Most Asked Phonics Questions

There is so much information out there regarding phonics that the task of wading through it all can feel insurmountable. So, we have collated some FAQ answers and framework explanations below. Whether you are here for help finding the perfect resource or just want a quick refresher of the basics, you’ve come to the right place!

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What is phonics?

Phonics is a way of teaching children to read and write which is built upon a framework of 44 sounds, known as ‘phonemes’. These phonemes are matched to written letters or groups of letters — known as ‘graphemes’ — which then become the building blocks to form words.

Synthetic phonics is the most widely used method for teaching phonics, and is taught throughout primary schools in England. The principle behind synthetic phonics is to recognise the link between individual phonics letters and sounds. It is this focus on pure sounds over whole words that better allows children to develop the skills for independent reading, for if they can visualise every component sound, then they can assemble or ‘synthesise’ those sounds to form a word, even if the word itself is unfamiliar. For example, specific knowledge of the grapheme ‘igh’ would enable the child to quickly recognise multiple words such as ‘n-igh-t’, ‘s-igh-t’ or ‘f-l-igh-t’. The act of putting the sounds together in this manner is known as ‘blending’.

The lesser-used practice of analytic phonics focuses on the use of phonemes and graphemes together rather than beginning with the sound alone. Children are encouraged to ‘analyse’ and identify a common phoneme in a series of words that are already known, based on initial sounds and context, as opposed to discovering the word through decoding and blending its component sounds. The difference here is that prior knowledge is required about specific groups of words, whereas with synthetic phonics, establishing a familiarity with the 44 phonics sounds mean that children have the tools to recognise and decode any number of new words, opening the door to independent reading.

What is a phoneme?

A unit of sound that can be combined with other units to form a word.

What is a grapheme?

A written letter or combination of letters that represent a phoneme. This can be one to four letters long.

What is a digraph?

A two-letter grapheme that represents one phoneme, for example ‘sh’, ‘ch’, ‘ee’, ‘or’.

What is a trigraph?

A three-letter grapheme that represents one phoneme, for example ‘igh’, ‘dge’, ‘ear’.

What is a quadgraph?

A four-letter grapheme that represents one phoneme, for example ‘eigh’, ‘ough’.

What is a split digraph?

A digraph that is split in half with an extra consonant in the middle, for example ‘a-e’ (take), ‘o-e’ (mode), ‘i-e’ (time).

What are adjacent consonants?

Consonants that appear next to each other in a word but represent different sounds. While some pairs of consonants are digraphs, these are instead two single graphemes. For example, the letters ‘g’ and ‘r’ in ‘grab’ form two separate sounds, as do the letters ‘n’ and ‘d’ in ‘hand’. Adjacent consonants can also appear in threes such as in the word ‘string’ where they are aptly known as a ‘consonant string’.

What are consonant and vowel digraphs?

A digraph is made up of two letters. These letters can either be two consonants, such as ‘ck’, two vowels, such as ‘oo’, or a vowel and a consonant, such as ‘ow’.

What is segmenting?

The act of breaking a word down into separate phonemes, sounding them out and identifying the corresponding graphemes, for example: qu-a-ck.

What is ‘blending’? (alternatively known as ‘synthesising’)

The practice of recognising and putting together individual component sounds in order to form a complete word.

What are tricky words?

Words that are difficult to segment because some of their phonemes and graphemes do not match each other, for example ‘the’, ‘was’, ‘said’. As they can’t be decoded using the normal phonics method, children need to learn to recognise these on sight.

What are high-frequency words?

The most common words used in our language, many of which are also tricky words. Many teachers believe that a familiarity with these words is the key to unlocking the reading journey.

What is the best way to teach phonics?

Schools in England teach synthetic phonics as specified by National Curriculum guidelines. For the reasons explained above, it is widely thought that synthetic phonics, taught systematically, via frameworks such as Letters and Sounds, is the most effective way to teach phonics.

What is Letters and Sounds?

Letters and Sounds is a systematic approach to teaching phonics, produced by the Department for Education and used by many schools in the UK — although it is not a National Curriculum requirement it can form a foundation for your school's approach to systematic synthetic phonics which should also include classroom work as well as reading books. It is broken down into six phases, covering learning from ages 3–7, by which point the aim is for children to be fluent readers.

What are the Letters and Sounds phases?

A summary of the phases is as follows:

Phase 1 (age 3–4, Nursery/Reception):
Strong focus on sounds, including listening, speaking and repeating, as well as a starting to link sounds to letters. Phase 1 activities are divided into seven groups:

  1. Environmental sounds — encouraging children to listen to the sounds around them and comparing them within different settings.
  2. Instrumental sounds — encouraging children to compare sounds made by different instruments.
  3. Body percussion — developing an awareness of rhythm within songs
  4. Rhythm and rhyme — experiencing rhyme within stories and identifying syllables
  5. Alliteration — identifying words/objects that begin with the same sound.
  6. Voice sounds — identifying different sounds within words (beginning to identify phonemes).
  7. Oral blending and segmenting — beginning to identify words/objects from sounding them out.

These groups span many different subjects, allowing for activities planned for a variety of abilities and interests. They all have a common three-strand aim of getting children to tune in to sounds (auditory discrimination), listen and remember sounds (auditory memory and sequencing) and talk about sounds (developing vocabulary and language comprehension).

Phase 2 (age 4–5, Reception):
Linking of sounds to letters increases, and the goal of this phase is to teach at least 19 letters. Children are encouraged to sound out and blend simple words, some with two syllables.
Tricky words begin to be introduced that are not phonically decodable, such as ‘the’, ‘to’, ‘go’, and ‘no’. Practise and repetition are crucial for these.

Phase 3 (age 4–5, Reception):
Further building on the linking of sounds to letters and introduction of many more two-letter sounds. Consonant digraphs are introduced (e.g ‘ch’) as well as longer vowel sounds made up of more than one letter (e.g ‘ai’)

Children will practise segmentation and blending of short CVC words (consonant, vowel, consonant) as well as some simple two-syllable words. More tricky words are introduced as well as instruction on how to spell them.

Phase 4 (age 4–5, Reception):
By this phase, children will be able to represent 42 phonemes with their corresponding grapheme, and will be more proficient at segmenting CVC words in order to spell them as well as blending individual phonemes to form CVC words. They should be able to read and spell some tricky words.

Existing grapheme knowledge is consolidated and words with adjacent consonants are introduced such as ‘trap’ and ‘milk’.

Phase 5 (age 5–6, Year 1):
Alternative pronunciations for certain graphemes are addressed (e.g ‘cow’ and ‘blow’), as well as alternative spellings for some known phonemes (e.g ‘igh’, ‘ie’ and ‘y’).

Familiarity and ability to recognise longer graphemes (digraphs and trigraphs) will increase in this phase and therefore so will the ability to blend their corresponding phonemes, whilst identifying the appropriate graphemes for specific words.

Phase 6 (age 6–7, Year 2):
Fluent reading is the goal here, with segmenting and blending becoming less overt. Children will be able to recognise some familiar words straight away, and blend others quickly and without needing to verbalise them, though some will still need to be decoded aloud.

Focus shifts to spelling, prefixes and suffixes etc. Spelling tends to be trickier to learn than reading, though accuracy will increase with time and practise.


More in-depth information on each phase can be found on the government website

Best phonics resources for your needs

Many of our FAQs involve requests for advice on the best resources for specific needs, so we have created this handy table to show the features of the wide variety of phonics ranges available. Further FAQs appear below, but if you have a question that isn’t answered then please feel free to get in touch.

SCHEME RANGE/SERIES Packs BOOK BANDS PHONICS/
DECODABLE
FOLLOWS LETTERS & SOUNDS FICTION /
 NON-FICTION
Mixed Phonics Boxes: Phases Available in packs of individual phases and a complete pack that covers all phases 1–5 NO Yes Phase 1 to Phase 5 Fiction & Non-Fiction
Mixed Phonics Boxes: Banded Available in packs of individual book band colours from Pink to Orange and a complete pack that covers all bands Pink to Orange Pink to Orange YES NO Fiction & Non-Fiction
Bug Club Bug Club Phonics: available as individual packs by Phases plus a Complete Pack that covers Phases 2–5 NO YES Phase 2 to Phase 5  Fiction & Non-Fiction
Bug Club Independent: individual banded packs Lilac to Green Lilac to Green YES YES Fiction & Non-Fiction
Big Cat Phonics for Letters and Sounds Available in packs of individual book band colours from Lilac to Turquoise, or in handy sets of mixed colours. Also available as a digital subscription. Lilac to Turquoise YES Phase 1 to Phase 6 Fiction & Non-Fiction
Ransom Reading Stars Phonics Reading Stars Phonics: Packs of Levels 1–5 plus a Complete Pack NO YES Phase 2 to Phase 5 Fiction & Non-Fiction
Mixed Oxford Boxes: Phonics Oxford Phonics Mix Pack A NO YES Phase 1 Fiction & Non-Fiction
  Oxford Phonics Mix Packs B–F NO YES Phase 2 Fiction & Non-Fiction
  Oxford Phonics Mix Packs G–L NO YES Phase 3 Fiction & Non-Fiction
  Oxford Phonics Mix Packs M–N NO YES Phase 4 Fiction & Non-Fiction
  Oxford Phonics Mix Packs O–T NO YES Phase 5 Fiction & Non-Fiction
Oxford Phonics Mix: Pack U (A–T): Complete Pack NO YES Phase 1 to Phase  5 Fiction & Non-Fiction
Little Blending Books Little Blending Books Pack NO YES YES Non-Fiction
Floppy's Phonics Sounds & Letters Sounds & Letters: Phases 1–5 plus a Complete Pack NO YES Phase 1 to Phase 5 Fiction
Floppy's Phonics Fiction Floppy's Phonics Fiction: Phases 2–5 plus a Complete Pack NO YES Phase 2 to Phase 5 Fiction
Traditional Tales Traditional Tales: Banded Packs Lilac to Turquoise Lilac to Turquoise YES Phase 1 to Phase 5 Fiction
  Traditional Tales: Banded Pack Purple & Gold Purple & Gold YES NA Fiction
Traditional Tales: Complete Pack Lilac to Gold YES NA Fiction
Word Sparks Word Sparks: Banded Packs Lilac to Orange plus a Complete Pack Lilac YES Phase 1 to Phase 5  Fiction & Non-Fiction
  Word Sparks: Turquoise to Lime Plus Turquoise to Lime Plus YES NA Fiction & Non-Fiction
Explore with Biff, Chip and Kipper Explore: Lilac Lilac YES Phase 1 Fiction & Non-Fiction
Project X Code Project X Code & Code Extra: Banded Packs Yellow (Level 3) to Gold (Level 9) plus a Complete Pack Yellow KS2 to Gold KS2 YES NO Fiction
Project X Hero Academy Hero Academy: Banded Packs Lilac to Orange Lilac to Orange YES Phase 1 to Phase 5 Fiction
Hero Academy: Banded Packs Turquoise to Lime Plus Turquoise to Lime Plus YES NA  Fiction
Reading Planet: Lift Off Reading Planet: Lift Off & Lift-off Plus Lilac YES Phase 1 to Phase 2 Fiction
Reading Planet: Rocket Phonics Reading Planet: Rocket Phonics Pink to Orange YES Phase 2 to Phase 5 Fiction

 

What are the best books for teaching phonics?

The grid above shows different schemes from different publishers and how they align to the Letters and Sounds phonic phases. You will see that some also correspond to book bands.

The choice as to which is the best is a subjective one, and comes down to the preference of you and your school. But the information provided in our post, What's the Best Reading Scheme for My School, might help.

 

Which sounds are included in which phonic books?

Do take a look at our article Ofsted’s Reading Deep Dive – Questions and Phonic Focus for more information on which sounds are included in which phonic books and how to ensure your school resources and planning are as up to date as possible.

How can parents support their child’s phonic learning at home?

Hands down, the best thing parents can do with their children is to read, keep reading, and read some more! Even if the child isn’t doing the reading themselves, the act of reading a story with them will help to reinforce a familiarity with words and the way they sound. Crucially, the act of reading together can show children just how fun it can be! It can foster a sense of adventure, nurture imagination, expand horizons, and teach children to sit with their thoughts, among other things. And of course, engaging with reading serves to help to motivate children to recognize both sounds and words for themselves.

Specifically regarding phonics, it is important that the correct pronunciations are used consistently. This is more difficult than it might seem, as most parents did not grow up learning the phonics sounds alphabet. For example, ‘m’ must be pronounced ‘mmmm’ rather than ‘muh’. The video below is very useful for showing how to pronounce the phonics sounds.

Practise and repetition are essential for embedding phonics knowledge. Parents could consider writing out relevant phonics graphemes and leaving them up around the house to make them easier to reference spontaneously. (I have mine on some bunting for my 4-year-old!)

Other useful tips can be found here under 'How can I help at home?'

What are the requirements of the Ofsted Reading Deep Dive in relation to Phonics?

Comprehensive information on this can be found in our article Ofsted’s Reading Deep Dive – Questions and Phonic Focus

Can you use book bands with phonics?

There is not a consistent way to accurately align the phonics phases with book bands but more and more publishers are using a ‘best-fit’ approach. Phonics ranges that are aligned to book bands are shown in our table above.

Are there books that support phonic learning in Key Stage 2?

A more modern answer to the Fuzzbuzz reading scheme, Phonic Books have a range to help struggling Key Stage 2 readers catch up on the phonics principles that have previously eluded them. This series serves to ‘plug the gaps’ in any knowledge and offer the opportunity for a bit more practice where it is needed. But a factor of key importance is that the books are engaging and age-appropriate for a Key Stage 2 reader, in order that they feel a sense of progression and do not become disheartened or stagnate. The books include a practice page at the start to familiarise the reader with specific sounds and common words before they begin, ensuring as confident a start as possible.

You can find a link to this series here https://www.badgerlearning.co.uk/ks2-phonics.html

Are there phonics books that support learning additional vocabulary?

The Oxford Reading Tree: Word Sparks series supports learning additional vocabulary. Fully matched to the Letters and Sounds phases, children will not only learn new vocabulary but develop their decoding skills, as well as fluency of reading and comprehension. Each pack contains:

  • Four partner books containing parallel texts, of which one is read by the child and one by the supporting adult, designed to generate discussion and further develop vocabulary.
  • Four books for children to read to an adult which include word boxes to prompt discussion and introduce more ambitious vocabulary.
  • Notes on the inside covers as well as a list of grapheme-phoneme correspondence.
  • Common words printed on the back cover to aid the selection of a book at the most appropriate level for the child’s phonics learning.

You can find a link to this series here: https://www.badgerlearning.co.uk/word-sparks.html 

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