Phonics: a guide for preschool parents…

Phonics is something that often splits opinions. Some love it, some hate it. Some believe phonics has no place in early years, whereas others believe it is essential for pre-reading skills. For many, phonics is simply a word used by their child’s provider but parents don’t always understand what it means.

Jared sand.jpg

Basically put, phonics is the ‘sounds of letters’ used for reading. It’s a combination of recognising the written form, and hearing and saying the sound it makes. All letters have two ways to say them…the phonic eg: ‘a’ and the capital’ eg: A (pronounce ‘ay’). Most phonics schemes focus on the lower case for the simple fact that this is what we use to sound out a word. For example when you read and say the word ‘cat’ it is pronounce ‘c-a-t’. If we were to use the capital sounds it would end up pronounced ‘(C)see-(A)ay-(T)tee’. Phonics schemes also use sounds not used in the traditional alphabet eg: ‘ch’, and ‘oo’ are taught as a sound in its own right eg: Chair starts with ‘ch’ not ‘c-h’. Fun, right?!

Capitals obviously have their place as we use them for names and the start of sentences. Children are going to see these shapes and need to know what their meaning is. However for the sake of phonics itself I wont focus on these in this post. There are several reading schemes that encourage phonics. The government have the Letters and Sounds Framework, then there’s Jolly Phonics and Read, Write, Inc to name a few (although I still remember ‘Letterland’ from my childhood). Each has its own set of positives so really its whichever you feel suits your child. If you’re little one goes to an early years provider then it’s worth asking which they use so your child isn’t trying to learn too many different schemes at once. My advice is to choose one which is play based, active and fun.

I’ll break phonics into three aspects. Hearing the sounds, matching these to their letter (known as a grapheme) and putting them all together.

  1. Hearing the sound

Listening skills are important. They are also a difficult skill to learn, as children are very good at ‘selective hearing’ or being distracted by the world around them. Listening also requires attention and interest. Once they have these then you can work on listening to and splitting up the sounds you can hear. Basically the aim is for a child to hear a word eg: ‘dog’ and to be able to tell you the beginning sound was ‘d’. They don’t need to see the word or read the word, just listen to the word and hear that individual sound.

Ideas for games:

  • I-Spy (to start with have 4/5 items on the table with different first letters and base the game on those items before moving on to the general environment).
  • Odd One Out (have three items, two with the same first sound and one that’s different…which is the odd one out and why). 
  • Making Aliens (page 36 of Letters and Sounds framework where you create your own alien and think of a silly name beginning with a particular letter. The good thing about this is the words don’t have to be real words so it can be silly and fun eg: ‘Ploppy Pop Pants’)

2. Matching sounds to the letters

Remembering which letter belongs to which sound is tricky. Especially when there are 26 letters in the alphabet, plus the ‘joined up sounds’ (ch, th). This is where I prefer the Jolly Phonics system. They start with common letters which lead to simple words early on. The first six letters are ‘s, a, t, i, p, n’ which lead to being able to start reading and creating a few words eg: sat, pin, tap. But more on that in a minute. The best way to focus on matching sounds to letters is repetition, patience and making it fun. Making it active so children get to feel the letter shape is great because this supports muscle memory which helps imprint the letter into the brain so it;s easier to recall. Many schemes link the letter to a rhyme and/or an action. For example in Read, Write, Inc you feel/write the ‘s’ whilst saying ‘slither down the snake’. It focuses on the ‘s’ sound and makes the movement purposeful, so easier to remember.

Examples of activities:

J cards

  • Twinkl’s ‘road maps’ (children can drive the cars around each letter and follow the road to feel the shape of the letter). 
  • Treasure Hunt (hide items beginning with particular letters in the sand tray or box of shredded paper, then when found put in the box with the matching letter sound on the front).
  • Alphabet books (talk together about the letter, read the story and talk about the word associated with that sound).

3. Putting it all together.

You may hear the words ‘blending’ and ‘segmenting’. It all sounds technical but actual the words make sense…

-Blending: put all the sounds together to create the word. Similar to putting all the ingredients in a blender and ending up with your smoothie.

-Segmenting: separating the word into its sounds. Think about peeling an orange and pulling it into its individual segments.

These skills allow children to create their own words and to read ones already printed. However, there is no rush to reach this stage. In terms of the English early years framework this is a skill that is in the 40-60 month development matters. That means it isn’t expected to be developed until children are between 4-5 years so that is in Reception class. Even then it’s  simple words and sentences not Shakespeare. Words to focus on if you do feel your child is ready are known as ‘cvc’ words. This means ‘consonant-vowel-consonant’. Vowels are ‘a-e-i-o-u’, consonants are all the rest. Examples of words are ‘sat’, ‘sit’, ‘pat’, ‘cat’, dog’, ‘mum’, ‘dad’. These are easier to separate and hear the individual sounds, and then children are able to push the sounds together and hear the word it’s making.

Ideas for play:

  • fridge magnets (have fun making words on the fridge or on a magnet board. Just make sure you buy lower case letters).
  • Stepping Stones (have three hoops, three spots, three pillow cushions etc and have a bag of 3 letter items such as cup, pig, pen. Make one letter sound per jump/step. Can you child tell you which item you are sounding out, then they can choose a item for you to guess). 
  • Robot Games (talk like a robot so you use your voice to emphasise the sounds of the word. Can your child tell you what the robot is asking for? You can use this as a higher level I-spy game so use the environment around you, or lay out different items on the table to guess from). 

I have made a ‘phonics play‘ board on our Pinterest with more activities which you are welcome to take a look at and share.

Another way to support phonics and reading skills in general is to be a role model. Things I do to make reading part of everyday life are:

Mr Tumble.jpg

  • Reading books in front of J, as well as with J.
  • Point out words and symbols on signposts (Especially if the same letter as J or Mummy).
  • Read shopping list when in the supermarket.
  • Read packets, menus, bus timetable…anything really.
  • Make reading part of play eg: make your own menus for the play kitchen, download fun phonics games on the Ipad, have letters spelling child’s name on their bedroom door.
  • Buy magazines as well as books. Some children prefer magazines and in my opinion, reading is reading. If you can get children looking at text and being interested in it then that’s half the battle. We love Something Special and often cut things out to use in our play.

Phonics doesn’t have to be formal and done sat at a table (unless your child enjoys that, in which case go for it. there’s some great ‘sit down and do’ worksheets and print outs on Twinkl if your child enjoys that style of learning…which I did as a child, J however doesn’t do ‘sitting still’). Learning should be active and engaging. Children have such a lot of years in the education system, early years should be the fun time where children begin to develop a love of reading. Let them go at their own pace.

I’d love to know what you think about phonics, how you use them in the home, whether your child is doing them in their provision, how you teach it if you home school etc. Get in touch either in the comments, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or our new social media ‘Vero’ (Username: MummyEst.2014).

11 Comments Add yours

  1. Baffledmum says:

    I’ve taught phonics & seen how effective it is. I still use it now with my own kids… X

    Liked by 1 person

    1. mummyest2014 says:

      Thanks, to me it’s a system that just makes sense x

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Kim says:

    Just make sure you point out that the capital letters make the ‘sounds’ (phonemes) too – e.g. “Big Ben rings every hour” : you have to know that ‘B’ makes the same ‘sound’ as ‘b’ to read this sentence. Also, you might see ‘J’ around for Jam and Jelly, but it makes the same sound as if it were written ‘jam’ or ‘jelly’ (a child might recognise ‘Jam’ as it starts with the same letter as their name, whereas ‘jam’ might not register at all).

    It can be so confusing at time, I get that! I’d still stick to lower case letters for children in preschool/nursery classes, just pointing out that capital usually make the ‘sounds’ too. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. mummyest2014 says:

      Very good point Kim. I always teach it as ‘A, ‘ay’ is the name, ‘a’ is the sound’. As you said capitals have their place x


  3. I love the twinkl’s road maps. So cute. Boys would love playing with that I’m sure.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. mummyest2014 says:

      They’re amazing aren’t they! I’m going to print out the whole alphabet at some point x


  4. theteachingaunt says:

    I always teach the letters as sounds to help children transition to reading faster. For example, when I show them a flashcard of the letter A, I emphasize on the sound /a/, /a/, /a/. I still mention the letter name, of course, because no one can really get away with it. But the emphasis is always on the sound. Oh! And I also always incorporate a movement to each letter sound to help them remember better. It’s also a fun way of learning, and I get to target different types of learners (visual, auditory, tactile-kinesthetic, etc…)
    And you’re right, teaching phonics doesn’t have to be formal and done on a table all the time. That would be BORING. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. mummyest2014 says:

      Exactly! We use Jolly Phonics in our house (and I did in my setting) as it had an action and song for each letter sound which I found really helps. I just have to be careful not let J get confused between the makaton signs for letters and the jolly phonics actions x


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