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Sunday 19 July 2020

Phonics Explained: A Parent's guide to understanding Phonics

What is phonics? What does digraph mean? Why do we need phonics? How does it work? Why is phonics important? ... Today I have the Queen of Phonics - Alice from Raising Red Heads - here to explain it all! 

 Phonics Explained  A Parent's guide to understanding Phonics

Alice is an EYFS Teacher and Educational Learning Content Creator with a passion for phonics and an unbelievable ability to make phonics visually stimulating, fun and exciting. In this blog post she explains in more detail, exactly what 'phonics' means and why it is so important...

Phonics Explained:  A Parent's guide to understanding Phonics 


If you are the parent or carer of a child in nursery or primary school, I am willing to bet that you have heard the term “phonics” more times than you care to remember. Phonics is very in vogue at the moment. However, it still causes much controversy between educators, parents and authors. It has, what I call, the Marmite effect – people either love it or hate it.

I won’t lie to you. When I first came across phonics during my teacher training, I hated it. It wasn’t how I had been taught as a child, I didn’t understand the terminology and it seemed to take all the joy out of learning to read and write. As humans we are reluctant to change and cautious of anything new; and this was exactly how I felt.

I have changed in many ways since the days of my teacher training. Many of the changes you don’t need to know about, but the one you do need to know, is that I now love phonics! Yes, that’s right, after teaching it for several years and exploring it with my own children, I can proudly say that I am a fully converted phonics fan!

That’s not to say that phonics is the only tool I use to teach reading and writing. It simply means it is now one of the many tools I use, and a great one for helping children to get started on their literacy journey.
Phonics: match the label to the correct vehicle play tray

What is phonics?

Phonics is the teaching of the sounds in language and the letters used to represent them. There are 44 sounds in the English language and lots of different ways to write these sounds using different combinations of letters. 

phonics: sorting long and short oo sounds

What are these strange words?

Thinkers, theorists and researchers like to make things sound complicated and it is no different when it comes to phonics. The terminology used in phonics can seem alien and confusing and, in my opinion, can be one of the biggest barriers for getting parents and carers on board with this way of learning to read and write. Children, on the other hand, are much more open to new vocabulary and are quickly able to grasp the words and definitions. As adults, there are many things we need to learn from children, but that is a whole different blog post entirely.

For those of you, like my teacher trainee former self, who are put off by these strange words here is my super quick and simplified version of some of the main phonics terminology...

Phonics Terminology explained simply:

· Phoneme – a single sound

· Grapheme – the written form of the sound e.g. a letter/letters

· Digraph – two letters that make one sound

· Trigraph – three letters that make one sound

· Blending – putting sounds together to read a word

· Segmenting – splitting up sounds to spell a word

· GPC (grapheme phoneme correspondence) – matching the sound to the letter/s and vice versa

phonics plate - match the word to the correct digraph with the peg

Why is phonics so great?

My main passion for phonics comes from the fact that it is a great way to give, even the youngest children, the tools and confidence to get started with reading and writing. It would be lovely if we could all sit for hours every day looking through a variety of texts and analysing language with our children. It would be great if every child came from a home where books were plentiful and parents had time to encourage spoken language and correct sentence structure.

However, for a number of reasons, this is not the case. Many parents work long hours, books are expensive or English may not be the first language of the household. Despite these barriers, phonics quickly provides children with the knowledge to “have a go” at reading and writing and makes the intimidating English language that little bit more accessible.

phonics: initial sounds items beginning with a

Does phonics remove the joy of learning to read and write?

Many of the arguments against phonics suggests that it removes reading for meaning and prevents a child from developing a love of words. As with most things, I believe that this is totally dependent on how phonics is taught. With a little enthusiasm and creativity, the teaching and learning of phonics can be a wonderful experience for both the adult and the child.

phonics sorting activity - sort the flowers into the correct pots

Sorting activities are a fantastic way to teach new grapheme phoneme correspondences (GPC). However, rather than just sorting words into matching piles use your child’s interests to create a playful experience filled with meaningful learning. If your child loves vehicles ask them to park the cars in the space with the matching sound. Or, if they are inspired by nature, plant flowers in the plant pot with the corresponding digraph. The options are endless and can be tailored to the exact needs and ability of your child.

phonics: teaching real words and nonsense words

Teaching real words and nonsense words is an important part of the phonics program and is included in the Phonics Screening Check that takes place at the end of Year 1. I completely understand that asking your child to read nonsense words seems as ridiculous as the words themselves, but I promise you that it’s actually a fantastic way to see where your child is at and what you can do to further support them. Without relying on context or syntax your child is forced to use their phonic knowledge to decode the word. You can then clearly tell which sounds your child is confident with and which sounds they find tricky. Have fun with this type of activity, be silly and laugh at the made-up words.

digraph hunt - find the digraphs to complete the words

I am a massive fan of using sensory play for learning and I try to include it in many of my phonics activities. Not only does sensory play provide enjoyment and excitement, it also builds neural pathways in the brain which helps children complete more complex tasks. Have a go at hiding some letters in rice or chickpeas and challenge your child to find and read them. I promise that something as simple as this will encourage even the most reluctant of readers.

Using a well-loved story as a basis for a phonics activity is another way to add delight and joy to learning. Book based play ensures that children are reading for meaning and that they understand the ultimate purpose of learning phonics – to create a love of the written word. Grab a magnifying glass and become a sound detective hunting for graphemes in the text, or have a go at writing labels for characters and objects from the story. Again, the possibilities with books are limitless and children will enjoy the magic as the texts slowly become decodable as their ability to read develops.

phonics; the snail and the whale tray play - reading alternative graphemes

Let’s all be a little more childlike ...

There’s no getting away from it, phonics is a strange world of odd sounds and unusually named ideas. For many of us, it is not the way we were taught to read and write and when faced with the unknown we can all be a little terrified. However, I hope I have shown you that phonics is an amazing tool to empower children with the knowledge to begin to read and write. So, let’s all try and be a little more like our children and embrace this new learning experience with excitement and enthusiasm. 

A little bit about Alice: 

Alice was a primary teacher and Early Years Leader at an inner London school. She now has two children and lives in Yorkshire. She shares learning through play ideas on her Instagram @raising_red_heads and is a freelance writer and educational learning content creator.


Phonics explained - a parents guide to understanding phonics

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