Phonics is the key to your child’s reading journey. As a parent, you may have heard that before. But seeing as you’ve found your way to this blog, your own understanding of phonics may be limited. After all, most adults are unable to recall how they learnt to read, and phonics probably wasn’t the method of teaching used.

As a primary school teacher and literacy leader, I am frequently asked how parents can help their child at home. In this post, I’ll explain the key information for parents to improve their own understanding of phonics, and how to best support with early reading.

What is phonics?

Phonics is much more than just sounds and letters, but it’s a good starting point for parents to get their head around it all. There are 44 sounds, or phonemes, in the English language. These sounds are represented in written English by individual letters or groups of letters, these are called graphemes

As parents, you do not need to know the entire list of graphemes (there are around 126) but it’s important to understand the systematic approach of how your child will learn them.

Alphabet or Phonics?

Systematic synthetic phonics is the most common (and effective) teaching strategy used in learning to read. The systematic approach is helpful because it builds on what your child already knows, hearing and saying sounds. When your child was a baby or toddler, you already supported your child with their phonemic awareness by exploring different sounds (babbling, cooing etc.) or singing songs and nursery rhymes.

Teaching your child the alphabet in either oral and written form will not benefit them at the early stages of reading. It actually can make things harder when learning phonics because they are required to ignore what has already been stored in their memory. So it’s best to avoid the alphabet until they have mastered the first steps in phonics.

Talking with your child, alongside sharing books and stories, is much more beneficial in preparing your child for early reading. This has the power to develop both their vocabulary and understanding of the world around them.

Say it better!

The initial challenge for any parent wishing to support phonics at home is becoming familiar with the sounds yourself. It is useful for parents to be aware of how to articulate the sounds correctly and in their ‘purest’ form, without adding any extra ‘aahs’ or ‘uhhs”.

Click here to listen and learn how to say the sounds in their pure form.

TIP! To flex your phonics muscles with your child before they learn the sounds formally, you can play around with saying and hearing sounds together. This will whet their appetite for hearing initial sounds e.g. sounds at the beginning of a word. Play ‘I spy’ (the sound version).

“I spy, something beginning with ssssssss (hiss like a snake, avoid naming the letter)” 

Even better if you link this to visuals that your child is familiar with or things you’ve been talking to your child about e.g animals, colours, foods. Don’t worry if this isn’t successful immediately, remember your child is on their own path to reading. The end goal may be the same for each child but how they get there is unique to them.

Phonic knowledge & skills 

When your child first begins to learn phonics at an educational setting, they will be introduced to key knowledge and skills.

Knowledge: 

  • Sounds can be represented by a single letter. 

Skills:

  • To blend, or put together, sounds to form words.
  • To segment, or split, sounds in words.

The order that the first collection of sounds are taught, and the way in which they are introduced, varies according to the phonics programme. Some define them as ‘sets’, ‘codes’ or ‘phases’. They are not usually taught in alphabetical order, rather in groups that enable children to build (over time) a collection of words to read or spell. 

Commonly, the sounds are taught over a weekly period e.g. one per day or a group of focus sounds. Ask your child’s educational provider for the phonics programme used and you can locate the precise sequence. Below is a guide for the first group of singe-letter sounds.

aimstno
pbcghd
efvklu
rjwzxy
Which alphabet letter is missing? 

Phonics lessons

Each phonics programme has their own distinct way to teach the sounds. For example; some programmes use pictures on cards to help children recall the grapheme whilst some keep it simpler. Here are some of the fundamentals to a phonics lesson.

Note: these may take place over the course of several days rather than in one session.

  • Hear and Say the sound/s in isolation e.g. a – a – a
  • Identifying the sound within a word, sometimes with “sound buttons” underneath.  Press the button and say the sound, then listen for the word. Children should also become familiar with words without buttons or dots.
  • Practise writing the grapheme that represent a sound.
  • Build words using a group of sounds e.g. by listening to the sounds in the word and selecting the grapheme from cards/letter tiles. Copy the sounds by writing them down in sequence.
  • Practise listening to the sound/s in words (without seeing any graphemes). This is often done in ‘sound talk’ where sounds are segmented aloud by the teacher e.g. “a-t”, “a-m”, “a-n”. Your child will then be encouraged to blend the sounds together to hear the word. This takes a lot of practice! 

TIP!Sound-talk’ is a really simple activity to introduce at home with your child “Let’s find your h-a-t” or  “Time for b-e-d.”

Remember, at no point is there a need to refer to the letter names when exploring the first collection of sounds.

Sounds to words

From the outset of phonics teaching, your child will begin to practise reading and spelling words. You will be surprised by their motivation to do this independently when at school and at home. However, as with most new learning, it will need a lot of practice. 

Words are taught initially in two or three-sound structures, commonly referred to as vc or cvc words. This refers to the number of consonants or vowels.

vco – na – ti – n
cvcm – a – tp – a – nt – o – p

Once they have been introduced to all of the first collection of sounds, the structure of the words could increase to 4-letter and 5-letter words. 

cvccc-a-m-pccvcd-r-a-g
ccvccg-r-a-n-dcvccch-a-n-d-s

Note: all these words still only contain ‘single-letter’ sounds (one letter representing one sound). 

High frequency

Alongside teaching words that can be decoded (read by using phonic sounds), some high frequency words are introduced. These words are common in everyday speech and therefore frequent in many sentences for reading and writing e.g. the, go, we.

To enable early readers to begin to read and write simple sentences, we introduce them to these words through constant exposure. As these words contain graphemes they haven’t yet been taught formally, they are often encouraged to recall them by sight as whole words.

Reading at home

This is by far the most common area of focus for parents when children begin learning phonics. Your child will be provided with a “book” or a collection of words to help them practise their phonics knowledge and skills. When given a “book” it is probably going to appear quite ‘dry’ and should not replace exposing your child to other books and literature which can be read to them by an adult. 

However, these “books” offer an opportunity to practice phonics and encourage many of the stepping stones to reading independently e.g. holding a book the correct way up, scanning across a page, reading from left to right and across a sentence, noticing punctuation, repetitive phrasing etc. They are simple enough that children can also attempt to discuss the meaning of words, phrases or sentences when guided by an adult. 

To parents, they may seem “too easy” and basic, especially for children who have been exposed to books from an early age. However, their intended use is important to understand. Our aim is for children to be successful after practising their phonic skills at school. Early readers at this stage of the path should be using a ‘phonetically controlled’ text e.g. a text that closely matches the sounds and words they have been taught to read in phonics lessons. This reduces the cognitive demands that are placed on the child.

To offer some advice to parents, your child only needs to practise reading them once each day. Avoid focusing on which ‘level’, ‘band’ ‘grade’ or ‘colour’ they are reading. As suggested, spend most of your time enjoying fun stories together, including high-quality texts from home or the library. This develops your child’s language, comprehension, and pleasure for reading.

Spelling at home

Now that your child has been practising their knowledge and skills at school, it is really helpful to stick to the same strategies for spelling they have been taught. Encourage your child to listen carefully to the sounds in a word, even if this may not be entirely right on paper. It is tempting to correct any spelling errors, yet in school, teachers should encourage students to write words using ‘phonetically plausible’ attempts. Therefore, they are simply using what they have been taught at this stage.

If a child were to spell ‘mat’ incorrectly, you could focus on listening again to the sounds in the word to support them to error correct, as they are familiar with these sounds. However, if they attempt to spell the word ‘astronaut’, focus on praising your child for each correct sound they have identified.

Next steps in phonics

Once children have become proficient in the first steps of phonics learning, they progress onto learning further knowledge e.g. the other phonemes and graphemes. This is where the path to reading becomes increasingly more challenging for your child.

A new concept is introduced through the language of “two letters but one sound”. Some phonics programmes introduce this through double consonants, building on the sounds that your child has already encountered e.g. /ff/ huff, /ll/ will,  /ss/ mess, /zz/ buzz. 

Later they will move on to learn new sounds in the form of consonant digraphs. Try having a go at saying these sounds yourself in their purest form. 

/sh/ shop/ch/ chip/ck/ pick/qu/ quit (kw)
/wh/ when/ng/ sing/th/ moth/th/ this
digraphs: two letters but one sound

Note: Early readers follow the same structure in phonics sessions for these new sounds, applying the same skills as before e.g. blending and segmenting. 

It may become increasingly more difficult for your child to recognise these sounds in words. Therefore supporting your child at home can become useful at this time. It doesn’t have to be time-consuming or costly, creating some simple flashcards or even ‘post-its’ will do.

TIPS!

  • Hit and say the sound as they come into a room (good for specific graphemes they haven’t mastered)
  • Place a different sound on each stair and they say them as they go up
  • Play “Sound Snap”
  • Memory – matching a pair of graphemes
  • Use a bug swatter to hit the sounds that are called out

Also, encourage your child to read these new sounds in words to provide a meaningful context.

What to do if your child is struggling with phonics

As mentioned, each child’s path to reading is unique. Some children grasp phonic knowledge and skills more quickly than others. In every class I have taught, there have been a range of phonic abilities, so rest assured it is not something for parents to worry about. Your child is developing a life-long skill, it’s going to take some time.

Firstly, talk to your child’s teachers to discuss which areas of phonics they are finding challenging. School-home partnerships work best in supporting your child in their path to reading. The teacher may suggest some additional practice resources or areas to focus on at home. 

The best advice I offer to parents (and my students) is that “practice makes permanent”. To enable children to master phonics they simply need more practice. This may be done outside of their usual phonics lesson, in a small group with a teacher, or on a one-to one basis. ‘Little and often’ is the most appropriate strategy for children of this age.

It is important to recognise that whilst phonics is a key component of becoming an independent reader and writer, there are many other important factors that contribute to success e.g. discussion, understanding, opinion, vocabulary. If there’s one thing I will continue to advocate, sharing books and stories with your child is paramount, coming before and alongside phonics.

For further support on phonics and reading, leave a comment below or get in touch on socials.

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