Siân Smith and Helen Williams, from Cardiff Council’s Literary Scheme, explain the importance of phonics when teaching children how to read.

You’ve probably already heard about phonics in the news and its importance when learning to read. This week’s column takes you on an auditory tour through the principles of phonics or, to be more technical, phonological awareness.

There is much research showing that phonological awareness is an important component of early reading success.

If a child has a high level of phonological awareness prior to school, it can be one of the best predictors of reading success later on.

So what is phonological awareness and why is it important?

Phonological awareness is the ability to ‘tune in’ to the sound (phonological) system of our language. It is an awareness that words can be broken up into syllables/beats (hos-pi-tal), rhyme (can, man, fan) and individual sounds or phonemes (d-o-g).

Good phonological awareness enables children to more readily develop an understanding of the alphabetic nature of English such as there is a direct relationship between the sound of the spoken words and the letters that represent them in written language.

However, it should be noted that the traditional alphabet song, ‘a b c d e f g’ to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star does not promote phonological awareness – this song teaches children the names of the letters and not their sounds.

When learning to read and spell children must understand that words are made up of sounds that can be:

n sequenced (ordered)

n segmented (broken down, for example, tap = t, a, p)

n blended (put together, for example, t, a, p = tap)

n rearranged (p, a, t = pat).

If children don’t master these skills, they will find it difficult to tackle the reading or spelling of unfamiliar words.

Repeated matchings of correct sound and letter patterns help to build a young reader’s reading vocabulary.

This, in turn, leads to automatic word recognition and reading mastery.

Even though many pre-school children will not be ready for reading or be able to recognise letters of the alphabet, they can still develop good listening skills and phonological awareness that will support them later when presented with formal reading teaching.

How can I help develop my child’s phonological awareness?

Much can be done pre-school to provide your child with opportunities for developing sound awareness which will prepare them for when they start learning to read.

Be clear and accurate when you talk about sounds and letters.

We hear sounds as we say sounds with our mouths.

We can see letters and write them. Therefore, we might ask, ‘What sound can you hear at the beginning of the word?’ rather than ‘What letter…?’.


Make everything fun.

Encourage active listening by making a head for each of you with large ears attached. The more ridiculous, the better!


You may remember a recent Reading Power article on the importance of nursery rhymes. If your child has been listening and joining in to ‘Jack and Jill went up the hill’ then they should already be ‘tuned in’ and phonologically aware of rhyming words. Some other games you can play to build on this skill are:

Body Name Game – point to parts of your body, for example, your head, and say a rhyming word such as ‘bed’. Your child has to say the correct name of the body part. This puts rhyme into their ears with a visual cue (pointing). As your child becomes more confident stop pointing so they only have the rhyme to go by.

We’re Going on a Rhyme Hunt – go on a rhyme hunt around the house asking your child to find something that rhymes with a given word. For example, “find me something that rhymes with rock.” Your child could bring a clock or a sock.

Silly Sentences – make up rhyming sentences together. For example, a bear with brown hair is sitting in a chair eating a pear and he doesn’t care if you stare. Try to make them as long as you can.


These are the ‘beats’ that we divide spoken words into, for example, crocodile = croc-o-dile. It is easier for children to do this before they break words down further to individual letter sounds.

n Clap Clap – clap out syllables of names. Start with your child, family members and their friends, for example Thom-as, Em-i-ly,

n How many fingers? Collect together some everyday objects and hold up the correct number of fingers to show how many syllables you can hear for each one, for example, teddy bear= 3, saucepan = 2, telephone = 3,

book = 1. You can reverse the game by holding up a number of fingers and letting your child guess which object.

Initial SoundAwareness

I spy – remember to use the letter sound or initial sound rather than its name, (‘ah’ as in ‘apple’).

“I went to the shop and I bought…” a cumulative game which involves each person stating an item that they bought at the shop beginning with a given sound, for example, “I went to the shop and I bought carrots.”

“I went to the shop and I bought carrots and cake.” “I went to the shop and I bought carrots, cake and a camera” etc. You can include unusual items such as crocodiles and cobwebs to make the game more entertaining.

n Horrid Henry – make up names for people using alliteration, for example, Helpful Helen, Shocking Sian, Gorgeous Gordon!

n Treasure Hunt – give your child an empty box to collect some treasure beginning with a specified sound. For example, a ‘t’ treasure box could include a teddy, a toothbrush, a toy tiger, a top, a tin etc.

Remember that phonics is not the only skill that children use when learning to read; it’s just one useful strategy. As the English language contains many irregular words, children also need to develop their visual reading skills alongside.

Suggested children’s literature for encouraging rhyme, alliteration and syllabification:

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– Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Alan Ahlberg

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– Goodness Gracious by Phil Cummings

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– Where’s My Teddy? by Jez Alborough

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– In Search of Octopotamus and Other Strange Animals by Allan Cornwell

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– Don’t Forget the Bacon by Pat Hutchins

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– Pass the Jam Jim by Kaye Umansky and Margaret Chamberlain

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– Happy Family series – Mrs Plug the Plumber, Mr Tick the Teacher etc. by Allan Ahlberg

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– Hairy McClarey from Donaldson’s Dairy by Linley Dodd

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– Can You Hear Me Grandad? by Pat Thompson

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Source: WalesOnline –