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Supporting Your Child’s Phonics Learning at Home

One of the questions I hear most from parents is, what age should my child be learning phonics? Followed by how can I best support them with this at home? Often the assumption is that children embark on learning phonics when they are introduced to letter sounds, but in fact, their journey starts well before this. So, what can we do to help and when?

It is useful to first look at a few dictionary definitions of words you will come across in the world of letters and sounds.  The list below can be used as a reference point but don’t worry too much about getting to grips with the meanings:

Phonics – a method of teaching people to read by correlating sounds with symbols in an alphabetic writing system.

Phoneme – a unit of sound that a letter or group of letters makes.

Digraph – two letters that make one sound.

Grapheme – a written symbol that represents a sound.

Phonological Awareness – awareness of all the sounds of language

Well before a child understands which grapheme corresponds to which phoneme, they need to learn how to listen effectively. You may be surprised to know that listening is a skill children need to develop and learning to differentiate everyday sounds is the first step on the road to mastering phonics.

To help your child develop effective listening skills, there is a wealth of activities you can play with them, and the key here is play. Activities need to be fun and interactive, take place little and often, and outside as well as in. Moreover, whilst playing, the television should be turned off (background noise is not going to help) and mobiles popped away.

Reading stories together is a lovely way to snuggle up and have some quality time. Choose books that you child can interact with like ‘lift the flap’, or pages with holes to poke little fingers through. You can add some sound effects and your child will have great fun making these with their body – stomping, knocking, clapping, scratching. (Please do not worry if your child wants to reread the same book, it is fine and a good way for children to gain confidence).

Rhyming books are great too. When your child is familiar with a particular book, try pausing before the rhyming word and let your child fill the gap. Nursery rhymes appear to have gone out of ‘fashion’; however, they are an excellent vehicle to support your child’s evolving phonological awareness. When you recite simple nursery rhymes, clap along with one clap for each syllable, and repeat with knee taps, head pats or stamps.

Singing songs is another activity that your child will love to do with you, particularly if you encourage them to use their body to make sounds to go along with the rhythm – stamping, clapping, patting knees etc. Adding some musical accompaniment in the form of simple homemade shakers (plastic bottles or tubs filled with rice, pasta or pebbles) adds even more fun and myriad sounds for then to listen to. You can create a drum kit (pots, pans and wooden spoons are perfect) to play along with songs and rhymes and encourage your child to make the loudest, quietest, longest, shortest, quickest, and slowest sounds that they can. It is great to talk about the sounds too – are they soft, snappy, smooth, jiggly, scratchy?

A brilliant outdoor activity is a listening walk. This is a firm favourite with our nursery children and over time, they start to hear and distinguish bird song, a siren, voices, an aeroplane, and many other sounds around the school grounds. You can take your child on a listening walk wherever you are. At the beach, in the woods, or in the back garden. It helps to cup your hands around your ears and encourage your child to do the same so they can listen to sounds all around. Talk about what you can hear – are the sounds loud or quiet, short, or long? Can you make a similar sound with your voice? All of this will be helping your child to discriminate between different sounds which, over time, will support them in differentiating phonemes.

Trips to the farm and park are wonderful opportunities to further explore sounds. For example, when your child is coming down the slide, make the sound ‘whoosh’ together, on the swing say ‘swish’, when bouncing a ball say ‘boing’; this all helps with developing an awareness of sound.

Back inside you can play games that involve identifying different musical instruments, household appliances and items such as. keys jangling or a crisp packet being scrunched. When playing with small world toys focus on the sounds that, for example, different vehicles or jungle animals make. And whilst you are making these sounds overemphasize your mouth movements – pull faces, wiggle your tongue, and look in the mirror whilst you are doing it. Your child will find this very amusing!

In our nursery classes, once children’s confidence with sounds increases, we start to use alliterative phrases to play with words. They do not need to make sense, in fact children squeal with delight when they create nonsense! At home you can begin with naming toys such as Daisy dog, Kitty cat or Polly puffin then extend to rhyming strings such as ram, ham, Sam, bam and phrases such as lion likes to lick lollies. Familiar tongue twisters are excellent too such as: Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. This is a tricky skill and will take time, but you can try modelling some for your child to listen to.

As your child begins to identify letter sounds, it is extremely helpful if you can play with letters and words at home. Talking like a robot will help children hear sounds individually such as hop like a f-r-o-g. Remember to say the letter sounds (p-i-g not the letter names pee-eye-gee). I spy is a wonderful game to support developing phonics, making sure you allow your child plenty of opportunities to guess. Another great game is Simon Says – ‘Simon says p-a-t your head’. If you are unsure how to pronounce the letter sounds, there are several helpful tutorials on YouTube.

Playing phonic board games is excellent consolidation of phonological awareness too. There are a wide range such as letter/word Bingo, matching sounds/rhyming patterns, alphabet, and word jigsaws. When out and about ask your child to look for letters. Can they find letters from their own name? There is print everywhere, and it is great if you can point it out and talk about it.

Every child is different and will develop at a different rate. Ultimately the aim is for our young children to become good listeners and confident with creating sounds, so they can establish a solid foundation for future phonics acquisition. It is important to praise and positively reinforce at home, so your child’s confidence grows and they won’t be afraid to take risks with their learning.  However, always bear in mind that the timing must be right. If your child is not in the correct frame of mind, leave it and come back to it at a better time – make learning fun and enjoyable, never a battle.

Sam Selkirk

Head of Lower School

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