Phonics: a guide for families

Why do we read?

When we read, whether we are reading for enjoyment or for information, we aim to understand, to make meaning from what we read.

How do readers read?

To be able to understand or comprehend a text, as we read, we apply different knowledge. Readers bring together their knowledge of:

  • books and the world
  • the way words are used in a sentence to sound grammatically ‘correct’
  • words recognised automatically, by ‘sight’
  • the letters of the alphabet and the sounds each letter and groups of letters represent.

Learning the alphabet: phonics

In the early years, children are taught the letters of the alphabet. They learn:

  • what each letter looks like
  • how each letter is formed when written
  • the sound that each letter and groups of letters represents when spoken aloud.

The teaching of this sound–letter relationship is often called ‘phonics’.

Why teach phonics?

It is important for young children to learn phonics because it helps them to spell words when they are writing and gives them a strategy for decoding unfamiliar words when they are reading.

How is phonics taught?

Phonics teaching begins by introducing the individual letters of the alphabet. However, teaching might not start with the beginning of the alphabet and work through it. Teachers structure their lessons so that:

  • letters that are used to build many words are taught first
  • letters that sound or look similar will be separated over several lessons
  • short vowel sounds will be taught early on.

If you would like to read more about the role of phonics in learning to read visit The Big Six: a guide for families.

Helping your child to read with phonics

Talk with your child’s teacher

  • Ask your child's class teacher about the school's approach to phonics and how you can reinforce this at home. For example, the teacher will be able to tell you which sounds, letters and letter groups the class is covering in lessons each week.
  • You can then highlight these sounds when you read with your child. Teaching how sounds match with letters is likely to start with individual letters such as sa and t and will then move on to two-letter sounds such as eech and ck.
  • Your child's teacher will also be able to suggest books with the right level of phonics. These books are often called 'decodable readers' because the story is written with words made up of the letters your child has learnt. They will be able to work out new words from the letters and sounds they know, rather than just guessing.

Read with your child

  • With all books, encourage your child to 'sound out' unfamiliar words and then blend the sounds together from left to right, rather than looking at the pictures to guess the meaning. When your child reads an unfamiliar word you can talk about what it means and help them to follow the story.
  • Try to make time to read with your child every day. Grandparents and older brothers or sisters can help too. Once your child has learnt individual letter sounds, encourage your child to blend the sounds all the way through a word. Word games like 'I spy' can also be an enjoyable way of teaching children about sounds and letters. You can also encourage your child to read words from your shopping list, or road signs, to practise phonics.

Reading records

  • Most schools use 'book bags' and a reading record, which is a great way for teachers and parents to communicate about what children have read. The reading record can tell you whether your child has enjoyed a particular book, and shows problems or successes they have had, either at home or at school.

Further reading

Carnine, DW, Silbert, J and Kameenui, EJ (1997) Direct instruction reading, 3rd edn, Merrill/Prentice-Hall, New Jersey.

Shapiro, L and Solity, J (2008) ‘Delivering phonological and phonics training within whole-class teaching’, The British Journal of Educational Psychology, 79: 597–620.

University of Oregon, Big ideas in beginning reading, website

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