Phonics

What's it all about?

Introduction

Phonics is an integral part of the National Curriculum for pupils aged 4-7. Stated as ‘the route to decoding unknown words’, it is recommended in the 2014 new National Curriculum that pupils should be taught to ‘apply phonic knowledge and skills’ as the first strategy in learning to read.

For many parents, phonics is still an unknown entity and here at The Children’s Literacy Charity, we see first-hand through our Parents Workshops how parents struggle to grasp an understanding of phonics.  One of the mistakes parents make is teaching children the letter names.  Many parents are also unsure of how to articulate the sounds correctly.  This is because parents weren’t taught to read through a synthetic phonics programme.

What is synthetic phonics?

Words are made up from small units of sound called phonemes. Phonics teaches children to be able to listen carefully and identify the phonemes that make up each word. This helps children to learn to read words and to spell words.  Phonics initially begins in the nursery as children develop phonological awareness, that is, exploring sounds in their environment, creating sounds using their voice and body and describing the sounds as loud or quiet, high or low.  All this ground work paves the way for children to be ready to learn the first 44 phonemes.

Phonemes and Graphemes

Once children start in the EYFS, they learn each of the 44 phonemes in the English language and their corresponding graphemes (letters). These sounds are taught in a particular order and progress into more complex letter combinations.  It is very important that the phonemes are articulated precisely and clearly e.g. mmmm, llllllll, ssssss as opposed to m-uh, l-uh and s-uh.  To hear sounds articulate correctly, use this link: Articulation of Phonemes.

 The skills for reading

One of the main skills for reading is blending. This is when children say the sounds that make up a word and are able to merge the sounds together until they can hear what the word is, e.g. d-o-g = dog.  Children are also taught to segment. This is the opposite of blending. Children are able to say a word and then break it up into the phonemes that make it up, e.g. frog = f-r-o-g.  Both skills are vital in learning to read and spell.

Digraphs and Trigraphs

These are two and three letters together that make just one sound. Digraphs can be sh, ch, th, ss, ll.  Trigraphs can be igh, dge, tch.  These are taught explicitly within the phonics phases and children learn to spot them in words and remember the sounds they make.

With the English spelling system being the way it is, there are around 120 graphemes which need to be learnt and their corresponding phonemes.  As an example, the ‘ay’ phoneme can also be written as ai, a-e, ey, eigh, aigh and an ‘a’ on its own.  Furthermore, some graphemes can be represented by more than one phoneme, e.g. ch can be different sounds in chop, school or chef.

Irregular words

Phonics is one strategy in learning to read and spell.  This doesn’t work for all words however, as some words are irregular and need to be learnt as a whole word. Words such as was, come, said are not phonically decodable.  In this case, reading every day to your child is a way to help children recognise these words on sight.