Aug 17, 2023

Phonics in the Early Years: A foundation for literacy

Jane Magnani
Jane Magnani
Phonics in the Early Years: A foundation for literacy

What are Phonics?

Phonics is the foundational skill for reading and spelling. It is understanding the relationship between letters and sounds and how they form words. It is an essential tool for children to learn to read and write in their early years.

So, how do I teach my little one Phonics?

Phonics education in the early years is crucial for setting the foundation for literacy. The main goal of phonics is to teach children to decode words accurately and fluently.

This involves teaching them to recognise the sounds of individual letters and blend them to form words.

Practical phonics knowledge requires the understanding that words are made up of distinct sounds, and letter-sound correspondence, the connection between letters and their corresponding sounds. 

Teaching phonics should be interactive and engaging. Children need opportunities to apply their phonics knowledge to actual words and sentences in everyday situations.

Not only does it help children to become more skilled readers and writers, but it also enhances their overall language development.

Phonics Scaffolding

Phonics learning should be scaffolded, meaning that children should start with the basic sounds of letters and then progress to more complex sounds and spelling patterns. 

This helps to build children's confidence in reading and spelling. 

  1. Children begin by learning to isolate and recognise individual sounds in a word, e.g.' 

    drip' starts with /d/. It ends with /p/

  2. Then they blend sounds to form a word; children explore listening to a sequence of separately spoken sounds and combine them, 

    e.g. /d/ +/r/ +/i/+ /p/ = 'drip.'

  3. As their knowledge expands, they learn to segment sounds they hear in a word, meaning they can break a word into separate sounds and count how many sounds they can hear, e.g.' 

    drip' = /d/ + /r/ + /i/ +/p/ = 3 sounds

As children develop, they develop other phonetical skills such as:

Deletion: meaning children remove a phoneme (sound) from a word to create a new one, e.g. drip–dip.

Addition: meaning children make a new word by adding a phoneme (sound) to an existing word, e.g. drip – drips

Substitution: meaning children substitute one phoneme (sound) for another to create a new word, e.g. drip – drop

There are a total of six phonics phases.

Phonics Phase One

Many people believe phonics is only for older kids starting school. However, this needs to be clarified.

The first phase of phonics begins at birth! This foundation stage is crucial for developing children's speaking and listening skills and helping them become aware of the different sounds around them. During this phase, babies explore various sounds, such as voice, environmental, and instrumental sounds. They also learn about rhythm and rhyme. 

Before birth, babies use their senses to listen to the sounds around them, especially their parents' voices.

As they grow and develop, they are exposed to more sounds and begin learning about the world. This first phase of phonics is essential for babies, as it helps them to distinguish between different sounds and voices, which will be necessary for their future language development.



Phase One stages

Environmental sound discrimination

Developing an awareness and understanding of the sounds all around us helps to improve listening skills. 

Instrumental sound discrimination 

Developing an awareness and understanding of sounds made by noisemakers and instruments.

Body percussion sound discrimination

Developing an awareness and understanding of different sounds and rhythms.

Rhythm and rhyme

Developing an awareness and understanding of rhythm and rhyme in speech.


Developing an awareness of initial letter sounds in words.

Voice sounds

Learning to distinguish between sounds made when speaking. Children begin to develop the skills of segmenting and blending.

Oral blending and segmenting

Continuing to develop oral segmenting and blending skills.

Phonics Phase Two

This is the phase most people think of when they hear 'Phonics'. In Phase 2, we begin to introduce letter sounds. We do not learn the sounds alphabetically but rather in an order that makes it possible to form words sooner. 

For example, children will learn to break up (segment) a word into its sounds (phonemes), such as 'c-a-t', and then blend the sounds to read the whole word – 'cat'.

Phonics Phase Three

Children will learn more letter sounds during this stage, including digraphs (two-letter sounds). They will also keep practising segmenting and blending to improve their reading skills. Moreover, they will be introduced to 'Common Exception' or 'Sight' words, which cannot be sounded using phonics, such as 'was'.

Phonics Phase Four

In this phase of learning, children don't learn any new sounds. Instead, they practice breaking down and blending words, even those with more complex structures like "milk", which has two consonants next to each other (known as a 'CVCC' word). Additionally, children are introduced to a wider variety of sight words during this stage.

Phonics Phase Five

In this stage, children will expand their knowledge of letter sounds by learning additional graphemes, such as 'oy' in 'toy' and 'oi' in 'coin'. They will also be introduced to more sight words.

Phonics Phase Six

During this phase, children focus on becoming more fluent and confident readers. 

Children will continue to practise the skill of decoding unfamiliar words. They will also be able to spell many words phonetically.

Man reading book to baby

How can you support your children's early literacy development using phonics at home?

As parents and carers of little ones, here are some ways you can incorporate phonics into your daily routine at home:

Read together

Reading together is one of the best ways to develop your child's phonics skills. Choose books that use simple language and have repetitive phrases. Encourage your child to sound out words and try to identify letter sounds as you read.

Sound out words during play

As you spend time with your little ones, it's helpful to describe and comment on their actions. A useful technique is to sound out the first letter of words as you talk about them. For instance, saying, "I see you're eating an apple, an A-A-A apple!" or "Look, there's a car, a C-C-C car!" can help your little one develop phonetical awareness.

Play phonics games

Playing phonics games is a fun way to help your child learn letter sounds and how to blend them to form words. 

Play Silly Soup!

Choose a sound, e.g. A, and write it in a post-it note. Then pick six objects, three that begin with that sound and three that don't. 

Sit opposite your little one and tell them you will make silly soup together!

Sing the rhyme: "I'm going to make some silly soup, silly soup that's silly. I'm going to put it in the fridge to make it nice and chilly." And add the sound (post it) in the bowl. "A-A-A for" Get your little one to put the object that begins with that sound in the bowl!

Then sing the rhyme again to continue with the next object. Support them by going through the things together, for example, "a-a-a apple, c-c-c car, d-d-d duck," etc. 

Play Silly Soup Rhymes

This is a fun game that is similar to Silly Soup. However, instead of adding words that start with the same sound, you add words that rhyme. For example, start by choosing a toy or picture of a cat and sing a rhyme. Then, add the cat to a bowl and ask your child to think of more words that rhyme with "cat" and find objects to add. For instance, "cat", "hat", "bat", and "mat" all rhyme.

Use Phonics resources

Using phonics resources, such as magnetic letters or flashcards, can help your little one learn letter sounds and how to spell words correctly. You can use these tools to help your child identify letter sounds, spell words, and create sentences.

Create a word wall

Creating a word wall in your home can provide a visual aid for your little one to learn and practice reading and writing new words. Go through a sound each week, write it on a big piece of paper, and stick it on the wall, then your little one can cut pictures (from magazines or newspapers that start with that sound).

Sing songs

Encouraging your little one to sing songs can be a fun and effective way to enhance their understanding of letter sounds and how they can be used to form words.

Go on a sound hunt around the house

Embark on a sound scavenger hunt where you will search for things that start with the sound..." 


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