If you have children in nursery, pre-school or primary school at the moment, you will no doubt have heard the word phonics. A school or nursery which communicates well might have had a parents’ information evening to help you. However, when your child comes home with “split-digraphs” and “CVC” words to learn, you may become a little baffled by it all. Fear not, in this blog post, I hope to demystify the whole thing (at least a little) and leave you feeling able to help your child learn to read in a way which will complement the way in which they are being taught at school and not leave you feeling like a dunce in front of your five year old.

To start off with, it is worth noting a few things about reading.  Firstly, reading is not natural, in so much as if no one in our society read there would be no reading. Only a third of all languages spoken across the world have a written form. Therefore only a third of spoken languages have reading.

It follows, therefore, that reading is a skill which has to be taught. That is not to say some children won’t pick up much of what they need to know about reading through experience, but they will not do this unless they are surrounded by reading and reading material. This means that when we ask the question “how do we learn to read?”, the answer is “whichever way we are taught.”

It is also very difficult to unpick an activity which comes as second nature to us such as reading. Can you explain how you read? Can you remember exactly how you started to read? Current research used within Government policy points to synthetic phonics as the best mode of teaching reading and therefore it is the accepted form for teaching reading presently.  This may, or may not change with more research.

If your child’s school is using phonics and you want to support your child, first you need to understand what it is you are supporting. The current teaching strategy in the UK is synthetic phonics. The synthetic part is important. Unless you are a very young Mum or had a very progressive school it is unlikely that you encountered this in your own education.

Synthetic phonics uses a set of 44 sounds (This varies for other English speaking nations, as phonic sounds are based on accent). The sounds are made up of single letter sounds, digraphs (combinations of two letters which make one sound) trigraphs (combinations of three letters which make one sound) and split digraphs (what used to be known as magic e). From these 44 sounds, which can be spelt a number of ways, you are able to construct all words.

One of the key tenets of synthetic phonics is that you should always ensure that your phonemes are pure. This means that you should ensure that when you make the individual sounds, they are the shortest they can be – for example /m/ should simply be pronounced /mmmm/ not /muh/. A good resource to help you with learning and sounding the phonemes with your child can be found here.

Two words which your child may come home with are blending and segmenting. Simply put, segmenting is when you sound out a word to help with spelling and blending is when you blend sounds together to read a word.

Another term which may confuse you is CVC words. These are consonant, vowel, consonant words. These comprise of words which are spelt consonant, vowel, consonant, such as ‘d-o-g’ or ‘c-a-t’ and also words which have consonant, vowel, consonant phonemes in the form of consonant and/or vowel digraphs e.g. b-ea-n, sh-o-p, ch-ur-ch

The sounds are taught in a specific order often called phases so you start by learning the simplest sounds and move up the complexity. The order differs depending on which programme of study the school is following.

Overall, reading is a complex skill to learn. If you read to and with your child and even read to yourself in front of them, right from start you will make reading into a part of everyday life and this will help your child to become confident with reading. The other thing to say is not to worry or push your child too much. We all learn at different rates and we all enjoy different things. An anecdote to finish off is that I was a reluctant reader in the early years of primary school. I loved being read to, but wouldn’t read for myself. My mother went to my primary school head to ask what she should do about this and he said not to fuss; that I would get there in my own time. I now have a 2:1 in English and have been teaching English for over 12 years!

Adapted from a post originally written for by Ruth Hill

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