Phonics. That alien word that keeps cropping up and puzzling most parents who have their first child approaching school-age. I didn’t learn phonics at school so what’s all the fuss about, I hear you ask? And what exactly is it?
Well… in a nutshell, it is a strategy for teaching children to read using the sounds of letters. A sound can be represented by one letter or more, and this is called a phoneme (which means the smallest unit of sound). For example, the phoneme a as in the word cat, is represented by one letter.
When children start school they will learn a sound at a time, starting with phonemes which are represented by one letter. Different schools will follow different phonics schemes which will mean the order and way children learn sounds may differ slightly, but the principle is the same. Children are often taught to remember the sounds using songs, rhymes or actions. Despite these different approaches, the order and way they are taught should be systematic.
Once children have learnt their first few sounds (which for some schemes are s a t p i n), they will be able to read a number of three letter words (pat, sat, pit, pin, tap, nap etc.). They will gradually move from these one letter sounds to digraphs which are sounds represented by two letters e.g. ay in play, ph in phone and ea in beach. Followed by trigraphs such as the igh in sight and quadgraphs like eigh in eight.
Now for a perfect example of how complicated the English spelling system can be! Some sounds can be represented by a number of different letter combinations.
Let’s go back to the ay sound. Which can be: a in baby
ay in play
ey in they
a_e in cake
ai in paid
ay in say
eigh in weigh
aigh in straight
Children will gradually learn to recognise these and will use them to read unfamiliar words, and for spelling words. The words are isolated as phonemes and then blended together to sound more word-like. If reading a word such as peach, it is decoded by splitting it into its phonemes, often termed ‘sounding it out’. Children will ‘sound out’ p-ea-ch and then blend the sounds together to make the word peach.
There are 44 phonic sounds in English. It’s a lot to remember, isn’t it? Schools typically have phonics sessions every day in foundation stage and year 1, to constantly refresh, review and learn new sounds. Children will also learn sight words which they won’t need to use phonics for. These are words which occur frequently such as the, he and she.
So what about the alphabet? This should still be taught but in relation to the name of the letter, not the sound. The letter name is a (pronounced ay) and the sound is a (like in apple). A common mistake I’ve seen, even made by some professionals, is representing the letter name with a capital A, and the sound with lower case a. This is not correct. They can both be representations of the letter name and the sound but are used in different positions. Focus on lowercase letters to begin with to avoid confusion.
And that is basic phonics in a nutshell. It’s not loved by all but is generally considered a successful system for a large proportion of young readers. Currently, Ofsted and the Department for Education strongly advise phonics teaching, so for the time being, it’s happening whether we like it or not! So let’s just embrace it and try to make phonics as fun as we can.
For my final thought on this topic, I just want to emphasise that being able to read words is only one aspect of reading. An understanding of what is being read is just as important. That’s where we get the enjoyment from after all. And more than anything, we need to encourage young children to love books, stories and reading.