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What is Phonics? Essential phonics knowledge and understanding.

11 February 2018

What is Phonics? Essential phonics knowledge and understanding.

Literacy expert Alexandra Charalambous from charity The Children's Literacy Charity offers a useful introduction for parents into the world of phonics.

Since Sir Jim Rose’s report on the teaching of early reading in 1996, the government has made phonics an integral part of the National Curriculum for pupils aged 4–7.  Stated as ‘the route to decoding unknown words’, it is recommended in the 2014 new National Curriculum that pupils should be taught to ‘apply phonic knowledge and skills’ as the first strategy in learning to read.

For many parents, phonics is still an unknown and here at Springboard for Children, we see first-hand how confused parents are when delivering our Phonics Workshops. The biggest mistake parents make is teaching children the letter names. Many parents are also unsure of how to articulate the sounds correctly. This is because parents weren’t taught a synthetic phonics programme.

What is synthetic phonics?
Words are made up from small units of sound called phonemes. Phonics teaches children to be able to listen carefully to and identify the phonemes that make up each word. This helps children to learn to read words and to spell words. Phonics initially begins in the nursery as children develop phonological awareness, that is, exploring sounds in their environment, creating sounds using their voice and body and describing the sounds as loud or quiet, high or low. All this ground work paves the way for children to be ready to learn the first 44 phonemes.

Phonemes and graphemes
Once children start in the EYFS, they learn each of the 44 phonemes in the English language and their corresponding graphemes (letters). These sounds are taught in a particular order and progress into more complex letter combinations. It is very important that the phonemes are articulated precisely and clearly e.g. mmmm, llllllll, ssssss as opposed to m-uh, l-uh and s-uh.

The skills for reading
One of the main skills for reading is blending. This is when children say the sounds that make up a word and are able to merge the sounds together until they can hear what the word is, e.g. d-o-g = dog.  Children are also taught to segment. This is the opposite of blending. Children are able to say a word and then break it up into the phonemes that make it up, e.g. frog = f-r-o-g.  Both skills are vital in learning to read and spell.

Digraphs and trigraphs
Digraphs and trigraphs are two and three letters together that make just one sound. Digraphs can be 'sh', 'ch', 'th', 'ss', 'll'. Trigraphs can be 'igh', 'dge', 'tch'. These are taught explicitly within the phonics phases and children learn to spot them in words and remember the sounds they make.
With the English spelling system being the way it is, there are around 120 graphemes which need to be learnt, along with their corresponding phonemes. For example, the ‘ay’ phoneme can also be written as 'ai', 'a-e', 'ey', 'eigh', 'aigh' and an ‘a’ on its own. Furthermore, some graphemes can be represented by more than one phoneme, e.g. 'ch' can be different sounds in chop, school or chef.

Phonics in schools
The government’s own phonics scheme ‘Letters and Sounds’ stipulates a systematic and synthetic approach to phonics. There are many other great schemes that schools use which also follow the same procedures. It is just a matter of children learning the simple bits first and then progressing on to the trickier aspects.

To ensure that all children have learned phonic decoding to an appropriate standard by the age of six, a short, light-touch phonics assessment was introduced in 2012 called the phonics screening check. All Year 1 pupils in maintained schools, academies and free schools must complete the check so that teachers can identify the children that need extra help and give them the support they need to improve their reading skills. These children are then able to retake the check in Year 2.

Phonics is one strategy for learning to read and spell. It doesn’t work for all words however, as some words are irregular and need to be learned as a whole word. Words such as 'was', 'come' and 'said' are not phonically decodable to start with (but will become decodable once children have learned the harder phonemes). In this case, reading everyday to your child is a way to help children recognise these words on sight.

Alexandra Charalambous is Head of Educational Developement at The Children's Literacy Charity. She delivers training on phonics and early literacy skills to teachers and parents across the country. Previously, Alexandra was a primary school teacher and literacy subject leader in north London schools. The Children's Literacy Charity is a charity providing one-to-one support to improve reading and writing for children who are in danger of being left behind in the education system.

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