Pedagogy Focus: Phonics

The latest instalment in our Pedagogy Focus series looks at the basics of phonics and in how is it used in schools

phonics pedagogy

What is phonics?

Phonics is a method for teaching children how to read and write. 

It encourages the breaking down of words into individual graphemes (a letter or blend of letters that represent a sound) in order to deal with the different sounds within a word. 

It is underpinned by the idea that language is a code that children need to be able to crack in order to become effective readers (and spellers). 

There are around 44 sounds (phonemes) in the English language and, rather than memorising and learning words through repetition, phonics teaches children these sounds, giving them the components to decode language and be independent readers. 

What are the types of phonics?

There are two main types of phonics: analytic phonics (which includes analogy phonics) and systematic synthetic phonics (SSP).

Analytic

In this approach, children are not introduced to the individual phonemes before they begin reading but are instead taught to compare sound patterns within words and analyse these connections.  

This begins with whole words and then considers the parts so children can build up a picture of common word families and the sounds attached to them. 

These parts are known as the onset (the vowel or syllable at the start of the word) and the rime (the rest of the word, always beginning with a vowel).

Using rhyme or analogy, children then learn other similar words with the same pattern (c-at, m-at, p-at).

Systematic synthetic phonics (SSP)

In this approach, children are taught individual phonemes independently from reading. Once these are embedded, they can blend them together to pronounce words.

There is also a greater focus on grapheme-phoneme correspondence (GPC), with pupils learning the variety of ways sounds can be denoted within words.

The purpose of this method is to show children all of the parts they might come across when reading words and teach them how to synthesise these. 

For example, if a child has learned the individual sounds /k/, /a/ and /t/, they can sound out the whole word through identifying familiar phonemes as they are read. 

There is a third approach to phonics called the embedded phonics method, which places greater emphasis on reading for meaning first and exploring words in terms of their individual graphemes and phonemes when difficulties arise (this is taught in the context of reading stories).  

How is it used in schools?

SSP is the most widely used approach and is generally accepted as the most effective. 

Schools select an appropriate phonics programme to deliver in the classroom and pupil progress is assessed in Year 1 through the phonics screening check, which is a compulsory assessment that all children sit in order to measure their decoding skills and knowledge of common sounds. 

The screening check comprises a number of high-frequency words and common sounds, as well as alien words that assesses pupils’ ability to tackle unfamiliar words when reading.   

Schools also have lots of fun and interactive ways to support these programmes and the delivery of phonics; classrooms will be full of various songs (with actions) and games that help pupils to practise different phonics skills.

Further reading

Teaching phonics: Information for schools from the Department for Education

Selection of different phonics programmes from the Department for Education

Phonics screening check example 

Phonics game Teacher Your Monster to Read 

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