Teaching Phonics to Young Children

teaching preschool phonics

This is where a child is taught to use the sounds and patterns of letters in order to help them deal with unfamiliar words. Some teachers believe that while all children need some knowledge of letter patterns and sounds, they should not be encouraged to ‘sound out’ or ‘build up’ words; rather that they should use their phonic knowledge to help them guess what words are likely to be and then to check their guesses. Other teachers believe that sounding out words is helpful. For example, faced with the word sheep a child may be encouraged to break the word into parts, sound them out and then put them together. To do this he or she must know how sh, ee and p are commonly pronounced and how to blend the sounds together to make the word.

Schools using this kind of approach will probably have a definite phonics teaching programme which the children follow, for example :

  • Single consonants: b c d f g h j k l m n p etc.
  • ‘Short’ vowel sounds: a (cat) e (egg) i (ink) o (fox) u (up)
  • Consonant blends: br cr sn fl st gl sw str etc.
  • Consonant digraphs: ch (church) sh th (thin, then) ph
  • ‘Long’ vowel sounds: ee (feet) ai (rain) u-e (tube) etc., and so on. . .

teaching preschool phonics
Other schools will have a much ‘looser’ approach because they are treating phonic knowledge as something which is best acquired incidentally. They believe that it is not helpful to teach children to be over-reliant on the use of phonics because there are so many exceptions to the ‘rules’ which children are sometimes taught. Think about words like done, put, women, walk, half, or one, for example. They also recognise that phonics learning or a phonic approach to reading is very hard for some children; it requires the ability to distinguish between various sounds and then relate them to a particular visual pattern which must be learned. It’s easy to use phonics to sound out a word when you know what that word says already, but with a quite unfamiliar word there could be more than one way of pronouncing it. For example, how do you pronounce read or bowl. You need the rest of the sentence to help you as in “She’s got several strings to her bow.”

Phonic skills and knowing about the sound-symbol system of the language do have to be acquired by the reader. The debate in schools is about how much emphasis to give it and the best way of helping children. For example: showing children a list of words which they know already such as shop, shell, she and shoe and talking about a common pattern in them is very different from giving the two letters in isolation and teaching that they make a ‘sh’ sound.

Before we leave phonics for the moment, it is worth pointing out that many children learn to read without any phonic instruction at all – they acquire the necessary knowledge for themselves through the course of their reading.