Hawys Morgan is an editor, author and specialist in phonics, primary and preschool ELT materials. She has written many inspiring and fun school books for children all around the world, teaching them to speak English and to learn to read using phonics. Hawys most recently contributed to Pearson’s English Code – an innovative new course for young learners.
Read Hawys’ previous blog: Educating young learners: The importance of developing fine motor skills.
For many young learners, reading and writing can be one of the most challenging steps in their English learning journey. Even native speakers often find it difficult to understand the connection between how English is pronounced and how it is written.
Let’s explore how phonics can be a useful and fun tool to help both students and teachers understand this connection.
What is phonics?
Phonics is a method of teaching learners how to read by making the connection between sounds and letters. There are around 44 different sounds used in English, and around 120 different ways of writing them down.
Children learn to identify and say individual sounds (phonemes) and what letter or groups of letters can be used to write that sound down (graphemes). This helps children to read and spell words. For example, the /k/ sound is frequently written using these letters:
- k as in kite
- c as in cat
- ck as in back
When children learn to read using phonics, the sounds are read out in isolation, for example b-a-ck. Then they are blended together to form the whole word: back.
How to teach phonics
Other methods of learning how to read and spell rely on students memorizing every new word they encounter – that’s potentially thousands of new words! Phonics, on the other hand, gives students the tools and the confidence to read and spell unfamiliar words autonomously. If they know the sounds, they can read the word.
Simply drilling sounds and letters will quickly become dull for students, so here are some practical, fun phonics ideas you can try out in the classroom.
1. Use music
Music can create a positive atmosphere for teaching phonics. It helps children to memorize sounds in a lively, enjoyable way. Furthermore, it can improve pronunciation and listening skills.
- Use musical instruments or simply clap to help students break words up into individual sounds.
- Alternatively, use ‘robot talk’ – say the words in a robotic way, breaking up the words into their component sounds, for example ‘r-e-d’.
- Tongue twisters are useful for working on the initial sounds in words. Try creating tongue twisters using known vocabulary and students’ names, e.g. Sara sings in the sun.
- Many ELT courses provide phonics songs which practice new sounds. However, you can also adapt well-known songs to teach phonics. For example, the popular children’s song Baby Shark can be adapted by changing the ‘doo doo doo doo doo doo’ lyric to the phonics sound of your choice. All together now: Baby shark, b, b, b, b, b, b!
2. Move your body
Learning through movement comes naturally to many young learners and can be a dynamic part of your phonics routine. Incorporating movement into your lessons can motivate students and help them retain the sounds and letters.
- When you present a new phonics sound and its corresponding letter/s, add an accompanying action. For example, say, ‘S, s, s, snake’ and make a snaking movement with your arm. The action becomes a visual prompt, so whenever you do the action, students call out ‘S!’.
- Air drawing can be great fun. Have students trace the shape of letters in the air with a finger while repeating the corresponding sound. This is also good pre-writing practice. Find out more about developing fine motor skills.
- You can even challenge students to work alone or in pairs to make letter shapes with their whole bodies!
3. Make phonics tactile
To really embed the connection between the shape of the letters and the sounds they represent, get children using their hands so they can feel the shape of the letters while they repeat the sounds.
These tactile phonics activities have the added advantage of working on fine motor skills, which in turn will improve students’ handwriting.
- Show students how to trace the shape of the letter in a tray of sand while repeating the sound. Alternatively, why not try tracing the letter shape in shaving foam?
- Try modelling the letter shape out of playdough or a piece of string.
- A fun pair-work game involves one student silently drawing a letter on their partner’s back. Their partner must guess the letter and say the sound.
4. Be creative
There are wonderful, creative ways you can explore phonics with your students. For younger students who don’t yet have the fine motor skills to write the letter shapes, using arts and crafts can be an enjoyable way to reinforce the link between the letter/s and the sound.
- They could make letter shapes out of dried pasta or using junk modelling.
- Have your students decorate letter shapes by painting, coloring or using collage. This will help them memorize the shapes. Encourage them to repeat the sounds as they do this, or play a phonics rhyme in the background so the association between the sound and letter/s is always being reinforced.
- Create class displays for different sounds using a variety of pictures and objects starting with that sound. Use them for revision and for classroom games. Try splitting the class into teams and then calling out a sound, or a word starting with that sound. The first team to touch the display with the matching letter/s wins a point.
5. Play games
Many popular ELT games can be adapted to teach phonics. Games are a great way to bring phonics to life and to give young learners the confidence to produce the sounds themselves.
- Play ‘Whispers’. Students sitting in a circle whisper a sound rather than a word to the child next to them until it reaches the end of the circle. The last child says the sound out loud, or points to the letters that correspond to that sound.
- Get children to create their own sets of cards with sounds and pictures on them. These can be used to play card games like snap and pairs.
- Other games such as i-spy, board rush games, bingo and lucky dip, can be easily adapted to teach phonics.
Whether you dedicate a whole lesson or just five minutes of your lesson to phonics, make sure you have fun!
More about English Code
English Code is a 7-level course for 7-12 year olds, offering 5 hours or more of English study per week. Available in both American English and British English versions, it promotes hands-on creative learning, investigation, fun projects, and experiments.
During the course students learn sounds in a systematic way by associating them with one letter or a combination of letters. English Code has a dedicated phonics page at the lower levels and focused activities at the higher levels. It is also supported by the phonics workbooks.
The phonics videos provide support for learners who are struggling to pronounce the sounds. They show a close up of someone pronouncing the sound, so students can learn the shape their mouth and lips need to make in order to correctly pronounce the words.