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!
Jump to a question:
- What is phonics?
- What is a phoneme?
- What is a grapheme?
- What is a digraph?
- What is a trigraph?
- What is a quadgraph?
- What is a split digraph?
- What are adjacent consonants?
- What are consonant and vowel digraphs?
- What is segmenting?
- What is ‘blending’? (alternatively known as ‘synthesising’)
- What are tricky words?
- What are high-frequency words?
- What is the best way to teach phonics?
- What is Letters and Sounds?
- What is an SSP teaching programme?
- Can we apply for funding to purchase an SSP programme?
- What are the Letters and Sounds phases?
- Best phonics resources for your needs
- What are the best books for teaching phonics?
- Which sounds are included in which phonic books?
- How can parents support their child’s phonic learning at home?
- What are the requirements of the Ofsted Reading Deep Dive in relation to Phonics?
- Can you use book bands with phonics?
- Are there books that support phonic learning in Key Stage 2?
- Are there phonics books that support learning additional vocabulary?
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.
The Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP (Minister For School Standards) states in The Reading Framework (Department for Education July 2021) “The evidence for phonics is indisputable, with the EEF(Educational Endowment Fund)onsidering it the most secure area of pedagogy.”
A unit of sound that can be combined with other units to form a word.
A written letter or combination of letters that represent a phoneme. This can be one to four letters long.
A two-letter grapheme that represents one phoneme, for example ‘sh’, ‘ch’, ‘ee’, ‘or’.
A three-letter grapheme that represents one phoneme, for example ‘igh’, ‘dge’, ‘ear’.
A four-letter grapheme that represents one phoneme, for example ‘eigh’, ‘ough’.
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).
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’.
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’.
The act of breaking a word down into separate phonemes, sounding them out and identifying the corresponding graphemes, for example: qu-a-ck.
The practice of recognising and putting together individual component sounds in order to form a complete word.
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.
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.
Schools in England teach synthetic phonics as specified by National Curriculum guidelines. For the reasons explained above, it is widely thought that systematic synthetic phonics (SSP), using a validated teaching programme, is the most effective way to teach phonics. The new Reading Framework (DfE July 2021) outlines that “the effective teaching of reading, as evidenced in these schools, requires not just a systematic synthetic phonics programme but its consistent implementation in every class”.
There are now a number of commercially available SSP teaching programmes that have been validated as effective by the Department of Education (DfE). The list of validated SSP programmes can be found here. Alternatively, schools can use their own programme as long as “schools take an approach that is rigorous, systematic, used with fidelity (any resources used should exactly match the Grapheme Phoneme Correspondence (GPC) progression of their chosen SSP approach), and achieves strong results for all pupils, including the most disadvantaged.” (Gov.uk Education hub blog May 2021). Your school may already have lots of school reading resources and be looking to find an SSP programme that allows you to use the majority of these. Please do take a look at our page Phonics Mapping and Support Documents which may be of help and shows what’s available from many leading publishers.
Do also read our blog Ofsted’s Reading Deep Dive — Questions and Phonic Focus, which has been updated to reflect the 2021 changes in phonics teaching.
Letters and Sounds is a systematic approach to teaching phonics, produced by the Department for Education and used by many schools in the UK. In April 2021, the DfE announced changes that will impact the teaching of phonics in many schools as well as the phonic books and resources that will be needed to support it. The 2007 Letters and Sounds Framework set out to provide schools with a basis for teaching systematic synthetic phonics. Although this has never been statutory, over 50% of schools use this as the basis of their phonics teaching and it was included on the list of approved phonics programmes on gov.uk. However, it is not, and has never been a full programme setting out in detail how phonics will be taught on a week-by-week basis. It relied upon schools building their own programme of resources around the handbook and in many cases updating the progression to bring it in line with current best practice.
Although some schools have created their own teaching programme based on 2007 Letters and Sounds very successfully, this is not the case for all schools. Moreover, it is no longer sufficient to simply state to Ofsted that your school is following Letters and Sounds — you will need to show you are using a successful approach including a teaching programme, relevant resources, reading books and high-quality staff training that builds on this or another SSP teaching programme.
Ofsted specifies that an SSP teaching programme must be rigorous, systematic, used with fidelity (any resources used should exactly match the Grapheme Phoneme Correspondence (GPC) progression of their chosen SSP approach), and achieve strong results for all pupils, including the most disadvantaged. There is emphasis on children being able to keep up rather than catch up so that children at risk of reading failure are given the opportunity for extra practice and support from the beginning. There are now a good range of commercially available SSP programmes which have been validated by the DfE and you can view the list here.
Schools in some areas can apply for funding to purchase a validated SSP programme, take a look here to see if you might be eligible.
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:
- Environmental sounds — encouraging children to listen to the sounds around them and comparing them within different settings.
- Instrumental sounds — encouraging children to compare sounds made by different instruments.
- Body percussion — developing an awareness of rhythm within songs
- Rhythm and rhyme — experiencing rhyme within stories and identifying syllables
- Alliteration — identifying words/objects that begin with the same sound.
- Voice sounds — identifying different sounds within words (beginning to identify phonemes).
- 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):
Phase 6 no longer exists per se, as the focus shifts towards the spelling curriculum set out in the national curriculum for year 2. Spelling tends to be trickier to learn than reading, though accuracy will increase with time and practise. Any child in Year 2 who did not pass the Phonics Screening Check in Year 1, or is not fully fluent in reading words with the Phase 5 GPC should continue to be taught phonics daily.
More in-depth information on each phase can be found on the government website
Many of our FAQs involve requests for advice on the best resources for specific needs, so we have created a Phonics Mapping and Support Documents page to help you find the resources to best meet your school’s needs.
The choice as to which is the best is a subjective one and comes down to the preference of you and your school but Ofsted will strongly encourage you to choose a validated SSP programme from the list here.
The information provided in our post, What's the Best Reading Scheme for My School, might also help.
You may wish to utilise your existing resources if possible. The Phonics Mapping and Support Documents page shows different schemes from different publishers and how their teaching sequence is structured in each phase, along with which sounds are in which books. We have provided additional information such as ‘how to’ videos and posters where they are available. This could be of help in choosing your new SSP programme.
Do take a look at our Phonics Mapping and Support Documents page for the best information on this for a range of publishers, many of whom are offering fully validated SSP teaching programmes.
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?'
Comprehensive information on this can be found in our article Ofsted’s Reading Deep Dive – Questions and Phonic Focus
There is not a consistent way to accurately align the phonics phases with book bands, although some publishers are using a ‘best-fit’ approach. Ofsted now strongly encourage schools to use a fully validated SSP teaching programme. These can be found here. Or you can view a wide range of information on our Phonics Mapping and Support Documents page.
The Reading Framework (P80) suggests that children who are learning phonics should also be read to regularly to encourage reading for pleasure, vocabulary development and understanding. Book bands can be very helpful here as children can take home an additional book that parents can read to their child, as well as the fully decodable book they should read themselves.
The Reading Framework (P70) recommends using different resources for older pupils: “[For] older pupils who are still at the earliest stages of learning to read, schools might want to avoid programmes specifically designed for younger children and consider those with age-appropriate lessons and materials”.
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.
Oxford’s Project X CODE is a proven* intervention programme for children in years 2–4 who are a year or more behind expected levels for their age and need support in their reading. These action-packed, character-led story books provide two texts.
- Text 1 is 100% decodable to build confidence and develop vocabulary;
- Text 2 is at least 80% decodable in order to deepen comprehension and provide a challenge.
There are 16 entry and exit points so that children can start and finish the intervention at just the right point for them and four extra books at each level (CODE Extra) to give children further practise before they move on.
*OUP Research Trial independently analysed by Ros Fisher, Former Associate Professor at the University of Exeter
Collins Big Cat Phonics For Letters and Sounds 7+ is specially designed to give children aged 7+ books that reintroduce and practice the phonics covered in Phases 3–5 of Letters and Sounds. The decodable fiction and non-fiction books in Blue and Green book band contain age-appropriate content and more mature images to help engage older readers.
Ransom Reading Stars Plus is a catch-up series for older readers aged 9–13 who have gaps in their phonic knowledge and need age-appropriate resources to ensure they are secure in their learning. Covering the phonic phases 2–5 and following Letters and Sounds week-by-week to ensure fidelity to the programme and extended with a range of banded books for reading practice.
The Oxford Reading Tree: Word Sparks series supports learning additional vocabulary. Fully matched to the Letters and Sounds sets and phases up to Orange band, 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.