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Parents' guide to Phase 1 phonics

child reading with father
Phonics is a teaching method used across many UK primary schools. Phonics programmes are often broken down into phases, and this can get a little confusing for parents. We explain what Phase 1 phonics involves and how you can help at home.

Phonics is a method of teaching children to read by correlating sounds with individual letters or groups of letters.

Phase 1 phonics typically focuses on developing children's listening skills and their awareness of sounds in their environment. It is often introduced in Nursery and is not about learning specific letter-sound correspondences for reading and spelling, as in later phases. Instead, Phase 1 is more about laying the foundation for phonological awareness.

What is covered in Phase 1 phonics?

The key aspects of Phase 1 phonics include:

•  Environmental sounds: learning to listen to and identify everyday sounds in the environment, such as footsteps, birdsong, or doorbells.

•  Instrumental sounds: Recognising sounds produced by various instruments, like drums, bells, or shakers.

•  Body percussion: Awareness of sounds produced by clapping hands, stomping feet, or other body movements.

•  Rhythm and rhyme: Activities that involve recognising and creating patterns of rhythm and rhyme, which help develop an understanding of the sound structure of language.

•  Voice sounds (phonemes): Introducing different vocal sounds, including animal sounds and other noises.

•  Oral blending and segmenting: Basic activities where children practice combining or breaking down spoken words into individual sounds.

What is the purpose of Phase 1 phonics?

The goal of Phase 1 phonics is to build a strong foundation for reading and writing by enhancing children's ability to listen, discriminate between sounds, and manipulate them orally. It's an important precursor to the more structured and explicit phonics instruction that comes in subsequent phases, where children begin to connect specific sounds with corresponding letters and letter combinations.

When is Phase 1 phonics taught?

Phase 1 phonics is typically introduced between the ages of three and five (during Nursery and early Reception). Other phases are then introduced and continue through to Year 1. Children in England will take the Phonics Screening Check at the end of Year 1 – usually in June. This check helps identify which children need more phonics support. 

What types of activities are included in Phase 1 phonics?

Common activities included in Phase 1 phonics teaching are:

  • Listening walks: Taking children on walks around the school or outdoors, encouraging them to listen carefully to the various sounds in their environment. This can include natural sounds like birdsong, traffic noises, or the wind.
  • Instrumental sounds: Introducing different musical instruments and letting children explore the sounds they make. This can include drums, tambourines, bells, shakers, and more.
  • Body percussion: Engaging children in activities that involve creating sounds with their bodies, such as clapping hands, stomping feet, or snapping fingers. This helps them become more aware of different types of sounds.
  • Rhythm and rhyme: Using rhymes, songs, and chants that focus on rhythm and rhyme. Encouraging children to participate in clapping or tapping to the beat, and identifying words that rhyme.
  • Voice sounds (phonemes): Exploring different vocal sounds, including animal sounds, environmental noises, and other vocalisations. This helps children recognise and distinguish between various sounds.
  • Sound discrimination games: Playing games that involve discriminating between sounds. For example, you might use a collection of objects with distinct sounds (e.g., a bell, a whistle, a drum) and ask children to identify or match the sounds.
  • Oral blending and segmenting: Engaging in activities where children practise combining or breaking down spoken words into individual sounds. For example, you could say the sounds of a word and ask children to blend them to guess the word.
  • Listening to stories and rhymes: Read stories and rhymes aloud, emphasising the sounds in words. Encouraging children to listen actively and discuss the sounds they hear.
  • Environmental sounds bingo: Creating bingo cards with pictures or words representing common environmental sounds. As sounds are played, children can mark the corresponding images or words on their cards.
  • Sound scavenger hunt: Having a sound scavenger hunt with children searching for specific sounds in the environment or with given objects.

It's important to note that Phase 1 is less about teaching specific letter-sound relationships and more about fostering a general awareness and appreciation of sounds in the environment. These activities create a strong foundation for later, more formal phonics instruction.

How can you support Phase 1 phonics learning at home?

  • Read aloud: Regularly read books, rhymes, and stories to your child. Choose materials that include rhyming words, repetitive patterns, and engaging sounds. This helps develop their listening skills and phonological awareness.
  • Sing songs and rhymes: Singing songs and reciting rhymes with your child exposes them to rhythm and rhyme, which are important components of phonological awareness. Choose songs with catchy tunes and repetitive patterns.
  • Sound walks: Take your child on a sound walk around your home. Encourage them to listen carefully to various sounds, such as birds singing, cars passing, or doors creaking. Discuss the different sounds you hear.
  • Musical instruments: Introduce your child to different musical instruments. Let them explore creating sounds with instruments like drums, shakers, or bells. This helps them become more attuned to different auditory stimuli.
  • Sound discrimination games: Play games that involve discriminating between sounds. You can use everyday objects or create sound cards with pictures representing different sounds. Ask your child to identify or match the sounds.