Teaching Phonics: The 4 Things I Wish I Knew

Two images side by side - on the left image is a teacher with her students with 1988 written on the top left corner in a blue banner. On the right image, is the same teacher in black and white with 2022 written on the top left corner in a blue banner.

The teaching of phonics has changed in recent years with the introduction of explicit, systematic synthetic phonics and the phonics of yester-year is no longer enough for an emergent reader and speller.

When I think of my current understanding of phonics – that it needs to be taught explicitly and systematically – I reminisce about my early teaching career when I was blessed with my very own class of 4.5-year-olds. They were students who had English as a second language and I knew that phonics was a necessity. However, the phonics I taught then was not the same phonics I now know and teach.

At the time, the teaching of phonics was simply known as the alphabet with each letter introduced at a very slow pace. A letter sound per week was the norm. There was no evidence of blending and segmenting; in fact, my phonics program consisted of letter names, handwriting, initial sounds and lots of craft activities. I thought I was teaching phonics. And I wasn’t wrong; it was just not enough.

Two images side by side -  the left, are students in a classroom with white paper masks over their faces. On the right, a teacher holds a white paper with 'boi' written on it and behind her is a projector with colourful images.
A phonics lesson then vs. now: less crafts, more explicit teaching!

Understanding the purpose of the teaching of phonics can provide clarity when programming a phonics lesson for the purpose of reading and spelling. So, what do I know now, that I wish I knew when I first started teaching phonics to my 4.5-year-olds?

1. Forget the Alphabet; Focus on the Alphabetic Code and Make It Pacey

A zoomed-in image of the same students from the previous image with white paper masks over their faces, with the focus being on the alphabet board. The letter 'O' and the image of an owl are circled in red with a red arrow and the word 'AHHH' over the image. Caught red-handed! That ow l definitely isn’t
the correct image to go with the sound /o/!

I now understand that teaching phonics is more than just teaching the 26 letters of the alphabet. It is ensuring that the alphabetic code is introduced to children as quickly as possible to give them the opportunity to successfully decode unfamiliar words. This alphabetic code is mapped to the 44 English phonemes and while the code is complex, it is crucial knowledge for reading and spelling. The complexity is highlighted through the 150+ spelling choices to represent the 44 phonemes using our 26 alphabet graphemes.

As teachers and parents, it is important to empower ourselves with this knowledge so that our students can be given the best start on their reading and spelling journey. This best start also equates to pace; this was my biggest change in the programming of phonics for my students. The more letter sounds taught, the quicker we can move to the skills of blending and segmenting.

Are you still introducing letter sounds at the pace of 1-2 per week? If so, let me set you a challenge to increase the pace to 3-4 letter sounds each week. I wish someone had nudged me earlier to put an end to the drawn-out sound of the week that had plagued my phonics instruction for so long!

Some tips for you

It’s ok to be flexible with the sequence of the letter sounds. Make it work for you and your students. You may occasionally need to introduce specific letter sounds earlier because they are required for reading in a decodable book. Don’t be afraid to introduce alternative spellings to the digraphs that are not part of your sequence. Look at your students’ names and introduce alternative spellings to phonemes that are found in their names. For example, Cindy, Joseph, Charlotte, Christopher.

An image of a boy holding a magnifying glass over his phonics book to help him find words. Then, he writes the newly found words on a whiteboard with a board marker.
Kids love to play alternative spellings detective with decodable books!

You’ll find more tips on teaching alternative spellings in Shirley Houston’s blog How to Teach Alternative Spellings.

Short Sharp Practice is a 10-minute daily routine to practise the synthetic phonics skills you have taught so far – letter sound recall, blending, segmenting and tricky words. Each day can focus on just one of these skills for the daily routine. The aim is to consolidate the learning and build automaticity.

My daily practice can be as simple as this:

  • Monday – recall of letter sounds taught to develop automaticity

  • Tuesday – dictation of known letter sounds

  • Wednesday – blend known letter sounds to read words

  • Thursday – segment words with known letter sounds

  • Friday – paired reading of sentences on flashcards

The Phonics Lessons from Phonics Hero will support you in every step of the Short Sharp Practice daily routine.

2. Get Your Phoneme Pronunciation Right, Then Make Sure Your Students Get It Right

Pronunciation of letter sounds has become my mission as I both teach students to read and spell and mentor other teachers in synthetic phonics. Some children tend to add a schwa (/uh/) to the end of a speech sound, which can impact our children’s ability to blend and segment words correctly. For example, the unvoiced grapheme ‘p’ is often pronounced with the schwa /p/uh/. If not demonstrated correctly, students may say the phonemes for a word such as ‘zip’ a /z/uh/ – /i/ – /p/uh and blend them to say the word ‘zipper’. The blending has produced an incorrect word.

Incorrect pronunciation also impacts segmenting. Some students would write additional graphemes when spelling a word even though their segmenting of the spoken word was correct. The additional graphemes represented the schwa that was inserted at the end of the phoneme.

An image of colourful magnet letters: z, i, p, a on a grey backgroundThe extra schwa can play havoc with spelling!

What is my advice to teachers now?:

  • Be pure in how you pronounce the speech sounds: no schwa!

  • Know your unvoiced and voiced sounds.

  • Encourage students to use a mirror to observe the position of their tongue and lips for each speech sound. Use a phonic phone to amplify speech sounds.

  • Ensure you have Phonics Hero set to play your country’s accent so it mirrors your teaching.

3. Be a Teacher of Phonemic Awareness, as Well as Phonics

Phonemic awareness is the ability to listen to the individual phonemes in words as well as manipulate phonemes to create new words. The research is clear that phonemic awareness is crucial for reading and spelling success and should be an integral part of any synthetic phonics program.

Some tips to help students with phonemic awareness

  • Focus on phonemes anywhere in a word, not just the initial phoneme to a word. Phoneme fingers are useful as students can visualise the position of a specific phoneme.

    The image below illustrates how a student isolates the individual phonemes in /cat/ as well as highlights the initial, medial and final phonemes. Look how simple it is when students are asked “Where can you hear the /a/ phoneme?”

  • Two images side by side - on the left is a black and brown striped cat lying on the floor. On the right is a hand showing three fingers with the letters 'c' 'a' and 't' on each finger. The letters 'c and t' are written in blue while 'a' is written in red

  • Create a phoneme table for a specific letter sound. Remember to include objects with that phoneme in various positions of a word.
  • An image with three pictures - the left picture is a blue lunchbox with a sandwich on a grey background with the word lunch box below. The alphabets except the letter 'l' are blue  while 'l' is in red. The picture in the center is a doll with a price tag on it with the word 'doll' below. The letters - 'd & o' are in blue and the double 'l' are in red. The right picture is a yellow and blue lamp with the word 'lamp' below, 'l' is the only letter in red and the letters 'amp' are blue

  • People Words: this is one of my favourite activities to encourage the manipulation of phonemes. Follow these simple steps to play:

    1. Assign each of your students a phoneme. Remember no graphemes are used for this activity.

    2. Select three students to create a spoken word e.g., ‘cat’. These students stand up.

    3. An image with four students, three of them are standing and the other is sitting . They have the letters 'c', 'a', 'u' and 't' above their heads respectively written in blue.

    4. Say to your students, “I don’t want cat. I want cut. What phoneme has to change?” The students should respond with /a/ changes to /u/.

    5. An image with the same students in the previous image and they have the letters 'c', 'a', 'u' and 't' above their heads respectively written in blue with a red x on 'a'

    6. The student representing /a/ sits down and the student representing /u/ stands up.

    7. An image with the same students in the previous image,with the have the letters 'c', 'a', 'u' and 't' above their heads respectively written in blue The student representing /a/ sits down and the student representing /u/ stands up.

    We continue in this manner manipulating phonemes to create new words cat-cut-but-bug-bag-bat-fat.

4. Teaching Blending and Segmenting Is Going to Be Harder Than You Think

You know your sounds. Now let’s read these words.” Tina DiMauro, 1988

This direction to my students in my early teaching career still haunts me. Here’s what I’ve learnt since:

  1. You can’t assume that students automatically pick up the skills of blending and segmenting. Blend, segment, then repeat! You can never do enough.

  2. Blending is the skill required for reading, especially unfamiliar words. When blending, students push phonemes together to create the whole word. It is not an automatic skill and, for many students, it requires explicit teaching. As soon as a few letter sounds have been introduced, begin the blending process.

  3. Just with the first group of letter sounds ( e.g., ‘s m c t g p a o’ or ‘s a t p i n m d’), children can practise the skill of blending to read up to 45 words. The success and confidence you will see in your emergent reader is so powerful.

  4. Segmenting is the opposite to blending. It is the skill required for spelling regular words. When segmenting, students listen to the spoken word and pull the phonemes apart in the sequence they can hear. To spell the word, the phonemes are represented with the corresponding graphemes. As with blending, once a few letter sounds have been introduced, students can begin the segmenting process.

Some tips for blending and segmenting

  • Introduce the students to a ‘robot’ voice. The robot voice demonstrates blending and segmenting as a useful tool when reading and spelling unfamiliar words. It becomes the ‘inner voice’ for many students when reading and spelling words. Perhaps you could use a robot toy as a character to help with these skills.

  • Make sure that blending and segmenting are part of your daily phonics lesson. Once children can blend letter sounds to read words correctly, encourage the ‘robot voice’ as their inner voice. Remember, our goal is to read fluently. Fluency will not occur if children continue to blend aloud.

  • Segmenting and phoneme fingers go hand in hand. As children segment, encourage them to use their phoneme fingers (mentioned earlier).

  • Provide plenty of segmenting practice through dictation. Provide pictures of decodable words for children to practise segmenting and writing the corresponding graphemes in sequence. Once again, the Phonics Lessons will give you every decodable word and sentence for the level children are working at. Watch a tour of spelling in the Phonics Lessons here:

  • Play games to practise blending and segmenting.

  • Transfer the practise of blending to decodable readers, like the one pictured below.

  • An image with a girl, approximate age 5, reading a colourful decodable book.

The team at Phonics Hero have lots of tips and activities on blending and segmenting.

There has been a change of the guard in reading to an acceptance of synthetic phonics as a key component. Change brings knowledge. Let’s empower ourselves and each other with the knowledge of synthetic phonics so that soon we need not say “I wish I knew this before I started teaching phonics.”

Author: Santina DiMauro

Santina is a teacher and phonics consultant. She has taught in schools for over 30 years and has trained teachers across Australia and Asia for 20 years in the area of literacy, in particular, synthetic phonics. If you are interested in Santina’s help as a literacy trainer for your school, drop the team an email at info@phonicshero.com.

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