As children are exposed to written language, they discover that marks on a page stand for letters and words. You may have heard children singing the alphabet song like this: ellamenopee. With increased and consistent interaction with print, language, and books, children eventually realize that the string of letters is really l, m, n, o, p and sing the alphabet song with greater confidence and ease. To read well, children need to understand that written English consists of letters and groups of letters that stand for a series of sounds.
What it means
Phonics helps children understand the relationships between letters (graphemes) and individual sounds (phonemes). Children need to understand that the letter m stands for the /m/ sound, for example. Knowing these relationships helps children more accurately read familiar words, analyze new words, and write words. When children understand that bake is spelled with an e rather than bak, they are better able to read, spell, and write words like cake, lake, make, take, wake, and snake.
What to look for
You will begin to notice behaviors that indicate children's growing mastery of phonics skills when they:
- Know consonant sounds
- Know that a, e, i, o, and u are vowels.
- Know sounds of digraphs. Example: /sh/ in shell.
- Know sounds of consonant blends. Example: /bl/ in block and /str/ in string.
- Know short vowel word families. Example: at, an, op, on, it, in.
- Break words into syllables.
- Find familiar words within unknown words. Example: mat in matter.
- Substitute or add letters to make new words. Example: When asked to take away the letter t in the word tan, can the child say the word is an? Can the child put the letter t on an to make the word ant?
How to support learning
Children develop phonics skills implicitly as they hear good books being read and write stories using invented spellings. They also learn through clear and explicit modeling. A balanced approach allows for both types of learning. Here are a few activities to try:
1. Letter-Sound Cards
- Make personal letter cards with each child. Write the upper- and lowercase form of a letter on one side of an index card. On the other side, help children draw, paste pictures, or write words that begin with the sound. For example, on one side write Bb. On the other side children can write, draw, or paste a bat, bee, or boat.
2. I Spy
- Invite children to play a guessing game. Without revealing it to the child, select an object in the room and provide phonics clues to help the child guess what it is. For example, "I spy something that begins with the sound /t/." Keep offering clues until the child guesses that the object is a table.
- Create a stack of cards with pictures that represent words beginning with two initial consonants that you would like the child to work on, for example l and t. Have children say the word and match the picture with the correct initial sound. Invite them to think of other words that might be included in each stack.
Books with rhyme or alliteration
- Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
- Jamberry by Bruce Degen
- Miss Mary Mack and Other Children's Street Rhymes by Joanna Cole and Stephanie Calmenson
- Peanut Butter and Jelly: A Play Rhyme by Nadine Bernard Westcott
- Sheep in a Jeep by Nancy Shaw
- Sing a Song of Popcorn: Every Child's Book of Poems by Beatrice Shenk de Regniers
For more information, see the LEARNS website for this article and bibliographical references at www.nwrel.org/learns/feature/index.html.