by Ana on April 29, 2008

You may have memories of learning phonics in school and being continuously drilled on letter sounds and spelling rules until you thought you would explode. Or you may be a product of whole language instruction (like me) and have very little knowledge of the intricate workings of our written language – you know how to read and write, but you’re not sure how it all works. It just depends on when and where you went to school. So which way is best? Recent research has shown that along with phonemic awareness instruction, both phonics and whole language instruction is best. You can read more about the differences between the two and why they should work together in this article. Either way, phonics instruction has come a long way since we were in school and there are ways to make it fun! So let’s get started on what you need to know to teach your child phonics.

We’re going to cover the basics of teaching phonics in three sections:

  • A – Learning About Letters and Sounds: teaching the connection between the letter symbol and the sound
  • B – Blending Words: beginning to use knowledge of letter sounds to read words
  • C – Reading Connected Text: moving from reading single words to reading (previously learned) words in a passage or book

A – Learning About Letters and Sounds

To be able to teach the sounds of the letters, you also have to teach your child the letters of the alphabet. There are a couple of ways to do this and the final decision of how you want to do this is up to you. Although I find that the research-based practice works best, I will share with you some info about the two commonly used methods and let you make the decision that best suits you and your child. Then we’ll continue on our merry phonics way.

  • Learn the letters , then learn their sounds: This is based on researchers’ findings that children do better in learning their sounds once they have a solid foundation in letter recognition. The fancy terms for this are Alphabetic Knowledge (learning the names and shapes of letters) and Alphabetic Principle (an understanding that letters represent the sounds of our spoken language and knowledge of those sounds).
  1. Letter Recognition: This means kids can easily identify and name all of the letters in the alphabet. Singing or reciting the alphabet alone doesn’t count. Can your child consistently identify and name any letter (upper and/or lower case) when shown in random order? If not, then they need to work on letter recognition activities. Fluent (automatic) letter recognition can be achieved through the explicit, yet fun and quick letter activities on our site that you can use every day! You can find the specific lessons on introducing the alphabet and other letter recognition activities under Phonics in Lesson Ideas. Note: Some experts advise you to teach the lower case letters first because they account for most of the letters that we read in text and books. However, it’s important to note that lower case letters are also more difficult to tell apart because many of the curves and lines used to make them look similar (ex: m, n, h; c, o; d, b; i, j; p, q). Upper case letters tend to be easier for kids to identify and write. Teaching both upper and lower case letter names and shapes at the same time can help avoid confusion. Again, this is another decision for you based on what will work best for your child and/or what your chosen program dictates.
  2. Letter-Sound Correspondence: This refers to the matching of letter symbols to their corresponding sounds in order to learn how to blend, read, and spell words. Once your child has a strong grasp on letter recognition, they are ready to learn their sounds. There are many activities that you can (and should) do daily to help reinforce your child’s understanding of letter sounds – and we’re happy to share our collection of these with you here. But you may be wondering just how you should introduce the sounds and in what order. The following is a sample sequence for sound introduction based on findings that say you should teach the most commonly used sounds first since kids will encounter and use them the most. This will also allow you to practice blending with your child earlier because you will be able to make more words with these sounds. Note: It’s not necessary for your child to know all of the sounds before you start blending! This is just an example – you can, of course, use any sequence you like: S, M, D, P, short A, T, H, short O, B, N, L, C, short I, R, G, short U, F, J, W, K, short E, Y, V, Q, Z, X. Then you can introduce the long vowels, digraphs (letter combinations that make a new sound: sh, th, ch, wh, tch) and diphthongs (vowels combinations that make a new sound: oi, au, ou
  • Letter of the week: In the past, this format was quite popular – where in you start with “A” and do every activity under the sun with the letter for that week (paint it, sing songs using that sound, glue macaroni to an A, cut out pictures that start with an “A”, eat an apple, etc.) and continue on in a similar manner with the other letters of the alphabet. While this can be great fun, research has shown that it’s not the best method because learning the letter name and sound at the same time is too much, so children don’t really learn to internalize them (which means they tend to forget what letter is called what and what sound it makes). Some programs out there still use this method, so if you chose to go this route just keep in mind that it may not work for ALL children. Some may do just fine and successfully learn all letters and their sounds, while others may need more support and time.

B – Blending Words

Once your child has learned the sounds of some letters they are ready to blend those sounds into words and begin reading! We’re first going to cover the steps for blending words sound by sound, and then we’ll go on to blending bigger words and sentences.

  • Blending Words: This is an important technique that teaches your child how to figure out unknown words by putting together known sounds to make words. This is how your child will initially learn to read. Once he/she is a reader, they can use the blending technique as a tool to figure out unknown words. This is what phonics is all about! It is to be used as a launching point for beginning to read and as a “fall back” tool when encountering hard words. So here are the steps you want to use when first teaching your child to blend sounds into words (directions for blending words after this initial method follow below). Please read through them first and then make sure you view the video to see it in action. It can be confusing at first – but you’ll both get the hang of it quickly! I will use the example letters of “m”, short “a”, and “p”. You should use a white board, chart paper, or any other large surface to write on during instruction so that it’s easy for your child to see and for you to point to.
  1. Write the letter “m” on the board, point to the letter, and ask “sound?” Your child should say “/mmmmm/”.
  2. Write the letter “a” on the board next to the “m”, point to the letter, and ask “sound?” Your child should say “/aaaaa/”.
  3. Dip your finger under the “m” and “a” making a connecting motion and say “blend”. Your child should say “/ma/”
  4. Next write the letter “p”, point to the letter, and ask “sound?” Your child should say /p/.
  5. Dip your finger again under all three letters from “m” to “p” and say “blend”. Your child should say slowly “/map/”.
  6. Run your finger quickly under the word and ask “word?” Your child should quickly read the word “map”. This final quick repetition of the word is necessary to help your child build fluency and help make the word become more automatic.
  • These steps may sound funny and robot-like at first, yet they are how you will initially teach your child to blend. It’s really important that you model and show your child how you will do this and practice it until you are both comfortable. Once your child gets used to the visual cues you use with your hand (pointing to the letter, dipping your finger, and sweeping under the word), you can then remove your word prompts (sound?, blend, sound?, etc.) and just use your hand cues. Once your child learns more sounds and is good at blending words sound by sound, you can then move on to whole word blending.
  • Whole Word Blending: This is where you write the whole word and point to each sound as your child blends the word slowly. Then sweep your hand quickly underneath the word while your child reads the word quickly. You can also use whole word blending when reading bigger words by splitting words up into syllables and having your child blend them to read the word.
  • Blending Sentences: Your child can work on this once they get the hang of whole word blending. Write a simple sentence on the board or chart (you should use a sentence that appears in a book you are about to introduce to your child or are currently reading with them) making sure that you use correct capitalization and punctuation. You may not think that this matters yet because your child can’t read – but it does! Check out this info on Concepts of Print to see why. Begin having your child blend and/or read each word before attempting to read the sentence to make sure they won’t get stuck on a word. Once they know all of the words, have him/her go back and start from the beginning to blend the sentence slowly. Finally, have your child reread the sentence quickly. The final reading of the sentence should be quick, fluid, and sound natural.
  • You may read this and wonder why your child has to read and reread the words and sentences so many times. The repeated readings of the same words help your child gain fluency with these words and with the process of blending and reading words in general. Fluent reading is a key component to having great comprehension because your child will be able to focus more on meaning than on how to figure out what the words say. Besides, kids love repetition and they become so proud of themselves when they are able to read a whole chart of words by themselves! So while this initial blending sounds tedious, it’s important to remember that your goal is to give your child the tool of being able to blend the word “cat” so that one day when he/she encounters the word “catastrophe”, they’ll know what to do! Remember to keep it quick and fun!

C – Reading Connected Text

This basically means that you will give your child the chance to practice reading the words that they have recently learned to blend and read in a real book. By doing so, you are having them connect practice words with real reading in a real book known as a decodable book. Practicing with and reading decodable books does wonders for your child’s ability to improve his/her fluency and confidence in reading! Many of the phonics based curricula that are out today make it very easy for you to teach in this way because decodable books are included in the materials. If you are making your own curriculum, there are some great decodable book libraries you can purchase with books that practice target sounds. Whether you are using one of these programs or you are creating your own reading curriculum, you can use the following steps for having your child read connected text.

  1. Choose a decodable book that focuses on words with the sounds your child has been working on. Programs usually have a ready made sequence for this. If working with your own materials, you may want to plan out a sequence for letter sound introduction and match the decodable books with that sequence.
  2. Offer plenty of opportunities for your child to practice blending and reading words from the book before letting them read the book. You can also make flashcards, use letter tiles to build the words, and/or and play other games with the words to help them practice.
  3. Choose 1 or 2 sentences from the book to practice blending. You can play a “hunt for the special sentence” game with them while reading the book – they love looking for and finding the sentence they practiced!
  4. Introduce the book by reviewing title, author and illustrator, doing a quick picture walk, and having them predict what they think it will be about.
  5. Begin reading the book with them. You can start off by reading the book to them, then taking turns reading pages, and finally having them read the book to you. During and after the readings, make sure to discuss their ealier predictions and/or interesting parts of the story. I know that decodable books don’t have a lot of “meat” to them, but this helps to get them in the habit of discussing books. You can learn more detailed info about introducing books to your child in our Pre Reading Activities section of Teaching Methods!

Whew! That was a lot to learn. Consider yourself an expert on Phonics 101! You can find some fun and detailed phonics lessons in our Phonics section of Lesson Ideas.


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