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Using technical phonics terms with young children

10 February 2023

Using technical phonics terms with young children

In this blog post, phonics trainer Jacqueline Harris explains when and why teachers should use technical language when teaching phonics.

Young children love big words. We have all encountered that child: the one who knows the name of every dinosaur ever discovered, who can pronounce names that leave adults stumbling over pronunciations, who can say Pachycephalosaurus without blinking. If they can manage that, then digraph and grapheme will be no big deal. You hand out a list of useful words for parents when talking about phonics and those same parents will be blown away that their child can discuss the number of phonemes in a word. 

Do you use technical phonics terms with children, or do you simplify the words when teaching phonics? Do you use the word phoneme or sound? Truthfully, up to a point, it does not matter. What matters is that there is consistency – across a school, across year groups – and an agreed use of these terms. But there comes a point where the technical language is key to understanding, so when do you introduce it and how much of it is needed?

Tricky words or common exception words? 

Let us start with the term common exception words, which is often referred to by the simplified term tricky word. In this case, I am inclined to use the term tricky words, as it is easily comprehensible to most children. Some words simply break the rules that have been taught and therefore are tricky to read. Children find no problem with that. 

Phoneme or sound? 

What about using the terms phoneme or sound? In many classrooms, these terms seem to be used interchangeably, though I’ve noticed that most Reception classes stick with sound and then move on to phoneme by Year 1. The inconsistency arises when phoneme is used but not grapheme. Grapheme refers to how the sound is written down, so where the phoneme is the smallest unit of sound, the grapheme is the smallest unit of sound when written. Schools tend to avoid using the term grapheme and sometimes incorrectly refer to phonemes when they are written down. Teachers will be using grapheme all the time, though, because they are assessing children’s grasp of grapheme-phoneme correspondences: whether a child can say the sound a letter represents or write the letter a sound represents. If you are using the term phoneme, then the term grapheme should also be used. 

Digraphs and trigraphs 

The term I think is essential to use is digraph: two letters that make one sound (trigraph therefore meaning three letters that make one sound). Without the term, you cannot explain a split digraph (when a digraph is split in two to make a long vowel sound, as in a-e in cake). I have yet to find a better way of describing this and it is an essential term that all children should encounter and understand. This is particularly true when countering the very outdated term ‘magic e’. There is nothing magic about it and it is a confusing expression which does not explain the rule of the ‘e’ being part of a long vowel sound digraph. Children need to understand about long and short vowel sounds because many of the spelling rules, such as doubling the consonant after a short vowel (in words like hopping), depend on knowledge of long and short vowel sounds. 

Blending and segmenting 

Blending is a term that is frequently used interchangeably with ‘sound it out’ when hearing children read. Teachers often say to children, “Sound it out and blend it together” and this causes no problems for children. Segmenting on the other hand is rarely used in general conversation. Is it an issue if the two terms are not used consistently? I am not sure it is a problem; blending is a word that is more used in general terms, and I think using words interchangeably with simple explanations is helpful in building vocabulary. 

CVC words 

Finally, there is the term CVC (consonant vowel consonant) words which teachers use a lot but not necessarily with children. Eventually children need to understand what a vowel is and what a consonant is, but this is not vital information, especially in Reception. Later, they will need to understand the terms if they are to grasp long and short vowel sounds, for example, but to start with it can become quite confusing and overload very young children. 

Challenge your preconceptions 

The main message when using (or not using) technical phonics terms should be this: children can learn this sort of vocabulary very easily and more often it is the teacher’s preconceptions that words might be too difficult for them that prevent their use. In phonics, there is a significant amount of technical vocabulary, much of which is very important to understanding rules of spelling as well as reading, so don’t be afraid to introduce it into your lessons. 

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