Stacey Campbell

A 21st Century approach to emergent literacy: No flashcards in preschool please!

We believe children need a strong emergent literacy foundation in the years prior to school in preparation for when they experience formal reading instruction at school. This journey begins from birth. 

With current attention on learning to read and the teaching of phonics we think it is timely to focus on what is happening with learning to read in the years prior to formal schooling. While phonics is mandated in the Australian Curriculum for the first years of formal schooling, this is not the case in the prior-to-school years when the focus is on emergent literacy. 

With an emergent literacy approach flash-cards are not necessary!  Early learning environments need to be engaging, creative and flexible.  It is not just about learning the technical aspects of reading, it is also about helping children to develop a love of reading and motivation in preparation for when they start formal reading at school.  If children in the prior-to-school years have a strong foundation of emergent literacy knowledge, skills and concepts, then they are well placed to continue their journey towards reading success into their formal school years.  

What is emergent literacy?  

Emergent literacy involves children learning about literacy through engaging in socio-cultural contexts and participating in meaningful literacy experiences through home, preschool and community settings that are language and print rich. Examples of emergent literacy activities  include playing alphabet games to support children’s developing knowledge of letter names and sounds. Children can also learn about print through:

 i) pointing out letters and words on signs and labels in their home and community environment; 

ii) shared reading of picture books with parents, carers and teachers; and 

iii) exploring mark making, drawing and name writing through using tools such as pencils and writing apps. 

iv) making meaning from print (e.g., text, digital and multimodal). 

Emergent literacy skills include phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge (for example, letters, sounds), oral language, vocabulary, emergent writing skills (name writing/ letter writing), and development of symbolic systems – all strong predictors for future reading success. These are essential for children to become fluent comprehenders and readers.

The Australian Early Years Learning Framework for children in the years prior to formal schooling, provides broad directions in relation to alphabetic literacy learning and teaching.

Learning to read is a complex process and all children in the years prior to school develop at different rates. We are all (researchers, policy makers, parents, teachers, health practitioners) striving to provide children with the ability to become effective readers. Learning how to become a fluent and successful reader occurs differently for each child and each child’s learning journey is unique. Reading fluently requires a high knowledge of skills that include decoding, rich vocabulary, comprehension abilities, world knowledge, and understanding grammatical features of different genres. 

The prior-to-school years are a vital part of this complex journey in learning to read. We believe it is timely to reconsider emergent literacy as it relates to 21st Century early years contexts. 

Supporting emergent literacy practices at preschool and home

Support for emergent literacy in the prior-to-school years should focus on helping children develop a love of reading, in addition to developing emergent literacy foundations such as opportunities to develop oral language and alphabet knowledge.

In supporting children’s oral language, an awareness of phonological, syntactic and lexical development can occur through play-literacy experiences – playing with rhyme (words with the same end sound), drawing attention to words with the same beginning sound (alliteration), and shared adult-child picture book reading.

It is recommended that prior to starting school children should be supported through the provision of meaningful alphabet experiences to learn 26 letter names and their corresponding regular letter sounds. In addition, irregular letter-sound correspondences can be learnt within relevant and meaningful contexts (e.g. /CH/ as in Charlie and long sound /A/ for Aiden). This flexible approach will allow teachers to extend children’s personal knowledge of the alphabet. 

Children can be supported in their literacy learning journey through a range of contextualised guided instruction, whilst children are engaged in both adult and child-initiated, guided and free play, meaningful experiences, such as:

  • Games  
  • Dramatic play
  • Literacy apps
  • Rhymes and songs 
  • Drawing children’s attention to print during shared reading experiences
  • Multisensory experiences with environmental print
  • Name writing
  • Playing with letters

Emergent literacy in the 21st century involves both code-related skills (e.g., identifying alphabet letter names and sounds) and meaning making skills (e.g., comprehension and vocabulary). This can occur through direct instruction, for example, when a teacher instructs children directly about what they are trying to teach, together with a flexible and holistic child-centred meaningful approach, within culturally mediated learning environments. For example, when a teacher engages children in singing, rhymes and shared reading that is interactive, and related to topics relevant to children’s interests, whilst embedded in social purposes.  

Each learning to read journey is unique

It is imperative to cater for the learning needs of individual children as each learning to read journey is unique. A multidisciplinary approach, where researchers using different methodologies, is needed to work out the best way to support children to become fluent reading comprehenders in the 21st century. 

We are excited about working together in a unified way to support teachers, parents, researchers, policy makers and health practitioners to ensure children in the prior-to-school years have the best start towards becoming successful readers.

Dr Stacey Campbell is a lecturer in early childhood English, literacy and language at Queensland University of Technology. Her research focuses on early childhood literacy, phonics, oral language, teacher and parent beliefs and practices. In addition to her PhD, she has a Masters degree in children’s literature and two teaching degrees, one in early childhood birth-to-eight and another in primary school education. Stacey also has over 10-years experience as an early childhood teacher in both the prior-to-school years and early years of school. Stacey can be contacted at and is on Twitter @DrStacey_C

Dr Michelle Neumann is a Senior Lecturer and Researcher in the School of Education and Professional Studies, Griffith University, Australia. Michelle is also a registered Queensland school teacher. Michelle’s research interests are in early childhood education particularly in the fields of early literacy, parent-child interactions, home and preschool settings, and digital technology. Michelle can be contacted at and is on Twitter @drmneumann

Here’s what Australian parents think about teaching phonics to pre-schoolers

Phonics remains one of the most controversial literacy instruction topics debated in Australian education. Early childhood prior-to-school settings have not been immune to the phonics debate, usually centered on the first years of formal schooling. Media, policy makers, academics and teachers views often dominate the phonics debate, but parents and carers of young children also want to have their voice heard on this highly contentious topic.

Explicit systematic phonics instruction, including commercially produced phonics program use, is occurring in the prior-to-school years; in some cases with children as young as 2 years of age. This formal approach to phonics does not always fit within the play-based pedagogies advocated by early childhood literacy researchers and teachers in the prior-to-school years.

As a former preschool teacher I was aware of the value of parent-teacher partnerships in supporting children’s literacy education. This motivated my investigation of parents’ perceptions of phonics in prior-to-school settings. In previous research I revealed perceived parental pressure reported by early childhood educators as a reason for including more formalised phonics lessons and commercial phonics program use, with very young children before they start school.

My research project

My survey research investigated the literacy beliefs of parents whose children attended prior-to-school settings including early learning centres attached to schools, community based kindergartens and long day care centres. The survey focused on parental beliefs about phonics in preschools and their expectations of literacy learning in early childhood.

Parental beliefs about phonics

The increase in formalisation of narrow literacy practices continues to create tension between those who favour either adult-led phonics practice or child-initiated play. Just as researchers, politicians and teachers are divided on their views about appropriate phonics instruction, parents also report different views about the level of importance placed on phonics and how phonics should be taught. Overwhelmingly, nearly all parents reported that phonics was important and wanted phonics taught in the prior-to-school years, but not necessarily through explicit, systematic, synthetic methods.

I found many parents expressed concern about task-orientated, narrow teaching approaches and a synthetic phonics first and fast method. These are is similar findings to a previous UK study.

Over 90% of parents in my study reported the belief that the best way for children to develop alphabet letter and sound knowledge is through play-based learning, as the following parents described:

Clair: I truly believe that children attending kindergarten* should be playing…the idea of a kindergarten implementing a literacy program is absurd.

Tamara: I believe that phonics instruction has no place in a pre-prep* context…I’m incredibly concerned by the pressure applied to children to learn phonics.

Dana: My child is so happy at kindy* and I’m not sure he would be if it was too structured and literacy based. If he shows an interest though of course I would have no problem with this (structured phonics).

*Kindergartens, kindy and pre-prep are Queensland’s terms for the years prior to formal schooling. Pseudonyms have been used.

Phonics in early childhood

Parents agreed with research that a child’s alphabetic knowledge is one of the precursors for later reading success. Children’s experiences with alphabet letters and sound learning can vary as phonics can be taught in different ways.

The most common phonics methods are synthetics, (a specific method of teaching sounds and building up to reading words) analytic (breaking down a word into parts if you don’t know the word) and ‘blended’ methods (a mix of synthetic and analytic approaches depending on the teachers’ literacy lesson intensions). Commercial phonics programs often follow synthetic phonics methods with explicit teaching of isolated letter-sound relationships, which are then blended to form words.

The use of commercial phonics programs and synthetic phonics teaching methods are on the rise in Australia. However, an over-reliance on one method for teaching phonics has been critiqued in the research literature.

The issue with synthetic phonics and commercial phonics program use in the prior-to-school years, with children aged five years and younger, is that academic literacy learning should not be separated from play. In other words, with children aged birth-to-five, phonics should be supported, but through contextualised and play-based learning. Contextualised learning occurs when a child’s immediate interests are taken into consideration. For example, when talking about letters in the child’s own name, or the name of the child’s family and friends.

Nearly all parents in my research did not want 2, 3 and 4 year old children sitting down as a whole group, in front of a teacher, responding to flash cards or rote chanting songs.

What do parents want?

  • A large number of parents want early childhood teachers in the prior-to-school years to begin teaching phonics, but insist instruction should occur through meaningful play-based experiences, rather than teachers supplying worksheets and using commercial phonics programs. Only a small number of parents agreed commercial phonics programs should be used in the prior-to-school years.
  • There was disagreement between parent responses over whether learning all or some alphabet letters and sounds in preschool were important. Around to-thirds of parents believed if children knew their alphabet letters and sound in preschool, they will read more easily when they start school.
  • I further found over one-third of parents wanted early childhood teachers to focus more on reading and writing with children, ensuring children could name all 26-alphabet letters before starting school. However, there were also a third of parents who did not share this view, and were against preschool teachers focusing on learning to name, or label, all alphabet letters in the prior-to-school years.
  • There were also differences in some responses between parents who chose to send their children to school-based early learning centres, long day care centres, and community based kindergartens. Parents whose children attended school-based early learning centres were more likely to place a higher importance on phonics and name writing, than parents in stand-alone long day care centres and community based kindergartens. Parents of children in school-based early learning centres were also more likely to want teachers to use commercial phonics programs.
  • Many parents wanted teachers to support children in learning to write their name. This view is consistent with research on children’s name writing as a way of supporting early phonics learning in preschools.
  • Parents also supported their child’s phonics learning at home. Over 70% of parents reported they engaged in shared reading of alphabet books with their children. Half of the parents reported providing their children with access to TV shows and technology that specifically supported alphabet learning, such as Sesame Street and alphabet apps. They also purchased alphabet colouring in books for their children as a way of encouraging familiarity with the English alphabet letters.

A parent-teacher shared view on phonics

Positive relationships between early childhood literacy rich play environments and explicit phonics learning can occur when appropriate adult support and literacy materials are made available for children in meaningful contexts, such as adults drawing attention to letters and sounds in children’s own name and shared picture book reading.

Policy makers, academics and teachers are not the only big players in the phonics debate. Parents want their views heard – ultimately this debate is about their children. Parents are the children’s first and primary teachers so it is important that we understand parental views on phonics, because beliefs impact on the types of literacy practices children experience.

Parents want phonics in preschools, but emphasise the importance of play. A shared parent-teacher understanding and positive partnerships can ultimately support children’s literacy development.


Dr Stacey Campbell is a lecturer in early childhood at Queensland University of Technology. Her research focuses on early childhood literacy, phonics, teacher and parent beliefs and practices. Stacey completed a mixed-methods PhD in code-related literacy and phonics whilst working as an early childhood lecturer at Macquarie University. In addition to her PhD, she has a Masters degree in children’s literature and two teaching degrees, one in early childhood birth-to-eight and another in primary school education. Stacey also has over 10 years experience as an early childhood teacher in both the prior-to-school years and early years of school.


Stacey presented her paper on parental perceptions of phonics at the 2018 AARE conference this week.