Most children in primary schools across England will now be taught to read using phonics. To those of us who learnt to read using a different method (remember Janet and John and memorising words) phonics can sometimes appear confusing. But, as phonics expert Laura Sharp explains, you probably know more phonics than you think...


So what exactly is phonics?
Phonics is a way of learning to read by decoding words into voice sounds, rather than simply memorising words. So children will learn that the letter T has a name, but also a sound, as in Tin or Toe. Words are broken up into small units of sound, called phonemes. Children learn the sound and then the alternative ways of representing those sounds. So, for example, the sound 's' can be in snake, scent or ceiling. And the sound 'ai' as in rain, can also be 'ae' as in aeroplane, 'ay' as in play, 'aigh' as in straight, and so on.

What is the main advantage of phonics?
Children who learn to decode will master the skill of basic reading quicker, which means they can move on to the actual enjoyment of reading and comprehension sooner. I call it releasing them from the heavy load of work they have to to do to work out what a word is, so they become fluent more quickly.

Is phonics going to be used in all schools?
Phonics is being backed by the Government as the best reading method for schools across England. Year 1 phonics screening checks take place in the early summer in schools in England. This is a one-to-one check, with children asked to read 40 words, some of them made-up [pseudo] words, to check their decoding skills, their ability to put sounds to letters and to blend the sounds into words.

How is phonics taught?
Phonics is a programme taught in stages, from reception and on in to Years 1 and 2.

The first six letters children learn in virtually every programme are S, A, T, P, I and N. This is because you can create many words with these six letters. By creating words like 'sit', 'pin' and 'spin', you build in that success rate at an early stage. Even 4-year-olds can write at word level – imagine what that does for their self-esteem.

Then they move on to the 'tricky' words that aren't regular. Words like 'the' or ‘you’, where the ‘y’ sound is familiar but the ‘ou’ making an ‘oo’ sound is irregular. This is where different reading experiences help, as parents, carers and teachers reading to a child will help put these tricky words in context.

You will often hear the phrase ‘The First 100 words’, which relates to the high frequency words that appear in text that young children would meet in first few years of schooling for example, ‘and’, ‘was’, ‘it’ and ‘came’. Only a few of these are not decodable.

Then it gets more sophisticated and becomes about choices of which sounds are right for which words as fluency builds.

Do accents affect phonics?
Children cope really well with this and it's particularly where reading aloud and to your children helps model how they read and understand.

If parents don’t know about phonics, how can they help their child learn?
My whole mission is about ensuring phonics is taught well and put into context of other reading experiences. What's most important is to take an interest in what your kids are learning, and help them put reading into a wider context of enjoyment and finding out information. This includes reading to, reading with, talking about books and characters along with specific reading where the child can read every word. This gives children a sense of self as a successful reader.

The main thing is don’t be frightened of it – you won’t do your child any harm. It’s not really about "I don’t know about phonics’" It's about support. So say sounds clearly and well, practice looking at and listening to words. Play simple games - in the park, say "I'm going to sit on the b-e-n-ch - say a word and then break it down into the sounds. Then get them to do one, too.

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The only thing you shouldn't do is teach different letter sounds to what they're learning at school.
If you’re still worried, get a head start by asking the school which phonic scheme they’re using.

Can phonics be learned away from reading and the classroom?
Phonics is part of a ‘phonological awareness’, which includes all sounds, not just words. For example, babies will turn to hear a voice and will learn to distinguish sounds. So they’ll notice the difference between musical instruments, know that’s a car, that’s a plane etc.

As adults, we probably use phonics without realising it. If, for example, we see a word we don't recognise (on an Ikea label, for example) we automatically fall back on to chunking the word into syllables to try to understand it.

It’s so important parents talk to their children from an early age and then show enthusiasm for reading as they get older, it’s so influencing.


You've worked with Oxford University Press to produce 'My Phonics Kit'. Tell us about that...
I've worked as an independent literacy advisor with 30 years of experience in primary education. Since autumn 2011, I've been working with Oxford University Press on the development of ‘My Phonics Kit’ – an activity pack for parents to use with Year 1 children. It features characters Biff, Chip and Kipper, who will be familiar from the Oxford Reading Tree scheme that is used in 80% of primary schools. The Kit combines phonics decoding practice with engaging stories and interactive features – making learning to read a fun and exciting journey. ‘My Phonics Kit’ is available to buy online and on the high-street. Parents can also visit for phonics resources and advice, such as videos from Children’s Laureate Julia Donaldson, and a range of interactive free eBooks.