The main focus of the first years of school has always been to teach children how to read and write. What has changed over the years is the method used to do this. In recent years, phonics has been the method most widely used because its effectiveness is supported by literacy experts all around the world.
But for many parents and caregivers, phonics can seem confusing and difficult to understand and appreciate, especially if they learned how to read using a different method as children. If you’re one of them, fear not! We are here to help you understand what phonics is and how it works.
What is phonics and how do experts recommend it is taught?
Phonics is the method that builds the foundations of children’s reading and writing skills by helping them become aware of the sounds that letters correspond to in different words.
Phonics instruction is recommended for reading beginners, so it is normally taught during kindergarten (Reception in the UK) and throughout the first two years of primary school. Phonics helps children recognise the individual sounds and letters that make up a word by encouraging them to set them apart and then put them back together. It does this for words that can be ‘sounded out’, that is, words in which what you see is what you hear. For example, learning what sound the letters c, a and t usually make enables a child to read the word CAT. Change the first letter from c to h and the child should be able to read HAT. Words like CAT and HAT are the first ones that children learn to read because they are short and consist of a simple vowel connecting two simple consonants; other similar examples are sad, fun, mat. Such words are often referred to as CVC (Consonant-Vowel-Consonant) words. Phonics instruction then gradually moves onto CVCC and CCVC words, such as gulp and stop, all the way up to longer words with more complex letter units, such as quiet or nightmare.
Why is phonics instruction so crucial?
Before literacy experts started recommending phonics, it used to be believed that memorising the form of each word was the only way for anyone to learn how to read in English. The reading method that encouraged the memorisation of whole words (known as whole-language approach) is probably the way most of today’s parents learned how to read. But by not teaching children how to decode the letters in each word, the whole-language method rendered the logic behind reading largely a mystery to them. Scholars gradually began to warn that memorising too many words put children into a potentially disadvantageous position because it didn't equip them with the tools they needed to read unfamiliar words . The internet is also full of reports of how stressful learning how to read had been for people using the memorising method because it didn’t help them figure out how reading works.
As opposed to the whole-language approach, phonics is the method that helps children understand the logic behind how reading works which gradually turns them into fluent readers. English consists of about 44* phonemes (the smallest sound units in words; e.g. the sounds ‘m’, ‘a’ and ‘p’ in ‘map’ are the phonemes in this word), but more than 170 graphemes (the letters we use to represent these sounds; e.g. the letters m, a, p are the graphemes in the word map). Even though ‘map’ is a simple case in that what you hear is what you see, not all words in English are equally straightforward. For example, notice that cat, kite and duck all contain the same k-sound, but in each of these cases this sound is represented by different letters: c, k, and ck. The reverse is also possible in that the same letter (or combination of letters) is pronounced in different ways in different words; for example, the letters ea correspond to different sounds in bread, mean, and break. This means that there’s no one to one correspondence between letters and sounds, in that the same sound is written in different ways in different words and the same letters are pronounced in different ways in different words making reading a potentially distressing experience for beginners. However, these complexities don’t mean that words are spelled and pronounced in an arbitrary way.
Overall, even though the same sound can be represented by different letters, not all possible representations are equally common. For example, the sound ‘f’ can be written as f (funny), ff (bluff), ph (phone), or gh (laugh). But ph and gh are less common than f and ff. So phonics instruction is the method that helps children familiarise themselves with the letter-sound correspondences in English starting from the most common ones and gradually moving to the less common ones. It does this by encouraging children to break down words into their individual phonemes (segmenting), or putting phonemes together to form a word (blending). By doing this, phonics equips children with the tools they need to decode words they haven’t seen before, on the basis of their knowledge of how letters are usually pronounced.
Phonics instruction has been proven to improve children’s literacy skills and it is highly recommended by childhood literacy experts. According to the report of the National Literacy Panel, teaching phonics has better impact on children’s reading ability than any other reading program. It is very effective in improving spelling especially among kindergarteners and 1st graders, and it’s also effective among children at risk of developing future reading problems. It has generally proven effective with children of different ages, abilities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Research also supports the benefits of teaching phonics to second language learners and phonics instruction for learners of English is therefore growing fast in China ,.
Phonics doesn’t have to be boring. Mrs Wordsmith gamifies phonics
In spite of how beneficial phonics could be for children’s reading, its effectiveness alone is not enough. According to a report by the American National Reading Panel, phonics practice can be quite dull for teachers and children alike and not enough attention has been paid by the curriculum into making phonics programs fun. But unless attention is put into making phonics fun and engaging, its effectiveness could be compromised because no child or teacher will want to practise it .
But fear no more. Phonics doesn’t have to be boring! Mrs Wordsmith is launching ‘Blah Blah Blah’, a card game that’s determined to make phonics fun and engaging for the whole family.
Master phonics with three decks of cards, ranging from easy to more difficult. Every card shows a word consisting of three letters (or groups of letters), e.g. b-o-x, b-oo-k, p-i-ck. Each player takes seven cards. One card is placed face-up on the table with the rest of the deck in a pile, face-down. Players must play a card from their hand that contains at least one of the letters that are in the word on the table. The first player to get rid of all their cards wins. But beware! Special cards hidden in the deck can force you to skip your turn or draw more cards. Bonus feature: each card has a QR code at the back to help you pronounce the sounds. The whole family will become phonics experts in no time.
*The number of phonemes varies slightly depending on the variation of English one speaks.
 Adams McCord, M. (1994). Beginning to read: thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
 National Reading Panel. (2007). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. USA.
 Nishanimuta, S. P; Johnston, R.S., Joshic, M. R.; Thomas, P. J.; Padakannayad, P. (2013). ‘Effect of synthetic phonics instruction on literacy skills in an ESL setting.’ Learning and Individual Differences 27: 47-53.
 Cao, M. (2017) ‘An analysis of phonics teaching in mainland China’. Journal of Language Teaching and Research. 286-290.