Understanding phonics

Phonics is a style of teaching people to read by linking sounds and letters. Here’s how you can help your child learn in this way, even if you didn’t yourself.

My child has just started school and is learning to read via phonics – what does this mean?

With phonics, children are taught to read by learning the phonemes (sounds) that represent letters or groups of graphemes (letters).

With this knowledge, children can begin to read words by learning how to blend the sounds together. Unlocking how this alphabetic code works means they can learn to decode any word. For example, when they’re taught the sounds /t/, /p/, /a/, /i/ and /s/ early on, children can read words such as it, is, tap, tip, pat, sip and sat by blending the individual sounds together to make the whole word.

These words can also be broken down (segmented) into their phonemes for spelling. For example, the word ‘sat’ has three phonemes, /s/, /a/ and /t/, which the children learn to write with the three graphemes (letters) ‘s’, ‘a’ and ‘t’ that they have been taught.

They will also be taught to read words – like ‘once’, ‘was’ and ‘have’ – which don’t follow the phonic ‘rules’. They’ll build up a stock of these tricky words so they can recognise them right away.

How to help your child with phonics

Say the sounds correctly

It’s important that the sounds are pronounced correctly, just as they would sound in speech. Try not to add ‘uh’ to consonant sounds, such as /t/ and /p/, as this makes it trickier to blend the sounds together into words.

Link sounds and letters to make words

Children are taught in school to quickly see a link between the phoneme (sounds) and a written representation of that sound (grapheme). 

At home, encourage your child to do the same when playing with fridge magnets in the kitchen, for example, or when you’re writing something.

Don’t be scared – make it fun!

Phonics can seem daunting if it’s not how you were taught to read. But simple games like ‘I spy’ are a great way to help with this way of learning, because your child has to listen to sounds. You could say, for example, “I spy, with my little eye, something that begins with the sound ‘f-f-f’”. This could be something like a ‘football’ or the ‘fridge’. Make sure you refer to the first sound, not the first letter. Take it in turns and it can be a lot of fun.

Keep practising

Encourage your child to use their phonic knowledge when they practise their reading. Make sure that they look at each letter in turn, all through each word. Get them to work out the sounds and then blend them together to make the whole word. Praise them for trying to use all the letters rather than guessing from just the first letter or the picture.

Understand phonics