Early reading: Phonics
Phonics is taught in early years and in key stage 1 (KS1) and is a fundamental part of early reading for young children. This guide will explain all about phonics because understanding what your children will be learning in school will help you support them at home.
What is phonics?
Phonics is the relationship between sounds and letters. It is a teaching method used to develop early reading skills in young children. At school, your children will be taught to link sounds (phonemes) to the symbols that represent them (groups of letters, called graphemes).
Phonemes are the smallest unit of sound. By the end of year 1 your children should be familiar with at least 40 of the 44 phonemes in the English language. At the bottom of this page, there is a list of all the phonemes in English and the graphemes that represent them. You could print this off and use it to sound out letters and words with your children to help them practice the phonics that they have learnt at school.
Seeing a written word on a page and saying it out loud is called decoding, the most basic aspect of early reading. Your children will be taught to do this in reception. However, decoding has very little to do with comprehension, so just because your children can read words it doesn’t mean they understand what they are reading! Comprehension is a separate reading skill that your child will learn in primary school.
The first step to decoding is learning letter sounds. This is why nurseries and reception have so many alphabet songs and games. You could sing similar songs at home to get your children familiar with letter sounds, helping them to decode faster.
Letters are learnt fist because once a letters are known they can be combined into a variety of words. The first combinations of letters your children will learn are consonant, vowel, consonant words (CVC) such as “mat” “dog” and “sat”. Next, your children learn to decode consonant, consonant, vowel consonant (CCVC) words like “trap”, “shop” and “frog” as well as consonant, vowel, consonant, consonant, (CVCC) words such as “cart”, “milk” and “want”. CCVC and CVCC words teach your children how to say consonant clusters. As your child moves into KS1, they will learn to decode longer words.
When your children learn individual letters they will also have to learn how to blend the sounds to say a whole word. This is a hard step so don’t worry if it is taking a while for your child to get the hang of it. Children will start off blending CVC words before moving onto consonant clusters (CCVC and CVCC words). Decoding and blending help your child to read aloud. Early reading schemes such as the Oxford Reading Tree and Collins Big Cat tend to start with CVC words before moving onto longer and more complex words. Therefore, these schemes are a good resource to use at home in order to help your child learn to read aloud.
Children will also learn digraphs as part of their early reading.
Vowel digraphs are two letters that blend together to make one sound such as /oa/, /oo/, /ee/, /ai/. Children will learn how to sound out words with vowel diagraphs such as “hair” and “boat”. They will then move onto adding vowel digraphs to consonant clusters to learn to say words like “train”.
Consonant diagraphs are two consonants that blend together to make a sound such as “sh”. Children will be taught to blend these with other letters to make words like “shout”.
Split digraphs are when a vowel diagraph is split by a consonant. For example the word “pie” has the digraph ie. However, in the word “pipe”, there is the same ie digraph but this is split by a p. Such sounds and rules will be taught in KS1 English classes.
Early reading ability should support early writing ability since phonics can be used to help children spell. Children will be taught how to write the letters and words that they can read and say, called encoding. There are lots of ways that teachers use to help your children learn to write, many of which you can use at home. Children might like to trace cut outs of letters in a sand tray or use stencils and write on a white board.
As your child progresses through KS1, they will eventually learn that, the same spelling (grapheme) can have two different sounds (e.g. “tried” and “field”) and the same sound (phoneme) can have two different spellings (e.g. “one” and “won”).
Early Reading Resources
There are lots of fun games and activities that you can use at home to help your children learn phonics and develop their early reading skills. Reading with your child is an excellent way to help them practice the rules of phonics they have learnt at school. It can also be helpful for children in KS1 to have a workbook to help them practice. Here are some free additional resources for you children to use.
This free decoding practice worksheet can be used to help children aged 4-6 practice to decode words, an essential early reading ability. Underneath each word, your children can draw a picture of what it is. You could ask your child to read out the words to you before they draw. Start with the CVC words then as your children’s reading improves, you can move onto CCVC and CVCC Words.
This full list of English phonemes can help you as a parent to understand how words can be broken down into smaller units of sounds, to develop early reading ability.