What On Earth is Phonics? (And Can it Actually Help Your Kids Learn to Read?)


What is Phonics? And Can It Help Children Learn to Read?

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I’ve written before about the many amazing ways that reading is beneficial to your kids!

Reading can:

  • Increase children’s knowledge
  • Improve their vocabulary
  • Improve comprehension skills
  • Be a great way to relax and can actually improve their health
  • Improve their literacy skills
  • Improve their language skills
  • Make them better writers and spellers

And plenty more besides!

Reading aloud to your kids can also impact their development in many ways! 

I love sitting down and sharing a book with my little boy – it’s such a special piece of time together and I know he loves it too.

The question is though, how can we get our children to a stage where they are able to read and enjoy a book completely by themselves?

That’s where phonics comes in.

During this post I’m going to use a lot of words that you may not be entirely familiar with, but fear not! I’ve created a handy guide to words that teachers say which you can check out (and download a free copy of) here!

What is Phonics?

What is phonics?

You may have heard your children, after coming in from school, talking about a lesson they had today called phonics as it’s now widely taught across many western schools.

But what on earth is phonics?

The word phonics comes from the Greek ‘phone’ for ‘voice’ or ‘sound’, and is a method of teaching children to read and write. 

It focuses on teaching children to be able to break down words into the different sounds (phonemes) they are made up of. These can be individual letter sounds – ‘a for apple’ or combinations of letters that go together to make one sound – ‘ch for cheese’.

When children are just starting to learn to read it would be like us trying to decipher an ancient Egyptian tablet. Or read a Japanese haiku (unless you already speak Japanese as well – if so, hats off to you!). 

The point is, at that age, letters are just symbols with no meaning. Words are just longer groups of these weird symbols.

How Does Phonics Help Kids Learn to Read?

What phonics tries to do is connect a sound to each of those letters, or groups of letters (the written form of these sounds are known as graphemes), so that the children can decode the words in front of them and work out what they say.

According to the National Literacy Trust, there are four main types of phonics but the most widely used is called synthetic phonics. This is the type we use in the school I work in.

It’s where each sound of a word is pronounced individually and then ‘blended’ together to make the complete word. For example, for dog you would break it down as you read it ‘d’ then ‘o’ and ‘g’ and synthesise the sounds together to make ‘dog’.

Early synthetic phonics, normally at around preschool or kindergarten age, teaches the development of listening skills. It focuses on learning to tune into and remember different environmental, instrument and voice sounds. After this, children will move on to learning how to hear and distinguish the different sounds which words are made up of. 

Then, when the children are ready, they will be taught that these sounds relate to actual letters. They are taught this in a particular order. The first sounds which are taught are s, a, t and p. From just these few sounds, children will be able to form and blend together words like tap, pat and sat.

After that, i, n, m and d, which will allow them to read even more words and so on.

What can make phonics tricky for English speakers is that each phoneme may have more than one grapheme for it. For example, the ‘c’ sound is written in different ways in the words du’ck’, ‘c’at, s’ch’ool and ‘k’angaroo.

It may be natural for us to just read these without thinking about the individual sounds, but you can see how this could be really tricky for someone who’s trying to read the word sound by sound!

So that was a brief overview of what phonics actually is. Now, let’s have a look at the scientific research and see if phonics actually works.

Does Phonics Actually Help Children Learn to Read – What Does the Science Say?

Can phonics help children to read?

*SPOILER ALERT* Turns out it does.

There’s a lot of evidence that suggests phonics is the best way to teach children to read.

The National Reading Panel (NRP), which was a United States government body, did some thorough research into the scientific literature around teaching children to read in 2000. 

They concluded that phonemic awareness (the ability to identify and manipulate the sounds of words – what’s taught in phonics lessons) was effective under a variety of teaching conditions and for a wide range of learners.

That it is the best way for children to begin to learn to read!

They found that phonics could help children to recognise and manipulate the sounds in words and that the effects lasted long after the teaching had stopped.

They wrote that phonics helped children to both decode new words and also to remember familiar words. They also reported that phonics even boosted children’s reading comprehension.

Phonics was found to be effective for children of preschool age right up to grade six. And was beneficial for children with disabilities and learning difficulties.

They also reported that phonics was particularly effective at helping young children (kindergarten – 1st grade) to learn to spell, and again the benefits lasted for a long time after phonics instruction had finished.

The NRP’s findings were backed up by similar large scale examinations of the scientific research. One by the Australian National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy in 2005 and another by the Rose Report in the UK in 2006. Both of which wrote that phonics was the best way for children to learn to read.

So Why Are Some People Against Phonics?

There are several different ways to learn to read and what works for one may not work for another.

I know I didn’t use phonics to learn to read. Until I started working in schools, I’d never even heard of it!

I learnt to read using something I’ve found out is called the ‘whole word method’. 

I just got used to recognising the words as they were written down through practise. Starting with small, easy words and progressing to the more complex. I then used my existing knowledge of words to help work out how to read any new words I came across.

I think this method was reasonably common for people born over 30 or so years ago. Who remembers the Peter and Jane Books?

One argument people have against phonics as a way to learn to read is that the English language is just too complicated to be learnt that way.

Another is that phonics can ‘drill’ children to learn the letter sounds and it takes away some of the pleasure and authenticity of the reading experience. 

And that this kind of instruction is too ‘mechanical’ and that it doesn’t promote comprehension skills.

Final Thoughts on Phonics and Learning To Read

Looking at the evidence, I think it’s fair to conclude that phonics is a great way for children to learn to read. 

It gives them the building blocks they need to construct a solid foundation upon which they can learn to read. It’s been found to be effective for all types of children across a range of ages.

Once they have a firm grasp of phonemic awareness, they can go on to learn to recognise words by sight and improve their comprehension, as well as be able to tackle any new words they encounter.

I know from my experiences teaching phonics that it works. It’s just lovely to see children who come into school with no idea what a letter is, to being able to decode and read entire (admittedly often simple) books after a year of phonics teaching.

I hope that I have been successful in explaining to you what phonics is and why it can be an amazing tool to help children read and write. 

Related If you’d like to have a go at teaching phonics to your child at home I’ve created an easy to follow lesson along with some useful printables.

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How did you learn to read? Have your children tried phonics? How are they getting on with it? I’d love to hear any comments in the section below!

Let’s nurture those neurons!

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4 years ago

This was very informative. Thank you for sharing.

4 years ago

My 5 and 7 year old both love to read! I know they have learned some of through phonics but also through other methods like site words. I think a combo is the best way!

🇨‌🇭‌🇷‌🇮‌🇸‌ 🇰‌🇴‌🇸‌🇹‌🇴‌🖊 (@ChrisKostoGB)

Never heard about it this method before. I don’t think phonics can harm a child anyway, it seems like a fun method for the first steps on reading

Molly @ Transatlantic Notes

I used to teach phonics and it definitely helped — the children just found some of the reading material within the school program we had really dry and boring, but that was easily solved by finding things the children connected with better.

Fab post!

Lisa Alioto
Lisa Alioto
4 years ago

Phonics is great – I owe much of my early school success to it! Thanks for reintroducing it through this article!

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