Often phonics is tackled as children start to read and write, but there is an essentially important stage before that: learning to listen and notice. The following are some simple, fun activities to help train very young learners to do this.
A basic starting point is to get children comfortable with the idea of differentiating between any sounds. Infants enjoy animal noises and you can download a whole menagerie of sounds from sites such as www.findsounds.com. Stick two or three animal flashcards on the board and number them. Tell the children to close their eyes and listen carefully (if they are sitting at tables, get them to rest their foreheads on their hands and concentrate). Play a sound and tell the class to point to the animal they heard or hold up the number of fingers that correspond to the order of the flashcard on the board. You can do the same thing with musical instruments such as a tambourine, a small drum and castanets and by getting volunteers to play the instruments while the rest of the class identify them.
Moving on to words
From sounds you move on to short words, and from there, children need help to concentrate on longer sequences. Place four known flashcards on the board and call out two of them. The children point to the flashcards they have heard, in the same order. Gradually make the sequence longer, repeating some of the words, eg yellow, green, yellow, blue, and getting the class to point to the sequence or repeat it after you.
When it’s time for children to pick out sounds within words, we usually start with single-letter sounds. Begin with one-syllable words, helping the children to deconstruct the word into sounds, eg d-o-g. Draw the children’s attention to the initial letter sound. Use an image to represent that sound, such as a dog flashcard, and have a mixture of flashcards of objects with an initial D – doll, duck, door, and a couple with contrasting sounds (any one-syllable words beginning with different letters, but avoiding words containing a D). Show each flashcard and ask the children to listen to or say the word and tell you whether the initial sound is the same or different from the one you are focusing on. Add those with the same sound to the board. As children become more competent at this, you can create a daily ‘sound poster’. Cover a big piece of card with four or five flashcards of objects, all but one beginning with the same sound. Ask them to work out what the common initial sound is and which card is the odd one out. Repeat the process with a new sound poster each lesson. Initially, you will need to say the words but with experience the children should be able to say the words aloud and then internally to themselves to solve the puzzle. With time and practice they will progress from initial to final sounds to sounds in the middle of words and words that rhyme.
Building phonics work into story time
Story time is perfect for practising extended listening. With familiar stories, being the ‘silly teacher’ and making mistakes in the text is a great way to train pupils to listen. You can also do this with unfamiliar picture books, where the images are clear and your errors clearly contradict what the children see on the page. Another popular story time activity is to allocate a different word, such as a character’s name, an animal or an object to different children (or groups of children) for them to listen out for. Each time they hear their word they mime, make a noise or hold up a flashcard.
Being able to identify rhyming words is a hugely important skill. Traditional rhymes should be useful here, but given the age of the children and their limited English, it is difficult to find published rhymes to fit their needs. It is often easier to make up your own rhymes to accommodate the vocabulary that the children have learnt. For example, Mrs Blog has got a dog. Mr Plat has got a cat. Similarly, Johnny Jack likes wearing black. Susie Sue likes wearing … Invent names to rhyme with the vocabulary you want in the activity. Use pictures of people from magazines as your characters together with animal or colour flashcards. Begin by giving two options, eg Mrs Blog has got a … cat or a dog?, repeating the character’s name to help children arrive at the rhyme. Remember to vary the order in which you give the options as many very young children will just repeat the last word they hear. Eventually you can get the children to match four or five animals to their owners, reminding them of the characters’ names to prompt them.
Ultimately, we want the children to recognise and differentiate between sounds confidently, showing awareness of syllables and an ear for rhythm. It’s a skill that needs to be actively promoted. Establishing conscious listening from day one is invaluable for when children begin to read and write.