Teaching Phonics Can Be Tricky: Here Are Some Pointers

What does "phonics" mean anyway?

By Scholastic Parents Staff
Nov 08, 2022



Teaching Phonics Can Be Tricky: Here Are Some Pointers

Nov 08, 2022

The answers to our kids' questions about letters, sounds, and words aren’t always as simple as they first appear. How do you explain that the O can be /o/ as in oval or /o/ as in otter, that nanna does not end with the letter R, or why you just can’t sound out the word "was"?

Taking a closer look at what’s involved with phonics, and the role it plays in learning to read can be a helpful place to start.

Why Phonics Is Trickier Than It Sounds

Phonics is the process of teaching children to correlate an individual sound with its corresponding letter or letter group. The more easily they can hear, identify, and manipulate sounds, the easier it will be for them to decode new words when they are ready to read.

Phonics is a fundamental building block of literacy, one that parents can help to develop. But many parents misunderstand phonics to be a program that can teach reading skills “fast” through fun sing-alongs, alphabet worksheets, and flashcards. In fact, it generally takes years to master — while there are 26 letters in our alphabet, there are 44 unique sounds, and most children will spend the better part of kindergarten, first, and second grade learning how those sounds relate to each other to form words.

Where Parents Get Tripped Up

Any parent who has tried to sound out words with a pre-reader will quickly realize that they have forgotten what hard work it is. Short vowels like “a” and “e” may sound alike to a young ear. Letter combinations like “sh” and “th” are hard to explain to a child who is only recently comfortable with the alphabet. Kids encounter sight words like “the” and “said” that can’t even be sounded out thanks to their irregular spelling! Ask a 6-year-old to spell “kid” and they are just as likely to say, “c-i-d…” as “k-i-d,” leaving parents at a loss for how to explain.

So How Can You Help Your Child?

Kids simply need practice — countless opportunities to hear, grasp, and manipulate the sounds of words, so they can eventually “decode” words quickly for fluent reading. For parents, this might sound like lots and lots of repetition — and that’s okay. It may seem like your child is stuck, but think of phonics like learning a secret code — once your child breaks the code, she'll move forward through that unlocked door without looking back.

One of the most beneficial things parents can do is help their child learn to hear the individual sounds within words. Ideally, he'll receive a comprehensive reading program at school, which includes “spelling rules” and learning sight words. These nine simple phonics-based activities are an ideal way for parents to support literacy development at home.

Focus on the First Letter

1. Talk about the name of a letter and the sounds it makes: Try explaining to pre- and early readers that just like children letters have names, and that also just like children, letters can often say or make different sounds.

For example, you might say, “I can see a letter from your name. Can you see the letter A (say A as in apricot)? In this word it’s making an /a/ sound, a-pple. The letter’s name is A and it’s making an /a/ sound.”

2. Brainstorm words that begin with the same sound: Help your child to think of other words that begin with the /a/ sound. For example, “I can think of another word that starts with that /a/ sound — ant! Can you think of an /a/ word? /a/ /a/ (pause for your child to respond).” If they cannot think of an answer or are not interested, you might like to offer another suggestion or simply leave brainstorming for another time.

3. Have fun with silly sentences that begin with the same sound: If you and your child have brainstormed a verbal list of words you might like to try putting them together into a silly sentence, for example, “The angry ant attacked the apple with an ax!”

4. Play the classic game, I Spy: “I spy with my little eye something beginning with /b/.”

“Ball does begin with b but it’s not what I spy.”

“Bacon? You’re right, bacon begins with b. I spy bacon!”

(The I SPY Books are another way to practice simple words and their sounds, as well as build memory and observation skills.)

Get Them Rhyming

5. Read rhyming books together: There are many fabulous picture books that share their stories in simple rhyme. Once a story is familiar to your child try pausing before the rhyming word, waiting to see if your child offers the correct response.

(You can't go wrong utilizing the classic Chicka Chicka Boom Boom or Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?.)

6. Play simple rhyming games: Rhyming games such as this First Learning Puzzles: Rhyming help your children to notice sounds within words and to learn that the same sound may be heard in many different words.

7. Play rhyming tennis: This one is great for kindergarteners who are familiar with rhyming. Choose a rhyming sound, say ‘-at’ as in ‘cat,’ and take turns back and forth each saying a new word that rhymes with the initial word. For example, player one says ‘cat,’ and player two ‘hat’, player one then says ‘rat,’ and player two, ‘mat.’ The round comes to an end when one player cannot think of a new rhyming word.

Progress to Hearing a Short Sequence of Sounds

8. Encourage your child to hear a sequence of sounds: This might sound scarier than it actually is! Look for everyday opportunities to break a short word (start with words with just two or three sounds, for example, hat, dog, car) into its individual sounds for your child to zip back together or blend orally. For example, as you are getting ready to go out to play you might say, “I need to put on my h-a-t. Do you have a h-a-t? What do we need to put on?” The answer, obviously, being ‘hat.’

9. Practice with a Phonics book set.  Peppa Pig Phonics, for example, provides parents ample opportunities to sound out short words (and point out the differences between short and long vowels), while your child is sure to delight in the colorful illiustrations and silly antics of Peppa and her friends.

Shop the best phonics sets below! You can find all books and activities at The Scholastic Store.

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