Help! What Are Phonics? A Confused Parent's Guide

05/10/2015 11:07 | Updated 02 October 2016

If you have children who are learning to read, you are most likely going to have heard about synthetic phonics. Many of you might feel confused by them, and not really know what they are, or why they are taught. Being a linguist, a primary school teacher, and a parent who taught my children to read, here is my breakdown for you, explaining why they are worth the effort, and why your child may become a better reader and speller because of them.

Why Phonics?

The fact that you are reading this means that you successfully learnt to read, probably without the use of phonics. You may feel that synthetic phonics looks like a much more complicated way to teach reading and writing, and that if it is confusing to you, how will a child understand it? In fact, synthetic phonics is an easier and more logical way for your child to learn. The reason it is so hard for those who weren't taught it as a child is that it is a completely different way of thinking about the foundation of spelling in English, and of the relationship between the spoken and written word. Children who have no preconceptions will accept it quite easily. Adults who learnt very differently will find synthetic phonics almost like a foreign language (initially). And here is why: the core principal of synthetic phonics is to teach children first about the sounds that make up English, and then teach the ways of spelling that sound. The way you probably learnt started first with the alphabet, and then you learnt how you put the letters together to make the different sounds. At first it doesn't sound like a big difference, but in fact it dramatically changes the way you think about the English spelling system.

The alphabet may seem like a logical place to start. But once you learn a bit more about English, you realise why it falls short. We actually have 44 unique sounds in English, give or take a few, depending on accent. These sounds, or phonemes, are the building blocks of all the words in our language. We have 26 letters in our alphabet. You can see the problem. We make up for the shortfall by using a combination of two or more letters to make the sounds that don't have a unique letter of their own, e.g., /th/ or /oo/. If we had a simplified spelling system, we would have just 44 spellings to learn. But, because of the long and varied history of the English language, we actually have around 200 spelling combinations, or graphemes, in common usage. One sound can be represented many different ways: think of /oo/ in 'boo', 'glue', 'chew', 'flute', 'fruit'. Also, one spelling can represent more than one sound: e.g., 'ough' in 'thought', 'though', 'rough', and 'through.' Learning all the different spellings, and which words to use them in, is a complicated business.

The reason the traditional way of teaching isn't as helpful as synthetic phonics is that it assumes that there isn't really a logic to the English spelling system. We weren't taught why English was difficult to spell. I remember being taught that some words 'can't' be sounded out, and many times you just have to memorise difficult common words. When you learn through synthetic phonics, you begin to understand that this isn't really the case. Yes, English spelling is horrendously complicated, but you can find a logic to it. A complex logic, but it is there nonetheless: so it isn't that 'the' can't be sounded out - it's that the letter 'e' is representing the sound /uh/. When you find a pattern to what you are learning, it becomes easier to remember and to build on that knowledge. Understanding that disconnect between the alphabet and the number of sounds in English demystifies our spelling system. It stops being an illogical, jumbled mess, and starts being more of a complicated puzzle to put together.

Learning to Read with Phonics

One of the cornerstones of synthetic phonics is the pronunciation of the sounds, or phonemes. In order to successfully put the phonemes together to build a word, you need to 'blend' them together. So, /s/ /a/ /t/ glides together to become 'sat'. For this you need to know how to pronounce each sound correctly, which is often where parents, and some teachers, fall down. (Listen to the sounds here). It's important not to add an extra 'uh' sound at the end of consonants - for example /s/ is a hissing 'ssss' sound, not 'suh', and /t/ is an under-the-breath tut, not 'tuh' This is important so that children hear just the sounds that make up the word, and nothing extra, otherwise sounding out 'sat' may sound like this: 'suh-a-tuh' which is actually confusing to a child. They find it hard to hear the word 'sat' when it is sounded out this way.

Along with using the alphabet as a starting point, the traditional method also taught us to use other 'cues' to help us decipher a word: look at the picture, guess from context, guess from the first letters of the word. The reasoning behind this is perfectly understandable - it speeds up the process of reading fluently. Children don't spend a long time sounding out each word, and they are thinking about the meaning of the word they are reading, not just the sounds. Although this may initially make children faster and more fluent readers earlier on, it actually encourages bad habits. Children very often just look at the first letter of a word, and don't let their eyes travel across the whole word. This means that while they may gain earlier speed and fluency, they lose accuracy. Once texts become more complex and context isn't obvious or pictures are absent, they will find it harder to decode difficult words.

It isn't that the traditional method doesn't work. It does - I learnt to read this way. It's just that synthetic phonics works better. English is a particularly difficult language to read and spell, as can be seen in the fact that English-speaking countries including the UK, Australia and the US, have worryingly high levels of illiteracy and semi-literacy compared to nations with simpler spelling systems. The consistent and logical approach of synthetic phonics will enable children to become more accurate readers and writers, building a solid foundation for the more complex literary skills they will continue to develop throughout their education.

Recommended further reading/watching

Oxford Owl - website dedicated to all things reading, writing and maths. They have an excellent section on synthetic phonics full of information and ideas for parents.

Phonics International - I used this as a resource for teaching my children and for informing myself. The first unit of resources are free, including the excellent alphabetic code chart, but the rest require paid membership. It is fully comprehensive for either home or school use, but a little intense for non-teachers.

Cbeebies alphablocks - entertaining for children, informative for parents.

Oxford Reading Tree Floppy's Phonics - an invaluable resource for my children. Each book introduces a new sound, or group of sounds. The stories are extremely well written - they only have words containing the sounds the children have learnt so far, along with a few high frequency words. Each book builds on the previous one, increasing the number of sounds and high frequency words the children read as they progress through the levels. Parent guides also included. Find them on Amazon here