children in later grades, which would show if children entering grade 1 below the benchmark were still below in grade 3 or above. It doesn't show us the long term advantage of starting in kindergarten, only the short term from kindergarten to grade 1. When it comes to things such as reading instruction we must focus on the long term research and results.

Here is some long term research around phonics and other academic training in the early years

"... the long-term studies, such as those I have reviewed here and here, showing that any advantage of early academic training, in either preschool or kindergarten or both, washes out and in some cases reverses itself as children go through the further grades." (Peter Gray, 2021)

For more on that check out the articles below.

One final article I was asked to read was this, 'Put Reading First: Kindergarten to Grade 3' from the National Institute for Literacy. Again, although it reinforces the evidence for phonics instruction it doesn't lay claim to any evidence that starting in kindergarten offers children a long term advantage over starting in grade 1.

It does say this;

"How long should phonics be taught?

Approximately two years of phonics instruction is sufficient for most students. If phonics instruction begins early in kindergarten, it should be completed by the end of first grade. If phonics instruction begins early in first grade, it should be completed by the end of second grade."

It is a common trend for the pro phonics early years advocates to claim the evidence is there for teaching phonics to children under seven years of age. When you take the time to read it you find that actually the evidence is only in the how children learn to read (most effective method) rather than when phonics should start. Any claims it should start in the early years is only in comparison to looking at grade 1 entry assessment results comparing children who have received formal academic training vs children who haven't. Of course there are a range of things ECE teachers should do including developing language, reading to children, singing, dancing, exploring sounds and many many more. I talk about that more in a previous article. But simply saying "of course phonics instruction shouldn't be boring" isn't enough, especially when the long term evidence (links above) shows that any early gains from teaching phonics to children under seven washes out by grade 3.

Also in a rather serendipitous event, the recent Free to Play Summit included a talk from Neuroscience educator Nathan Wallis who says this about what children should and shouldn't be doing in the first seven years.

Do Play based educators just stand around while children play?

Thoughts? Do you agree or disagree? IS there evidence I am missing for phonics instruction in ECE that shows long term advantages not just an ability to pass a test in grade 1?

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