There has been a huge shift in the past few years in how we teach reading in UK schools. This is having a big impact and helping many children learn to read and spell. Phonics is recommended as the first strategy that children should be taught in helping them learn to read. It runs alongside other teaching methods such as Guided Reading and Shared Reading to help children develop all the other vital reading skills and hopefully give them a real love of reading.
So, what exactly is 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
In phonics lessons children are taught three main things:
They are taught GPCs. This stands for grapheme phoneme correspondences. This simply means that they are taught all the phonemes in the English language and ways of writing them down. These sounds are taught in a particular order. The first sounds to be taught are s, a, t, p.
Children are taught to be able to blend. 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. This skill is vital in learning to read.
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. This skill is vital in being able to spell words.
What makes phonics tricky?
In some languages learning phonics is easy because each phoneme has just one grapheme to represent it. The English language is a bit more complicated than this. This is largely because England has been invaded so many times throughout its history. Each set of invaders brought new words and new sounds with them. As a result, English only has around 44 phonemes but there are around 120 graphemes or ways of writing down those 44 phonemes. Obviously we only have 26 letters in the alphabet so some graphemes are made up from more than one letter.
ch th oo ay (these are all digraphs - graphemes with two letters)
There are other graphemes that are trigraphs (made up of 3 letters) and even a few made from 4 letters.
Another slightly sticky problem is that some graphemes can represent more than one phoneme. For example ch makes very different sounds in these three words: chip, school, chef.
So why bother learning phonics?
In the past people argued that because the English language is so tricky, there was no point teaching children phonics. Now, most people agree that these tricky bits mean that it is even more important that we teach phonics and children learn it clearly and systematically. A written language is basically a kind of a code. Teaching phonics is just teaching children to crack that code. Children learn the simple bits first and then easily progress to get the hang of the trickier bits.
How is phonics taught?
Some people worry that phonics is taught to children when they are too young. However, those people might be surprised if they stepped into a phonics lesson. Phonics sessions are entirely made up from games, songs and actions. In my experience, (when phonics is taught well) children generally enjoy phonics so much that they beg their teachers to play phonics games with them at other times of the day.
Helping my child
Unofficial homework - sharing what they have learned today
Encourage your child to tell you what they have done at school today. The earlier you can get into this habit the better. Children in Nursery, Reception and Year 1 will have been learning songs and actions that they can show you and you can join in with. If your child absolutely won’t tell you, have a chat to the teacher and see if there are actions or songs that they can share with you. Otherwise, try learning some songs and nursery rhymes at home together.
Reading with your child
One of the greatest gifts that you can give to your child is a love of reading. Research has shown that one of the biggest indicators of success in a child’s life is whether or not they have books in the home. As a parent, try to focus on making reading fun and enjoyable rather than getting bogged down in trying to teach nitty gritty skills. There are many, many different things that you can do. Here are just a few:
Let your child see you reading - This can be a newspaper, magazine, anything you like. This is a powerful message to send to your child so go on, put your feet up for 10 minutes and have a read.
Reading to your child - Bedtime is great but any other time is fine too. Even when children are old enough to read by themselves they will still love to hear you read to them.
Read something with your child - It doesn’t need to be a book. The secret is to find something that your child is desperate to read - comics, magazines, football programmes, newspapers, internet pages, texts, e-mails, catalogues etc.
Talk about what they are reading - Talk before you start. Talk whilst you are reading. Talk after you have finished. You can still talk about what your child is reading even if they don’t want to actually read with you any more.
Praise your child - Studies show that children who are given specific support with their reading make much greater progress if they are given lots of praise than if they are given the support alone. It can be tough to think up lots of new ways to praise your child. It can be also be hard to stay positive if you are particularly worried about your child’s reading skills. Try to praise your child’s accuracy, understanding and attitude.
One really effective technique is Paired Reading. To do this you will read a book out loud at the same time as your child. When the child is ready they will give you a subtle signal agreed in advance (tap the book, nudge you - it can be anything but mustn’t disturb the reading). On this signal, you stop reading and the child carries on independently. If they make a mistake or get stuck, give them a moment to correct themselves. If they do, let them carry on. If they don’t then you join back in with them until they next give you the signal. This is a system that has been used since the 1970’s and has been proven in many studies to make a huge difference to children’s reading skills.
Pre-school / Nursery children
Helping My Child
Most pre-school children are fascinated by books, sounds and letters and parents are keen to support and encourage this. However, many people are unsure about how children will be taught to read in schools and are concerned that they don't want to do anything that may confuse or disadvantage their children in any way.
Don't worry. Anything that you do to develop your child’s love of language is a good thing. If you are looking for specific ideas, there are lots of starting points here.
There is no need to try to teach children phonics before they start school. However there is lots that you can do as a parent to help them be really ready for phonics when they do start school. In a nutshell: read lots of books, listen to all kind of sounds, make all kinds of sounds and talk about all kinds of sounds.
Phase 1 is all about developing these pre-phonics skills. There are many ideas here for developing these skills at home. None of these need to be planned or formal or a big deal. They are just little things that can be added into everyday play with your child.
Experimenting with voice sounds
Voice play - Encourage your child to use their voice to make a wide range of sounds. E.g. At the park:
Going up a ladder clunk, clunk, clunk
Coming down a slide whoosh
On a roundabout wheee
Digging in the sand ch ch ch
Bouncing a ball boing
Pulling faces - Play around with moving your mouth in different ways e.g waggling your tongue, opening as wide as possible, smiling wide, frowning, blowing lips etc. You may want to do this to music or it can be a fun bath time game. Make a range of sounds e.g oo, ee, sh, th. Exaggerate your mouth shape while you are doing this to encourage your child to copy your mouth shape. It can be fun to do this while you are both looking in a mirror.
Starting to split words into sounds (segmenting) and put sounds together to make words (blending)
Robotic talking - Words are made up from sounds (called phonemes) and children need to be able to hear these sounds individually. Sometimes when you are playing you can say words as if you were a robot (saying the sounds separately) and see if your child can work out what you are saying. Stick to short simple words that only have a few sounds in them. Make sure you are saying the letter sounds (p-i-g) not the letter names (pee-eye-gee). If you aren't sure what the sounds are or how to break that word down then just miss out that word and pick something easier. E.g.
Pass that p-i-g to me.
Point to your t-ee-th.
Hop like a f-r-o-g.
As your child becomes familiar with this robot talking, see if they can say words in robot talk themselves?
Books, books and more books
Always remember that phonics is just a means to an end. We only teach phonics to help our children learn to read and write and in order to do this successfully they need to love books. The most important thing to do with your child is to read as many books as possible. Read anything and everything that you’re child is interested in (including catalogues, take away menus etc). You don't have to read all (or any) of the words each time. Remember to use silly voices, make sound effects, pull faces, act things out, talk about what you can see, talk about what you both think and feel and generally have a whale of a time.
Being aware of sounds all around us
Toy sounds When your child is playing with their toys encourage them to make the right sounds. Farm animals, train sets, vehicles, dolls etc are great for this. Help your child to notice these sounds around and about. E.g. Listen to the sound that cars, trucks and fire engines make in the street. Practise making these noises, then use them with car, truck and fire engine toys.
Big ears Cup your hands around your ears and listen to sounds all around. Talk about what sounds you can hear. Try doing this in the house, in the street, on a bus (if you don't feel too silly), in the park, on the beach etc. Talk about the sounds: Are they loud or quiet? Are they short or long? Can you make a similar sound with your voice?
Experiment with musical instruments
Shake it all about - Make simple shakers by filling plastic bottles or tubs with rice, pasta, pebbles etc. Play with them and talk about the sounds that they make. Are the sounds soft, sharp, smooth, jiggly, scratchy?
Tap it out - Use the shakers above or use drums (pots and pans and wooden spoons are perfect) to play along with songs, rhymes and the radio. Try making the loudest sounds that you can then the quietest sounds that you can. Tap out simple rhythms. Can your child repeat the rhythm back to you?
Interesting instruments- If you see or hear instruments being played either in real life or on TV, talk about the sounds that the instrument makes. Which instruments does your child like the sound of best? Can they tell you why? Can they imitate the sound with their voice?
Playing around with rhythm and rhyme
Rhyming books - This is the time to bring out your inner performer and have as much fun as possible using silly voices, making sound effects and showing as much emotion as you can on your face (your child probably won't be looking at your face but they will hear this coming through in your voice). Encourage your child to join in as much as possible. You may want to develop your own actions, sound effects etc. There is no need to buy loads of books. Most children love having the same books repeated over and over and whenever you feel the need for a change there is always the library.
When children are really familiar with a particular book, try pausing before the rhyming word. Encourage your child to fill in the missing word.
Clap it out- Encourage children to think about the rhythms in words. Say simple nursery rhymes and clap along with one clap for each syllable. Repeat with knee taps, head pats or stamps.
Quick draw - When drawing together, try drawing a snake and a sock. Point out that these things both begin with a ‘s’ sound. Make the hissing s sound. If you say the name of the letter ‘ess’ it won't make as much sense to your child as the words aren't pronounced essnake or essock. Add some more ‘s’ pictures e.g. snail, spider etc. Your child may be able to suggest some ideas as well.