Reading to your children is a firm favourite activity for parents. But there comes a point where it's time for them to learn to read for themselves.
Phonics is now the most established, and considered to be the most effective, method of teaching children to read. But what is it? We've learned to read, as evidenced by you reading this article right now, but you may have never heard of it before.
I certainly didn't know what phonics was until my son started school and started his reading journey.
In this guide, we'll look at what phonics is and what you can do to help teach phonics at home.
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What is phonics?
Phonics (sometimes called 'phonics instruction') is a method of teaching children how to read that focuses on the relationship between the written language and spoken words.
The English language is very complex, with different letters making different sounds depending on which letters they're grouped with. Of course, we have entire words that sound exactly the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings. And even words that sound the same, have the same spelling but have completely different meanings (as StageDoorJohnny explains in one of his hilarious videos).
Rather than relying on memorising the sounds that entire written words make, when we teach phonics, we teach the ability to decode words the child doesn't recognise - to break them down into chunks and sound them out.
Teaching children phonics will help them to understand which letter combinations to use as they write words, and equally what sound to make when they come across unfamiliar words. For example, it will help them to understand that the sound of a K can be written as C, K, CK, or CH.
Methods of teaching phonics
Teaching phonics has become the established and default method of teaching children to read in many parts of the world. But there is more than one type of phonics instruction.
Synthetic phonics is the most common approach for developing phonics skills. It's a learning process that seeks to build phonemic awareness - the understanding of letter sounds. It does this by splitting words and asking a child to identify the sounds of each phoneme before blending it together.
For example, the word 'dog', is split into three letters that sound 'd-, oh, g-'. Once a child blends those sounds together, it becomes 'dog'.
An important part of teaching phonics is not to confuse letter sounds with the traditional method of teaching them. In years gone by, we might have taught children the sounds the letters of the alphabet like this 'Ah, buh, cuh, duh' and so on. With this method of blended phonics, that would result in children sounding out words incorrectly. To take our previous example, there is a danger they could read 'duh-oh-guh' instead of just 'dog'.
A popular method of phonics instruction in Scotland, analytic phonics (also called 'analytical phonics') doesn't consider phonemes in isolation. Instead, students learn to analyse (hence the name) simple words to determine what links them. For example, in order to learn the phoneme for the letter D, they may analyse words such as 'dog', 'day', and 'door'.
A type of analytical phonics, analogy phonics helps children to identify words using phonograms. A phonogram is essentially a rhyme using a starting vowel and the rest of a word that sounds the same. For example, 'cake', 'rake', 'fake', 'take', 'make'.
Embedded phonics is a little different the other methods. It embeds teaching phonics into a wider context. Rather than holding dedicated lessons on phonics and reading, a teacher might highlight certain letter sounds they come across in the middle of a maths lesson. Or a parent might point out a phonogram while they're out and about with their child.
Stages of phonics
There are five key stages of learning phonics. Let's take a look at each one.
As we've already discussed, phonemic awareness is the understanding of the sounds made by written letters (graphemes).
Children are taught the relationship between certain letters and the sounds they make. Schools and phonics programmes will usually teach the letters S,A,T,P,I,N first. Allowing them to learn the sounds of words like 'sat', 'pin', 'pat', 'tap' etc.
Once the phonemic awareness is established, children will start on blending using CVC words. CVC stands for 'consonant, vowel, consonant' like the aforementioned 'sat', 'pat', 'tap', 'pin'. They will then move on to blending CCVC (consonant consonant vowel consonant) words such as 'stop', 'spin', 'plan', and then, CVCC (consonant vowel consonant consonant) words such as 'past', 'milk'.
Once your child has established an ability to blend simple words together, they will move onto digraphs. Digraphs are two letter combinations that make one sound. There are consonant digraphs, such as 'ch', 'ng' and 'th'. And there are vowel digraphs, such as 'ea', 'oo' or 'ai'.
This stage also involves learning 'sight words'. Sight words, also know as 'tricky words' or 'common exception words', are a collection of simple worlds that form a large part of our language but don't conform to usual spelling rules. The phonics rules they have learned and are learning won't help them to recognise unknown words.
They're called sight words because we want children to see them as whole words and instantly remember what sounds they make.
The next stage involves introducing alternative graphemes. This relates to when different letter combinations make the same sounds. For example, the 'ay' in 'day' is the same sound as 'ai' in 'rain', the 'eigh' in 'sleigh', the 'a' in 'acorn', or the 'a_e' in 'same'.
They will also be introduced to different sounds made by the same digraph. For example, the 'ea' makes a different sound in the words 'tea', 'bread' and 'break'.
Fluency is a slightly strange one, because it's something that develops throughout each stage. The more familiar your child becomes with different letter sounds and letter combinations, their reading of those words will become more fluid and fluent.
However, once they've progressed to alternative graphemes and are comfortably able to decode unknown words, then the only thing left to do is to improve their reading fluency. They've got the building blocks, they know the word families and spelling rules. It's just about putting it all in the practice and reading, reading, reading.
Can you teach phonics at home?
Absolutely! Although your child's school will (likely) teach phonics, there's no reason why you can't either, supporting their efforts from home. The most important thing is to make learning phonics fun, especially for younger readers.
There are essentially three ways of teaching phonics at home; support what they're learning during the school day, do something different to school, or, get a head start and start teaching phonics before they even start school.
Supporting the school
Most schools will send kids home with phonics reading books each week tailored to their reading level. As a first step, reading these books with your child is the easiest way to help teach phonics at home (and it's also fantastic for bonding).
The benefit of this is that you're probably not an expert in education or teaching children to read, so you're following the lead of professionals who, in many cases, will have helped hundreds of children to read over the years. Your child's teacher is almost always willing to help you understand what methods they use and any resources they can provide for you to use at home.
However, not every child learns in the same way. Some benefit from a learning process that focuses on play, while others may develop better with a more academic learning process. The specific ways your child's teacher teaches phonics may not suit your child and their reading ability may not progress as quickly as you'd all like.
Try something different
If you're worried that the school's method of teaching phonics (or maybe they don't even use phonics!) aren't working, you might choose to go down another path and follow a phonics learning programme yourself.
That's what happened with the founder of Reading Head Start, Sarah Shepard. An experienced English teacher, her son's reading ability was lagging behind the rest of his class. So she developed her own programme to teach phonics to her son, and for other parents to use with their own children.
There is a risk that teaching phonics in two different ways could confuse and ultimately restrict their reading development, but then again - you probably wouldn't be considering this method unless you were concerned about their development to begin with.
Teaching phonics before school
The other option is to start teaching phonics to your child before they even start school.
In fact, some people like reading teacher Jim Yang, who developed the Children Learn Reading programme (more on that later) believe you can systematically introduce phonics rules to help children as young as two years old learn to read.
At this age, there's no real downside... if they do pick up phonics before school, great! They'll be heading into school life already able to identify words, letter sounds and letter combinations. If they don't pick it up, there's no harm done.
The best at-home phonics reading programmes
There is a growing number of programmes designed to help you teach phonics to your child at home, whether your child is a total beginner or well into their school years but struggling to develop their reading skills.
Here are some of the best we've come across.
Children Learning Reading is a digital download programme developed by experienced reading teacher, Jim Yang, who used it to teach his two-year old child to read. The programme is based on phonemic awareness and blended phonics, using a combination of 32 video lessons, nine short stories, nursery rhymes, and sight words. It also includes a 120-page phonics theory e-book to help parents get a stronger grasp on what they're about to teach their children.
Age range: 2-8 years old
- Phonics foundation theory e-book for parents
- 32 step-by-step lessons
- Lifetime access
Check out our in-depth review of Children Learning Reading here.
Reading Head Start is a phonics programme developed by Sarah Shepard, an English teacher with 14 years of professional experience, who developed the programme when her son was falling behind with reading at school. Each lesson comes with an instruction video, lesson structure and resources to ensure you have everything you need to help teach your child to read. You also have access to a range of decodable books to support the learning process. By the end of the programme, Shepard claims your child will have a reading level two to four years above their peers.
Age range: 2-9 years old
- 40 week course
- Instructional videos and lesson structures
- Extra resources
Check out our in-depth review of Reading Head Start here.
Hooked on Phonics has been teaching children to read since the 1980s, and guarantees to have your child reading in just 30 days. Focusing on synthetic phonics, it has a huge catalogue of resources ranging from one-off purchases of reading books to workbook bundles, to a dedicated app and monthly subscription service. The subscription includes access to the app, which offers a range of lessons and activities, and each month you'll be sent two or three reading books and a 32-page workbook tailored to your child's progress on the app.
Age range: 3-8 years old
- Dedicated app
- Monthly subscription or one-off purchases
- Huge catalogue of resources
Unlike the others, Readability is an entirely app-based reading programmes that utilises artificial intelligence. It's somewhat like Duolingo for reading. It uses advanced speech recognition for interactive questions and answers to give a 1-on-1 tutoring experience, and also uses AI to select reading books based on your child's reading level.
Age range: School children of all ages and reading levels
- App-only learning
- Uses AI and Natural Language Processing
- Uses Advanced Speech Recognition for interactive questions and answers
Jolly Phonics is a school-based learning programme and one of the leading synthetic phonics publishers in the world, being used in 150 countries worldwide. Despite being used by schools, parents can purchase a huge range of resources individually to supplement their classroom learning - from book bundles and flashcards, to music, DVDs and games. Jolly Phonics Extra is a dedicated 'at-home' package containing a letter sounds book, flashcards, 54 reading books (across three different reading levels), and a TalkingPEN - a pen-like device which provides audio guidance and self-checking.
Age range: 3+
- TalkingPEN device with Jolly Phonics Extra
- Huge catalogue of resources - including books, workbooks, flashcards, apps, DVDs, music, games, posters and puppets
- Validated by UK Department for Education
Other tools and resources to help you teach phonics
If you're not ready to commit to a long programme, there are still plenty of things you can use to help you teach phonics at home - and, perhaps more importantly, do it in a way that makes phonics fun.
As you've probably guessed by know, flashcards are a big part of any teaching phonics to children, regardless of what programme you're using. They help children (and the teacher) to focus on one very clear letter sound or letter combination at a time to make the lesson more effective. They're also almost always designed in a way that makes it fun and engaging for the children.
2. Magnetic letters
Magnetic letters are a great idea for encouraging home learning. Whether you use them on the fridge or a white board, they're brilliant for making lessons more interactive. You could ask your child to put certain letter combinations together themselves, or start them off and ask them to make certain words - it's a great way to develop their spelling alongside learning the basics of phonics.
3. Book subscriptions
Practicing what they've learned is such a huge part of learning to read. So while it's amazing to do lessons - whether it's through a dedicated phonics programme or some simple flashcards and magnetic letters, it's always best to read books to practice.
Book subscriptions (often called book clubs) like Bookroo work by sending you a certain number of books every month, based on your child's age or reading ability.
4. Personalised books
If your child is struggling to engage with the stories, you may want to try using personalised stories. At the name suggests, you simply provide your child's name (and sometimes a few extra relevant details) and you're sent a book where your child is the main character. It's a great way to engage your child in books - there's nothing like the look on their face when you tell them 'this book is all about you!'
5. YouTube and TV
There are plenty of YouTube videos designed to aid phonics learning. The programme Alphablocks, which airs on Cbeebies in the UK, is also fantastic for teaching phonics.
I don't know anything about phonics. Can I still teach my child how to read using it?
Absolutely! There's no reason you can't teach your child how to read using phonics, even if you've not come across it before. Whether you're using a dedicated reading programme like Children Learning Reading or purchasing a pack of phonics flashcards, they always come with instructions on how to get the most out of them.
Some do go the extra mile to help you get a better understanding of what you need to do. Programmes Reading Head Start provide detailed instructional videos and lesson structures so that you're in no doubt about what you need to do. And Children Learning Reading offers a 120-page e-book all about the theory being phonics.
Which phonics method should I teach?
There are four different types of phonics instruction - synthetic, analytical, analogy, and embedded. The decision is up to you and may require further research. However, synthetic is certainly the most commonly used type in education systems around the world.
If your child is already in school, perhaps ask what methods they use so you can supplement their teaching and avoid possible confusion as.
Is my child too old to have me teaching phonics at home?
Certainly not. Many phonics programmes are designed in a way that means they can be used by absolute beginners, to enhance the skills of younger readers, or to help struggling older readers.
My child is dyslexic. Is phonics suitable for them?
Yes - there are many phonics learning programmes that refer to the impact they've had on children with dyslexia, and their ability to read. From this list, Reading Head Start and Readability are the two that make particular claims about benefitting children with dyslexia.