Phonics and early reading
A sequence for teaching high-quality phonic work for practitioners and teachers, and underpinning guidance
The sounds of English
British spoken English is generally reckoned to use 44 sounds, or ‘phonemes’. Technically, a phoneme is the smallest unit of sound that can make a difference to the meaning of a word. Twenty of these are vowel sounds and 24 are consonant sounds. Many of the sounds (particularly vowel sounds) can vary slightly according to accent, but they are generally consistent within the speech of an individual and recognisable by others who may pronounce them slightly differently.
Alphabetic writing is based on the principle that letters and groups of letters (graphemes) represent the small units of sound (phonemes) in spoken words: that is to say, the letters are a written code for the speech sounds. In reading, the sounds are produced in response to single letters and letter-groups of from two to four letters (e.g. ‘sh’, ‘igh’, ‘eigh’) and then have to be blended together. In spelling, the whole spoken word has to be segmented (split up) into separate sounds so that letters and letter-groups can be written down to represent the sounds.
Some languages have very simple alphabetic codes where each letter or letter-group always stands for the same sound, and each sound is represented in only one way in writing. English, however, has a complex alphabetic code. Most sounds can be represented in more than one way in writing (e.g. the /s/ sound can be written with the letter ‘s’, as in ‘sit’, with ‘ss’, as in ‘fuss’, and with ‘c’ as in ‘city’), and most letters and letter-groups can represent more than one sound (e.g. the letter ‘c’ can represent both the /k/ sound, as in ‘cat’, and the /s/ sound, as in ‘city’).
Obviously, it makes sense to start beginner readers at a simple level before introducing the complexities. This is best achieved by staging the work in an incremental sequence as follows.
Introducing grapheme–phoneme correspondences
Children should be taught the 26 letters of the alphabet and a sound for each letter. (Strictly speaking, the sounds that we associate with the letters ‘q’ and ‘x’ are each two sounds: /kw/ for ‘q(u)’ and /ks/ or /gz/ (as in ‘fox’ and ‘exam’) for ‘x’. For the purpose of teaching beginners, however, it is sensible to treat each of these as a single sound.)
They should be taught to write each letter, forming it correctly. Children should be taught to produce the sounds as purely as possible – that is, not to add /uh/ (‘schwa’) sounds, particularly after consonants such as /b/, /d/, /g/. Once correspondences have been taught, they should be frequently revised and practised so that responses are automatic. Sounds should be produced quickly in response to letters, and letters should be pointed to or written quickly in response to sounds. The reversible nature of decoding for reading and encoding for spelling should be reinforced from the earliest stages.
Vowels and consonants should both be taught from the start, and in an order that allows children to start reading and spelling simple words as soon as the first few correspondences have been taught. They read by producing sounds for letters and blending the sounds, and they spell by the reverse process of segmenting the spoken word into sounds and writing down appropriate letters. Blending and segmenting need to be taught explicitly. Some skill is involved in converting the staccato sounds produced in response to letters into seamless word-pronunciations and in splitting up seamless spoken words into individual sounds. Plenty of practice should be given in reading and writing words containing all the correspondences that have been taught. This allows children to consolidate both their knowledge of the correspondences and their blending and segmenting skills.
Reading and spelling simple regular words
The skills of blending and segmenting CVC words are easily adapted to words containing consecutive consonants in CCVC and CVCC words (such as ‘spit’ and ‘mint’) and then to more complex words (such as ‘split’ or ‘crust’). This is an important phase for widening the words available to children for reading.
Introducing sounds that are represented by more than one letter
Sounds that can be represented only by letter-groups (mostly digraphs, at this stage) should be taught: ‘sh’, ‘ch’, ‘th’ (these can represent two sounds, one ‘voiced’ and one ‘unvoiced’, as in ‘thin’ and ‘then’), ‘ng’ (‘sing’), ‘ee’, ‘ay’, ‘ie’ (‘pie’), ‘oa’ (‘boat’), ‘oo’ (two sounds, as in ‘moon’ and ‘book’), ’or’ (‘port’), ‘ar’ (‘car’), ‘er’ (‘fern’), ‘ow’ (‘town’), ‘oy’ (‘boy’), ‘air’, ‘ear’. Again, children should be given practice in reading and writing words containing these correspondences as they are taught.
Introducing alternative grapheme–phoneme correspondences
Alternative sounds for spellings already covered should be taught. Such examples include the /s/ sound of ‘c’ (‘city’), the /j/ sound of ‘g’ (‘gem’) and the /o/ sound of ‘a’. This can often be covered during the teaching of high frequency words: for example, ‘was’ and ‘want’ illustrate the /o/ sound which ‘a’ tends to have after a /w/ sound.
Alternative spellings for the sounds already covered should also be taught. Examples would include ‘ea’ for the already-taught /ee/ sound, ‘oe’ for the already-taught /oa/ sound and ‘igh’ for the already-taught /ie/ sound.
Introducing ‘tricky’ words
Once children are starting to blend CVC words, high frequency words that do not follow the letter-sound correspondences taught can be introduced. This may be done at the rate of two or three per week but the professional judgement of the pace must lie with the teacher or practitioner. Examples of such words include ‘the’, ‘was’, ‘said’, ‘once’. Even these words usually contain some common letter–sound correspondences, and children should have their attention drawn to these so that they do not regard the words as completely random. This can be combined with the teaching of the few sounds that have not yet been covered because they are less straightforward in terms of their spelling. Children’s attention can be drawn to such words in shared reading and writing sessions to increase their exposure to them.
Implications of high-quality phonic work for shared and guided reading
Part 1 of this overview explained that schools and settings should put in place a systematic, discrete programme as the key means for teaching high-quality phonic work. Shared and guided reading sessions should not be used to replace discrete phonics teaching but they can provide opportunities to reinforce children’s developing phonic knowledge and skills, in the context of achieving the ultimate goal of the sessions, which is the development of comprehension. Guidance is given below.
Shared reading has a number of specific functions in the teaching of early reading:
- inducting children into the world of literature, meaning and response
- providing rich opportunities for increasing children’s stock of words and teaching early reading behaviours
- serving as a vehicle for extending children’s understanding of what is being read, that is their language comprehension
- providing opportunities to apply acquired decoding skills in context, reinforcing children’s developing phonic knowledge and skills gained from discrete, daily phonic sessions
When engaging children in shared reading, teachers need to be clear which aspect of reading they are addressing. They will need to consider carefully the purpose of each session, the relevant learning objectives and the opportunities the selected text provides to support this work. Discussion of the text also offers opportunities to underpin other aspects of the curriculum such as personal, social and emotional development.
Reinforcing decoding skills (see the principles of high-quality phonic work described on page three)
If the purpose of the shared session is to encourage children to apply acquired phonic skills, then their attention should be focused on decoding words rather than the use of unreliable strategies such as looking at the illustrations, rereading the sentence, saying the first sound or guessing what might ‘fit’. Although these strategies might result in intelligent guesses, none of them is sufficiently reliable and they can hinder the acquisition and application of phonic knowledge and skills, prolonging the word recognition process and lessening children’s overall understanding. Children who routinely adopt alternative cues for reading unknown words, instead of learning to decode them, later find themselves stranded when texts become more demanding and meanings less predictable. The best route for children to become fluent and independent readers lies in securing phonics as the prime approach to decoding unfamiliar words.
In order to reinforce decoding in shared reading, practitioners and teachers should adhere to letters and sounds already taught so that children experience how to apply their knowledge in the context of reading texts. Words, phrases and/or even whole sentences from a Big Book or other enlarged texts can be used to demonstrate this skill, as well as exploiting opportunities in the environment such as words in labels, captions and displays.
Developing comprehension (see also separate document on Comprehension)
When children learn to read, the comprehension processes they use to understand written texts are the same as those they already use to understand spoken messages. The main difference is that the language of written text is accessed via the eyes rather than the ears.
Independent review of the teaching of early reading (the Rose Report), Appendix 1, paragraph 62, page 90
If the focus for the session is the development of comprehension, then practitioners should concentrate on plot, character, and motive, and features of language such as vocabulary, figurative language and sequence. Children benefit if they can make links to their previous experience, or they are supported where the text deals with matters that are beyond their immediate experience. Over time, the practitioner will model how readers predict, question, clarify, summarise and imagine as they read; and in time, children should internalise these mental activities. Modelling one or two strategies really well is preferable to overloading children with multiple approaches.
Guided reading is a carefully structured session in which a small number of children are helped to apply their freshly learned skills in context. It is tailored to the specific needs and ability of the individual, or a group of individuals working at the same level. In the session, the teacher guides the children through a text, prompting them to apply the knowledge and skills they have learned elsewhere in the reading curriculum. The aim is to encourage and extend independent reading skills on new and increasingly challenging texts.
Children gain most from guided reading when they have already developed a sound understanding about how texts work, about the alphabetic code, and when they have considerable experience of listening to and talking about texts. Guided reading sessions offer a good opportunity for children to practise their developing phonic knowledge skills in texts that are carefully chosen to match their abilities. Where the focus is on honing phonic skills, the practitioner’s role is to support and prompt children to decode, recognise and say words as they read, thus helping them to access the meaning of the text.
The success of the guided reading session depends on the teacher being clear about the purpose of the session and its specific learning objectives. Early on, new readers will be focused on the application of phonic skills and word recognition, but as they grow in confidence and skill, the emphasis will shift to comprehension. The practitioner makes an important decision at the planning stage about the focus of the session, and this decision is largely determined by close observation of what the children know, understand and can do.
Guided reading sessions should be pitched carefully to the level and needs of the children in the session at the time. This implies a high level of knowledge about the exact state of each child’s phonic learning. This is achieved through observation, robust assessment and regular contact during phonic sessions.
In deciding what to teach in guided reading sessions, teachers might start by considering the four types of reader identified in the ‘simple view of reading’:
- those who have good comprehension but poor word recognition skills
- those who have good word recognition skills but poor comprehension
- those who are weak in both the above
- those who are strong in both the above
Clearly, the child who has good levels of comprehension but weak word recognition needs to consolidate their phonic knowledge and to apply that knowledge in practice. Conversely, children with strong word recognition skills but poor comprehension need to be focused on meaning.
The choice of text for the guided reading session is particularly important. The text should be within the child’s current capabilities in order to exercise the new skills without becoming frustrated. The text must also be carefully chosen to appeal to a child’s age, ability, interests and circumstances. For example, a child who is new to English may be able to decode quickly, but limited familiarity with English vocabulary may limit his or her immediate comprehension.
Guided reading is a wonderful opportunity for teachers and learners to engage with texts in the most personalised way. It deserves the best possible planning for the best possible return on the investment of precious time.