How Important is Learning Phonics?
Most people don’t hear the word ‘phonics’ until their first child starts school. Most of us don’t even realise why it is important or how it is relevant to us and our children.
Phonics is the first step in learning to read. It is the most effective way of teaching children to read quickly and skilfully. They are taught to recognise the sounds that each letter makes and identify the sounds that different combinations of letters make and blend these sounds together to make a word. Children can then use this knowledge to ‘de-code’ new words that they hear or see.
Almost all children who receive good teaching of phonics will learn the skills they need to tackle new words. They can then go on to read any kind of text fluently and confidently, and to read for enjoyment. This includes children who find learning to read difficult, for example those who have dyslexia.
There are many helpful reading programs taught in schools like Jolly Phonics, Read Write Ink and Letter Land for children aged 5 to 7. They start with the easiest and most often used sounds such as ‘S’ or ‘A’ and progress through to the most complex ones like ‘sh’ or ‘ou’.
So how can we prepare children to recognise the sounds that letters make? It can be a bit tricky when you have just turned 5 years of age. First we play with environmental and instrumental sounds. Children naturally use their eyes, but these games gently encourage them to use their ears. It can be a great fun guessing what is hiding in a ‘Listening Bag’. Is it a snapping twig, a bunch of keys or a crunched up piece of paper? Most children will recognise objects but can they say the sound they make? Do they know what makes a ‘tic-tock’ or a ‘nee-naw’ sound? There are plenty of games to play such as matching a sound to an instrument or adjusting to the volume. Or harder games such as guessing the missing sound.
Research shows that nursery rhymes improve the ability to hear, identify and manipulate letter sounds. Rhyme is also a great way of learning phonics skills. When a child recognises that ‘fox’ rhymes with ‘box’ it will prepare them to be aware that they often have spelling sequences in common too. Old favourite games like ‘I spy’ and ‘Simon Says’ not only improve thinking skills but also their behaviour. Examples of this include waiting to have a turn, concentrating longer on a task, working in small groups or responding to spoken instructions.
Children in the UK start school really early compared to some other countries where they begin at the age of 7. Our 4 year olds in nursery are tested on whether they show awareness of rhyme and alliteration; link sounds to letters; name and sound the letters of the alphabet, hear sounds in words, blend and segment sounds in words.
In the UK, teaching is differentiated into three ability groups (high, middle and low). Children are assessed soon after beginning school and are subsequently placed into one of these groups. Most parents don’t realise why their children’s “take off” with their literacy is vital. Once a child is in an ability group, he or she is likely to stay there throughout their education with little chance of moving up.
The foundation for literacy skills are laid in the first years, months and even weeks of life. Most children start learning phonics in Reception Class, some start much earlier
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