What is Phonics?

With the new school year under way some of you will have been introduced to phonics for the first time. Phonics is a very useful decoding tool used for developing reading skills and as an encoding tool for spelling.

Phonics is the simple process of linking sounds to letters, its complexity comes from how many sound (phoneme) to letter (grapheme) combinations there are. So, to be good at phonics a child needs to know the 44 sounds and numerous letter and letter combinations of English and then learn the associations between the two.

Children can communicate orally from an early age; it is when they move to the written word that they need to learn how to decode text, to turn the letters into words they already know.  

Using phonics knowledge for reading entails:

  1. Identify the letter or letter combination, in a word, that represent a sound
  2. Associate the letter or letter combination to one of the 44 sounds
  3. Blend each of the sounds together to form the word
  4. Recognise the now oral word to extract its meaning

The theory supporting the teaching of reading using phonics, especially synthetic phonics, is that if a child can decode a word by associating individual sounds to a letter or combination of letters they will then be able to blend those sounds together to form and say the word.

Once a word has been spoken they will extract its meaning by using their far more extensive spoken language comprehension. Children are therefore using the same mental processes to understand written text and speech.

Using Letter Names & Phonics

On our Teach Phonics website, and as part of our Teach Handwriting Scheme and website, children are taught the letter names. Some schools, teacher and parents still seem to be concerned that this is not consistent with the teaching of phonics. 

A myth which seems to have become popular, since the introduction of phonics into schools, is that children should not be taught the alphabet letter names as they find it too confusing. However, there is no evidence to suggest this is true. The Independent review of the teaching of early reading, final report, Jim Rose March 2006 states:

“The teaching of letter names is often left until after the sounds of the letters have been learned, in the belief that it can be confusing for children to have to learn both together. However, research indicates that children often learn letter names earlier than they learn letter sounds and that five year olds who know more letter names also know more letter sounds. The reasons for this are not fully understood by researchers’.

Given that children will meet many instances outside, as well as within, their settings and schools where letter names are used, it makes sense to teach them within the programme of early phonic work.

It appears that the distinction between a letter name and a letter sound is easily understood by the majority of children.” (Page 26)

Rose, cites Professor Morag Stuart who suggests that:

‘…children expect things to have names and are accustomed to rapidly acquiring the names of things.’ (Independent review of the teaching of early reading’ final report, Jim Rose March 2006, page 27.)

Learning the unique letter names of the alphabet is a pre-phonics skill; as well as an early learning goal. It has to be remembered that a letter is a shape which only represents a sound when it is placed within a word or sentence. Also a letter or combination of letters can represent more than one sound and so the only unique way of identifying alphabet letters when we talk about them is to use their names.

Learning the correct letter names helps to reinforce that when talking about the letter ‘a’ (ay) for example it has a set shape regardless of the sound that it will be representing in the word. This further supports children’s handwriting development as the communication of your requirements is unambiguous.

One of the first things we like a child to be able to write correctly is their name, however most names are impossible to spell using the simple phonics code taught to young children. A name does not have to be long in length to be phonetically difficult to spell such as Christopher or Charlotte. Shorter names such as Lucy or Liam also cause a problem. 

The only logical answer I suggest is to use the letter names until a child has been introduced to the more complex phonics coding system. 

Back to School – Ways to Support Your Child’s Phonics Knowledge

grapheme chart keyboard

After such a long break from school it is good to take some time to check your child has not slipped back.

Playing some simple letter name and sound games can really help get your child (and you) back into school mode.

Some simple game ideas:

  • You can use words in books, cards, on labels or signs when out and about. Ask your child to point to a particular letter in the word using the letter name. Then ask your child to say the word, or you can say it. Then ask them to tell you what sound the letter is making in that word.
  • Pick a card at random, using lower-case and capital letter flash cards (you can make your own); show your child and ask them to tell you the name of the letter on the card, and to give you a sound the letter makes. Ask older children to give you the other sounds the letter can make. For older children you can also use cards that have common digraphs (two letters representing one sound) and trigraphs (three letters representing one sound) on.
  • Play Pelmanism (Memory Game). How to Play:
    • You will need two sets of flash cards. The cards are thoroughly mixed and spread face down on the table or floor. They can be arranged in a regular pattern or randomly, but they must not overlap.
    • One player turns over a card, leaving it in the same place, they say what it is (letter name and/or sound) and then turn over another saying what it is. If the two cards match then the player keeps them and has another go. If the cards do not match then the cards are turned back over in the same location as before and it is the next players turn.
    • The game is finished when all the cards have been matched and the winner is the one with the most pairs.

If you are not sure of all the sounds a letter, or combination of letters, can represent then use our Alphabet Keyboard to help you find the sounds (phonemes): bit.ly/2bUtZae