What is phonics?

As a teacher I get lots and lots of inquiries from parents about phonics. It is fundamental to your child’s learning and is very often misunderstood. Being able to “sound out” or decode words is critical for reading success.

I have tried to explain the very basics of phonics to help you support your child and to encourage success:)

Is phonics not just the alphabet?

Absolutely not! There are 26 letters in the alphabet and 44 phonetic sounds in the English language.  Confused?!

So what is phonics then?

Put very simply phonics is the relationship between “sounds” and their spelling. Through teaching children common sound-spelling relationships they are able to “sound out” words.

The word “sound” is what is important here. Knowing the ABC song and letter names will not help you figure out what a word sounds like/says.

Letterland and Jolly Phonics:

There are two main phonics schemes being used in Irish Schools: Jolly Phonics and Letterland. Chances are your child will be using one of them in school.  These schemes take those 44 sounds of the English Language and teach them in a specific and targeted way.

Each has there own method and order of sound introduction. What is important to note is that none of the introduce sounds going from “a to z”.

Specific groups of  letters are introduced on the basis of their usefulness. In other words, to you get more of bang for your buck.

In Jolly Phonics you learn the sounds of the letters: s, a, t, i, p, n . You can read and spell about 30 basic words from this group of sounds eg, sit, pan, snip, tin, it, in, nap….

Letterland takes a similar approach and introduces the following letters to begin with: c, a, d, h, m, t, s, i.

Where are all those sounds coming from?

The 44  sounds are derived from the sound that each letter of the alphabet makes (26 sounds) along with digraphs and blends.

Digraphs and blends, oh my!

Digraphs are when two letters come together to make a new sound eg. “sh” as in shop, “ch” as in chip, “ee” as in feet.

Blends are when the consonants make their usual sound , but are blended together (said really quickly) as a pair  eg. “bl” in bl-0-n-d, the “dr” in dr-op. Blends are really just common pairing of letter sounds, a bit like the “word families” we discussed earlier. By learning these “chunks” your child can sound out words more quickly.

The Phonetic Reading and Spelling connection:

Phonetic Spelling and reading are direct opposites of each other.  Reading is the “decoding” or “sounding out” and putting back together (“blending”) sounds.

e.g the written word “cat”=  “sounded out” = “c-a-t” =

If your child can read word they can also spell it. Spelling is where you “sound out” the word in your head and then write down the sounds that you hear.This is called “encoding”.

” c-a-t” when you “sound it out” = “cat” when written

Can you “sound out” all words?

Unfortunately not! English is a deep orthographic language, meaning it has lots of exceptions. Phonetic instruction merely teaches the most common and regularly occurring patterns. Words that break all the rules are called “tricky words”. Your child will have to learn to read these words be just recognising them eg  there, always… (I shall address how to teach “tricky words” in a separate article).

I hope that you found this article useful. I shall be posting more articles about the common-sounds taught in schools and how to pronounce them.


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