Reading to your pre-schooler is a great way to bond with your little one, but when the time comes for them to start reading by themself, phonics could help them get the basics.
What is phonics?
Phonics is a way of teaching your child the different sounds of letters or groups of letters and linking them together – known as synthesising – to help you read.
"The English alphabet has 26 letters, but it’s actually very complex, with 44 sounds and over 200 letter groups," explains Debbie Hepplewhite, a phonics expert and founder of Phonics International.
"Other countries have much simpler alphabetic codes, and with a growing number of children who have English as a second language, it’s important to teach a method that helps your child unpick the different sounds in words."
Why is phonics beneficial?
Traditionally, teachers taught children by teaching individual words, which they would pick up over time or by guessing through the pictures. However, phonics helps children to break down every word into separate letters or groups of letters, sound it out and work out what it is. It’s now a popular method that is taught in most pre- and primary schools.
In fact, a study followed a group of 30 children who were taught using phonics for the first time in reception class, and tracked their progress for three years, to the end of year two in primary school. The research found that by the time they were seven, they were, on average, 28 months ahead of their chronological age for reading.
When should I start and how?
Children will start learning phonics at pre-school, but you can help your little one along before then if you want. Start by pointing out letters on an illustrated alphabet chart – one that has an ‘A’ next to a picture of an apple, for example.
"You could pick out letters that appear in your child’s name," suggests Debbie. "A phonics alphabet pronounces the letters slightly differently. The letter 'B' should be said as 'Buh', the letter 'F' should be said as 'Ffff', the letter 'M' is 'Mmm'."
Don’t automatically stick an 'uh' sound on the end of every letter as that could confuse your child when they start to blend letters together – they may end up trying to sound 'sock' as 'suh-ock'.
As your child starts to pick these up, you could also pick out combinations of letters that make sounds – the ‘ch’ of chick or ‘sh’ of sheep.
Helping your pre-schooler with phonics
Be guided by your child but don’t force the pace too early or you’ll run the risk of turning them off reading.
"Start with short words such as cat or dog, which your child will understand," says Debbie. "Scan the word from left to right to decode, sounding out each letter slowly and the word will 'pop out'."
Pictures are great for sharing and talking about a story, but try to avoid letting your pre-schooler use the pictures to guess the words they don't know. Make the most of your surroundings to point out words and letters on shop signs or food packets so that they're getting regular exposure and opportunities to practise their phonics.