What is phonics?
Phonics is just one of many reading strategies for kids, but unlike others, it focuses on connecting letters with sounds. The idea is to equip children with the tools they need to ‘decode’ written language by helping them hear, identify, and use sounds to make different words in the English language. It’s a proven way to teach children to read and write and is introduced to children in junior infants in primary schools across Ireland.
But how can you teach children to use phonics to read and write? Each school will take a slightly different approach to its phonics teaching, but these top phonics strategies may help:
- Focus on vowels
Almost every word in the English language contains a vowel, so teaching children vowel sounds is a great starting point for your phonics strategies. But vowels have short and long sounds to differentiate between, so this is a considerable phonics skill to learn – for example, the letter ‘a’ has a short sound in ‘cat’ but a long sound in ‘cake.’ Nevertheless, understanding the vowel sounds early on will provide children with solid building blocks of phonics learning and will make more sense when you start adding consonants to make words.
- Try CVC words next
After vowel sounds, focus on CVC words (consonant – vowel – consonant). It will allow children to start to read simple, single-syllable words – and if they can master this, they will soon be able to apply this knowledge to read multi-syllabic terms too! You may like to start by teaching them the most common consonants first, such as m, s, f, c, p, and t. These sounds are friendly and straightforward to pronounce and can open up a range of CVC words to get children started, such as ‘mat,’ ‘sit,’ and ‘cup.’
- Use your arm to sound out words.
One of many reading strategies for kids involves kinaesthetic learning – tactile learning using the sense of touch. It consists in sounding out words on your arm and encouraging children to do the same. Here’s how you do it: hold your arm out in front of you with your other hand at your shoulder, then tap down your arm, saying each sound in a word as you go. Once you’ve reached the end, return your hand to your shoulder and tell the whole word, sliding down your arm as you do so. For example, say ‘c – a – t’ with a distinct tap for each sound, then say ‘cat’ as you slide.
Visual and tactile tools, like the word slide, are beneficial for some visual learners: they can help children focus on the sequence of letters and how words are structured; improve memory and allow them to retain and recall information; enable them to work independently to decode a word (even if no other tools are available), and it can be more fun and engaging than other methods too!
- Use nonsense words
Nonsense words are words like ‘burst’ or ‘terg,’ which sound like they could be real words but have no meaning. So, you may ask, what is the point of teaching children words that are not real, and they will never use? Well, using nonsense or silly words is an essential part of your reading strategy for kids. Firstly, children must practice reading all and any word, accurate or not! It will help them practice the sounds they have learned so far and put their decoding knowledge to use. Secondly, it’s an excellent way for teachers to assess children’s phonetics ability by seeing if they know individual sounds and whether they can blend them to decode words they have never seen before.
- Introduce word families
Word families are groups of words with a standard feature; for example, ‘bake,’ ‘cake,’ and ‘make’ belong to the word family ‘ake.’ If children can learn these standard features, it will make reading and spelling new words in this word family easier. Great phonics strategies for teaching about word families include using onset and rime – onset is the sounds at the beginning of a word, and rime is the groups of sounds that follow. Breaking words into these elements makes it easier for children to see different word families in action and improves phonological awareness. For example, combine the word ‘fig’ – the onset is ‘f’ and the rime is ‘ig’- to make the word ‘fig.’ Then when a child faces the word ‘jig,’ they can spot the pattern (and the word family ‘ig’) and decode it.
- Try chanting
It may sound old-fashioned, like learning grammar in a turn-of-the-century schoolroom, but chanting can be a very effective phonics strategy for children. This technique involves holding up a series of flashcards featuring individual phonics graphene. You say the sound out loud, and the children repeat, using the cards as a visual clue. It’s an elementary, quick, and easy activity to do at the start of each day to revise the sounds you are learning that week – you can make it fun, too, by doing a little dance or some actions as you work through them!
- Use pictures and props
We mentioned using the word slide as a visual learning tool earlier, but there are many other ways to use visual examples as a reading strategy for kids. Why not try using flashcards that feature the phonics sound and a bright and colorful image of an item with that sound? Picture examples are essential for visual learners as they can help them make the connection between the sounds and their associations and help them remember. Playdough or other toys can add an optical element to words and bring some fun into the activity. Or you can even break words down using your fingers as props – for example, for the word ‘car,’ hold up your index finger, representing the ‘c’ sound. Then hold up your middle and ring fingers together (so they are touching) to represent the letters ‘a’ and ‘r’ that make the one sound ‘ar.’
- Look for patterns
Children may grasp phonics when dealing with individual words or sounds, but when you put all these into the context of a sentence, paragraph, or a larger text, they may get a little lost. Pattern searches make a valuable addition to your reading strategies for kids, to help children spot repeating sounds and word families and categorize words that have the same form – and they can be fun too. Provide children with a piece of text, a story, or even a magazine or newspaper and send them on a mission to hunt out a particular phoneme – can they find all the words that start with ‘st’? Can they find all the words that end in ‘ake’? Use highlighter pens to make the activity even more colorful and to make the patterns easier to spot!
- Break it down
When children have grasped single-syllable words, they will be ready to tackle more complex, multi-syllable words. But sometimes, when faced with a long word, children can feel a little overwhelmed. The solution is chunking! It involves covering up the word with your hand or a piece of paper and revealing it in ‘chunks’ at a time so that children can decode each syllable separately and finally put it together. For example, the two chunks ‘mon’ and ‘vital’ go together to make the word ‘nonvital’!
- Play computer games
There are many digital games and apps to help children with their phonics, so don’t be afraid to use them as one of your phonics strategies. Children love computer games, so it’s the perfect way to learn and have fun simultaneously. They provide an ideal visual tool to help children with all the reading strategies for kids mentioned above. It allows children to be creative, experiment, and not be afraid to get things wrong – they can always try again! Plus, it encourages them to want to improve, to beat their score, or see if they can get it right next