Phonics is used in many countries across the world to teach children how to read and write. There are many phonics-based systems and brands producing educational material, work books and apps. Schools and nurseries across the U.K. do not use the same material, but the underlying principles are the same. If you have a child between the ages of 3 – 5 learning about letters and sounds, here is what you need to know:

The Lingo

Must know

Synthetic phonics – a system used to teaching reading and writing by correlating the sounds and symbols within a specific alphabet system. There are different types of phonics – synthetic, analytical, analogy and embedded phonics. Children learning how to read and write are taught through synthetic phonics. Synthetic phonics is a system that teaches children to blend “phonemes and graphemes” to make a word.
Blend – Putting individual sounds together to form a word, e.g. s-a-t = sat
Segment – Splitting up words to make individual sounds, e.g. cat = c-a-t
High frequency words, also known as tricky words and sight words  – Words that are used frequently, are unusual or have little meaning on their own.

Good to know

Phoneme – a single identifiable sound, doesn’t matter how many letters, e.g. m, sh, b, ck
Digraph – two letters making one sound, e.g. sh, ch, th and vowel digraphs ai, oo, ee, ow
Split digraph – two letters, split, making one sound, e.g. a-e in make or i-e in site
Grapheme – a group of 2 or more letters making one sound (all graphemes are also phonemes), e.g. sh, ch, igh, ough
Cluster – two or more letters making two or more sounds, e.g. str in straight is a consonant cluster

For Bonus points

VC, CVC, CCVC – Abbreviations used for vowels and consonant, e.g. s-i-t would be CVC
GPC – Letter-sound correspondence, also known as grapheme -phoneme correspondence – the relationship between sounds and the letters that represent them
Allophone – any acoustically different forms of the same phoneme, substituting one allophone for another does not change the meaning of the word, only its pronunciation.

The System

The Department of Education in the U.K. published a phonics manual for teachers that include 6 phases. Phase One is taught in nurseries and pre-school for 3-4 year olds and Phase Two is the first term in Reception Year at Primary School. It is called Letters and Sounds: Principles and Practive of High Quality Phonics. It is available as a free pdf here and the Kindle edition can be purchased from Amazon here. There is a paperback reprint available on Amazon, but it has a £19.95 price tag and has received some negative reviews for not being printed well.

Not all schools follow the manual closely – for example my daughter’s school is using Jolly Phonics and have adapted the 19 letters in 6 weeks from the manual to 17 letters over six weeks with the some letters in a slightly different order. This may seem like a small detail, but for small children it can make all the difference.

Much of the learning is done visually and kinesthetically with actions and iconic images associated with particular sounds. Check with your nursery or school and use the same system at home within the same timetable as they use or it can get very confusing.

Play close attention to high frequency words, they are introduced on page 64 with a complete list on page 193. Many parents get discouraged and confused by high frequency words. They feel that children are sent to school to learn how to read and then sent home with a list of words to memorize. This is not the case.

High frequency, or tricky words is just a small part of the overall process, but it is an important part. As with learning new letters and sounds, do not overwhelm them with a list, follow the nursery or school’s schedule and practice the high frequency words taught at school at a pace of one or two a week at home.

Oxford Reading Tree: Cats

Do’s and don’ts

Here are the golden rules handed down to me by my mother-in-law who is an experienced phonics expert:

Always guarantee success

Children enjoy succeeding and the most important thing to do, is to ensure that they succeed. Do not progress too fast, do not give them books or big words they won’t be able to instantly master. Work with them and within their school system and give them games and challenges they are guaranteed to succeed at. Success builds on success.

Heaps of praise and a large pack of cool stickers

Celebrate every small success and achievement, even ones that doesn’t seem like a big deal. Every time they succeed at blending, segmenting or writing something, praise them, reward them and encourage them.

Only a little every day

Five minutes a day is better than an hour a day or five minutes a week. Daily repetition is key – cover all the sound they have learned every day, but keep the learning experience exciting by not overtaxing them. Spend 5 minutes with letter flash card – first read each letter, then do a little blending and segmentation, give them a sticker then STOP! Even if they want to do more, stop. Always leave them wanting more.

Let them pick the games

I introduce one new word game a week and every day my daughter picks the game she would like to play. If you’re saying “word games, what word games?!” right now, don’t panic. Do not consult the internet – there are different games for different skill levels and picking games that are too advanced will lead to failure. Go back to the Sounds and Letters manual – there are dozens of good suggestions for each phase.

Helpful phonics apps

There are many phonics apps for Android and iOS with more being created on a regular basis. Apps are not a substitution for learning phonics, but an adjunct to help make memorizing and learning more fun and varied. We have favourably reviewed Hairy Letters and Endless Reader. Apps also provide a great way to learn how to say the letters correctly, e.g. t is [t], not ‘tee’ or ‘tuh’.

Popular phonics apps include:
Justin’s world: Lettersounds – £1.49 on iOS and Android
Penguin Books’ Ladybird: I’m ready for phonics: website and two iOS/Android apps for £2.99
Jolly Phonics Letter Sounds, £4.99 (iPhone and iPad)
Teach Your Monster to Read: First Steps: £3.99 (iPad only)
Hip Hop Hen: website and multiple iOS apps

Look for the following in Apps: Stick with British accents. Phonetic not alphabetical pronunciation, e.g. b = /b/ not “bee”. If there is tracing, make sure it corresponds with the school writing system – not all apps trace correctly.

Get a stylus. Nothing wrong with finger tracing, but a stylus is useful to help them learn how to grip a pen and practice writing.

First Books

There are many phonics book series on the market, like Phonics Bug and Oxford Reading Tree – be aware that books stating “Early reader” or “For beginners” are rarely for 3 – 5 year olds. Look for books that are phonics based and ideally, ask an expert. Teachers can provide information, so can local libraries or just do a bit of digging yourself. Look for books that focus on particular phonics phases.

The description will tell you which “focus phonics” a book is covering. Most series start with the first  7 – 8 letters: s,a,t,p,i,n,m,d. Page 48 of the Letters and Sounds manual has a list of the first 5 sets of letters.

Do not introduce books early. Once you are 100% sure that your child has mastered all the letters and sight words for a specific book (phonics series books have a list on the first page that provide all the information about sounds and sight words featured in the book), then give them a book and watch their face light up as they discover that they can read a whole book without help.


Learning how to read and write is one of the most important milestones a child reaches. It is not just up to the teacher, it is a process that happens over time both at home and at school. The bar should be higher too – reading and writing is a critical skill, but it can also be a source of enjoyment, inspiration and open doors to new worlds, opportunities and experiences. Aim to teach children a love of reading and the joy of writing, not just the mechanics.

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