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Emma Hartnell-Baker and Dr Grace Elliott

Dyslexia Support in Hampshire and Dorset

Dyslexia Support in Hampshire and Dorset

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Looking for ADHD or Dyslexia Assessments?

Better SEND Support through Early Phonemic Awareness Screening
Tech-Driven Phonemic Awareness Screening from The Reading Hut Ltd

Imagine a world in which children didn’t have to first fail to get the support they need as individuals. The feelings associated with that are often devastating to their mental health.

Perhaps the recent changes to decision-makers will prioritise early screening. Dr Grace Elliott (British Dyslexia Association practice manager) and I will be offering free dyslexia screening to children BEFORE they start learning phonics. She is on maternity leave at the moment, and as someone diagnosed with dyslexia as a child, she also has lived experiences of exactly what is outlined here.

Why would we be so ‘keen to screen’ children for phonemic awareness and phonological working memory before they start learning about written English?

Phonemic awareness (PA) at school entry—the ability to isolate, segment, and blend individual speech sounds in words—is identified as the leading predictor of reading success, even above intelligence (National Reading Panel, 2000; Snowling et al., 2011; Stanovich, 1986; Gough & Tunmer, 1986; Ehri et al., 2001).

The International Dyslexia Association emphasises that children with weak PA, the core deficit among dyslexic learners, struggle with letter-sound relationships, causing reading difficulties. It is vital that ALL children START school with phonemic awareness. The idea that synthetic phonics adequately develops this, so that all become readers, has created huge issues for at least 1 in 4 children.

The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) pre-school framework sets learning standards, specifying the need for explicit PA instruction. However, PA is not currently assessed at the national level, and screeners vary considerably. Even teachers struggle to understand the differences between phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and phonics, causing misunderstandings around effective diagnosis, data collection, tracking, and starting points for instruction.

Aligning with findings from global research, the Department for Education (DfE 2018) reports that 1 in 4 children start school without PA, highlighting the discrepancy between expectations and outcomes. Would you want your child to be the 1 in 4? This has nothing to do with their oral language skills or intelligence, and parents could have been reading to them daily.

As a neurodivergent ‘reading whisperer,’ I have flipped how children connect speech, spelling, and meaning. So we can engage 3-year-old children (even when pre-verbal) with ‘Phonemies’ as the visual hook, to isolate, segment, and blend speech sounds without letters. We don’t wait for them to fail a phonics screener check at the end of Year 1. We figure out why they will struggle, for example with synthetic phonics, and avoid the difficulties in the first place—two years before they enter those gates.

We want every child walking through school feeling happy and confident with who they are as unique individuals who are listened to, understood, and celebrated for their differences, not in spite of them.

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