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Phonics

There is so much written about ‘phonics’ these days that it is difficult to know where to start. For those in the know there are countless websites, blogs, books and articles which all try to shine a light on the subject. Some will use technical terminology, some will emphasise key words, some will explain what ‘synthetic’ means, some will mention ‘tricky’ words, some will now be calling ‘tricky’ words ‘exception’ words! All in the hope that people will get it.

But phonics, simply put, is a system of learning to read and spell using the sounds of our language and the different ways we write them down. There are other methods. In the UK the phonics bible is the ‘Letters and Sounds’ document, produced by the Department for Education and has been adopted by the majority of schools. But the very title of this document gives away the fact that there is still confusion over the teaching of phonics.

Letters and Sounds? Which comes first? For me this document should always have been called ‘Sounds and Letters’. Sounds come first. To explain to a child that this is a letter ‘s’ and it makes the sound ‘ssssss’ is to miss the point. Letters don’t make sounds. If you don’t believe me, just put your ear to the screen now and listen. Are the letters making any sounds? Well, I’m sure you get what I mean.

Most teachers are beginning to realise that the sounds must be taught first. So, to begin with, your child needs to know the initial sounds of the alphabet. But not all at once and not necessarily in alphabetical order.

A lot of phonics schemes introduce the letters s,a,t,p,i,n, first. This is because they are the ones first introduced in ‘Letters and Sounds’. Another well-regarded phonics scheme, the Sound Reading system, introduces the letters t,o,p,m,a,n, first. But the idea is the same. Teach a handful of sounds along with the letters which represent them and then begin to build simple words with these few alone.

Even before the whole initial alphabet sounds are known, and the letters which represent them, simple words can be built by blending the sounds together and these simple words can be used in simple phrases; thus giving the child a taste of what ‘reading’ is. When they can sound out the letters, blend them together and then say the word, they know they are really reading.

There is one massively important point now. To be able to learn the sounds, your child has to be able to hear the sounds. This throws up really important questions like – Can your child hear perfectly well? Are you articulating the sounds correctly? Is their speech developed enough to be able to copy the sounds you are making? But, if you have successfully taught your child how to talk (which is a huge topic in itself), then you are quite able to teach them how to read.

Because the problem with leaving the teaching of reading to teachers is that by the time your children are school age, so many pre-reading opportunities may have already passed them by.