Phonics describes the associations between sounds and spellings. It is how we identify word pronunciation and is the foundation for reading and writing. The art of “sounding it out” is in fact phonics in action!
Teaching phonics is how we lay the groundwork for helping children learn to read, interpret, and write words. It begins with matching sounds to different letters and letter pairings, and then we put those associations together to sound out and pronounce words. Phonics skills continue to be used as children learn and advance through reading levels.
The English language consists of 44 phonics speech sounds which are combined and mixed together to form our language. Throughout this article we will look further at phonics and its importance, the learning stages, phonological awareness, how literacy builds, and more.
An understanding of phonics is crucial for successful reading and writing comprehension. It is the base for our language and the way that we grow to read and write without a second thought.
Learning phonics begins with phonological awareness skills, which involve learning individual and combination letter sounds and pronunciations. This instruction provides a learning foundation that is built upon and used as a base for learning to read.
The phonics learning process begins naturally around 1 year of age as toddlers start to identify sounds and syllables, “talk,” and mimic words that they hear. Having conversations with and reading to children, especially with syllables, rhymes, and word identification (i.e. with books and tools like “c” is for “cat”), sets a base for their learning and future spelling and writing skills.
It’s important to note that the ability to identify sounds and hear syllables and rhymes is referred to as phonological awareness, not to be confused with phonics itself.
According to The Victoria State Government, phonological awareness deepens during 30-60 months of age as children begin to recognise familiar words, rhymes, words with similar sounds, and syllables. They will begin to associate individual letters with specific sounds as they continue to grow and learn.
Early phonological awareness skills are built upon when children enter school. Direct phonics instruction begins in early education, typically in kindergarten.
Children are most commonly taught sound and spelling association through synthetic phonics, which is an approach that covers sounds and how they are reflected in letters or combined (blended) to form particular sounds with letter groupings.
It begins with small letters and individual letter sounds, and slowly builds to incorporate multiple letter sounds, and so on. Around age 5 or 6 is when comprehensive reading instruction will begin.
Have you ever read a book and stumbled across an unfamiliar word? Chances are you could pronounce it, even though it was unfamiliar to you. You can thank phonics for that! As you can see, a knowledge of phonics is used far beyond early learning.
Phonics education involves the identification of letter patterns, letter associations, and the sounds that they make. Here is a quick overview of some of the basics.
The sounds that we learn in phonics come in four different sound-letter patterns: graphs, digraphs, trigraphs, and quadgraphs. These can be identified simply by how many letters make up the sound (i.e. di-, tri-, and quad-). Below are examples of each.
Digraphs contain two letters or graphs.
Trigraphs contain three letters or graphs.
Quadgraphs contain four letters or graphs.
ough - bough / augh - caught / eigh - eight
Phonemes are to phonics what atoms are to science — they are the smallest “parts” of words and are the individual sounds broken down. When we look at the word cat, we see that it is comprised of three phonemes: c, a, and t. Each letter in this word is distinctive and makes its own sound. However, phonemes can also be made with di, tri, and quadgraphs.
Graphemes are written symbols (letters) that we use to represent phonemes (sounds). There can be combinations of graphemes to represent sounds and these can contain 2 letters (digraphs), 3 letters (trigraphs), and 4 letters (quadgraphs). A two-letter Grapheme is in “team” where the “ea” makes a long “ee” sound.
Speech: s / p / ee / ch
This word has four phonemes (sounds). It has two graphs - s and p, and two digraphs - ee and ch.
Shoe: sh / oe
This word has two phonemes (sounds) and two digraphs.
We can also combine letters in different ways to achieve the same sounds. For example, “cks” and “x” are graphemes that, though spelled differently, make the same sound - socks and box.
Another example is “ss,” “c,” and “sh,” i.e. tissue, ocean, and wash. These graphemes make the same phoneme, a “sh” sound, but are spelled differently.
Literacy is one of the most important things that we learn as children. Education can begin early, and having the right tools makes understanding and comprehension easier for little ones.
We have developed a series of Phonics Kits. Our new Phonics Kits have been designed to support your child or student to learn phonics at their own pace, in collaboration with a Certified Practising Speech Pathologist.
By making phonics fun and providing a tactile, hands-on multisensory experience, these resources help lay the groundwork for helping kids learn to read, interpret, and write words in school, home or therapeutic environments.
Each Kit has been designed to support your child or student to advance through reading levels on their way to becoming confident communicators. Synthetic Phonics places much emphasis on the teachers pronouncing the letter sounds and combinations correctly. This is why we have included video tutorials of the correct pronunciation of sounds.
A phonics education lays the groundwork for early reading and spelling, and ultimately literacy. It must be said, however, that there are many words in the English language that don’t make phonic sense, so in reading it’s also very important to practice sight words. Milestones and Mayhem offer three progressive sight word sets to support this.
Phonics (emergent literacy). Department of Education and Training Victoria, Victoria State Government. (2018, December 17). Retrieved from www.education.vic.gov.au/childhood /professionals/learning/ecliteracy/emergentliteracy/Pages/phonics.aspx.
Phonological awareness (emergent literacy). Department of Education and Training Victoria, Victoria State Government. (2021, April 21). Retrieved from https://www.education.vic.gov.au/ childhood/professionals/learning/ecliteracy/emergentliteracy/Pages/phonologicalawareness.aspx#link21