Phonics is a method of teaching children to read using sound. Children develop phonics skills by linking sounds with the letters that represent them. This article will explore how phonics works, how effective it is, and how you can use phonics to improve children’s reading comprehension.
Phonics is used by most primary school teachers in the UK and is how we teach children to read and write at LS Tuition.
LS Tuition Phonics Chart for practising phonics at home:
What does phonics mean?
Phonetics is a method of teaching reading by linking spoken language with written language. Phonemes and graphemes are key phonics terminology:
- Phonemes (sounds in words): a phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in speech. Children ‘decode words’ by recognising which letters represent these sounds. For example, the word ‘cat’ has 3 phonemes — ‘c’, ‘a’, and ‘t’.
- Graphemes (the letters used to represent sounds). A grapheme can be a single letter or letter groups like ‘sh’, ‘igh’ or ‘gh’.
When we say the sound ‘t’ it’s a phoneme but when we write ‘t’ it’s a grapheme. Still with us?
It helps to think of language as a code and phonics instruction as the method that helps children decode words. Phonics helps children learn alphabet languages like English as it develops their awareness of same sound words and language patterns.
Phonics instruction also helps children to know which letters to use when writing.
How does teaching phonics help children read?
Children begin their phonics journey by learning the alphabet. They learn how to say each sound (phoneme) out loud in relation to its corresponding letter (grapheme). Children begin with the individual sounds of each letter and then progress to short words like ‘cat, ‘nap’, and ‘hat’.
Learning how to group sounds and letters together into short word families is called blending.
It’s important to get the basics right at the beginning of a child’s phonics journey. Early mistakes carried forward will make it harder for a child to read and write fluently, but a strong grasp of how to form letters correctly sets a child up for success.
Phonics in KSI
Phonics benefits most children in Key Stage 1.
A synthetic phonics method in particular has been found effective in helping children progress with reading, compared to a whole language approach. In an alphabetic language like English, this means linking spoken sounds with individual letters or groups of letters.
For example, the sound k can be spelled as c, k, or ck.
What are the 4 types of phonics teaching for children?
There are 4 methods of teaching children phonics.
- Synthetic phonics: words are broken into the smallest sounds (phonemes). This method enables children to identify all phonemes in a word, which letter they correspond to, and how to spell the word.
- Analytical phonics: children analyse letter sound relationships rather than pronouncing words in isolation.
- Analogy phonics: in analogy phonics, children expand on existing skills to decode new words using sound groups they’re already familiar with.
- Embedded phonics: children are taught letter sound relationships in context. For example, learning to decode ‘tiger’ by reading a short story with their teacher about tigers and rainforest animals.
What are examples of phonic sounds?
After individual letters come consonant clusters (or consonant blends) and consonant digraphs.
Consonant clusters are made of two individual sounds e.g. ‘s’ and ‘t’ in ‘stay’.
Consonant clusters can appear at the start of a word:
st in stay
fr in friend
cr in croak
Or at the end of a word:
sk in task
st in fast
nt in went
nd in sound
It takes patience and practice for children to sound out consonant clusters. Words like ‘jump’ where ‘j’ and ‘p’ are sounded individually in the same word are much trickier to say than simple one sound words like ‘jam’.
Consonant digraphs are different from consonant clusters. Digraphs are two or more consonants that together represent on sound.
For example, the letters ‘p’ and ‘h’ are consonants but together they form the grapheme ‘ph’ that creates the ‘f’ sound in ‘phone’ or ‘nephew’. Or ‘phonics’!
Examples of common consonant digraphs:
- sh – as in she or wish.
- kn – as in know or knock.
- ch – as in chair or chat.
- ph – as in phone or phonics.
- wr – as in wrench or wreck.
- ck – as in tick or pluck.
- ss – as in chess or class.
- tch – as in watch or witch.
What are the 44 phonic sounds?
Spoken English is made up of 44 phonemes. These phonemes blend together to form words and help us read and write.
Phonemes are further divided into:
- 19 consonants
- 7 digraphs
- 5 sounds influenced by the letter ‘r’
- 5 long vowels
- 5 short vowels
- 2 ‘oo’ sounds
- 2 diphthongs
Teachers systematically work through the 44 phonemes when teaching children to read. progressing from easy, individual sounds to more complex words. Children learn about how short vowels, long vowels, an open syllable, or a closed syllable can contribute to different sounds.
Why is learning phonics so important?
Phonics skills are an important part of language development. Phonetic reading helps children decode new words and translate the letters they see on the page into sounds, which is the key to mastering reading.
Studies show that phonics works. The Education Endowment Foundation found that phonics can give children a significant head start at reading English accurately.
Instead of relying on rote memorisation, phonics teaches children word patterns that they can apply to unfamiliar or new words. This skill helps them decode words faster.
Say a teacher wanted a child to learn the words ‘cat’, ‘sat’ and ‘mat’. They might put the three words into the sentence ‘the cat sat on the mat’. However, this approach doesn’t encourage children to look at wider word patterns that unlock further pronunciations.
Phonics would encourage children to notice the ending ‘-at’. By noticing the sound pattern, they can decode words like ‘hat’, ‘bat’, and ‘rat’.
The National Literacy Trust has downloadable phonics resources.
How do you teach phonics reading?
Blending is a key technique in phonics reading. After learning the sounds of the alphabet, children will be taught to blend sounds to form short words.
Examples of short words are ‘cat’ or ‘map’. ‘Cat’ and ‘map’ each contain 3 phonemes that children learn to sound out as individual letters.
The next step is consonant clusters. Children learn that words can be made of two-letter sounds. For example, ‘friend’ is made of the sounds ‘fr’ and ‘end’.
Another technique you might have heard of is called ‘sounding out’. This is when a child learns how to say more complex or unfamiliar words by identifying the sounds of individual letters. Later, they’ll be able to blend individual sounds together.
What is blending in phonics?
Blending letter sounds together helps children ‘sound out’ unfamiliar words. Once a child knows how to say the letters ‘t’, ‘p’, ‘a’, and ‘s’, they can then form words like ‘tap’, ‘taps’, ‘pat’, ‘pats’ and ‘sat’.
How to blend sounds
There are 2 ways to blend sounds in phonics:
After decoding a word by sounding out, a child will then learn to blend the sounds together. There are two ways to do this:
- Choppy blending
- Smooth blending
Choppy blending is a technique whereby the sounds of a word are individually sounded without connection e.g., ‘cat’ would be sounded out as ‘c-a-t’.
Sometimes this technique leads children to hear individual sounds instead of the whole word. They might know the letter sound relationships but struggle to connect all the sounds into a meaningful word.
This is where smooth blending comes in.
As the name suggests, smooth blending blends all the sounds in a word together without a pause. For example, ‘caaaat’.
The trick is to stretch individual sounds to connect them together. If you’re child struggles with choppy blending, give smooth blending a go.
One more thing: don’t forget about pure sounds. This is extremely important in phonics!
Why is it important to use pure sounds in phonics instruction?
‘Pure sounds’ are important in phonics instruction because they are easier for children to blend together. For example, the phoneme ‘s’ is pronounced ‘ssssss’ not ‘es’.
Using ‘pure sounds’ makes reading easier for children and helps them progress faster.
When sounding out it’s very important not to add ‘uh’ to the end of words. So, a parent or teacher may say that letter ‘l’ makes a ‘luh’ sound. This is a mistake!
Adding ‘uh’ results in words that don’t makes sense. ‘Lit’ becomes ‘luh-i-tuh’ instead of ‘lit’. Do you see how this confuses children?
Adding extra sounds to the end of words is a common mistake when teaching phonics but it’s a habit to break if you want to avoid confusion.
Encoding: taking phonics instruction to the next step
Once your child is comfortable sounding out phonemes, the next step is encoding.
What is encoding in phonics?
Encoding is the ability to hear a phoneme (word sound) and write down its corresponding grapheme (letter). Though there are 44 phonemes, children will learn a variety of graphemes in order to spell the words they hear.
Let’s use the example ‘cat’ again. As their phonic abilities develop, children will be able to hear the three distinct sounds in ‘cat’ – ‘c’, ‘a’, and ‘t’. This recognition will allow them to spell ‘cat’ with greater accuracy.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of teaching phonics?
There are many advantages to teaching children phonics.
Research shows that learning phonics can:
- Help learners identify letter-sound relationships faster,
- Improve reading fluency,
- Make sounding out unfamiliar words easier,
- Boost vocabulary and language development,
- Improve spelling,
- Improve a child’s ability to focus,
- Help learners understand the structure of a word e.g., the difference between vowels and consonants,
- Help young readers learn the rules of English faster,
However, phonics does have a few drawbacks:
- Phonics won’t help children learn words that aren’t spelled phonetically. For example, they might pronounce ‘said’ as ‘sayed’,
- Phonics doesn’t focus on word comprehension. Therefore, a child might learn how to pronounce a word but not understand what it means.
It’s important to ensure children are making progress in all areas of reading. Reading comprehension, spelling, and vocabulary are all essential parts of mastering the English language.
Therefore, it’s important to take a holistic approach rather than rely on phonics alone.
How do you explain phonics to children?
We believe that children learn best in a positive, low-stress environment. Here are a few tips to help you support your child’s phonics journey.
Make phonics fun!
The aim is to develop your child’s reading capabilities so that they can start enjoying books for themselves. Practice using words relating to topics your child enjoys e.g., space or dinosaurs.
Phonics mini lessons
Keep sessions short. 10 minutes of focused practice is worth hours of wasted effort. Always stop before children get frustrated or bored.
Play a phonics game
Sing songs and rhymes together while encouraging your child to clap when they notice rhyming words. Older children can play a ‘word hunt’ e.g., finding ‘mum’ on the page or a word that begins with ‘p’.
Pick and time and place to practice where there will be minimal distractions from screens or raucous siblings.
Studies show that children benefit from reading with a parent. Reading together instills a love of stories, improves reading comprehension, and gives you important shared time together.
When it comes to phonics instruction there’s a lot of tricky terms to remember. However, understanding phonics terminology will help you discuss your child’s reading progress with their teacher and help them learn at home.
Keep track with our handy glossary.
- Phonics: method of teaching people to read by linking sounds with symbols.
- Phoneme: the sound of a letter or group of letters. For example. ‘cat’ has three phonemes, ‘c’, ‘a’, and ‘t’.
- Grapheme: the symbol (or letter) that corresponds to a phoneme.
- Decoding: using phonics to sound out the correct pronunciation of a word.
- Encoding: the ability to hear a word, and spell it, using the correct graphemes (letters).
- Sounding out: speaking word sounds aloud to pronounce a word.
- Blending: running together all the sounds in a word in order to read it e.g. ‘bl-a-ck’.
- Digraph: Two letters grouped together to make one sound e.g., ‘sh’.
Hopefully, you now have an idea of how effective phonics can be, and all the tools you need to begin reading instruction in phonics.