What is Phonics?

Phonics is the name given to the way the foundation of reading and spelling is taught in schools. 

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Watch the video 'Phonics Explained' to learn about phonics and how it is taught in schools in England...

...or scroll down to read 'A Guide to Phonics for Parents'

A Guide to Phonics for Parents

What is Phonics?

Phonics teaches how the letters in written words represent the speech sounds we say in spoken words. We call the speech sounds ‘phonemes’ but in the Phonics for Pupils with SEN programme we just call them 'sounds'.


Let's look at this a little more closely. Say the word 'map' out loud to yourself.  


When we say that word we say quite a few sounds but we push them together very quickly. We hardly notice the separate sounds when we speak so we have to listen and think carefully about them.


Can you hear what separate sounds you say?


You say the sounds /m/ /a/ /p/ and we write these sounds using the letters: m a p


That’s phonics!

Note that we write sounds in forward slashes so it is clear that we are talking about a sound and not a sound spelling e.g. /s/ as in the first sound in sit.

What is the Alphabetic Code?

Phonics teaches how the letters in written words represent speech sounds or phonemes.

We use 44 different sounds in different combinations to make up and say all the words in English.

When we write a word we write a letter to represent each sound in it. Sometimes we write a few letters (working together) to represent a sound.  It is like a ‘code’ that uses the alphabet. We call letters and groups of letters ‘graphemes’ but in the Phonics for Pupils with SEN programme, we call them 'sound spellings' - it's easy for children to remember that these 'spell' the 'sounds'.

Have a look at these words, thinking about the sounds and the sound spellings.

man     3 sounds, 3 sound spellings, 3 letters  m a n

road    3 sounds, 3 sound spellings, 4 letters  r oa d

light       3 sounds, 3 sound spellings, 5 letters  l igh t

weight  3 sounds, 3 sound spellings, 6 letters w eigh t

All these words have three sounds in but not all of them just have 3 letters! Some sound spellings are made up of 2, 3 or even 4 letters.


In phonics lessons, children learn about all the sounds and their matching sound spellings. They learn to ‘crack the code' but this takes time and could take 3 years or more.

The Alphabetic Code is Complicated

So far we have looked at sound spellings that have only one letter in, as in the word c a t.

We also know that some sound spellings have more than one letter in, as in the word m ou se.

​In fact, some sounds are represented by not just one but lots of sound spellings.

Let's look at some words. These all have an /oa/ sound in…

n o      c oa t      s n ow      t oe      th ough      c o d e

The sound is represented by more than one sound spelling.


But there’s more…


Some sound spellings represent more than one sound.

All these words have the sound spelling ow in but what sounds do they represent?

b r ow n     s l ow

In brown we say the /ow/ sound but in slow was say the /oa/ sound.

This makes the alphabetic code tricky to use. It's why it takes so long to learn it all and why many children find it difficult, especially at first. 

What is Blending?

As well as learning how to crack the code, we also need to know how to use it to read words.


When we look at a word we look at each sound spelling and match a sound to it. We push the sounds together to make the word. This is called ‘blending’.


Being good at blending takes lots of practise. We can make it easier if we ‘blend as we go’.

Instead of working through the word, saying all the sounds separately and then blending, we can push them together as we go.


Let's look at this word: snap


For each sound spelling, say a sound: /s/ /n/ /a/ /p/ Now go back and blend. What’s the word?


Now try again but this time say the first sound and keep saying it until you're ready to say the next then say that and so on. You are actively pushing the sounds together /s/>/n/>/a/>/p/ - imagine saying it something like this  'sssnnnap'. What word can you hear? It's much to easier to listen and work out what the word is blending this way.

What is Segmenting?

As well as learning how to crack the code, we also need to know how to use it to spell words.

When we want to spell a word, we think about all the sounds in the word, one by one, in order.  This is called ‘segmenting’. We can then match a sound spelling for each sound to write the word.

Imagine you want to write the word: 'spell'

What are the  sounds you hear in 'spell'?

/s/ /p/ /e/ /l/

for each sound match a sound spelling:

s p e ll

The last sound /l/ is represented by the sound spelling ll.

Being good at segmenting takes lots of practise. The more practise we have the better we are at knowing which sound spelling to use for a particular sound in that word.


Let's look at these words. Both boat and slow have an /oa/ sound in but the child needs to know which /oa/ sound spelling to use.

Sounds: /b/ /oa/ /t/       Sound spellings:  b   oa   t        Word: boat


Sounds: /s/ /l/ /oa/        Sound spellings:  s  l   ow          Word: slow

This is why many children find spelling difficult and need to see and write a word lots of times before they can easily remember it. It really helps if children are encouraged to say the sound at the same time as writing a sound spelling.

What about long words?

When children are first learning to read, we focus on short words but as soon as they become more confident we can start to introduce longer words.


Longer words are trickier because they have more sounds and sound spellings in. In fact longer words have so many sounds in that we don't say them in one mouthful. We say these words in chunks of sounds and when we speak we can hear 'the beat' within a word.

Try saying this word out loud: sun. You can say all of it in one beat.

Now try saying: sunny. Notice you say it in two beats su-nny.

Now: sunniest. Notice you say it in three beats su-nni-est or possibly sunn-i-est, depending on your accent. (There's no right or wrong way. When using phonics to read and spell you just need to listen carefully to how you say the word and work from there).

Chunking sounds together like this is natural to us. Each chunk of sounds within a word is called a 'syllable'. Knowing this helps us to read and spell longer words.

When we read longer words we still use blending but in a slightly different way. Now we are on the look out (or should that be listen out) for a syllable.

Let's look at this word: fantastic

The child starts out blending the sounds /f/>/a/>/n/ and at this point can hear that there are enough sounds to make a good chunk or syllable, which is 'fan'. They can set this syllable to one side in their memory and then start again in the word /t/>/a/>/s/ and once again realise they have a comfortable chunk of sounds, which is 'tas'. They can set this syllable to one side in their memory and then start again in the word /t/>/i/>/c/ and once again realise they have a comfortable chunk of sounds, which is  'tic'. Now they have reached the end of the word they have to go back and remember the syllables they found and blend those together 'fan'>'tas'>'tic' - fantastic! Having to remember syllables from earlier in the word is the reason reading longer words is more difficult.


When we spell longer words we still use segmenting but in a slightly different way. Now we are on the look out (or should that be listen out) for syllables in the word we want to spell.

Let's think about this word: 'perfect'.

The first thing to do is to think whether the word can be split into syllables, which this word can be: 'per-fect'.

The the child works on each syllable, one at a time, segmenting and then matching a sound spelling to spell the word:

Syllable 1: 'per' Sounds: /p/ /er/   Sound spellings: p er 

Syllable 2: 'fect' Sounds: /f/ /e/ /c/ /t/  Sound spellings: f e c t 

Now we have written the word: perfect.

How you can help your child

You will notice that I have mentioned several times how long it takes for children to learn the code and how to use it to read and spell. I have also said that everything takes lots of practise. Eventually it all does come together but the more practise a child gets the better.


If you can, listen to your child read the books they bring home from school. If they get stuck on a word try them help them using phonics. Ask them to think about the sounds that match the sound spellings and remind them to push the sounds together or blend to read.


If you child asks you to spell a word try to help them using phonics. Ask them what sounds they hear in the word, help them work though sound by sound and match a sound spelling.


The most important thing is to try to keep it light and fun and enjoy sharing the moment with your child. Remember you are helping them on their journey to becoming a reader (and speller).