Phonics or whole words?

See the page ‘Starting to read in home education‘ for an introduction to this topic. While some children seem to learn to read by osmosis, there are many who are not interested in learning to and who will probably need more ‘teaching’. This is where phonics come in, and you may have to introduce them deliberately. Just as spoken languages can most easily be learned intuitively before the age of about six, so reading is unlikely to be learned naturally once the child is past the age of five or six. For many children, reading is a form of decoding rather than instant word recognition. They need to build up to a word gradually, rather than spotting patterns from known words and applying them elsewhere.

Teaching phonics

There are many methods of teaching phonics, and it is not necessary to use any kind of course. Assuming you can read yourself, you can help your child learn to read. A quick search of any bookshop will discover a wealth of material, if you want some. But what appeals to one child may bore another. So make sure you take your child’s interests into account if you want to use a textbook or course. Some books offer ‘quick’ or ‘guaranteed’ lessons, but there is no hurry. It really does not matter how long it takes your child to learn to read, so long as he is enjoying the process and motivated.

Let’s assume your child is about five or six, and has expressed an interest in reading but is not continually asking you ‘What does that word say?’¬† It’s probably best to start with individual letters and their sounds. Magnetic fridge letters are ideal for this, as they’re solid and colourful. Use lower-case letters to start with, and don’t worry about memories of chanting the alphabet. Time enough for that when your child is ready to use a dictionary.

Introducing phonics concepts

It’s probably best to start with something familiar. Try your child’s name (if it’s a simple one) or words like ‘Dad’ or ‘cat’. Explain that each of the letters has a sound attached, and tell him what they are. There is some controversy over whether to use the letter names (‘Ay’, ‘bee’, ‘see’) or sounds (‘aa’, ‘buh’, ‘cuh’). Either can work, so long as the emphasis is on the words rather than the individual sounds. The ‘Letterland‘ scheme is popular, giving letters not memorable names¬† such as ‘Annie Apple’, ‘Bouncing Ben’, ‘Clever Cat’ etc. They even have personalities, and individual them in stories to encourage a child’s interest.

Contrasting ‘cat’ with ‘mat’ and ‘bat’ (etc) can show the pattern alongside the sounds. How far you take this in one session depends on your child’s interest levels. If they want to play games with letters, follow their lead. Once they realise that they can make ‘invented’ words (such as ‘jat’ or ‘zat’) and pronounce them correctly, they have grasped the basic idea of how simple words work. On the other hand, if they get bored, they are probably not yet ready to learn much in the way of phonics.

All being well, a child introduced to words this way will start to ask questions and you’ll be able to explain phonic blends (like ‘fl’ and ‘br’) or digraphs (such as ‘sh’ and ‘ch’) naturally when they occur. It’s a good idea to practise some writing alongside reading, but it doesn’t have to be formal: tracing letters in sand, or painting huge letters in bright colours will give your child the feel for letter shapes much better than lined paper and a pencil.

If you would like some ideas and worksheets for a small child, the Reading by Phonics site has some useful resources.

Whole word recognition

At the same time, it’s important to help your child recognise some standard and common words that don’t fit into regular phonic patterns. English is not an entirely phonic language. So simply learning letter sounds and rules will not enable a child to read. There are far too many exceptions! Consider the difference sounds made by the words cough, bough, and rough, for instance (‘coff’, ‘bow’, ‘ruff’).

At a simpler level, children have to learn common words like ‘What’ or ‘who’ as whole words . ‘What’ does not rhyme with ‘cat’, after all. While ‘who’ rhymes with ‘do’, the equally common word ‘go’ is not pronounced ‘goo’! Another much-loved system is that of Ladybird keywords. This uses the principle that there are 100 commonly-used words which form around half of everything we read. Thus, they state, it is best for children to learn to recognise those words early on. Their reading books are graded according to the number of words introduced. That means that a beginning reader can experience success quickly. Initial success provides motivation to learn a few more words.

There are many other reading schemes used by schools and home educators, using one or other of the two broad principles – phonics or word recognition – or, ideally, a combination of the two. As a home educating parent you have a much easier task than a teacher in a class of 30 or more children. You can read with your child whenever he is interested. You know instinctively when he has grasped something new, or when he’s still struggling. There is no pressure to meet government targets, and no need for your child to read in order to learn other subjects, since you can read to him, or discuss what he’s learning verbally. Early reading in schools is necessary so that the teacher can give children classroom assignments rather than working individually with each of them, but at home it doesn’t matter.

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