If you grew up in the ’80s, ’90s, or early 2000s, you’ll likely remember the catchy TV and radio advertisements touting the benefits of teaching kids phonics. Even today, phonics remains an effective method for teaching beginning readers how to recognize the relationship between letters and sounds, usually in fun and interactive ways.
As a parent, you may be wondering if teaching phonics at home is right for your child — and, if so, when it’s time to start.
What Is Phonics, Exactly?
Simply put, phonics is the connection between what we say and what we read and write. For example, if a child knows that the letter “c” makes a cah sound, the letter “a” makes an ah or ay sound, and the letter “t” makes a t sound, then they can probably sound out the word “cat” on their own the first time they see it.
Children must be able to process what they read quickly and automatically to become fluent readers. Phonics facilitates this process, linking sounds to letters and letter groupings so young readers don’t stumble over words.
Why Is Phonics Important?
While there have been debates about whether phonics versus whole-language instruction is best for early readers, studies continue to prove phonics’ value. It’s a beneficial method for teaching young children how an alphabetic writing system works and can help them become readers before entering kindergarten.
With phonics, children can independently decode each letter into its respective sounds, which is an essential skill that they’ll use throughout their lives. Even as an adult, you probably use phonics without realizing it! Think about the last time you saw an unfamiliar word, like the name of a prescription drug, and tried to sound it out. You applied the sounds you already know to the letters to make your best guess, and you probably weren’t far off in your pronunciation.
Teaching kids phonics is much more straightforward since most of the unfamiliar words they attempt to read on the page are already familiar to them from everyday life.
When Should You Start Teaching Kids Phonics?
Children are ready to begin phonics instruction when they can identify letters, usually between ages 3 and 4. Your child should also have phonological awareness, or the ability to separate words into their respective sounds. You can boost your child’s phonological awareness through rhyming, singing, and games.
Once a child gains this awareness, they can understand how reading works. However, keep in mind that you don’t have to wait until your child starts school to start this process; the earlier you introduce your child to phonics, the better.
Tips for Teaching Kids Phonics at Home
- Read Aloud
Reading aloud to your child gets them excited for stories and should make them look forward to reading themselves. Try to make this time as fun as possible, using different character voices and reading with enthusiasm. Books that use creative, made-up words like Pinkalicious and the Pinkadorable Pony are also great for generating excitement and providing opportunities to break down letter sounds.
Always let the child pick the book so they feel involved in the reading process. It’s okay if they choose a short one, especially when they’re younger because text-heavy reads likely won’t keep their attention. As they get older, you can introduce longer books. Angle the book so both of you are viewing the page together. You might even point to each word as you read it aloud so they can follow along and make that connection between what they see and what they hear.
- Revisit Favorite Books
Most kids can re-read their favorite book over and over again, but that’s okay! Re-reading is very beneficial for budding readers. You may even want to introduce some favorite characters and stories from your own childhood, such as the Berenstain Bears, and read the same book to your little one until they start to recognize certain words on their own.
If you’re tired of reading the same book repeatedly, make a game of reading it in different voices. You can also stop reading at key words to see if your child can tell you what comes next.
- Listen to Your Child Read
Besides reading aloud yourself, you should also listen to your child read every day, even if they struggle. Whenever they stumble over a word, gently encourage them to sound it out. If they’re still stuck, note which letters and sounds they’re not connecting and focus on teaching those in another phonics session. Pete the Cat is a popular character friend to help your little one stay motivated.
- Go Slow and Out of Order
It may seem counterintuitive, but introducing letters and sounds in A to Z order isn’t the best strategy. Although experts differ on where to start, most suggest introducing /f/, /m/, and /s/ by themselves quickly followed by /a/ (short a), /t/, and /p/.
You may find that you can introduce one or two phonemes per week until your child has a good enough grasp to form basic words they can recognize and learn to spell. Don’t move on too quickly, but don’t let your child feel bored either.
- Make the Sounds Meaningful
Connect each phoneme to your things your child recognizes. For instance, emphasize that /z/ makes a sound like a buzzing bee, or the /ch/ sound is like a choo-choo train. Making meaningful connections between your child’s interests, identifiable sounds, and letters will help them improve their reading abilities that much quicker.
- Use Multisensory Techniques
The most effective instruction is the type that incorporates multiple senses. For example, you might smear shaving cream on a table and have your child trace a letter in the foam while simultaneously saying its sound. Creating letters out of clay or kinetic sand works nicely too.
If you’d rather not clean up a mess, tracing letters or words in the air can be just as effective. You can even use magnetic letters and spell simple words on the refrigerator.
When searching for phonics activities to do at home, incorporate a good mix of kinesthetic, auditory, and visual exercises.
Phonics is a tried-and-true method for improving a child’s understanding of how written language works and helping them become independent readers from a younger age. Have you taught phonics to your children at home? Which tips and tricks would you suggest?