Educating young learners: Making phonics fun

Pearson Languages
A woman gesturing to her mouth in a playroom with a child copying the gesture

For many young learners, reading and writing can be one of the most challenging steps in their English learning journey. Even fluent English speakers often find it difficult to understand the connection between how English is pronounced and how it is written.

Let’s explore how phonics can be a valuable and fun tool to help students and teachers understand this connection.

What is phonics?

Phonics is a method of teaching learners how to read by making the connection between sounds and letters. There are around 44 different sounds used in English, and around 120 different ways of writing them down.

Children learn to identify and say individual sounds (phonemes) and what letter or groups of letters can be used to write that sound down (graphemes). This helps children to read and spell words. For example, the /k/ sound is frequently written using these letters:

  • k as in kite
  • c as in cat
  • ck as in back

When children learn to read using phonics, the sounds are read out in isolation, for example, b-a-ck. Then they are blended together to form the whole word: back.

How to teach phonics

Other methods of learning how to read and spell rely on students memorizing every new word they encounter – that’s potentially thousands of new words! On the other hand, phonics gives students the tools and confidence to read and spell unfamiliar words autonomously. If they know the sounds, they can read the word.

Simply drilling sounds and letters will quickly become dull for students, so here are some practical, fun phonics ideas you can try out in the classroom.

1. Use music

Music can create a positive atmosphere for teaching phonics, and it helps children to memorize sounds in a lively, enjoyable way. Furthermore, it can improve pronunciation and listening skills.

  • Use musical instruments or clap to help students break words into individual sounds.
  • Alternatively, use ‘robot talk’ – say the words in a robotic way, breaking up the words into their component sounds, for example ‘r-e-d’.
  • Tongue twisters are useful for working on the initial sounds in words. Try creating tongue twisters using known vocabulary and students’ names, e.g. Sara sings in the sun.
  • Many ELT courses provide phonics songs that practice new sounds. However, you can also adapt well-known songs to teach phonics.

Example song:

Clap your hands and turn around!

Put your hands up!
Put your hands down.
Clap your hands
And turn around!

Put your head up!
Put your head down!
Clap your hands
And turn around.

Put your leg up!
Put your leg down!
Clap your hands
And turn around.

2. Move your body

Learning through movement comes naturally to many young learners and can be a dynamic part of your phonics routine. Incorporating movement into your lessons can motivate students and help them retain the sounds and letters.

  • Add an accompanying action when you present a new phonics sound and its corresponding letter/s. For example, say, ‘S, s, s, snake’ and make a snaking movement with your arm. The action becomes a visual prompt, so students call out ‘S!’ whenever you do the action.
  • Air drawing can be great fun. Have students trace the shape of letters in the air with a finger while repeating the corresponding sound. This is also good pre-writing practice.
  • You can even challenge students to work alone or in pairs to make letter shapes with their whole bodies!

3. Make phonics tactile

To really embed the connection between the shape of the letters and the sounds they represent, get children to use their hands to feel the shape of the letters while they repeat the sounds.

These tactile phonics activities have the added advantage of working on fine motor skills, which in turn will improve students’ handwriting.

  • Show students how to trace the shape of the letter in a tray of sand while repeating the sound. Alternatively, try tracing the letter shape in shaving foam.
  • Try modeling the letter shapes out of playdough or a piece of string.
  • A fun pair-work game involves one student silently drawing a letter on their partner’s back. Their partner must guess the letter and say the sound.

4. Be creative

There are wonderful, creative ways you can explore phonics with your students. For younger students who don’t yet have the fine motor skills to write letter shapes, using arts and crafts can be an enjoyable way to reinforce the link between the letter/s and the sound.

  • They could make letter shapes from dried pasta or use junk modeling.
  • Have your students decorate letter shapes by painting, coloring, or collaging. This will help them memorize the shapes. Encourage them to repeat the sounds as they do this, or play a phonics rhyme in the background so the association between the sound and letter/s is constantly reinforced.

Create class displays for different sounds using a variety of pictures and objects starting with that sound. Use them for revision and classroom games. Try splitting the class into teams and then calling out a sound, or a word starting with that sound. The first team to touch the display with the matching letter/s wins a point.

5. Play games

Many popular ELT games can be adapted to teach phonics. Games are a great way to bring phonics to life and to give young learners the confidence to produce the sounds themselves.

  • Play ‘Whispers’. Students sitting in a circle whisper a sound rather than a word to the child next to them until it reaches the end of the circle. The last child says the sound aloud, or points to the letters that correspond to that sound.
  • Get children to create their own sets of cards with sounds and pictures on them. These can be used to play card games like snap and pairs.
  • Other games such as i-spy, board rush games, bingo and lucky dip, can be easily adapted to teach phonics.

Whether you dedicate a whole lesson or just five minutes of your lesson to phonics, make sure to have fun!

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