Q: What is 'phonics'? 

Q: Why should children learn to read with synthetic phonics?

Q: What about words that don’t follow phonetic rules?

Q: My son is only 2 years old. Is it too soon to start teaching him to read?

Q: How can I help my child learn to read?

Q: My child loves writing at home - when should I correct her spelling?

Q: Is learning to write letters important?

Q: I am not a teacher, so how do I know I will be teaching my child correctly?

Q: How can I choose storybooks to read to my child?

Q: How can I find suitable books for my child to read?

Q: My son seems to show no interest in reading – how can I encourage him?

Q: My daughter is having reading difficulties at school – how can I help her?

Q: I have been told my son may be dyslexic – what does this mean?

Q: Can you explain some of the jargon associated with phonics?

Q: What is the Year 1 phonics screening check?

Q: What is 'phonics'?

What is 'phonics'?
Phonics is a way of teaching children to read quickly and skilfully. It is a method for teaching reading based on how the sounds of a language are represented by letters.

What is 'synthetic phonics'?
In synthetic phonics, children are taught to read letters or groups of letters by saying the sound(s) they represent. Children are then taught how to read words by combining the sounds together to make words ('blending') and how to listen and isolate different sounds within words ('segmenting').

What are the 44 sounds of the English language?
A modern phonics approach has evolved which recognises that although there are 26 letters in the English alphabet, there are around 44 speech sounds.

This means that some sounds have to be represented by two letters put together e.g. ee (see), oa (boat), ar (car). Some sounds have more than one way of being written. Because the English language is an amalgamation of several languages and spelling systems, it is estimated that there are 350-400 spellings that represent the 44 sounds in English - of these, 176 are most common and represent about 90% of the words in print, so these are the spellings that need to be taught by all early reading programmes.

In synthetic phonics, children are first taught the 'simple alphabetic code' - one way of representing a sound e.g. ai (rain) and then the 'complex alphabetic code' - alternative spellings e.g. ay (day), a-e (late). Programmes vary in the order they choose to introduce the spellings.

Jolly Phonics uses the following order:
1. s a t i p n
2. c k e h r m d
3. g o u l f b
4. ai j oa ie ee or
5. z w ng v oo oo
6. y x ch sh th th
7. qu ou oi ue er ar

What is 'linguistic phonics'?
Linguistic phonics teaches how to segment sounds in speech and the letter-sounds are taught in the context of real words. One of the main differences between synthetic and linguistic phonics is that in linguistic phonics when the complex code is taught, several of the most common spellings for a sound are introduced at the same time rather than individually, with the less common spellings introduced together at a later stage.

What is 'analytic phonics'?
Analytic phonics can refer simply to the process of analysing a word by breaking it up into its component phonic parts. This process of segmenting words (identifying sounds all through the word) is indeed a vital part of reading with synthetic phonics.

A fuller definition of analytic phonics however reveals teaching principles that are not to be recommended (starts with whole words learnt by shape, encourages children to guess words from picture clues, initial letters and context, gradually introduces alphabet letter names and sounds with blending used as the last reading strategy instead of the first).

The main thing to remember when teaching a child to read with phonics is to teach the sounds of the letters rather than the letter names, as these are far more important in developing reading skills. Alphabet letters (upper and lower case) are given their most common sound values (for example a as in apple, b as in bicycle, c as in cat and so on. When you are helping your child to learn these simple sounds, use examples of words they are very familiar with. For example, if your child loves jelly, then use j as in jelly. Letter names (e.g. a as in ape) can be taught later on.

All the time, teaching builds in a logical sequence. Once children are confident in blending sounds together, they become more fluent in reading and can begin to tackle more irregular words.

Q: Why should children learn to read with synthetic phonics?

The process of teaching children to read is one of the most hotly debated topics in today’s education system. For years, many teachers used a mixture of methods to teach children to read. It is fair to say that the majority of children will learn to read whatever method is used (as many adults will testify from their own school experience), but a significant minority slip through the cracks. Sometimes children appear to be reading well, but then falter several years down the line and need extra help to be able to access the school curriculum fully.

The 'whole language' approach
Reading is not taught in a formal, structured way through reading schemes. Teaching starts at the whole word level, using the 'look-and-say' or read on sight approach that requires children to memorise the shapes of words. This approach focusses on the meaning of stories, sentences and words. Analytic phonics is used as a later strategy when children are taught to break down whole words into sounds. Children are encouraged early on to use picture and context clues and gradually pick up reading skills by memory and guesswork.
But this 'mixed methods' approach fails many children - particularly those with any form of learning difficulty. When a child comes across a new word, he has no real strategy for working out what it says, so every word must be learnt by sight. This can be particularly difficult for a child who has a poor visual memory and who finds it difficult to learn even a few words by their shape.

Synthetic Phonics
With synthetic phonics, children are taught the English alphabet code - how letters represent the 44 sounds of the English language, and are then shown how to combine these sounds to read words. Children are also taught how to hear the different sounds within words. All the time, teaching builds in a logical sequence. Once children are confident in blending sounds together, they become more fluent in reading and can begin to tackle more irregular words.

To learn to read with phonics, your child will need to look at the squiggles on a page and be able to translate those squiggles into sounds. People who are unable to read, or to read well, are unable to do this.

When a child manages to read well early on, seemingly by osmosis, parents may question why their child should then need to be subjected to learning the alphabetic code through phonics teaching at school. A child who has not learnt to read with phonics may appear to be a 'successful' reader at age 5, memorising vocabulary by sight to read early books with ease.

For a significant minority, however, problems can arise several years on when their sight vocabulary cannot expand enough to enable them to read longer novels or text books. If a child has no real strategy for working out what the words are, this can lead to guessing or skipping words. As texts become more complicated, this can result in significant problems with accessing the curriculum.

Even if reading does not become a problem later on, learning the phonic code is important for spelling and writing in the years to come.

One of the other common criticisms of synthetic phonics is that it only teaches the mechanics of reading and does not ensure children understand what they are reading (critics refer to this as 'barking at print'). But reading involves two processes - decoding and comprehension.

As children develop as readers, they will need to use context, comprehension and higher-level skills. But they also need to have a good strategy for decoding or working out words so they don’t have to rely on memory or guess work, and a good grounding early on in synthetic phonics will provide that.

In the past, teaching reading based on phonics has not been properly understood and so it fell out of favour. But phonemic awareness is one of the first and most important skills that young readers need to learn. Children who have been taught phonics tend to read more accurately than those taught using other methods, such as ‘look and say’. This includes children who find learning to read difficult, for example those who have dyslexia.

Synthetic phonics is now widely recognised by many leading experts as the best way to teach young children how to read. The National Curriculum from September 2014 states that pupils in Y1 should ''read aloud accurately books that are consistent with their developing phonic knowledge and that do not require them to use other strategies to work out words''.

A comprehensive tutorial by Tami Reis-Frankfort (teacher and trainer of Phonic Books), explaining why synthetic phonics is the most effective method to teach children reading and spelling, is available on YouTube - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IG24BoekBGY

Q: What about words that don’t follow phonetic rules?

The vast majority of words are 'decodable' once all the alphabetic 'code' of the English language has been taught (ie. not just the sounds of the 26 alphabet letters, but all the 44 sounds, including those represented by more than one letter such as 'sh', 'ee', 'ar' etc. and the various spelling alternatives such as 'ai', 'ay', 'a-e').

There are, of course, some words in the English language (such as 'here', 'does', 'was', 'one'), which cannot be read in this way, as they do not follow phonetic rules and cannot be spelt accurately by listening for the sounds. Children have to learn these separately. Even with these words, an understanding of letter sounds can help, as it is only part of the word that is irregular.

Q: My son is only 2 years old. Is it too soon to start teaching him to read?

It is too early to teach reading in a formal way. But it is never to early to start reading TO your child.

At such an early age, it is important to concentrate on spoken language - talk and read to your child and help them to understand what is being said.
When your child shows an interest, and starts to ask what the words are on the page, he is probably ready to begin. This is when you can start to introduce letter shapes and sounds.
Read books with rhyme, rhythm and repetition. Don't worry if your child wants to hear the same book again and again.
Play games to help your child develop important skills he will need for reading later on, such as concentration, matching skills and memory.

Q: How can I help my child learn to read?

All children need to learn to read and all will develop their reading skills in different ways. The most important thing to remember is that children learn better when they enjoy reading. You can play a vital role in developing your child's early spoken language - talking and reading to them and helping them understand what is being said. Once they get to the stage of learning to read, it will help if your child already has a good vocabulary so that they are familiar with words and understand them when they 'decode' (read) them.

If your child is interested in learning, you may be able to give them a significant advantage by helping them in their development. It is difficult to put a time frame on how long it will take your child to learn to read. Children are individuals - some take longer than others to learn their sounds and how to put them together into words. Some children will go to school already able to read simple books, others will not be able to match sounds to letters. There are lots of things you can do to help your child as they begin their exciting journey on the road to reading.

Not all children find it easy to learn their letters and blend them together to make words. This is not because they are unintelligent, but because they do not have a good memory for symbols and words. Practice they have at home will help your child manage at school.

It is very important to say the sounds correctly when you are helping your child learn their sounds. You can then help your child make the link between the sound and the written letter shapes.

Try to choose a quiet time to sit together, when your child is not tired.
A young child has a short attention span. Play reading games for short periods and stop as soon as your child loses concentration. Varying the activities and games will help. Little and often works best.

Never put pressure on your child to read - it will come naturally when they are ready.

Children need time to practise and should not be hurried – this will only lead to a feeling of failure and frustration.

Don’t put your child off by telling her she is wrong - give her plenty of time and encouragement and a feeling of success so she will look forward to the next reading opportunity.

Alphabet sound games to play
Play I - Spy around the house or out and about, in the car or on the bus or train. Look around the room and say, “I spy with my little eye something beginning with ‘s’ ” (remember to use the sound of the letter rather than it’s name). Your child has to guess which object you are thinking of. Take turns to choose objects.

Ask your child find all the objects in the room that start with the same sound.

Try to see who is first to think of a word beginning with a sound. Alternatively, who can think of the most words beginning with that sound.

Play a game where you have to give clues to your child and she has to guess the word - e.g. “I am an animal that lives in the desert and my name starts with ‘c’ ”.

Write a letter of the alphabet on each page of a scrapbook. You can then have fun together, collecting pictures of objects from old catalogues and magazines that begin with that letter. She may also like to draw a picture to represent each sound. Make letter shapes out of plasticine or play dough, or trace them in sand on a tray.

Use magnetic letters (e.g. on your fridge door) to encourage your child to build words on her own. Rearrange letters in words to make other words. Play word list games by making a simple word like ‘hat’ and changing the first letter to make other words (e.g. ‘bat’, ‘cat’, ‘fat’, ‘mat’, ‘pat’, ‘rat’, ‘sat’)

Put up an alphabet chart on your child’s bedroom wall to help her learn her sounds.

Once a number of letter sounds are known well, you can move on to 'blending' them into words. Jolly Phonics teaches ‘s’, ‘a’, ‘t’, ‘i’, ‘p’, ‘n’ as the first six sounds as these can be used to blend into a large number of simple words such as ‘sat’, ‘tin’, ‘pan’ etc. Always go at your child's pace so that they build confidence as you go.

As your child moves on to reading books, make sure you choose suitable decodable books that will match your child's stage of development. There is a lovely range available in our Decodable Reading Books section of the Phonic Bookshop. Spend time talking about what the book might be about before they start reading it. As you read it together, make sure they understand what is happening.
If your child gets stuck on a word, 'sound it out', by saying the individual letter sounds then blending them together quickly to hear the word. Remember that some sounds are represented by more than one letter (such as 'th', 'ee', 'ou'). If your child is still stuck, tell them the word and move on.

You don’t need to be an expert - but you do need to be enthusiastic. Your role is to stimulate and encourage your child - above all, try to make learning to read an enjoyable experience.

Q: My child loves writing at home - when should I correct her spelling?

Many young children take great delight in writing notes, menus, jokes etc. long before they are ready to spell each word correctly.

When children create their own spellings for words they do not know how to spell correctly, they are using invented spelling. They use what they know about letters, sounds and spelling patterns to spell the word as well as they can.

Good synthetic phonics teaching should mean that children are quickly taught the majority of the alphabetic code (one spelling for each sound and then the most common alternatives). This means that the period of invented spellings is a relatively short one and means that incorrect spellings are not reinforced so that they become ingrained.

This is therefore a question of balance. You do not want to stop a child from expressing herself, but once she has been taught several ways of spelling a sound and chooses an incorrect one, it is helpful to point out the correct spelling alternative. You may find it useful to have an alphabetic code chart and point to the correct spelling, saying 'in this word the code for the sound is ***'. In this way, rather than thinking of it as correcting spelling, think of it as helping your child to use her phonic knowledge more effectively.

Q: Is learning to write letters important?

Children learn to read more quickly if they learn to write at the same time, so should be encouraged to write their letters when they are ready to do so. It is important to show children how to hold a pencil correctly in the 'tripod' grip between the thumb and first two fingers - it is very difficult to change an incorrect grip later on once bad habits are formed.

Pre-writing activities such as rolling playdough, lacing, sewing, using pegs, tweezers and safety scissors are all good ways of building essential fine motor skills necessary for writing.

It is also important that children are shown how to form letters correctly from the start. Our learning to write section provides activities that will help with correct letter formation.

Q: I am not a teacher, so how do I know I will be teaching my child correctly?

Choose a good phonic reading scheme, such as Jolly Phonics or Read Write Inc. or well structured decodable books such as Dandelion Launchers and Readers. The materials contain lots of useful advice for parents and show how you can help your child to learn their letters and sounds correctly.

There are two things that your child's first school teacher will thank you for - teach letter sounds not letter names and writing lower case not capital letters.There is some debate as to when letter names should be introduced, but it is generally best to leave teaching letter names until children are secure with the alphabet letter sounds, as these are what are important when learning to read with phonics.

Q: How can I choose storybooks to read to my child?

You can start to share books with your child even before your baby is talking.

Reading to your child helps to develop the foundations for language and will influence the whole of her reading life. Children are much more likely to read if they grow up surrounded by books and are in the company of other children and adults who they see reading..

When choosing books to read to your child, remember that children love to hear familiar stories over and over again, so make sure you choose books that you can also enjoy reading hundreds of times! Children enjoy books with rhyme, rhythm and repetition, and enjoy being able to join in with repeated phrases.

Read slowly enough to let the story ‘soak in’ and give your child plenty of time to look at the pictures. Let her hold the book and help you to turn the pages.

Talk together about the story - ask questions such as “What do you think will happen next?” “Why do you think he said / did that?”

Share books with your child every day, if only for a few minutes. Even when children have begun to read themselves, it is still important that they listen to you read.

Try to make as wide a choice of books as possible available to your child, and don’t assume they will like the same books as you!

Q: How can I find suitable books for my child to read?

Once your child has begun to learn letter sounds, they will be able to pick the sounds out in words and then will begin to work out whole words. At this stage, it is easier if they begin to read books that use simple words.

When working out which level book to give your child to read, it will depend on the letter sounds they already know or are working on. There are a number of excellent phonic reading programmes available for helping children at the early stages of learning to read.

Parents often ask about how different phonic books fit into the 'book band' system. This was originally devised for banding whole word reading scheme books. Books were grouped into bands of different colours to represent different levels of reading ability.

The sequence of a phonics decodable reading programme is based on letter sounds rather than high frequency words. It is therefore more useful to know which letter sounds a child needs to know to read a particular book (or that they will learn in the process of reading the book) than which book band it is in.

Once a child has completed a good phonics reading programme, they can usually then start reading books in the later book band levels quite readily.

Phonic reading books are important for older catch-up readers, but they should be age-appropriate, otherwise it can lead to low self-esteem.

Q: My son seems to show no interest in reading – how can I encourage him?

Your son may be choosing not to read or he may be struggling to read. Consider whether your son is feigning a lack of interest because he knows his phonic knowledge is poor and that he can't really read the books. Not all children enjoy learning to read, particularly if they struggle, and this can be frustrating for you both - try not to show your concern. It is important that reading does not become a chore – for some parents it can turn into a battleground to be faced every evening! If you want your child to enjoy reading, you need to make sure they learn to read words easily.

If your child is in the early stages of reading, try to find activities and games to make the learning process more enjoyable.

The most important thing is to find reading material that is suitable for your child's stage of development. There are some great first reading books to be found in our Phonic Bookshop. As your child progresses, try to find reading material that suits his interests. You may find that he prefers factual books to storybooks.

Q: My daughter is having reading difficulties at school – how can I help her?

The first thing is to sort the learning gaps from the learning needs. If the reading difficulties are not related to eyesight or hearing problems, it may be that your child‘s phonic knowledge is poor. She may have reached the point at which her memory of words has run out (this can often happen around the age of about 7) and, although she may know lots of words, she may not have the skills to deal with new ones.

You can start by assessing which letter sounds your child knows and which need more work on. If you would like a free information sheet to help with this, please send a note via the 'Contact Us' page and you will receive it by email.

If your child is having trouble learning letters and sounds, try and find activities and games to help her, so this does not become a chore. Your child will learn more easily if she can see and do as well as hear, so activities such as magnetic letters can be useful to support learning.

Give plenty of help and encouragement when your child brings home reading books from school.

You might like to try ‘paired reading’ where you both read aloud together, taking signals from your child as to when she is ready to try words on her own.

If your child gets stuck on a word, 'sound it out', by saying the individual letter sounds then blending them together quickly to hear the word. Remember that some sounds are represented by more than one letter (such as 'th', 'ee', 'ou'). If your child is still stuck, or if the word contains letter sounds that she has not yet learnt, tell her the word and move on.

If you do plan to help at home, keep in close contact with your child’s teacher at school and discuss how you can best support her.

Q: I have been told my son may be dyslexic – what does this mean?

Dyslexia literally means 'difficulty with words'. Put simply, it is unexpected difficulty in learning to read, write and/or spell.

At school, your child may lack interest in letters and words, have problems with reading and spelling, put letters and figures the wrong way round, be slow at written work and have poor concentration, which may all lead to a feeling of low self esteem.

These problems may be due to a difficulty with hearing individual sounds in words, lack of memory, or inadequate teaching / practise of sound spellings.

Because there are so many different possible underlying problems, dyslexia is hard to define, because it affects children in many different ways. The key to success with dyslexia is early and appropriate intervention. Your school will be able to help if they think your child may be dyslexic.

You can find lots of practical advice and information at www.dyslexics.org.uk

Q: Can you explain some of the jargon associated with phonics?

What is a phoneme?

A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a word and can be represented by one or more letters - e.g. 'd - o - g', 'c - r - a - b', 'b -l - a - ck', 'sh - ee - p'.

What is the English alphabetic code?

The English alphabet code shows how letters represent the 44 sounds of the English language. In synthetic phonics, the simple code gives one (most common) way of representing each sound e.g. ai (rain). The complex code gives the other spelling alternatives e.g. ay (day), a-e (late).

What is a CVC word?

This is the simplest type of word made up of a consonant sound – vowel sound – consonant sound e.g. ‘c-a-t’, ‘h-e-n’, ‘m-oo-n’, ‘ch-i-p’

What is blending?

Blending is one of the skills children need to develop when learning to read with phonics. They need to be able to look at the letters in a word, say the sounds (all through the word) and hear the word. For example, sounding out ‘c-a-t’ and sliding the sounds together to make ‘cat’.

What is a digraph?

A digraph is a two-letter written symbol representing a sound (such as ‘sh’, ‘ch’, ‘th’, ‘ee’, ‘oo’ etc.) where the individual letter sounds cannot be heard separately. Children should sound the digraph as one sound, not the individual letter sounds. A trigraph is a three-letter written symbol (such as 'igh', 'air').

What are ‘key words’ or ‘sight words’?

These are high frequency, essential words that children need to learn to recognise on sight, such as ‘the’, ‘said’, ‘my’, ‘she’. The majority of these key words can be decoded once letter sounds are known.
A word is known as a 'tricky word' if it has a letter-sound correspondence that is very unusual (such as 'does', 'one', 'your') or has not yet been taught. Although tricky words may not follow normal phonetic rules, an understanding of letter sounds can still help when a child comes across them.

What are decodable reading books?

Decodable reading books are books used in the early stages of teaching children to read with phonics. They contain only (or mainly) text that can be ‘decoded’ (or sounded out) based on the letter-sounds the child has already been taught. This encourages children to sound out words and blend sounds to read words, rather than guessing words from pictures or context.

What is a phonic reading scheme?

A phonic reading scheme is a structured, systematic introduction of phonic skills and vocabulary. A phonic reading scheme will start with teaching letter sounds and move on to building the sounds into words that will gradually increase in complexity.

What are mnemonics?

Some reading schemes use mnemonics (aids to memory) to help children learn letters and sounds. In Jolly Phonics, the pictures concentrate on teaching the sounds, so the child sees the letter(s), does the actions and says the sound.
So - 'm' is a picture of a plate with a knife and fork. Child sees the picture, does the action 'Rub tummy, seeing tasty food, and say 'mmmm'.
As the child progresses, the actions are no longer necessary, so the child sees the letter(s) and says the sound.
In Read Write Inc., the mnemonics immediately link the sound to the corresponding letter(s). So 'm' is a picture of a girl next to two mountains - it is taught as 'Down Maisie and then over two mountains'

Q: What is the Year 1 phonics screening check?

In June 2012, the government introduced a new statutory phonics screening check at the end of Year 1 for all children in maintained schools, academies and free schools throughout England.

The short 5 - 10 minute screening check is to make sure that all pupils have grasped fundamental phonics skills and to help identify those children who need additional support.

The check is administered on a one-to one basis and includes approximately 40 real and nonsense words. The purpose of including nonsense words is to check that the child knows the sounds and can blend them together to read the words. They will be new to all pupils, so there won’t be a bias to those with a good vocabulary knowledge or visual memory of words

If you would like information on the words used in previous yearly checks, please request our free 'Year 1 Phonics Reading Check - information for parents' leaflet via the 'Contact Us' button.