If we are serious about ensuring that all children learn to read within their first few years of schooling, we should make sure that the basic building blocks of literacy are in place for all children when they begin formal schooling. The research shows clearly that children commencing school with both phonological awareness and well-developed general language skills are far more likely to learn to read easily and quickly. If all children were to receive a program of instruction in these essential pre-requisites in the year prior to commencing school, far fewer children would struggle to learn to read. It would also mean a levelling of the playing field so that all children, regardless of their family background, would be starting to learn to read from a more similar knowledge base. It is currently the case that many children from less advantaged home backgrounds beginning school are already way behind their more advantaged peers in these key pre-literacy skills.
The idea of teaching these skills to pre-school children may sound off-putting to some but there is no reason why these skills may not be taught effectively in an engaging and play-based way that is more appropriate for young children. An effective pre-literacy program for pre-school children should comprise instruction in the two key areas identified by research as the most important pre-requisite skills for learning to read. First, they should be engaged in games and play-based routines that teach systematically the skills of phonological awareness so that children come to school already able to break up words into their component sounds and to manipulate the sounds in words. The second key component is an emphasis on developing good oral language skills more generally, including explicit vocabulary instruction. The best means of achieving this is by structured storybook reading activities where children are encouraged to engage with the story being read, to answer questions about the story and to relate the events in the story to their own lives. A focus on these two prerequisite skill sets provides an excellent foundation for learning to read. This conceptualisation of what constitutes the best preparation for learning to read forms the basis for our new pre-school program, known as PreLit.
PreLit is an early literacy preparation program, designed to be delivered the year before children start formal schooling. It will also prove useful for teaching children who come to school without the necessary prerequisite skills in place. The purpose of the program is to lay the foundations for good phonological awareness and other language skills in young children, to facilitate literacy development in the early school years. PreLit is particularly focused on improving the learning outcomes for those children considered at potential risk of long-term reading failure but will provide a good grounding in the key prerequisite skills for literacy for all children about to begin school. PreLit instruction is based on the findings of the accumulated research with this age group and will provide early childhood teachers with research-based teaching strategies and an effective model of delivery for the teaching of phonological awareness and oral language. It is designed to complement a play-based learning environment through brief periods of daily instruction.