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What is phonics? A comprehensive guide for teachers

Teaching phonics is a method that helps children to decode words by sounds. As part of the system, words are broken down into the smallest form of sound from the word itself. These parts are known as ‘phonemes’ deriving from the Greek word “phonema”, which translates as ‘sound and speech’.

The teaching of phonics is one of the first strategies teachers adopt when helping children to read and write, building them towards the year 1 phonics test. It’s one of the most valuable and important methods Primary teachers have across any subject.

From what phonics is, to the importance of it’s teaching in schools, this guide, details everything you need to know about phonics.


What is phonics?

Every word is made up of smaller units of sounds. These are called phonemes. Phonics is a method of teaching that helps children to identify these phonemes and how they interact with one another to make up each word.

Written language is essentially a code. Phonics helps kids to decipher the code of language, decoding words and helping them to read and spell correctly.



How to teach phonics: Step-by-step


Step 1: Grapheme Phoneme Correspondences (GPCs)

Phonics teaching comes in three stages, starting with Grapheme Phoneme Correspondences (or GPCs). As a starting block, children are taught every phoneme which exists within the English language, there are 44 in total. The first sounds that are taught are s, a, t, p and all are taught.

Below is the full list of phonemes, graphemes and their International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbol, in no particular order:


Phoneme IPA Symbol Graphemes Examples
1 b b, bb bug, bubble
2 d d, dd, ed dad, add, milled
3 f f, ff, ph, gh, lf, ft fat, cliff, phone, enough, half, often
4 g g, gg, gh,gu,gue gun, egg, ghost, guest, prologue
5 h  h, wh   hop, who
6 j, ge, g, dge, di, gg jam, wage, giraffe, edge, soldier, exaggerate
7 k  k, c, ch, cc, lk, qu ,q(u), ck, x kit, cat, chris, accent, folk, bouquet, queen, rack, box
8 l  l, ll live, well
9 m m, mm, mb, mn, lm man, summer, comb, column, palm
10 n n, nn,kn, gn, pn net, funny, know, net, funny, know, gnat, pneumonic
11 p  p, pp pin, dippy
12 r r, rr, wr, rh run, carrot, wrench, rhyme
13 s  s, ss, c, sc, ps, st, ce, se sit, less, circle, scene, psycho, listen, pace, course
14 t  t, tt, th, ed tip, matter, thomas, ripped
15 v v, f, ph, ve vine, of, stephen, five
16 w  w, wh, u, o wit, why, quick, choir
17 z z, zz, s, ss, x, ze, se, zed, buzz, his, scissors, xylophone, craze
18 ʒ   s, si, z treasure, division, azure
19  ch, tch, tu, ti, te chip, watch, future, action, righteous
20 ʃ sh, ce, s, ci, si, ch, sci, ti sham, ocean, sure, special, pension, machine, conscience, station
21 θ th thongs
22 ð th leather
23 ŋ   ng, n, ngue ring, pink, tongue
24 j y, i, j you, onion, hallelujah



Phoneme IPA Symbol Graphemes Examples
25 æ a, ai, au cat, plaid, laugh
26 a, ai, eigh, aigh, ay, er, et, ei, au, a_e, ea, ey bay, maid, weigh, straight, pay, foyer, filet, eight, gauge, mate, break, they
27 e e, ea, u, ie, ai, a, eo, ei, ae   end, bread, bury, friend, said, many, leopard, heifer, aesthetic
28 i: e, ee, ea, y, ey, oe, ie, i, ei, eo, ay be, bee, meat, lady, key, phoenix, grief, ski, deceive, people, quay
29 ɪ i, e, o, u, ui, y, ie it, england, women, busy, guild, gym, sieve
30 i, y, igh, ie, uy, ye, ai, is, eigh, i_e spider, sky, night, pie, guy, stye, aisle, island, height, kite
31 ɒ a, ho, au, aw, ough swan, honest, maul, slaw, fought
32 o, oa, o_e, oe, ow, ough, eau, oo, ew open, moat, bone, toe, sow, dough, beau, brooch, sew
33 ʊ o, oo, u,ou wolf, look, bush, would
34 ʌ u, o, oo, ou   lug, monkey, blood, double
35 u: o, oo, ew, ue, u_e, oe, ough, ui, oew, ou who, loon, dew, blue, flute, shoe, through, fruit, manoeuvre, group
36 ɔɪ oi, oy, uoy join, boy, buoy
37 ow, ou, ough now, shout, bough
38 ə a, er, i, ar, our, ur about, ladder, pencil, dollar, honour, augur
39 eəʳ  air, are, ear, ere, eir, ayer chair, dare, pear, where, their, prayer
40 ɑ: a arm
41 ɜ:ʳ ir, er, ur, ear, or, our, yr bird, term, burn, pearl, word, journey, myrtle
42 ɔ: aw, a, or, oor, ore, oar, our, augh, ar, ough, au paw, ball, fork, poor, fore, board, four, taught, war, bought, sauce
43 ɪəʳ ear, eer, ere, ier ear, steer, here, tier
44 ʊəʳ ure, our cure, tourist


Step 2: Blending

Children then move through to what is known as blending. As a key skill for reading, children must learn to merge individual sounds together to create words.

Typically, this starts with simple three letter words with a CVC (consonant, vowel, consonant) structure – think cat, sit and man. As they progress, teachers will incorporate another consonant to create CVCC words like last, farm or palm.


Step 3: Segmenting

This is essentially the opposite of the blending skill. Think about how you tend to spell out a new or complicated word; you break it down into sounds right? That is what we teach during the segmenting phase of phonics.

Children say entire words and then break them down into the individual phonemes that make them up. For example cat becomes /kæt/, as it is spelled phonetically, broken down into each individual sound.

This is the technique that children will use for spelling throughout their life.


Different types of phonics instruction

There are different ways in which teachers approach phonics, with different countries adopting for their own approach. Here are the main four ways phonics is taught:


Analogy phonics

Teaching phonics by means of analogy, or by using an already familiar word and similarities between it and other words. One simple way to do this is via rhymes. If a child knows the word ball, then you can take –all and apply it to many other words like tall and fall and developing into longer words like crawl.


Analytical phonics

In this method of teaching phonics, words are not taught by isolating the individual sounds within them. Rather, pupils are tasked with identifying commonalities of phonemes between different graphemes.

For example, you might present a pupil with a collection of similar words: mat, mark, mush and men. The teacher and the class would then discuss what phonemes these words share.


Embedded phonics

This method of teaching is a less direct, less implicit way of teaching phonics. Embedded phonics takes the various phonetical skills pupils need to learn, and embeds them in text and literature based reading. It’s much less systematic in the way it approaches teaching, with opportunities to develop skills identified in a more flexible way.


Synthetic phonics

In opposition to analytical phonics, synthetic phonics takes each phoneme in isolation, teaching the relationship between them and graphemes by blending them together. This is the most popular method for teaching phonics, and is detailed above under the section “How to teach phonics: Step-by-step”.


What are the benefits of teaching phonics?

The shift in phonics teaching in the UK has had an impact on how children spell and read. As we touched on before, phonics gives us the ability to decode letters and sounds. This is an essential skill when learning new vocabulary when reading.

It’s strongly recommended as the first plan of action in teaching young children to begin to read. When coupled with other techniques such as guided reading, children develop rounded reading skills quickly, and hopefully a passion for reading as a result.

The evidence is there to support the effectiveness of phonics too. Scientific study, like this 2017 research from the University of Royal Holloway London, found that the teaching method of phonics “has a dramatic impact on the accuracy of reading aloud and comprehension.”


Why is teaching phonics so important?

Phonics makes the difficult English language much easier to digest for young children. By breaking down complex words and sounds into manageable chunks, it helps children to piece them back together whether they are reading, speaking or writing. Learning it clearly and in a systematic way, helps them to retain the information, leading to a better control of language from an early age.

When beginning to learn, gaining a foundation of language is extremely important. Think of an adult who is starting to learn a foreign language, this is essentially what the child is having to do by using phonics in English. Phonics is an internationally proven method of teaching language and it doesn’t have to be boring! Take the lesson outside and learn how to effortlessly merge it into lessons for a more engaged reaction from children.


Why do children sometimes find phonics difficult?

In other languages, phonics can be simple. With the English language, it’s slightly more complicated. This is because each phoneme may have multiple graphemes (ways to pronounce the sound) to represent it, whereas in some other languages, phonemes only have one grapheme each.

English has 44 phonemes but there are around 120 graphemes (ways to write the phonemes). Whilst we only have 26 letters that represent our alphabet, meaning that plenty of graphemes are made up of multiple letters.

Fr, sw,pr, th are all examples of digraphs, or graphemes that are made up of two letters. Graphemes that are made up of three letters are called trigraphs, such as str, air, dge, spr. There are even some graphemes that are made up of as many as four letters!

English is also a language where some graphemes represent more than one phoneme… e.g. ‘ch’ makes a different sound for chirp, school, chef – of course, this helps add difficulty for children.


<a href="" target="_self">Talitha McLachlan</a>

Talitha McLachlan

Hope Education writer

Talitha worked as a primary and secondary teacher for 9 years before turning her hand to writing. She is passionate about effective education of children and supporting teachers to do this. In her free time, Talitha enjoys sewing, films, and spending time with her two cats.

18 November 2020

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