• Paul Wade


Today's topic is the thing that parents of Reception and Key Stage One children (4-7 year olds, roughly) find the most perplexing and hard to wrap their heads around on a regular basis: phonics

Actually, if I’m going to be really picky, it's ‘synthetic phonics’ and today we are going to start looking at short sounds.

So what is it? Well the word phonics refers to the building of words out of phonemes. These are the smallest building blocks of language, the individual sounds (smaller than and different to syllables) that we use to build any word. They are, if you like, the atoms of the language world. They exist in every language and, due to the fact that the human mouth can only make so many sounds, most languages have quite a lot of the same phonemes in them. In English, there are roughly 44 of them (there is a bit of debate about this, but it is not one we want to be getting into here, you don’t have all day).

They fall into two groups – long and short sounds – and fulfil three jobs in words – initial, medial (middle) and final sounds. Short sounds are most typically made up of singe consonants or vowels in their shortest form, example the A in apple, the O in hop or the T in fit. You also have a few short sounds that are made up of more than one letter, the TR in train, the LL in pulling, or the CK in lock. These are all fairly straightforward, but will require practice to pronounce ‘properly’. This is partially because we have to forget what we think letters sound like and hear what they actually sound like in words. The L in like in actually a great example. It is not a sound out loud LE sound with an open mouth and the bouncing of the roof of the mouth and front teeth, but more of a swallowed UL sound that comes from the back of the mouth and kind of twists between the front teeth (complicated, I know, but play around with the word like in your mouth, say it really slowly, it will come). It is also partially due to differences in accent, about which I can do very little other than to say, however you say words is the right way for you.

As it this wasn’t hard enough, there are then sounds that blend two letters together to make a completely different sound, such as TH. They are called blends (consonant blends in this case, as both letters that make up the end sound are consonants). In some cases, they end up sounding like a mixture of the two consonants that make them up, such as the DR in drawer (which we could also argue is just two consonants being sounded out next to each other and that’s fine), but others make brand new phonemes. Chief among these are CH, SH and TH. The new phoneme sound is nothing like the two that went together to make it. They are difficult for two reasons. The first is that they have quite similar formations inside the mouth, although the voice works slightly differently (TH can be both voiced – active vocal chords – and unvoiced, SH is unvoiced and CH is voiced) and mostly differ due to where the tongue is in the mouth when you say them:

  • CH – curled slightly back up and up on itself, bouncing off the roof of the mouth only

  • SH – Pushed against the roof of the mouth and with the middle of the tongue rolled slightly so that only the sides of the tongue actually touch the top

  • TH – biting the tongue the puling it out while the unvoiced sound if made. Note – there is also a voiced version of TH in words like those – you can look it up for fun

  • You also have the GH blend which is a mind bender for pretty much everyone, as it makes both short and long sounds in different places and sometimes doesn’t make a sound at all.

Confusing, isn’t it. Yet we are teaching children to say, hear, read and eventually write the whole lot to before they are 7. Aren’t kids amazing?!

For native speakers of English, this is quite a big challenge to get your tongues around. For non-native speakers, especially from languages that commonly access different phonic properties of the human mouth, they can be very challenging. Writing and reading about phonics can only get you so far. There are a couple of online resources that I would like to recommend today. Both free and they are in no way an exhaustive list or the ‘best’ / only option. One has come recommended by a number of colleagues and the other is from the British Council and I trust pretty much everything they put out. Both links use British English phonetics; for anyone preferring American English pronunciations (especially for most short vowel sounds) there are some great resources out there.

Read Write Inc is one of the most popular programmes for delivering the teaching of phonics in the UK. This link will provide live streamed lessons for each day of the current UK school closure. Feel free to search for alternatives, there will be plenty. You will need to register, but it is free and the resource is due to start Monday 23rd March.

British Council Interactive Phonemic Chart. You will need adobe flash for the second link and it is presented using phonemic symbols – don’t be put off. Hover over the drop down menu on each symbol and you will see the way the sound looks in a word in English. Use is with headphones or best effect.

Good luck with phonics everyone. I will return to this over the coming week, as there is a lot to cover. But tomorrow I’m going to look at something different – What to do when they don’t want to do any work…

NOTE: Phonics is useful in reading and writing a great many words in the English language, but due to its hybrid nature, there are loads of exceptions. I promise to deal with these soon.

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