What are phonics? (A quick guide to the latest buzzword)

If you have a school starter, you may well have come across the joys of phonics already. In a nutshell, your little learners will be using phonics to learn how to read and write. Phonics is a major buzz word for pre-schools and primary schools, which you will continue to hear about for years to come. Of course, no-one wants to read what could be a very long and in-depth article about phonics, so I thought I’d break down some phonics lingo for you below.

Phonological awareness…Phonics 3

Addresses the sound of language. It doesn’t teach the symbols that represent sounds, but rather the sounds alone; in other words the letter sounds rather than the letter names. Learning the letter sounds is key to early reading success.


The smallest unit of sound. At first it will equate with a letter sound but later on will include the digraphs, which leads me to…

A Digraph…

This is when two or more letters come together to make a phoneme (or sound), e.g. /ai/ makes the sound in pain.


Blending is the process that is involved in bringing the sounds together to make a word or a syllable and is how /d/ /o/ /g / becomes dog.

Consonant blends…

Previously, consonant blends were taught as if there was something special about them. Children were taught that /st/ was one phoneme (sound), when actually it is two, /s/ and /t/. Think about it. Why teach /st/ when children already know /s/ and /t/, it just wastes time and clogs up children’s memory. But note that /sh/ is a digraph. It cannot be made by a process of blending the two letter sounds of /s/ and /h/ together. We need to teach the digraphs not the blends.

Tricky words…Phonics 4

These highly important words can be referred to as the following: high frequency, tricky, sight or key words. These words occur most often in written material, for example, ‘and,’ ‘the,’ or ‘he.’

Some of these words can be sounded out using basic phonic rules, e.g. ‘at’ is an easy word to read using segmenting and blending skills. However, many of these words are not phonetically regular and are therefore hard to read in the early stages as well as having very abstract meanings.

Learning the first one hundred of these words gives a beginner reader access to 50% of virtually any text. Unfortunately these words need to be learned by sight on a regular basis due to them not following a rule as such (a blog post on its way with suggestions). A combination of early phonics and recognition of these trickier words allows a child’s reading to really take off.

I hope that begins to explain the magical mystery world of Phonics!


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