What is Phonics - Helping Your Child Master Phonics

What is Phonics (the Sounds of Language)

What is Phonics

Learning to master phonics is part of your child's development. Phonics is the connection between letters and sounds in our language. Phonemes are the small units of sound that make up a word and graphemes are the way we write the sounds.

In the English language we have only 26 letters in our alphabet and 44 different sounds, so we need to use two or more letters together to make some of these sounds. To further complicate matters there are approximately 120 ways of writing down these 44 phonemes, which makes English pronunciation spelling, reading and writing somewhat challenging.

For example the sound of the letter ‘a’ in words such as ‘at’ or ‘map’ etc can only be written one way but a combination of letters that makes the sound ‘ai’ as in ‘rain’ can be written in several ways (see the table below).


The sound Ways the sound can be written

Examples of Words containing

these combinations

a a vat, ran, sat, tap
ai a acorn, ape, alien, apex
ai pain, laid, gain, faint
ay lay, day, say, may
a_e cake, mane, name, base
ey they, whey, convey, obey
ei vein, veil, reign, beige
eigh sleigh, weigh, freight, neigh
aigh straight















A complete list of all examples of the different ways of writing the 44 phonemes can be found at the following website:


Helping Your Child Master Phonics When Spelling and Writing

When spelling or writing, children need to be able to listen carefully to a word, identify the units of sound they can hear and then represent each sound with a letter or combination of letters that makes sense from what they know of how English phonics works.

An example of a young child’s attempt at writing the word ‘appreciate’ was ‘appresheeight’ (ap-pre-she-eight), which makes sense as far as sounds heard and meaningful ways of representing them in English are concerned, but which of course is an incorrect standard spelling. Praise and encourage your child when he/she does this as it demonstrates a growing knowledge of phonics and correct only those parts of the word that are incorrect explaining the different letter combinations that make the same sound.

Helping Your Child Master Phonics When Reading

When reading, a good knowledge of English phonics (‘sounding out’) will often assist a child to decode words that are not instantly recognised. Therefore, it is important that from a young age children are taught phonics as a significant but integrated part of a literacy program in schools while activities in the home and social environment can assist this development.

• provide an alphabet chart with the letters written as capitals and in lower case so that your child can learn the names of the letters – these always remain the same but the sounds they make can vary. You can purchase charts in most book stores or make a chart on a sheet of cardboard at home. These charts have at least one picture of an object for each letter with the name of that object beginning with the letter. They can then begin to identify the names of other objects whose names start with that letter

- make a picture-sound dictionary - purchase a large scrapbook and devote a page to each phoneme. Children and parents cut out pictures from magazines, newspapers etc and take photographs of things that interest the children. These pictures and photographs are then glued into the scrapbook according to the sounds that are heard in the words and the words written under them to create a picture-sound dictionary. For example, the sound ‘f’ can be made by ‘f’, ‘ff’, ‘ph’ or ‘gh’ so on the ‘f’ page you may have a picture of a fan, a puffing steam train, a photo, a piece of rough sandpaper.

• begin with the main sound that each letter makes using flash cards - make a set of picture cards with a letter on one side and a picture of something whose name begins with that letter on the other. The child can use the picture as a prompt to learn what sound the letter usually makes. Let the child study the pictures and the letters saying the sound of each one. Flash through the cards while the child makes the sound of each letter viewed. Try to increase the speed at which you go through the cards as recognition of the main sounds for each letter becomes more well known.

• Use the flash cards to make simple words eg ‘pan’

- you say the sounds in the word: ‘p ‘, ‘a ‘, ‘n’ - the child repeats the sounds in the word - blend the sounds together to say the word ‘pan’ - child identifies the cards needed to make the word and makes the word then reads it - shuffle the cards and the child makes the word again and reads it by blending the sounds

• out and about – when out of your home look for signs, posters, shops windows etc and ask children to identify the letters and the sounds that they see.

• move on to talking about two letters that make one sound eg ‘ch’ and ‘sh’ and do some of the above activities with these sounds

• read, read, read with your child, both story books and information books, so they become familiar with an ever increasing vocabulary, sounds in words, letter patterns, sound patterns in words, grammar, ‘story language’ and world knowledge. Re-read favourite books. ENJOY READING TOGETHER.

• the use of phonics (sounding out) does not work for all words in English so a good knowledge of ‘sight words’ is essential as well. See “How to Support Children’s Spelling and Vocabulary Development” for advice on these and other activities that will support your child to master phonics, including all word games and puzzles.

The above strategies will give you the skills to help your child when they ask 'What is Phonics?'




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Shirley Fuller PSM

Shirley Fuller is passionate about improving the learning outcomes of students from preschool to Year 12 and beyond. Her experience includes secondary mathematics, science and physical education teaching, primary teaching in all subjects, librarianship and resource centre coordination, tutoring students in mathematics at secondary level and in preparation for some university courses.

She holds a Public Service Medal for her contributions to education.

Shirley has written a comprehensive Guide for Parents to help support children’s literacy in the home and social environment.

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