Education Endowment Foundation:EEF blog: The power of sound in supporting early literacy

EEF blog: The power of sound in supporting early literacy

Using sound in early literacy
Louise Jackson
Louise Jackson
Content Specialist for the Early Years

Louise Jackson is an early years advisory teacher. She works in nurseries, children’s centres and schools and has extensive experience of early childhood education.

Blog •4 minutes •

Whilst developing the Early Literacy section of the EEF’s Early Years Evidence Store, we observed skilled and sensitive interactions in which early educators transformed playful generation of sounds into purposeful listening, sound manipulation and sound discrimination.

In one scenario, three-year-old Bertie used a stick to generate sound, encouraged by his key person who joined him with her own stick to tap out a repetitive beat. Other children joined in, a few saucepans were added and in no time at all Bertie was leading his own pots and pans band!

When Sana sang, she paused and invited children to add their own animal sounds and actions to each verse; she sped up, slowed down, sang in a quiet whisper then shouted out loud. These early years children were using their voices, their bodies, instruments and technology to engage in sound-games, nursery rhymes and song.

In another reception class nearby, children clapped the syllables of small world animals; li-on, el-e-phant, chim-pan-zee, al-i-gat-or and hip-po-pot-a-mus. Their teacher recorded the number of syllables in tallies alongside each animal.

These are all important examples of helping a child on their journey to tuning in, identifying sounds and rhythms as well as breaking down words into smaller parts such as syllables and letters.

Approaches for teaching early literacy

The new Early Literacy theme in the Early Years Evidence Store has identified six approaches educators use during their interactions with children to support early literacy development:

1. Interactive reading

2. Teaching sound discrimination

3. Teaching sound manipulation

4. Mapping sounds and letters

5. Interactive Writing

6. Teaching mark-making and letter formation

The development of early literacy skills is complex, and relies on strong foundations in other areas of learning. We encourage educators to view other themes in the Evidence Store, themes such as Communication and language, and PSED as these are so closely linked.

Approach 3: Teaching sound manipulation

In the scenarios with Bertie, Sana and the reception class we see examples of how to teach sound manipulation. As the interactions progress, the educator in each scenario has an opportunity to draw on a range of practices to enhance and make the most of the learning opportunity.

The evidence that was reviewed for the Evidence Store highlighted that teaching sound manipulation can have a positive impact on children’s literacy outcomes.

In the studies analysed, the approach was often used alongside other approaches in early years settings, such as teaching children how to discriminate between sounds, and sometimes the teaching of mapping of sounds and letters. So, it is recommended to use this approach in combination other literacy approaches.

Helpfully the Evidence Store draws on knowledge of practice and lists suggested ways an educator can use the approach of teaching sound manipulation, these include:

  • Experimenting with sounds
  • Commenting
  • Emphasis
  • Repetition
  • Decomposing
  • Sparking or Temping

Full descriptions of these practices along with video and written examples can be found on the relevant approach page of the Evidence Store.

What does the approach look like in practice?

Watch this video example of Fliss teaching sound manipulation by supporting the group of 3‑four year old children break down the words of the song into syllables with the help of some rhythm sticks.

Tick Tock Grandfather Clock – The Clock Song

Manipulating sound by tapping out syllables in a song with rhythm sticks

These shorter clips highlight examples of the specific practices Fliss uses to implement the approach of teaching sound manipulation.

Tick Tock Grandfather Clock

How can we teach sound manipulation to children who are not yet ready to focus on sounds in words?

Early literacy approaches should be applied with careful consideration of the context and developmental stage of the children you are supporting.

Bertie with his stick is not quite ready to identify sounds or beats/​syllables in words just yet, so his Key Person intelligently uses an evidence-informed approach to teach him to manipulate sounds by using sticks, pots and pans to tap out repeated rhythms.

When he is developmentally ready to, Bertie will be able to apply the same skills he has used with his pots and pans band to manipulate and discriminate the sounds in letters and words.

When you feel children are ready you could teach manipulation of word-sounds by emphasising syllables by clapping, comment on rhyming words in stories, model how to decompose a word by elongating and isolating the first sound or temping them to complete a rhyming string with you.

Early literacy approaches involve children tuning into sounds, talking about sound, making, changing and distinguishing between sounds; so don’t underestimate the power of sound when planning children’s learning in the early years.

For more information, you can explore the other approaches for supporting early literacy in the Evidence Store or review our guidance report for Preparing for Literacy.

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