Your phonics questions answered

Mother and daughter reading
Do you understand how your child is learning to read? We asked the experts to demystify phonics teaching and give you some practical tips to support your child’s learning. You'll also find links to phonics worksheets, games and activities.

What is phonics?

"Phonics is a method for teaching reading where children learn letters by their sounds rather than their names," explains Chris Jolly, managing director of Jolly Learning, which publishes the Jolly Phonics scheme. For example, the letter A is sounded out as /a/ (as in ant), not /ay/ (as in day).
 
There are around 44 different phonics sounds, known as phonemes, to learn. Some are single letters, like /a/ as in ‘apple', others are represented by groups of letters, like /sh/ as in ‘ship’. The sounds are learnt in groups, starting with the most commonly used: /s/ /a/ /t/ /i/ /p/ and /n/. Children learn to decode new words by saying each sound aloud.

Why learn phonics?

"Learning phonics helps children learn to read because instead of relying on memorising words by shape or guessing them based on picture clues or first letters, they can read new words by sounding them out and blending those sounds together," explains Debbie Hepplewhite, author of the Phonics International programme and consultant to Oxford Reading Tree. Research shows that after a year of phonics teaching, children can achieve a reading age 12 months ahead of their actual age.

Can all words be decoded using phonics?

No. There’s a bank of ‘tricky words’ (also known as exception words) which are not so easy to sound out, including some useful common words like ‘the’ and ‘was’. These have to be memorised, but the majority of words can be decoded phonically. 

Do all schools use the same methods?

There are several different phonics schemes, including Jolly Phonics, Read Write Inc, Floppy’s Phonics and Letters and Sounds. They are all based on learning the connection between sounds and letters.

Why does my child do actions when practising phonics?

Learning actions to accompany sounds is a hallmark of the Jolly Phonics scheme: you may have seen your child marching his fingers up his arm like ants and chanting ‘a-a-a’. "These actions are a memory aid to help children remember the sounds," says Debbie. Different schemes have different mnemonics; some, for example, use pictures rather than actions.  

How can I help my child with phonics?

  • Get clued up. "Schools should provide information sessions on how they teach phonics," says Debbie. By familiarising yourself with the sounds and mnemonics (listen to them in our interactive phonics sounds worksheet), you can help your child at home. At the end of Year 1 children take the Phonics Screening Check; if you're looking for ways to help your child practise phonics at home read through our 10 ways to boost phonics confidence.
  • Look for resources. "There are lots of phonics materials available, including DVDs, songs and activity books," says Chris. See our pick of the best phonics games, apps and songs to help make phonics practice fun (for you as well as your child!).
  • Discourage guesswork. "If your child can’t work out a word, either demonstrate how to sound and blend it, or tell him what it is," Debbie advises. "Avoid getting into the habit of guessing rather than sounding out words."
  • Pay attention to learning common tricky words like ‘who’, ‘where’ and ‘their’, focusing on the difficult parts that can’t be sounded out.
  • Choose books wisely. "To read independently, your child needs books that he is able to decode," Debbie explains. Provide books that are at the right level, and if school books seem too difficult for sounding out and blending, talk to the teacher.

Phonics worksheets and activities

TheSchoolRun has an extensive selection of downloadable, printable phonics worksheets to help your child review what they've learnt in the classroom.