All about phonics - an explainer for parents

All about phonics - an explainer for parents

What is phonics?

Phonics is taught in primary school as a key building block of learning to read and spell. 

In phonics, your child will be taught to match an individual sound in the spoken language with a letter or a group of letters. 

The individual sounds are called 'phonemes' and the way they look when they are written down (the letter or groups of letters that we use to spell the sound) are called 'graphemes'. 

What are phonemes?

A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in the spoken language. While there are only 26 letters in the alphabet, there are approximately 44 different phonemes in the English language so each phoneme is represented by a different letter or group of letters. 

For example, the letter 't' represents this sound:


Two letters together representing a single sound is called a digraph. For example the letters 'sh' together represent this sound:


Children first learn about common consonant digraphs like sh, th, wh and ch, and then move on to vowel digraphs like ai, oo, and ee.

Three letters representing one sound is called a trigraph. For example, the letters 'igh' represent this sound:


Other common trigraphs are ore, air, and tch.

What are graphemes?

Graphemes are simply the individual letter or groups of letters that represent a sound in a word. One phoneme is often represented by more than one grapheme, depending on the word. 

Listen to the following sound:

It can be represented in words by the following graphemes:

k (as in kit, king)

c (as in clip)

ck (as in flick, pick)

ch (as in chemist)

You can see how one single phoneme or sound can be spelled in lots of different ways, and how this might potentially cause confusion for kids! However, children are generally taught phonics in a particular order that ensures they have a firm grasp of the basics before moving on to the more complex sounds and spellings.

How is this different to learning the alphabet?

When kids learn the alphabet they are learning the names of the letters. This is different to the sounds that they make in spoken language. 

Lots of the letter names give a great clue as to the phoneme or phonemes they might represent. For example, the letter p makes quite a clear /p/ sound.


And others (w, we're looking at you) can cause confusion because the letter name which is pronounced 'double you', is so far removed from the 'wuh' sound that the letter makes in words. 


How does learning phonics teach kids how to read and write?

Phonics ensures that children get to grips with the different sounds made by different letters or groups of letters. They learn to break down a word into the different sounds it is made up of, for example the word 'tap' is made up of the three separate sounds: t/ae/p. This is called segmenting or decoding. They then blend these sounds together to say the whole word. 

Learning to read is a little bit like cracking a code, which, once you know it, helps you to spell and write the words by applying the same code in reverse.

The mysterious GPC

You might come across the complicated sounding phrase 'Grapheme Phoneme Correspondence', abbreviated to GPC, which teachers assess at the end of year 1 as part of the Phonics Screening Check. This simply refers to the process of matching the letter or group of letters (grapheme) with the sound it makes (phoneme). 

Cheat sheet

And finally, if you need a quick reminder, here are all the terms associated with phonics and their definitions in one place:

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