Activities with Kids

Helping your child learn to read – A parent’s guide to phonics

Holly Pigache  |   10 Sep 2023

Picture the scene:

It’s reading time. (No, not the snuggly, reading-in-bed-before-lights-out time.) You’re at the kitchen table 15 minutes before you rush off for school or you’re on the sofa after a long day at work for a “quick five pages” before tea time. You’re painfully trudging through a story about a magic key, a snail or something else equally sleep-inducing.

All parents know the perils of helping their children learn to read. Before your child masters the top 100 high-frequency words and gets to grips with phonics, having them read to you can be tough. Jolly tough.

I should know, I used to teach five-year-olds. Not a day went by when a parent didn’t catch me in the playground lamenting at how their child “just refuses to read!”

Reading with your child doesn’t need to be a nightmare.

Read on for a qualified teacher’s advice about the current reading strategy in schools so you can help your child learn to read.

What does it all mean?

Before we dive into phonics tips and advice, some housekeeping.

These days, the way children are taught to read is called phonics.

Phonics is the foundation of the English language and is a way of teaching and learning which letter shapes and letter combinations (graphemes) represent which sounds (phonemes).

There are 44 basic sounds in the English language (phonemes) made up of around 144 letter combinations (graphemes). The association between the letters and sounds are called grapheme-phoneme-correspondences (or GPCs) and there’s a lot of overlap which makes learning English very challenging, indeed.

As is the nature of reading words on a page or screen, we cannot hear the actual sound of each letter (for letters do not “make” sounds – they represent them), so we need to show a way of distinguishing between the letter b and the sound it represents. This is done with two forward slashes on either side of the letter.  E.g.:

  • a represents /a/
  • b represents /b/
  • and so on

This isn’t strictly relevant when helping your child learn to read but it will help you understand this article about phonics and reading.

It’s not about you, it’s about them

If you’re finding reading time a struggle, your child will be, too. At least you can decipher what sounds the squiggles on the page represent – your child will be wracking their brains trying to remember if the letter d represents a /d/ or a /b/ sound.

As an adult, it’s your responsibility to be patient. Try to keep calm and not show you’re frustrated because your child will pick up on it and associate reading times with stress, anxiety and an unhappy parent. Then they’ll dislike reading even more and teaching them to read will be a greater struggle.

Why isn’t phonics taught in alphabetical order?

Phonics is taught in a special order designed by educational specialists as the best way to help children learn to read. Although schools subscribe to different phonics programmes (in the UK we have Letters & Sounds, Read Write Inc., Jolly Phonics, Monster Phonics, Twinkle Phonics and many more), they all follow similar learning structures.

Regardless of which phonics scheme is used, the teaching of GPCs (grapheme-phoneme-correspondences, remember?) is broken down into smaller chunks to aid learning and teacher assessment.

Don’t worry too much about the phonics scheme your school uses. The Senior Leadership, English and Phonics Teams at school will have researched different programmes of study. Ask your child’s class teacher if you want to find out more about the specific phonics scheme from which your child is learning.

How do I know which bits of the word to clump together?

Phonics is a streamlined way of teaching reading, with a focus on “pure sounds”. When we were at school, we were taught to read by inadvertently adding an /uh/ or /er/ sound to each phoneme. Now, the emphasis on pure sounds makes it much easier for your child to learn to read.

Consider the difference.

To read the word slip, we need to know what sound each letter or letter combination represents. We need to know the letter s represents a /s/, the letter l represents an /l/, the letter i represents an /i/ and the letter p represents a /p/.

In the past, we would have been taught:

  • s makes a /ser/ sound
  • l makes a /ler/ sound
  • i makes an /i/ sound (hooray!)
  • p makes a /per/ sound

Using this phonics knowledge, we’d build the word just so: ser-ler-i-per.

Slip? Not quite.

Today, phonics is much snappier.

  • s represents a /s/ sound (as in ‘hiss’)
  • l represents a /l/ sound (as in the double l in mill, more like an /ul/ sound. Notice how your tongue touches above your teeth, it doesn’t stick out like the l in lolly?)
  • i represents an /i/ sound (as in ink)
  • p represents a /p/ sound (it’s easy to find this sound if you whisper it).

/s/l/i/p/ -> slip.  Bingo!

Keep the letter sounds short and snappy and you’ll be helping your child learn to read in no time (and your child’s teacher will love you).

As we’ve seen with the English language boasting 144 letter combinations, it isn’t as simple as one letter to one sound. Nor is it a simple task of splitting words into syllables. Ask your child’s teacher for a simple phonics sheet to show the letter combinations you should be looking out for when reading with your child. (In fact, I’ll probably dig out an old teacher resource and upload it to The Ribbon Box website – watch this space!)

Follow this link to watch a really helpful video that demonstrates pure sounds (but bear in mind not all schools use the “Read, Write, Inc.” phonics scheme that features in this clip). Apart from the /nk/ sound, your child will learn all of these sounds, whichever scheme their school is following. Don’t disregard the /nk/ sound, though, it’s terribly useful: think, pink, twinkle.

Related article: A Teacher’s Tips for Reading with Kids

Phonics can be your friend

If you’ve made it this far without nodding off, well done. Phonics can be confusing and dull but as it’s the foundation of reading and writing, it’s an integral part of your child’s learning journey.

To become successful readers and writers, your child needs good phonics knowledge and whilst their teachers will cover all they need to know over their first few years of schooling, helping your child learn to read at home will make all the difference.

The best way to help your child read is to befriend their teacher and ask them to provide phonics guidance. Any good teacher will be thrilled to share useful resources to make everyone’s lives easier: your child’s, yours and theirs. (In fact, I’ll write an article featuring useful phonics resources – watch this space, again!)

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