• Rachel

When you walk right through the town today...

"My daughter loves coming to you every Friday with [her] nursery. Thank you so much."

"She loves coming to Wilbur and Flops when it's her turn."

It's lovely to receive positive feedback about my classes, in whatever form it comes. The quotes above have been gratefully received this week from two parents of children who attend my classes with others from their nursery. It prompted me to write about the experiences the children have with Wilbur and Flops and to share some of the skills they're developing.

It's a common misconception that nurseries should not be teaching phonics. If by phonics, we mean delivering a programme where children learn a letter each day or each week, then perhaps this is true, especially where children are not ready. If we dig much deeper, there is a lot of ground work to be done before introducing letters in a systematic and structured way. The DfE guidance, Letters and Sounds*, breaks phonics into phases and phase one includes aspects that children should experience before school, therefore, at nursery, with their childminder, at home, or with Wilbur and Flops! See the end of the article for more information about the early years curriculum.

One morning a week, eight pre-school children and two members of staff take a long walk, in all weathers, to come to a Wilbur and Flops class. They eagerly remove their shoes, coats and high-visibility jackets, have a quick nose blow, and rush into the studio to find their name cards to peg up on the washing line. Some ask for help to find their names, where others find their own very quickly and then help their friends. Settling into places on the rugs around the circle with their grown ups, they're soon ready to join in with the welcome song. We sing and sign the same song each week, providing the opportunity for each child to learn the words, and now all the children join in.

Skills and values so far: cooperation, friendship, recognising their names in print, strengthening fingers by using pegs and the washing line, patience, singing, rhyming, signing...

Greeting each child individually is really important and we clap the syllables in the children's names, one by one, working out how many beats we should clap for each name. Sometimes it's just one clap, e.g. Fern, sometimes two or three, e.g. Josie or Benjamin, and sometimes more claps, like Elizabeth, which is four. Here we are tuning in to words and sounds. We do more of this as we chant and sing rhymes, sometimes the same ones, sometimes different, and break words into sounds, known as segmenting, then blend them back again. Wilbur and Flops, the two dolls at the class, sometimes have something to tell the children and this always involves some words where I say the sounds and the children have to blend them into the word. They are getting really good at this!

Key skills: identifying and clapping syllables or beats in words, blending and segmenting sounds and words, and of course, listening carefully.

Oral blending and segmenting is sometimes known as 'sound talk' and is often missed out when children begin to learn about sounds, jumping straight into learning letters without this vital skill. If we can ensure our pre-school children are secure in oral blending before they go to school, reading words by sounding out will be a breeze!

After a short time, we move on to the story and the children collect a bear or mouse and a blanket to snuggle down ready to listen. Sometimes, it's so quiet you can hear a pin drop, the birds flying over, or the rain on the skylights. Our stories vary in length but include lots by Julia Donaldson as well as the Hairy Maclary series by Lynley Dodd, books by Mick Inkpen, Michael Rosen and more. They often involve actions, usually include rhythm, repetition or rhyme, and lots of alliteration. We do have a key sound or two, which we practise saying whilst drawing (in the air) the shape of the letter that represents the sound. Then we say some objects that begin with the sound, sometimes taking them from the sound basket. I do not follow a particular phonics scheme, such as Jolly Phonics or Read Write Inc, as it's too early, but I include lots of good practice from each of these.

Development of skills: listening and joining in with stories, matching actions to words, rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, repetition, initial sounds, oral blending and segmenting, learning new vocabulary and sentence structure, learning about initial sounds, learning the symbols that represent sounds and tracing the shape of the letters in the air.

After the story, everyone is eager to explore the activities that are carefully positioned around the room. It's amazing how there's so much temptation to touch but the children don't until it's time to do so. When I was training to be a teacher, I learnt we could only expect young children to sit and listen for a minute for each year of their age. These children are fabulous listeners and you can tell they are used to giving their attention in group times at nursery.

The children excitedly choose where they would like to play first and work together in each area, following the invitation to play that is there, and making their own decisions about what to do. The activities and resources vary from week to week, to match the story theme or the letter, including: foam and wooden letters to match to letter stones or objects, or to make their names with; cones, balls, buckets and hoops for larger movements; props from the story to retell or act it out; a collection of 'loose parts' to allow children to be creative and explore their own ideas; musical instruments; secret sounds boxes; art and craft activities or colouring; threading or weaving resources; letter shapes and resources such as pom poms or feathers to copy their formation, and always a book corner where the grown-ups read stories to children in smaller groups or one at a time.

Through play, the following skills are developing: cooperation, sharing, turn taking, exploring own ideas, creativity, counting, matching, recognising letter shapes by the sounds they make, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, listening, making sounds and following own interests. There are many more but too many to list!

After exploring the activities, it's tidy up time and the children respond so well to the tingling of the tambourine and the tidy up song, which is the same song they use at nursery. They tidy so well and must be used to taking responsibility for their environment at the nursery (even if their bedrooms are untidy at home!), then we all return to the rugs in the circle.

Before we go, there's time for another quick pre-phonics skill, matching rhyming pairs, exploring initial sounds, saying rhyming strings whilst lifting and lowering the parachute, or popping bubbles and practising articulating sounds. Sometimes we squeeze in another story! There's always time for the goodbye song, which is the same each week, then it's back on with the jackets and coats, a quick loo stop, and a careful departure for the long walk back.

It is an absolute pleasure to work with the children and staff from the nursery and it is so lovely to see them building on and developing their language skills, each from their individual starting points each week. They are being very well prepared for school by the adults they learn with, and from, and I'm pleased and proud to be helping with this journey to the next step.


Coverage of the Early Years Foundation Stage Curriculum

Characteristics of Effective Learning: all three aspects are developed in each class. These are Playing and Exploring, Active Learning and Creating and Thinking Critically.

Each of the aspects of the EYFS curriculum are included in Wilbur and Flops' classes with a particular focus on Literacy: Reading:

30 - 50 month statements:

- Enjoys rhyming and rhythmic activities.

- Shows awareness of rhyme and alliteration.

- Recognises rhythm in spoken words.

- Listens to and joins in with stories and poems, one-to-one and also in small groups.

- Joins in with repeated refrains and anticipates key events and phrases in rhymes and stories.

- Beginning to be aware of the way stories are structured.

- Suggests how the story might end.

- Listens to stories with increasing attention and recall.

- Describes main story settings, events and principal characters.

- Shows interest in illustrations and print in books and print in the environment.

- Recognises familiar words and signs such as own name and advertising logos.

- Looks at books independently.

- Handles books carefully.

- Knows information can be relayed in the form of print.

- Holds books the correct way up and turns pages.

- Knows that print carries meaning and, in English, is read from left to right and top to bottom.

40 - 60 month statements:

- Continues a rhyming string.

- Hears and says the initial sound in words.

- Can segment the sounds in simple words and blend them together and knows which letters represent some of them.

- Links sounds to letters, naming and sounding the letters of the alphabet.

- Begins to read words and simple sentences.

- Uses vocabulary and forms of speech that are increasingly influenced by their experiences of books.

- Enjoys an increasing range of books.


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