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Teaching with phonics – What is phonics?

Teaching with phonics part 2 – What is phonics?


Before getting onto ‘what is phonics’, the list below is other parts in the series. This will be updated as the series progresses:


Teaching with phonics Part 1 – Overview

Teaching with phonics Part 3 – The Whole Word Approach


Following on from the 1st in this 4 part series, Teaching with phonics, we now take a slightly closer look at phonics itself – Just what is phonics anyway?

This definition, direct from the DfE (Department for Education), pretty much covers it, briefly…

Phonics is a way of teaching children to read quickly and skilfully. They are taught
how to:


  • Recognise the sounds that each individual letter makes;
  • Identify the sounds that different combinations of letters make
    – such as ‘sh’ or ‘oo’; and
  • Blend these sounds together from left to right to make a word.


Children can then use this knowledge to ‘de-code’ new words that they hear or see.
This is the first important step in learning to read.

A favourite argument, among the ‘pro-phonics’ crowd, is that Phonics is one of the primary tools of learning to read. If there is a lack of understanding, of the relationship that supposedly exists between letters and sounds, then reading cannot occur.

This aural connection, between print and pronunciation, is an important part of any teaching programme related to reading because it provides the reader with the tools for discovering new written words.

At school, children are taught to sound out individual letters – making the sounds that we associate with a particular letter.

Parents may have heard their child, or teacher, talk about ‘blending’ too. This is where letter sounds are joined together, helping the learner to say the whole word.

Of course, many letters have different sounds depending on their position within the word, or even the context of a whole word within a sentence, so this approach can be very confusing for a new learner, not to mention frustrating. So,when answering the question of what is phonics “complex” would be a fair response.


Sound bites


Were you aware that there are 44 ‘letter sounds’ in the English language? Some belong to single letters, like O while others represent two or three such as ‘ch’ and ‘air’, for the letter sounds in (ch)(air).

Children are taught these letter sounds first, before being shown how to match them to words. Following that, they are then taught how to use them for reading and spelling.

Complicated? Well, no system is perfect and there is, after all, a learning curve to mastering anything.


The official report into the use of phonics


Way back in the early 00’s, the then Labour led government ordered an “Independent
review of the teaching of early reading“. The final report, detailing its findings, was prepared by Sir Jim Rose in March 2006.

The report is quite in-depth, as you would expect, but here are the highlights…


  • Skills such as speaking, listening, reading and writing are used and supported by what is referred to as “high quality, systematic phonics”.
  • Children need to receive adequate pre-reading instructions, so that they are able to start systematic phonics work “by the age of five” – I’m not sure where the DfE sits in regards to adult learners, but this report is specific to young school children.
  • High quality phonics work should be taught as “the prime approach” (taken by the DfE to mean “the only approach”) to teaching reading, writing, and spelling.
  • The phonics method of learning should form a part of “a broad and rich language curriculum” – there is a lot of speculation as to what this actually means, but again the DfE seem to have ignored this part of the report.


This report, on the whole, does seem to favour the phonics method so it’s not hard to see why phonics was adopted so eagerly; the DfE, and indeed the Government as a whole, asked a question, the report answered it.

Systematic phonics was adopted then, and by each subsequent government.

By now, you should have a much better understanding of phonics and how it is used in the classroom (don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten the purpose of this series).  If you have any questions, drop them in the comments.

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