The Top 7 problems when teaching phonetic sounds

There are 8 things that catch parents out when teaching phonics:

  • the schwa sound
  • stretchy sounds
  • bouncy sounds
  • clicky sounds
  • the letter x
  • the letters h and p
  • vowels
  • digraphs (which will be covered in a separate article)

I hope to give you a better understanding of the basics of  pure phonetic sounds and how to make them. If you are still a little confused, however, don’t forget that you can leave a comment so that I can help you further 🙂

When it all goes wrong…

To teach your child to “sound out” you need absolutely exact pronunciations. If you don’t blend pure and correct phonetic sounds you end up with very strange sounding words:

Try this one: muh-a-nuh

It takes a bit of figuring out.

Pronounced correctly as mmm-a-nnn you can instantly hear “man”.

Or worse again, muh-a-tuh instead of mmm-a-t.

To produce pure phonetic sounds you need to learn about:

The Schwa:

Once upon a time, there lived a sneaky Schwa. He thought that his “uh” sound was the best in the alphabet! This sneaky Schwa belongs only with three letters : u, and q and y. Not content with this he tries to sneak in at the end of as many consonants as he can.  Beware the Schwa, beware! He takes a sound and adds his “uh”. He changes the letter n from “nnn” to “nuh” . Beware, beware, beware!

The schwa is a tricky little fellow and is the number 1 problem I hear when testing sounds. Hardly any sounds should have a schwa/uh sound at the end.

  • u, qu, and y sounds all have a strong “uh” sound at the end
  • b, d and g can be tricky to pronounce without an “uh” sound. Try and make that “uh” really, really quiet if you can’t avoid it.

Stretchy sounds: ( long and stretchy. Not an “uh” to be heard)

  • mmm not m-uh
  • fff not f-uh
  • rrr not r-uh
  • sss not s-uh
  • zzz not z-uh
  • sh-h-h not sh-uh
  • vvv not vuh
  • x says k-s-s
  • lll not l-uh
  • zzz not z-uh

I often get my class to say them while stretching out and elastic band. This stretching and saying over exaggerates the sounds, but gets it on their ear. Try saying the sound for as long as it takes you to stretch out you elastic band.

Bouncy sounds: Don’t hang around too long on these sounds. Say them quickly and sharply and move on. Not a “uh” in sight!!!

  • b/  not buh (tricky to say without an “uh”. Short and sharp! Only the tiniest, tiniest  whisper of an uh)
  • d/ not duh(tricky to say without an “uh”. Short and sharp! Only the tiniest, tiniest  whisper of an uh)
  • g/  not guh
  • w/ not wuh
  • j / not juh
  • y not yuh
  • ch = ch-h not cuh

Clicky sounds:

  • c
  • t

The Letter x

No one ever seems to know how to make a stab at this one ;). It got an honorable mention in our Bouncy Sounds section. It causes so many people to scratch their heads that I am giving it an extra mention. It says k-s-s.

Quiet sounds:

  • h

Take a deep breath and breath slowly and quietly out through your mouth. Its sound like a sigh or a panting dog. Never a harsh huh

  • p

Lips together and gently, gently push the air out. It’s so quiet that it almost fades away. Never a harsh huh.


  • a the first sound in a-n-t
  • e the first sound in e-n-d
  • i the first sound in i-g-l-oo , not ice-cream
  • o the first sound in o-n
  • u the first sound in u-p

I would recommend purchasing The Jolly Song Book by Jolly Phonics as  you can hear all of these sounds pronounced correctly. The songs are a great way for your child to learn phonics.

Alternatively, I found this YouTube video that you can listen to. The stretchy sounds are not “stretched” enough, though.

Why teach phonics?

Phonics is a series of rules that children memorize and apply when they are sounding out new words. They must learn  these letter-sounds to an automatic level  (able to  recognise the letter(s) and say the sound immediately).

Weak readers often over rely on just one strategy, such as picture and context. Fluent, skilled readers are those that have many strategies available to them. Phonics, the knowledge of sound-spelling relationships, is one of the most important reading strategies.

Comprehension levels, reading enjoyment and fluency is increased through being able to work out unfamiliar words.  Children just map familiar sound patterns onto spellings, therefore decoding the word. Phonics just makes reading quicker and easier.

Phonetic knowledge also radically improves spelling abilities. Children are able to write down the sounds that they hear in words using the common sound-spelling patterns that they have learned.

Phonics rocks 😉

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.

Learning to write in playdough!

Playdough is a fun, multi-sensory way to learn or practice letter formation. I have been using it for years to teach beginning writers how to form their letters

Just “write” the letter in the playdough (write it quite deeply to create a groove for your child  to follow).

Both of you then hold the pencil and you guide your child’s hand around the letter while saying its name.

Your child is seeing, hearing and feeling the letter. (Research has shown that the more senses the easier it is for a child to learn.).

After a while your child will able to write the letter without your guiding hand. It’s so much easier to write in playdough than on paper.

Why not give it a go!

DIY Word Family Sliders

Pick up some paint sample cards from your friendly DIY Shop. You will need two different types of sample, a block colour card and multi-coloured card.

Divide the block colour card in half.  Then draw a square the same diameter or slightly smaller than the squares on the other sample.

Now carefully cut out the square that you drew to create a window for your slider.

Fold your card in half, trace the right and left side of your window viewer.

You then apply glue to only the right and left of these lines, not above and below. You are creating a back for your slider.

Write out the letters of the alphabet on your multi-coloured samples, one letter per box.

Label your slider with a word family, in this case “an”.

Insert your multi-coloured card into the slider.

Get sliding to create your own Word Family Cards 🙂

Why should I make this?

For the science behind this game please see my post on Onset and Rime.

It’s a fun way for children to practice Word Families.

Not all of the letters you slide through the window will create “real words”. This will help your child to learn to distinguish between real and nonsense words (an important reading trait. Difficulties with this in an older child could indicate Dyslexia).

It would take me forever to make…

You will only have to make the letter slides once as they can be inserted into any family slider that you create.

After that you will only have to make one or two sliders per week to match your child’s spelling list. If you are feeling lazy you could put a sticker on the slider and write the family with your pencil. You could then rub out and re-use the same slider.

I hope that you find this post helpful!


Alphabet Writing Card Review

Learn Together Alphabet Cards

I picked these up in Tesco this morning when doing my grocery shop. They only cost 3euro 30 cent.

They are dry-erase cards and wipe clean for re-use. ( You can buy another  whiteboard marker when the original dries out.)

What I really like about these cards is the fact that there is a dotted line to show you where to start writing lowercase letters.

All capital letters start at the top of a line, but most lowercase letters begin in the middle of a line.

You can also go on a “Letter Hunt” and look for letters in words. I went hunting for the Letter A and found lots of them in kangaroo 🙂

It is a fun way to train your child to look at words in very close detail.

You could keep a tally and find you the most frequently occurring letters in words. (Two for the price of one in this activity: phonics and maths, cheeky!)