How Teaching Phonics helps make kids better readers

How teaching phonics helps makes kids better readers

Whether you are a new teacher with your first class or an experienced educator with many strategies to use, teaching phonics can be the magic key that opens the world of reading for many children. My experience both in Australia and Solomon Islands with beginning readers and English Language Learners (regardless of their age) proved that phonics instruction improved their reading fluency. 

My own phonics story

I taught primary school for many years. Whether it was foundation, third grade, or fifth grade, students who were learning to read, I always started early with a story about the letters in the alphabet and why individual letters made different sounds. 

It helps young children identify the letters, track the words from left to right, and with older children, understand how spelling changed the sounds the letters make. For example, the sound of the letter “A” in “cap” and “cape” is different. 

In Letterland, a programme for teaching phonics, “Mr Ᾱ” says his name, who looks after Ᾰnnie Ᾰpple who can only say “” has someone takes a big bite. The vowels can talk and say either their name or their sound.

I have used Letterland to teach phonics successfully with both native English speakers and English as a foreign language learners. Letterland develops a character and a story for each vowel, which makes teaching phonics silly, fun, and easy to remember. 

I have no affiliation with Letterland, I just love using the programme.

One of my favourite phonemes is the “sh” story, where Hairy Hatman who hates noise, shushes up Sammy Snake who loves to make noise, when they are together in a word.

Letterland - students role play sh

Letterland “sh” story:  Hairy Hatman hates noise so when he’s near Sammy Snake he shushes Sammy, who loves to make noise.

Letterland - Hatman stories

Letterland: some of the Harry Hat Man stories

What is Phonics?

Phonological awareness is making and hearing the sounds that we associate with the letters of the alphabet. Teaching phonics helps children associate the visual letters with the auditory and verbal components of the letters that are combined in words. 

To read, a child must look at a word, see the individual letters in the word, “hear” how the letters sound and combine them mentally. The next step is making sense out of those words by combining them in a sentence. 

Many children have trouble distinguishing between the sounds of different letters. For example, some can see the difference, but they cannot hear the difference between “B”, “V”, “D”, and “P”. They can all sound like “E”. One thing that helps children with these difficulties is to focus on how the speaker’s mouth forms the sounds. 

All the consonants require a person to put either their lips or teeth together to make its sound. Try saying these letters and notice the placement of your lips, teeth, and tongue:

B- lips together, followed by a “burst” that ends with a sound like an “E”!

V- bottom lip between the teeth, followed by “E.”

D- teeth together, tongue touching the teeth, followed by “E.”

P- Lips together that make a pop sound, followed by “E”. 

Unless you have been trained as a speech therapist or a dyslexia teacher, you may not have ever thought about the difference between the way your mouth, teeth, and tongue move to make a “B” or a “P”! You do it without thinking about it. 

All the vowels require you to open her mouth to make the sound. Your teeth can’t touch if you said the sounds for Ᾱ Ē Ī Ō Ū.

Letterland - vowels out walking

Letterland: some of the vowels out walking stories

What are we really teaching?

When we teach, we know we are really training brains to think in specific ways. All brains are similar structures, but they do not learn information in the same way. Some children learn to read by memorising sight words. Others learn to read by decoding the words phonetically. If your instruction only provides one method of learning how to read, you miss a significant portion of the brains in your classroom. Teaching phonics increases the chances that all the children in your classroom will become fluent readers.

Phonics are the sounds that written letters make. The child’s ability to make the right sound when they see different letters and combine them into a word that they understand is fundamental to reading. Each individual sound in a word is called a phoneme. Did you know there are 44 of them in the English language? 

Some phonemes are individual letters, but other phonemes are made by two or more letters, such as /sh/ or /th/. These two-letter phonemes are called consonant digraphs. There are also vowel digraphs, like /oa/ in goat. The word digraph means two letters. But the one sound they make is called a phoneme. 

Digraph=2 letters

Phoneme= 1 sound 

Teaching phonics is a systematic way to connect the sounds that students hear with the letters the students see to create meaning in their minds. 

Letterland - more stories

Letterland: some more stories

What does academic research say about phonics instruction?

The value of teaching phonics has been studied for many years. One study looked at the level of teacher training with phonetic instruction in Australia. It found that more experienced teachers understood and used phonetic instruction with their kindergarten students more than teachers who were new to the profession. It concluded that more pre-service training was needed to be sure that teachers included teaching beginning readers the connection between letters and sounds and the word meaning. 

Combining phonics (letter to sound instruction) and Whole Language (words to meaning instruction) are like the puzzle pieces of reading. When the two strategies are combined, students become fluent readers with an understanding of what the written words mean.

After more than 100 years of debate, educators have concluded that Balanced Literacy that combines phonics and word meaning is the most effective way for children to learn how to read. However, when used alone, the students who only learned with the Whole Language Method of Literacy were less likely to read well compared to students who had only been exposed to phonics.  

Interestingly, the teachers who support phonics in Reading instruction are often Dyslexia specialists, English Language Learners teachers, or those who work with at-risk populations below grade level in reading. These teachers have had focused training on phonics and have seen how it helped their students read successfully.

Letterland - Walter's stories

Letterland: some of the Walter Walrus stories

There are four methods of phonetic instruction

On her blog,, a former teacher and reading specialist, Delilah Orpi, says, “Effective phonics instruction is key to remediating reading difficulties and using a systematic synthetic phonics program is best.” 

Systemic Synthetic Phonics is the method of breaking down short words into their individual sounds. By identifying the sounds each letter makes and then combining them, a beginning reader builds words. There are many online resources available to teach systematic phonics. Here are some examples of systemic phonetic activities for you to try with your students: word-families.

Another method of phonics instruction is Analytic Phonics. In this case, students learn words, then separate them down into phonemes, in opposite order from systemic phonics that builds words from letters. It is a common activity to sort words by similar word parts like rhyming words or words that start or end with the same blends, making word “families”. There are many online resources available for games and instructional activities related to analogy phonics. 

The third method of Phonetic Instruction is called Embedded Phonics. This method is to read actual books and decode new words as they are encountered in the story. Literacy experts warn that embedded phonics alone is not sufficient to teach a non-reader how to read. It is useful for deeper understanding of phonemes in context, but this method has limited value without synthetic phonics. This method does strengthen the student’s visual memory for letter combinations they have seen before. Spelling often uses embedded phonics to remind students of similar words they have seen before decoding them.

Last, there is Analogy phonics, a method of decoding words by comparing the new word to a previously known word with the same letter combination. For example, either a syllable or a group of letters that is consistently pronounced the same, like “ing”, and building upon it by adding new sounds, such as knowing “dark” and changing the /d/ sound to a /p/ sound to make “park”. Many classrooms use analogy phonics activities in addition to synthetic phonics to help students learn to read.

Letterland - Robot stories

Letterland: some of the robot stories

Is phonetic instruction only effective for K-2?

We think of children learning to read in grades K-2. Literacy experts have recommended the earlier we introduce letters and sounds to children, the better. On the other hand, some children do not learn to read English until the upper elementary grades or even in high school. Students who have dyslexia or whose first language is a language other than English may benefit from phonics even as adults. 

There are many books and online resources for teaching phonics to special populations that have specific needs.

I have found Letterland to be the most effective online resource for teaching phonics so long as you don’t overdo the story theme. Teachers who go overboard cause students to get hung up on the stories. 

I use the story initially to introduce and understand the letter sounds and behaviour between letter combinations. Kids enjoy role-playing the letters. Then, later in the year, I drop the story and letter role plays so by the end of the year students are referring to letters and sounds without the letterland  stories. 

Letterland - magic e stories

Letterland: some of the magic e stories

What is the Best Way to Use Phonics in my Classroom?

Researchers in Australia and around the world agree that quality teacher training is necessary to use phonics effectively. If you are a reading teacher, choose courses that explain how to teach children to read with phonics. There are several free online courses and hundreds of YouTube videos to demonstrate good phonetic instruction.

Letterland is my absolute favourite programme for teaching phonics and here are some of their FREE online training videos. It is another tool to help you be the best reading teacher that you can be! And, as I said earlier, I have no affiliation with Letterland, I just love using the programme.