Phonics FAQs

General FAQs

What is phonics?

Does phonics make children into fantastic readers and writers?

I didn't learn phonics at school and I can read just fine. Why does my child need it?

Why on earth are schools teaching children to read fake words?

Since the English language is so weird and wonderful, isn't teaching phonics a bit pointless?

Is phonics useful for children with special educational needs?

What is phonics?

Phonics is simply a code. It is a fundamental part of how our language works. All spoken words are made up from speech sounds (phonemes). Each phoneme can be written down as a grapheme (sometimes this is one letter, sometimes more). Phonics is the code that allows us to use our knowledge of phonemes and graphemes to turn written words into spoken words and vice versa.

The term phonics is also used to refer to teaching methods which aim to teach this code to children.

In phonics lessons children are taught three main things:

GPCs

Children are taught GPCs. This stands for grapheme phoneme correspondences. This simply means that they are taught all the phonemes (speech sounds) in the English language and ways of writing them down (graphemes). These sounds are taught in a particular order. The first sounds to be taught are usually s, a, t, p although confusingly this can vary between schools.

Blending

Children are taught to be able to blend. This is when children say the sounds that make up a word and are able to merge the sounds together until they can hear what the word is. Blending is important in learning to read.

Segmenting

Children are also taught to segment. This is the opposite of blending. Children are able to say a word and then break it up into the phonemes that make it up. Segmenting is important in learning to spell.

Does phonics make children into fantastic readers and writers?

No, not on its own. Phonics is only one element in teaching children to read and write. In schools we spend relatively little time teaching phonics to children (around 20 minutes a day) and spend far more time each day tackling other vital reading and writing skills. However, a good grasp of phonics gives children a fantastic foundation on which other reading and writing skills can be built. In essence, phonics is the code that converts spoken language into written language and vice versa. By teaching phonics and helping children to crack that code, they no longer get bogged down in working out what words say and instead can turn their brain power to all those other important skills.

I didn't learn phonics at school and I can read just fine. Why does my child need it?

Many parents will not have been taught phonics when they were learning to read as phonics teaching went out of fashion for a period of around 30 years. Clearly, during this time the majority of people (including me) still learned to read effectively and managed to crack a lot of the code by themselves. Some however did not crack the code at all and many more probably didn't fully figure out some of the more complex aspects of the code, making reading and spelling more of an effort than they perhaps needed to be. These days we no longer leave children to figure this code out by themselves we teach it clearly and simply up front to prevent it becoming a barrier to learning. In my personal opinion, it's only fair that children are given the keys to the code that their language operates by.

It is also worth bearing in mind that the end goal of learning phonics is not for children to use phonics all the time in their reading and writing. In fact, the main aim of phonics teaching is for children to use phonics as little as possible when reading and writing. Ideally, by giving children really solid foundations, their reading (and writing) should quickly and simply develop to the point where they can automatically read the vast majority of words without any effort. By this stage they should only need to use phonics to work out how to read or write unfamiliar words.

The same process (explicit learning - lots of practise - automaticity) occurs in many other areas of learning. For instance, an experienced driver, never thinks about which pedal they need to push to stop their car. We have learned how to use our pedals as an automatic skill. In fact if someone asked us which pedal was which, it might take a few moments (and some pretend pedal pushing) to work it out. However, new drivers aren't generally expected to just figure the pedals out for themselves (much to the relief of other road users) instead they are taught explicitly which pedal is which and then practise until they get to the point where they don't need to give it any more thought.

Why on earth are schools teaching children to read fake words?

On first impressions, it does seem a bit counter-intuitive to help children learn to read real words by presenting them with made up words but there is method in our madness. We use fake words as stand ins for the real but unfamiliar words that children will encounter in their reading and all around them in every day life. If we only ever present real words we can't be certain that children know how to use phonics to work out words - they may have learned these real words by sight. This is a fabulous skill to have but unfortunately isn't much use when they are faced with a brand new unfamiliar word.

Even as adults, we fairly regularly encounter unfamiliar words (often these are people's names, place names, technical terms, ingredients listed on shampoo bottles etc) that we have to use phonics, at least in part, to work out.

Children will encounter all of these plus many more commonly used words that they simply haven't come across in their lives yet. If children are reading texts at an appropriate level to really challenge them and help them learn (known as 'the instructional level') they should regularly be encountering unfamiliar words. It is therefore vital that they have the skills to tackle them.

The more you start thinking about fake words, the more you start to notice that actually they surround us all the time anyway. Next time you are in the supermarket look at how many brand names are made up words. In a child's world they are even more prevalent. A quick look down the listings for children's TV channels reveals series names such as: Chuggington, The Backyardigans, and Waybuloo. Not to mention character names like: Squigglet, Humf and Uki to name but a few. This isn't anything new either: Bagpuss, Bod, Trumpton and The Flumps were all fake words that I learned to read as a child (showing my age now).

Similarly the wonderful worlds of children's books and poems are crawling with fabulous fake words. From the fantasy worlds of Tolkein, Roald Dahl and JK Rowling to the random selection of picture books that my son takes out of the library each week (I counted one week and almost half the books he chose had at least one made up word - usually names or sound effects) invented words are everywhere. In my personal experience children (and apparently many children's authors and poets too) take great delight in playing and experimenting with crazy nonsense words.

Having said all that, fake words aren't actaully used all that much in phonics teaching - only in one of the mini-games in the app - but they do a really useful job.

As an added bonus, whenever fake words are used in phonics teaching, children are asked to decide whether they are real words or not. This is fantastic early way to rehearse one of the key skills that underlie reading comprehension - expecting things to make sense and therefore noticing when they don't.

Since the English language is so weird and wonderful, isn't teaching phonics a bit pointless?

It is a popular misconception that the English language is highly irregular and that therefore phonics is a waste of time. It is true that phonics in English is never going to be as simple as it is in some other languages where one sound is represented by only one grapheme. However, there is a lot more logic to our language than is apparent at first glance. It is often said that around 85% of the English is phonically regular. Many words are almost entirely phonically regular with just the odd tricky bit that can't be easily worked out with phonics. Children are taught to use phonics to help them learn to easily read and write the vast majority of the language that is regular and to concentrate their energies on learning just those tricky bits that aren't.

Is phonics suitable for children with special educational needs?

Phonics is purely and simply the code that our language operates by. Nothing more, nothing less. It therefore won't have any direct impact on any specific difficulties that a child may experience.

However, great phonics teaching can certainly have huge benefits for anybody irrespective of any additional needs that they have. When a child already has barriers to overcome in order to read and write, it is more important than ever that phonics isn't allowed to be yet another barrier. Having one mountain to climb is tough enough. Without a solid grounding in phonics, children can easily be left with two mountains to climb which simply isn't fair.