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An easy guide to phonics for parents

Updated on March 25, 2014

Why Phonics?

Many parents find phonics a bit confusing, especially those who weren’t taught to read themselves using this method.

Although there may be many different phonic schemes they all share the same basic principles. In fact the government, in an effort to drive up reading standards, agreed to match fund phonic resources and training for schools as the evidence suggested that a systematic synthetic phonics approach to teaching reading was the most effective.

With a phonic approach the emphasis is on the ‘sounds’ that make up the words we say and the pictures of those sounds in the words we write.

That is all pretty straightforward for words where each sound is made by one sound picture, or letter, like c a t, but it becomes trickier with words where one sound is made by a number of letters like s h o w which has 2 sounds sh and ow but four letters.

Before you feel too baffled let’s break it down a bit because nearly all parents want to help their children to read and one of the best things they can do right at the start is to gain a good understanding of phonics.


Start with CVC words

Have fun making three sound words with children
Have fun making three sound words with children | Source

Sounds and letters

One sound one letter

There are lots of words where each sound is shown by one letter and that is a good place to start.

Words like ant, cat, dog, mop, pin, and ten but also tent, swim, plump, piglet and even words like fundamental and integrity, although long, still have one letter representing each sound. Try saying them to yourself and you will confirm this.

One sound more than one letter

But in a lot of words a single sound is made up of more than one letter the sounds sh or ch are single sounds but made up of two letters as are the double consonants in many words like swimming or tennis and there are many more examples. The words below show the individual sounds as adjacent letters and a space has been left between each sound.

  • f our the letters our in this word making the ‘or’ sound
  • h a pp y the double pp making ‘p’ sound
  • e l e ph a n t the ph making ‘f’ sound
  • n ur se the ur together make an ‘er’ sound and the se make a ‘s’ sound
  • c ow - here the ow together make an ‘ow’ sound
  • th ough only 2 sounds in the word with th making the ‘th’ and ough making an ‘o’ sound

One sound picture more than one sound

Of course we also all know that letters, or groups of letters, make different sounds in different words. The ‘ow’ in cow is different from the ‘ow’ in show. In fact the ‘o’ sound as in show can be made in a variety of ways – check out the words below






All those words have an ‘o’ sound but the picture or spelling of that sound is different in every word.

Complex but not impossible

The thing is we all know that the spelling of English words is a bit complicated and given the richness of our language and the fact that there are only 26 letters in our alphabet it isn’t too surprising. But it is not infinite. Working with children and adults who have struggled with reading and spelling they are often amazed that there is actually some logic to what they thought was completely random. There are approximately 144 sounds in our language – a lot more that the 26 letters but not an infinite number and when children are taken logically through the ways in which common sounds can be represented usually they get it and along the way they pick up some really good strategies for spelling and reading longer more complicated words

Toys beginning with b sound

Choose a sound and hunt for toys that start with the target sound
Choose a sound and hunt for toys that start with the target sound | Source

Start at the beginning

Introduce small children to letter sounds before names - d o g as in dog not D O G.

Say the sounds slowly with a pause then run them together (blending) to say the word and encourage children to do this.

Start with sounds before sound pictures (letter). Have a treasure hunt looking for items with names that begin with a particular sound, ball brick bear and bunny for example.

A great game can be played by asking what sounds can be heard in the word ‘mop’ then say the word the sounds are m o p – this is segmenting and is a one of the skills needed to read and spell.

Getting children to listen for the sounds in words is a great start. stick with three sound (consonant vowel consonant or CVC) words like cup, pen, tin, can, mat mum, dad, set and so on until children become confident and accurate then move three sound words with adjacent consonants like ant, imp, elf, before moving on to words with four sounds.

If a child struggles to say a sound encourage them to look at your mouth when you say it and you can model the way the sound is heard for example the way the lips are slightly different in v and f or m and n.

How can I help as a parent?

Most parents leave the teaching of reading and spelling to schools, but even so they still want to help their child. Some schools will run introductory sessions for parents so they know the way their children will be taught to read and can offer appropriate support at home. These can be really useful and informative and as a parent worth going along to. If these aren’t on offer try asking the class teacher which particular scheme they use and how best you can help your child and support the work the school Is doing. If they do use a specific programme then familiarise yourself with it so you use the same terminology that is used in schools. Soundswrite is one popular scheme and the video on their website homepage gives a general introduction

The video below shows a little of the sort of phonics materials that may be used in schools, but whatever scheme is used there are some general principles you can follow.

  • Make time to read with your child every day
  • Ask them about activities they have done at school as this can give a good indication of what they are learning
  • If the chid finds something difficult, ask them how the teacher would usually help then try and use the same methods.
  • Never let a child struggle for long trying to ‘decode’ – read - a word, either tell them the word or the first part.
  • Another way to help can be simply to say “in this word, these letters make a … sound” that way you can help them with the difficult part of the word but still encourage them to ‘read’ the sound pictures.
  • Have a pencil or even a small chopstick to be able to point not only at words but at letters within words when you are reading with children.
  • Small whiteboards are easily available and children enjoy writing and rubbing out on them. They are great to use for spelling as incorrect words or parts of words can easily be rubbed out, which is better than having a sheet full of crossed out attempts.
  • When spelling, if a mistake is made with just one par of the word try spelling it correctly (on the whiteboard) then ask the child which they think looks right, often they will know.
  • Guesswork and predictions can be a useful part of reading and spelling but if constant wild guesses are being made then probably the book is not at the right level or the child has misunderstood some of the basics, get the child to stop and look at the beginning of the word and encourage them to say what sound pictures (letters) they see.
  • When a child is trying to spell a word encourage them to think about the sounds in the word and if it is a longer word get them to think about the chunks or syllables in the word and then think about the sound.

Phonics in school

Syllables and sounds

Be clear about the difference between syllables and sounds

Syllables are the chunks in a word

The word piglet has two syllables pig and let

Burger also has 2 syllables bur and ger

Angry, castle, lorry, sofa, dinner, happy, bottle also have two syllables but words like monument have three (mon u ment) so too does adamant (ad a mant) whereas integrity ( in teg ri ty) and fundamental (fun da men tal) have four syllables.

When children can break a word into chunks they can then think about the sounds in each chunk so p I g and l e t in pig let.

Words which use several letters to show one sound are always going to be more complicated to spell than words like pig let or even fundamental where each letter is one sound but children can and do master it. Some however may need more support than others.

Make phonics fun

Children love writing on their own small whiteboard
Children love writing on their own small whiteboard | Source

Sound and Syllable Quiz.

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