Learning to read 2: phonics
Did you know there are five key skills that help children learn to read? The second is ‘phonics’. Read on for eight great tips on how to help your child master this important skill.
What is ‘phonics’?
‘Phonics’ is the relationship between the sounds in spoken English and the letters in written English, the way this relationship is taught, and the process of using letter-sound relationships to sound out written words.
The English language is made up of 26 letters and 44 sounds. A sound can be written with a single letter such as b, or a combination of letters such as ph, which makes the /f/ sound as in phone. When children have learned all the letters, letter combinations and sounds, they have learned the ‘code’ of English, and will be able to read most words simply by sounding them out.
Of course, English does have some exceptions – words that cannot be easily sounded out (like ‘said’ and ‘was’). The most common words are often referred to as ‘sight words’, and learning them is an important part of learning to read.
How ‘phonics’ is taught in school
In Australia, phonics is part of the national curriculum and taught in early primary school. There are three elements that are part of a good phonics program:
- the order in which the letters and sounds are taught. For example, teaching the letters s, m, t, a and i first means that children can already make lots of different words with their first letters, like sit, sat and mat
- the early introduction of blending (putting different sounds together to make a word) and segmenting (separating a word out into its separate sounds)
- the use of books that can be easily sounded out, giving children the chance to use and practice their phonics.
Research has also shown that the explicit teaching of phonics, alongside the other four key skills for learning to read, is the most effective way to teach all children to read.
What can you do to help?
You don’t need to teach your child phonics – they will learn this at school. These nine tips will help you support your child to strengthen their phonics skills at home.
Read, read, read!
The most important thing you can do is to read yourself – read with your child, read to them and let them see you reading. Once your child starts getting ‘home readers’ in class, make sure that someone listens to your child read their home reader every day. It doesn’t have to be the same person every day – many children enjoy showing their progress by reading to mum, dad, grandparents, older siblings, other relatives and visitors. Find a way that works for your family and your child.
Reinforce classroom learning
As well as home reading, your child’s teacher will probably also tell you about the letters, sight words and other word lists that your child is learning in class. If the teacher suggests word games or activities to do at home, do them together and see which ones your child finds most useful (and most fun). If you notice your child having particular problems, or discover something which really helps your child, share these insights with your child’s teacher – it will help them make your child’s classroom time more effective too.
Sound it out
When your child is reading and comes across a word they don’t know, pause to let them work it out themselves. If they can’t, prompt them to sound it out and then put the sounds together to make a word – this is phonics practice in action. If your child still struggles to sound out the word, say the sounds with them.
You seem to be getting a bit stuck on this word – let’s sound it out together: b-a-g, ‘bag’ – “Grandpa takes his bag to the beach.” Great! Let’s keep reading.
When you come across a ‘sight word’ when reading with your child, talk about how it’s different.
Oh, that’s a tricky word – we can’t easily sound it out like the other ones! That word is ‘said’.
If your child has already learned the sight word at school but has forgotten, prompt them.
Hmm, that’s one of your sight words. See if you can remember it.
Repeat tricky bits
When your child has worked through a tricky word or sentence, encourage them to re-read it. This will give them more practice at the words they found difficult, and help them to remember the words next time. It also gives them a chance to focus on the meaning of the sentence, which will make their reading more enjoyable.
Games can be great to help your child practice their phonics. Try drawing letters with your finger on your child’s hand or back, and asking if they can tell you the letter and the sound that goes with it. Or you can make flashcards together to practice letters, sounds, or sight words. Your child’s teacher will probably also send home some games ideas, and may even suggest some online reading activities. It’s a good idea to sit with your child when they start out, so that you know what the activities are and can help out if needed. Showing an interest in this way also reinforces their value to your child.
For more ideas that will help your child with phonics skills, see these articles:
Support your child by letting them know you’re proud of their reading. Make sure you praise their effort as well – this builds their confidence to keep trying, and makes them a more resilient learner.
Good sounding out – you figured out the word!
You tried really hard to sound that word out. I’m proud of you. Now, let’s do it together: m-a-t, ‘mat’. Let’s keep reading some more.
Use your home language
If your home language is not English, you can also apply the same ideas in your own language. This will help support your child to learn to read English (and your own language).
What about the other skills?
For tips on how to help your child master the other four key reading skills, see the other articles in this series.