What is phonics?

A few weeks ago, our teaching quality manager Daniel ran a seminar about phonics and the importance of students understanding phonics for reading comprehension and spelling. It proved so useful with so many teachers taking the content and turning it into session materials we thought we’d write a quick summary of phonics here on the blog. 

So what is phonics and why is it useful? Phonics have been used in mainstream schooling in the UK officially since 2006 for early year English language learners and numerous studies have found it to be effective in reading and spelling development. A study in Scotland found that students who had been taught phonics were three years ahead of their peers who learnt words by rote. It works by breaking down, or segmenting words into a series of sounds called phonemes which can then be blended together to form the whole word. For example, the word ‘cat’ is made up of the ‘ce’ sound of ‘c’, ‘a’ and ’t’, ’dog’ is made up of three phonemes as well:

/d / o / g/

The word ‘Manchester’ can be broken down into eight separate sounds:

/M / a / n / ch / e / s / t / er /

Note the two sounds which are comprised of two letters, ‘ch’ and ‘er’ in Manchester. It doesn’t matter how many letters are in a word, the number of sounds can be different.The english language is made up of around 44 phonemes compared to the 26 letters of the alphabet.

The symbols used for phonemes are called ‘graphemes’. Graphemes are the different ways of writing each phoneme. For example ‘ay’ is a grapheme, but it can also be written as ‘ai’ and so on. It is important to teach your student the different graphemes so they know what to look out for when they’re reading or spelling. If they see the word ‘mate’, ‘mail’ or ‘may’, they’d know that each of these words have the same phoneme…but not the same grapheme.

The word ‘puppy’, although having five letters, is only made up of four phonemes because ‘pp’ has the same sound as just ‘p’. 

/P/ u / pp / y /

A phoneme comprised of two letters like the ‘ch’ or ‘er’ in Manchester is called a digraph. Other examples would be /sh/ like /sh/i/p/.

As well as digraphs, there are also trigraphs which contain three letters and quadgraphs that contain four. 

Digraph – a sound represented by two letters, i.e ‘sh’ or ‘er’

Trigraph  – a sound represented by three letters, i.e ‘igh’

Quadgraph  – a sound represented by four letters, i.e ‘eigh’ ‘ough’

Below is a table of phonemes in the english language. It’s important to note that all languages have a different set of phonemes so for a Chinese student, seeing a letter might provoke a very different sound to what you’re expecting!

In our current materials, for younger level students we cover short and long vowel sounds like the ‘short a’ and ‘long a’. This is just a simple way of beginning the Bready’s understanding of phonemes. You can explain these short and long phonemes by highlighting how ‘a’ as in ‘cat’ is very short, which ‘ay’ as in ‘stay’ or ‘bake’ is a more stretched out, longer sound. Here is a table with slightly more complicated variations of the long and short vowel for slightly higher level Breadies. 

Activities you can do with your Breadies

It is really important that Breadies get to grips with phonemes as it helps progression on all levels.  For our level 0 Breadies, you can open up the session with a phonics ice breaker. You could begin the first session with the /s/ phoneme for example, looking at words like ‘sat’, ‘sad’, ‘sit’ and the following session moving on to /a/. Below is a list of progressions which you could use in such sessions. It is best to look at words that follow the CVC, or consonant verb consonant form such as ‘/c/a/t/’ or ‘/s/i/t/’ and then build it up, when the student is feeling a little more confident use digraphs as the first consonant such as ‘/ch/a/t/’.

For slightly higher levels, you can play games with your students where you have boxes for the number of graphemes and then say the word for the student to work out the sounds. 

You could even come up with a list of nonsense words (but please tell the Bready this!) and ask them using their knowledge of phonemes and graphemes to work out how the word sounds.

There are plenty of Phonics resources made by Buddies in our shared dropbox folder so please have a look or add your own materials! It is an excellent collaborative space. 

So this is our whirlwind tour of phonics. Thank you to Daniel for creating the seminar materials which are the basis of this post. If you’re still not sure about phonics and how to teach them, please watch the original seminar on our Padlet here or ask Daniel any questions you have. We can’t stress the importance of phonics enough and they can be exceptionally fun to teach so please have a go with some of your Breadies! 

For further reading on phonics, there are numerous studies which look at the long and short term benefits on children: 

Adesope, O. O., Lavin, T., Thompson, T., & Ungerleider, C. (2011). Pedagogical strategies for teaching literacy to ESL immigrant students: A meta-analysis. British Journal of Educational Psychology,81(4), 629-653.

Brady, S. A., Braze, D., & Fowler, C. A. (2011). Explaining individual differences in reading: Theory and evidence. Hove: Psychology Press.

Chen, X., Xu, F., Nguyen, T., Hong, G., & Wang, Y. (2010). Effects of cross-language transfer on first-language phonological awareness and literacy skills in Chinese children receiving English instruction. Journal of Educational Psychology,102(3), 712-728.

Johnston, R. S., Mcgeown, S., & Watson, J. E. (2011). Long-term effects of synthetic versus analytic phonics teaching on the reading and spelling ability of 10 year old boys and girls. Reading and Writing,25(6), 1365-1384

Nishanimut, S. P., Johnston, R. S., Joshi, R. M., Thomas, P. J., & Padakannaya, P. (2013). Effect of synthetic phonics instruction on literacy skills in an ESL setting. Learning and Individual Differences,27, 47-53.