It is crucial that we remember that phonics (i.e. decoding sounds) is just one component of learning how to read. The process of reading relies upon:
Therefore, if your child is struggling with reading, it is worth considering which areas might need to be addressed in order to help them. There is no value in a child ‘barking’ at print if they are not understanding what they are reading. Similarly, you can try and sound out exception words like ‘the’ and ‘you’ till the cows come home and they simply won’t make sense and need to be memorised.
In this article I will try and point out some of the more common phonics problems I experienced in my years as a teacher and give you some tips to help out.
Common phonics problems: similar-looking letters
When children start to recognise their letters it can often be confusing;
- b, d, p, g, q – all have circles and sticks that go in different directions
- f and t are lines with curly bits that are crossed over
- j and i both have lines and dots
- h and n are very similar and hard for children to differentiate
It’s important to teach these letters separately but then to recap them together pointing out the little differences (for example, we write h and n in the same way, but the h has got a long stick whereas the n has got a very short stick).
Talk about the similarities and differences between letters with your child and help them to come up with their own way of remembering so that it is more relevant to them.
Here are some suggestions of tricks for remembering the direction of b and d; you'll find lots more online. Help your child draw their own versions of pictures like these!
Common phonics problems: guessing the ends of the words
Often, when children are learning to read, they guess the end of the word based on the beginning sound. If this happens, make them split up the word into its individual letter sounds and repeat them and ensure they are hearing all the sounds before re-blending them together.
It is also important that the children consider the context of what they are reading as usually their guess doesn’t make sense!
Common phonics problems: confusing blends
As children progress in phonics there are many new blends to be learned that look similar but sound different (for example, ai / oi / oa or ch / sh / th).
It is important to teach these blends separately, but every time your child learns a new one remind them of the one they already know and then ensure they remember the old one and practise the new one.
Common phonics problems: tricky words
When children are learning the difference between decodable words (ones you can sound out using phonics knowledge) and tricky words (technically known as exception words, ones where the English spelling code works in an unusual or uncommon way, for example the, was, one), point the tricky words out in the sentence before they read. By making them spot the words first they will be ready for them in sentences and their reading will be much more fluent.
Common phonics problems: homophones, homonyms and homographs
The English language is full of confusing words and sounds.
- We have many words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings (homophones), for example which / witch or two / to / two or red / read.
- We have words that sound the same and have the same spellings but different meanings (homonyms), for example bear / bear or stalk / stalk.
- We also have many words that have the same spellings but sound different (homographs), for example read / read, bow / bow, wind / wind.
Each one needs to be learned separately.
The message for all at-home reading exercises is keep it fun, keep it relevant to their lives and where possible use print in the world around them (looking at posters, road signs, publications, etc) to enhance their reading skills as this keeps the purpose of reading at the forefront of their minds.