Literacy is essential in daily life, and the sooner children are taught to read and write, the more likely they are to succeed as adults. Systematic phonics instruction is one of the most effective ways to teach children how to recognise, decode and sound out words.

But why is phonics important, and how early should your child begin learning it?

What is phonics?

Phonics is a popular method of teaching children to read and write that involves helping them recognise individual letter sounds to, eventually, correlate those sounds with complete words. Especially when learning a new language, it can be thought of as learning a type of code. So, phonics is a way to teach children how to decode the language systematically through recognising, decoding and sounding out letters.

Most commonly, phonics starts by teaching sounds that individual letters make, or sounds that groups of letters make, before moving on to blending. It’s by blending these learnt sounds together that children are able to sound out words as they appear.

It’s important to note that there are a few different methods of phonics that are taught, each with a unique approach. At Jan & Elly, we do systematic phonics instruction, which is a more structured approach to learning phonics than other types.

The importance of phonics

Developing phonological awareness is a crucial step in furthering a child’s reading and spelling skills. 

“Many children acquire phoneme-level awareness without explicit instruction, however, with the increased emphasis on reading acquisition in earlier grades, direct instruction of phonological awareness (PA) is often recommended.” Says the International Literacy Association.

Without an appropriate level of this awareness, children may have trouble understanding how the English language works at a fundamental level, which can cause reading and writing difficulties and create obstacles when learning in a school setting.

To decode words, children first need to understand letter sounds and the relationship between them.

Ultimately, phonics helps to make reading easier for children as they develop their spoken and written language skills, and overall comprehension.

The different types of phonics

As we mentioned, there are many different methods of teaching phonics. Here are a few examples of the most common approaches:

  • Systematic phonics is the method we use here at Jan & Elly. It starts at the sound level by helping children recognise individual letter sounds before working their way up to blending. It’s a structured approach to phonics that follows a steadily increasing level of complexity.
  • Analytic phonics is one of the most popular methods of teaching. Unlike systematic phonics, which starts at the sound level, this approach starts at the word level. Therefore, it does not teach blending, but instead, deconstructs whole words to understand how they are read.
  • Embedded phonics is focused on using authentic contexts to teach, such as reading a book. For example, an embedded phonics lesson may involve a teacher reading a book aloud while identifying teachable moments throughout.

No matter the approach, phonics instruction is most valuable when techniques can be integrated throughout an English curriculum, encouraging children to practise their phonic skills as much as possible.

The principles of phonics instruction

Having principles for phonics instruction helps teachers provide lessons that are of the most value to children developing their phonological awareness. There is not a concrete list of principles that are standard across all literacy or phonics education. However, the following are often deemed essential:

  • Instruction needs to be clear, detailed and systematic. This is to ensure that children have the best possible chance at comprehending and retaining information. In systematic phonics, having a plan or path forward for introducing new letter sounds and relationships is imperative.
  • Focus on one thing at a time. To avoid confusion and frustration when learning, phonics instruction should avoid trying to do too much at once. Choosing one or two letter sounds to focus on before moving onto another is more beneficial for children and helps mitigate learning struggles they may encounter.
  • Instruction should start simple and become increasingly complex. All children learn differently, and it should not be assumed based on their age that they are at a certain level of learning. Having a systemic approach means starting simple, with single letter sounds, for example, before gradually increasing complexity to challenge students.
  • Combine instruction with practice. Practice makes perfect — especially when learning phonics. Instruction should be generously combined with hands-on practice to make sure students are getting the most out of their lessons and making meaningful progress.

By following these core principles, students will be positioned to learn in a way that’s meaningful, understandable and effective.

When to start teaching your child phonics

Parents may be wondering: When is the best time to start teaching phonics?

Learning phonics in the early years is the most beneficial, as acquiring phonics knowledge is one of the major steps to decoding written words. Usually, this means enrolling your child in an English language school around ages 3 or 4.

Because the goal of systematic phonics instruction is to ultimately help children learn to identify words, this dramatically improves their ability to comprehend things that they read — and the English language as a whole. Students have the best chance to cultivate their knowledge when participating in engaging and exciting lessons, such as fun letter games and reading and writing activities.

At Jan & Elly, we offer a tiered, systematic approach to phonics starting at age 4 in our Phonics Readiness course, before advancing to Phonics Intermediate at ages 4 and 5 and Phonics Advanced at 5 to 6. Our programmes are designed to meet children where they are currently at while supporting their growth and development as they continue to develop their phonics skills.

Is your child approaching the age where they should start learning phonics? Book an assessment or enrol in one of our trial classes to learn how our experienced teachers can help your child develop their phonological awareness.

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