What the Phonics?!

What the Phonics

A guide to phonics for parents with young children

Most of us never learned to read and write using phonics at school so it can all feel very new and confusing to parents with children beginning to learn it at nursery and in Reception. We hope the following guide will help you to make sense of it all!

Phonics is about breaking spoken words down into their individual sounds (phonemes) and the relationship between these sounds and the letters that represent the sounds (graphemes). Put more simply, the grapheme or symbol ‘a’ makes the phoneme sound “a” like in “cat”.  It is thought that around 85% of English words are phonetic, so if your child can master their phonics, it can really help to give them more confidence with reading and writing.

Phonics at School:

Most nurseries begin to introduce phonics in the preschool year and all children will be taught phonics once they begin Reception. It’s important to remember there shouldn’t be any pressure to ensure your child knows all their sounds before they start school. However, if they are showing enthusiasm to hear, recognise and learn sounds, then embrace this and give them the opportunities to learn more.


  • A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound. There are 44 phonemes in English.
  • A grapheme is the letter(s) used to represent a phoneme.
  • A digraph is a phoneme which is represented by two graphemes (eg. ‘ai’ in the word rain).
  • A trigraph is a phoneme which is represented by three graphemes (eg. ‘igh’ in the word night).

Many children are taught the words phoneme, grapheme, digraph and trigraph so don’t be afraid to use them now you know what they mean! It’s worth noting that some phonic schemes used in nurseries/schools use different terminology so do check the terms your child is using at their own setting.

How is Phonics Taught?

Phonics is taught in phases, starting in the preschool setting and continuing until year 2.

  • Phase 1 is usually covered in the preschool setting as well as in Reception and is all about speaking and listening.
  • Following on from this, Phase 2 begins to introduce children to single letter sounds, such as followed by simple digraph phonemes, such as ck.
  • Phase 3 looks at trickier digraphs, such as ai and oa and trigraphs such as igh.
  • Phase 4 is a consolidation of all phonemes learned so far, especially within CCVC (consonant, consonant, vowel, consonant) words such as slip, and CVCC words such as tent. Furthermore, children will be taught to segment and blend polysyllabic words.
  • Phase 5 is about broadening their knowledge of graphemes and phonemes for use in reading and spelling. They will learn new graphemes and alternative pronunciations for these and graphemes they already know.
  • Phase 6 is about reading words and teaching spelling; introducing and teaching the past tense; suffixes; longer words and the application of this spelling within writing. This is covered in year 1 and 2. 
  • High Frequency words will be learned throughout.

Phase 1:

Phase 1 focuses on speaking and listening and it is split into seven different aspects:

  1. Environmental sounds
  2. Instrumental sounds
  3. Body Percussion
  4. Rhythm and rhyme
  5. Alliteration
  6. Voice sounds
  7. Oral blending and segmenting


Games for Phase 1

  • Singing songs, including rhyming songs.
  • Go on listening walks – listen out for aeroplanes, birds, cars, talking etc.
  • Identify the Mystery Sound
  • Animal Sounds – describe an animal and children to guess what it is and then tell you what noise it makes.
  • Reading books with ‘noises’. The Listening Walk by Paul Showers is a great one.
  • Playing instruments and encourage them to try and make it a quiet sound or a loud sound.
  • Instrument hide and seek. Hide instruments around the house/garden and get your child to find it. Once they find it, play different rhythms on the instrument and see if they can copy it.
  • Investigate the sounds they can make with their body – clapping, stamping, clicking, shuffling etc. Investigate the sounds they can make with their voice – snoring, breathing, singing, whispering, high noises, low noises, quiet noises and loud noises. Play ‘Guess the noise’ where they close their eyes and you make a sound with your body and they try and guess how you made it. Then swap round!
  • Rhyme Time! Draw pictures of words that rhyme and see if children can match them up.
  • Guessing the odd one out. Say three words where one does not rhyme. Can they identify it?
  • ‘I spy with my little eye, something that rhymes with…’ Can they guess what it is? This is a great one for car journeys!
  • Matching objects with the same sound – make this fun by hiding the objects and sounds in sand etc and they have to find the ones that match.
  • Make a ‘silly soup’ by adding ingredients that start with the same sound. Stir them in and encourage children to choose the right objects that start with that sound.

Phase 2:

The aim of this phase is to introduce children to letter sounds. They will learn to blend and segment consonant, vowel, consonant (CVC) words and learn some tricky words (high frequency words). They will likely learn the following sounds, in the following order:

s, a, t, p

i, n, m, d

g, o, c, k

ck, e, u, r

h, b, f, ff, l, ll, ss

Bright Light Phonics

What are High Frequency Words?

Alongside the phonemes that your child will be learning, they will also learn high frequency words (also known as ‘tricky words’ or ‘sight words’). Many of these words cannot be sounded out so children just have to learn them by sight. An example of a high frequency word is ‘said’.

Phase 3:

The aim of Phase 3 is to teach further and trickier phonemes, including digraphs and trigraphs. These are the Phase 3 sounds with example words:

Games and Useful Resources for Phase 2 and Beyond:

  • A whiteboard and magnetic letters are a great way for children to learn to recognise these sounds as well as to learn how to segment simple CVC words to spell them.
  • Printing off flashcards of the sounds are an ideal way to consolidate the learning of these sounds – stick them on the fridge or in their room to encourage recognition.
  • Swat the sound (with a fly swat or utensil!) – call out a sound and your child has to swat the right sound.
  • Use playdough to try and ‘make’ the sound they are learning.
  • Use a magnet to ‘fish’ magnetic letters from the water/sand/tray.
  • Pick a sound from a ‘sound bag’ and children have to think of a word that starts with that sound.
  • Use ‘sound buttons’ underneath each sound and ‘press’ the buttons as you say the sounds. Encourage your children to do the same.
  • Play phonics bingo to consolidate the learning of sounds.
  • Set up a ‘real word, nonsense word’ game where children have to put the ‘nonsense’ words in the bin and the real words are treasure to keep! Examples of nonsense words are: sot, thazz, voo, chom and blan. You can make up your own!
  • Use a phoneme frame to help them segment a word (shown here with sound buttons):

  • Continuing with ‘mark making’ and encouraging mark making is vital here. Always show children how to form the sound they are learning and then practise in lots of different ways. Our blog post on Encouraging an Avid Writer from the Early Days has lots of ideas on how to do this.
  • Explain to your child that the letter ‘a’ (using the letter name i.e. ‘ay’) makes the sound ‘a’ as in ‘c-a-t’. Teaching letter names is important but don’t worry if they don’t know the names of letters at first; it is much more important they know the phonemes – letter names will come in time.

Phonics apps and online resources

  • Twinkl is a great place to print off flash cards, words and high frequency words.
  • My children love Reading Eggs where they get to play games to help consolidate their phonics.
  • Teach your Monster to Read is a fun way to help them with their sounds and it also introduces high frequency words.
  • Purple Mash have a phonics section with games and resources to help teach phonics.
  • The Letters and Sounds website have phonics resources and games to play.
  • Phonics Play have some great phonics games for your children to play online.
  • Oxford Owl is a great place to find e-books for your children to read.

Bright Light Phonics!

If you’re looking for further help with your child’s phonics, consider joining our Bright Light Phonics classes! Bright Light Phonics is a fun-filled session that supports children with their phonics, reading and writing skills. Children will consolidate their understanding of the sounds that letters make, building confidence in blending and segmenting these phonemes. During the sessions, the children will practise reading and writing, together with learning some of the ‘tricky’ words as well. 


Bright Light Phonics