What are Phonics?
Many of us didn’t learn how to read using phonics when we were children so it may seem intimidating at first. Phonics is a way of teaching beginning readers how to read in an alphabetic language. What’s an alphabetic language? It’s a language where each letter, or group of letters, in its alphabet represents a sound in spoken language. So, for example, English is an alphabetic language, where a word like “cat” is formed by the sounds /c/ /a/ /t/ made by the individual letters. Malay, Arabic, Italian, German, Russian, are other examples of alphabetic languages. When we use phonics to teach reading, we will explicitly teach learners the sounds represented by each letter of the alphabet, and how to put these sounds together to read words.
English is, unfortunately, a rather messy language with words and sounds incorporated from various languages. There are 44 sounds in English (!) which can be overwhelming, even for teachers. We are providing a quick step-by-step guide here to cover the first 35+ sounds to help anyone who would like to try teaching a child or any other learner how to read with phonics:
Step 1: Letter sounds
Start by teaching the child the sounds of each letter of the alphabet. In our programmes, we introduce the sounds in groups as below. We formed these groupings in order to (i) separate letters that sound or look similar to minimize confusion (eg. b-d, a-e, u-n, m-w) (ii) introduce at least one vowel in each set so blending practice (see below) can start earlier, and (iii) to introduce letter sounds that are made up of 2 sounds (eg. /q/ = /kw/) after the component sounds have been taught:
a c m s t
b i n g o
d f k u w
h e l p y
j q r v z x
To help children to learn these sounds more easily you should show them the letters visually and link hand actions to the sounds - do check out our demonstration video here which covers the 5 short vowel sounds and the 21 hard consonant sounds.
Step 2: Blending
When the child is familiar with a group of letter sounds, they can start to practice “blending” or putting 2 or more letter sounds together to read. You can start by demonstrating how to blend 2 sounds together to read 2-letter words like “at” or “am” from the first set or nonsense words like “ca” or “ta” and get the child to imitate you. BLENDING IS HARD FOR MOST CHILDREN AT FIRST, so be patient if they cannot seem to do it independently for a while. Do more phonemic awareness exercises to help them identify sounds in words. When a child is comfortable blending 2 letters, you can progress to Consonant-Vowel-Consonant (CVC) words like “mat”. You can read more about CVCs in our past blog article here.
After CVCs, you can teach consonant blends, which are CCVC and CVCC words - these are words that have 2 consonants at the start of the word (eg. ‘crab’, ‘plot’ or ‘snip’), or at the end such (eg. ‘vest’, ‘lamb’ or ‘hint’). Then you can progress to CCCVC (eg ‘strut’)
Step 3: Digraphs
You can introduce digraphs to the children next. Digraphs consist of 2 consonants that come together as a pair to make a new sound. An example of a common digraph is ‘ch’ in ‘chin’; the sounds of /c/ and /h/ on their own are very different from the sound of /ch/. Other digraphs are ‘sh’, ‘th’,’wh’, ‘ph’, ‘ng’. Here are examples of words with these digraphs - ‘hush’, ‘math’, ‘which’ and ‘graph’ - what sounds are these digraphs making? Read more about digraphs here.
Step 4: Long Vowels
Vowels (aeiou) are very important because every English word needs a vowel sound! The vowel sounds introduced above in step 1 are “short” vowel sounds. Vowels also make another sound, known as the “long” vowel sound. A long vowel sound is pronounced the same as the vowel’s name - see the table below. You can introduce long vowel sounds at this stage - they will form the foundation for other reading rules (see below).
Step 5: Silent e/Final ‘e’/Magic e
This reading rule is called by several names (as seen in the title for this step) but we like “Magic e” best. The rule states that for words ending with -VCe (Vowel-Consonant-e eg. grape), the e that appears at the end of the word, will cause the vowel to make its long sound. The final ‘e’ is itself silent (we don’t hear the sound of e). This rule is usually taught by showing children how the vowel sound changes when the Magic e is added to the end of CVC words. See examples below and a fun video here.
With these 5 steps mastered, your child would already be able to read hundreds of words! Do also teach children Sight Words in parallel - these are important to build reading fluency as there are many words that appear very frequently but they don’t follow any of the phonics rule.
Also, there are several other sounds and vowel rules we have not covered here - like long vowel digraphs/tea