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Teaching Phonics (As a mum)

“Phonics”

This is a popular topic when we talk about enrichment class for young children. Is the word that seems to pop out once in a while in mummies’ WhatsApp chatgroups ever since M was 2 years old.

Before I go on, please note that this blog post is meant to target at Singapore parents, like me, who are as busy and a little bit Kiasu (怕输; scared to lose-out). I have been wanting to write about this for months but this requires a bit of brain power on how to break it down to address our kiasuism on getting our kids to read, with the hope that this post does not accidentally rob of any poor child’s precious childhood.

While I emphasised and advocate lots of unstructured play in the early years, the Singapore’s parenting culture doesn’t seem to sit well with play-all-the-way system. Over the past 5 years, the parents in our society has already set the benchmark for children to achieve reading skills at a younger age. It is stressful for me, as a mum, to see children who are not even 3 years reading simple books aloud or writing way neater than me.

So let’s get down to the basics of Phonics…

I learned to read without Phonics class when I was young. Why do kids need Phonics class today?

There are two types of way to read phonetically with two methods – Analytic and Synthetic phonics.
(1) Analytic

In a nutshell, analytic phonics is to learn the whole word by sight, and later it break down to individual sounds. A lot is stressed on the initial sound, probably followed by the ending sound or learning the word families e.g. cat, mat, fat, sat.

The issue I had when teaching this method years ago was that my students always missed out the vowel sounds, which are usually the middle sound.

Most of us (born ’70s, ’80s, ’90s) are taught with this method. Yes, we are able to read eventually. Along the way, we some how pick up the individual sound units ourselves, helping us to get more fluent in reading eventually.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

(2) Synthetic

Synthetic phonics is a systematic approach to introduce the smallest unit of sound, known as phonemes. Most synthetic phonics approach do not learn the letters names first, but jumps straight to introducing the sounds and usually taught in sets of letters. The sound is heard in different position of the words, like T in “tap” and “bat“.

  • There are 26 letters in the alphabet, and 42/44 phonemes
  • The more sounds you learn, the more words you can blend or form
  • the more familiar you are with the letters and the sounds, the more fluent your reading is

Jolly Phonics and Letterland, how different are they?

While both analytic and synthetic phonics teach children how to read, I still prefer to use synthetic phonics as it speeds up getting them to be more fluent readers and they actually learn to spell at the same time.

Okay, for the sake of convenience, I am just going to narrow down to the programmes I have tried teaching before. These are just my personal reflection after teaching with these programmes:
(1) Jolly Phonics

My toddler students enjoy singing the songs. The biggest plus point in Jolly Phonics is how they have grouped the letters in different sets, so the students actually get to learn to blend and segment the words immediately after learning the set. For example, the first set is S, A, T, I, P and N. You can now try writing down how many words you can form with these letters of their main sounds.

I am putting a HUGE question marks about using actions and songs to teach phonics. If you try to sound them out in different pitch you might accidentally produce the wrong sounds. Jolly Phonics believe in holistic learning, hence they accompanied the letter sounds with actions for little kinaesthetic learners. We learned some fun games with the actions but my own experience says that it does not encourage faster reading. When I show the letter to my students, some might be singing the song under their breath first or doing the action before they sound out the letter. I think phonics songs and actions are all right to use for those below 3 years. When a student starts learning phonics officially, the focus should be speed learning already.

Because the children learn to blend as soon as they learn a set of phonemes, you might see children as young as 3 years learning to read pretty well with this method (sadly, my 屁股有虫 son didn’t fall into this category). I have to say it also depends how good your trainer is because I didn’t get to fully understand how to teach blending efficiently when i was teaching using this programme.

(2) Letterland

When I was in the school that teaches Letterland, the students were BIG FANS of the characters in Letterland. The stories were fantastic, like when Harry Hat Man have to “shhhh” at Sally Snake because she is being noisy (/sh/). The stories help the children to remember the sounds and rules. I can say the kids love phonics because they love Letterland and learning was definitely fun.

As a teacher, there were too many stories to remember. I struggled with the blending and segmenting part again with this approach, even more so because Letterland teaches from A to Z in sequence for the first year. Personally, I felt that a bit of time is wasted on just learning individual letter and the sound weekly.

As you can see both methods have their pros and cons, and the efficiency of the teachers depend on how efficient the trainers are. Both have their advantages in teaching phonics.
(3) Rigby Star Phonics

When I was a teacher, I forked out my own money to purchase a set of Rigby Stars for my students. No regrets! Because I am using the method with my boy now. Similar to Jolly phonics, it teaches in sets of letters. The approach is very straight forward – learn the letter and the sounds, blend to read, segment to spell. That’s all.

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So, which is the best method for teaching at home?

Honestly, if your child’s schools has such a phonics programme, you probably don’t need to do any additional teaching or enrol in enrichments. So if you are concern, speak with your child’s teacher about your child’s learning in class, and if any additional help is needed. Usually is about midway of K1 or beginning of K2 where teachers can tell if your child struggles with reading.

Before you choose a method to apply in your home-teaching, ask yourself if you can produce the 42/44 phonemes accurately and quickly – meaning when you see the letter(s) you can immediately tell me the sound. You need to be of that speed and accuracy then you can teach your child phonics at home. If you’re not confident, drop the idea of teaching your kids phonics and use analytic method instead.

It is important to teach the pure sounds, for example for /b/ . it is extremely wrong to add a “er” sound behind going “ber”. I hear a lot of “ber”, “der”, “mer” in phonics songs in Youtube.

So what age do I start?

To be honest, I wish I can say to start at 4 years old. I think that is a more appropriate age to start learning phonics formally. In Singapore context, I will say you can start teaching 3 year olds if you think your child is talking well and showing interest in words and the alphabet.

I am not particular about what is learned before 3years-old; whether is it upper or lower case, or whether is it learning the letter names or sounds. Because the year they are in N2 class, it starts from letter A again, or the first set of letters.

I strongly encourage you to just get your toddlers (1 to 3 years-old) engaged in language games, songs and rhymes and play with them to hone their language skills, and not jumping into phonics and getting them to read. Phonics is NOT EASY even for adults, so just have fun, sing and play with kids below 3 years.

depth of field photograph of block toys
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

I start teaching M Phonics when he was 3 years and 2 months old, only three months later he started to be aware that a word consists of letters and we have to string the sounds together to sound out the word. I also see value in learning the sequence of letters in letter names (ABC song). The beautiful thing about home-teaching is that I get to teach at my own pace. He is super active so whenever I can, I will spend 5 to 10 minutes of flashing the letters he learned and saying the sounds, then try to spell the words. It is progressing slowly as I don’t do it everyday. The only goal I aimed for is that he will at least say out the sounds of the letters and read set 1 and 2 of the decodable readers independently before he goes to K1 (well, I HOPE he does).

Okay, I have mastered all the 44 sounds. So what’s next?

  1. Choose a set of decodable readers. They are your guide to plan the curriculum. The purpose of having decodable reader is that the child can decode the words on their own, by blending the letter sounds in a word and saying what word it is. It will be choppy at first but should get more fluent as they blend faster. Decodable readers are purely to help a child to read the words, they are different from the children’s literature / storybooks. Here are some recommended decodable books you can use to teach synthetic phonics:
    1. Rigby Star
    2. Dash into Reading
    3. Fitzroy
    4. Bob books (Easy enough for parents who is not trained in phonics to use)
  2. Plan your curriculum, teach the letter sounds in sets – I love how most synthetic phonics teach in sets of letters so children can learn to read and spell. Below is an example of how I grouped the letters for teaching M; this is part of my overview of what I am going to teach M this and next year. You can add in some sight words you want to teach along with the set, and probably write the phonics rules somewhere so you are aware of the rules. For K1 and K2 children, you can recite the rules with them.

Buzzyoverviewexample

3. Speed – Identifying the sound of each letter as quickly as possible with flash cards of the individual lowercase letters and digraphs. I am using the grapheme cards purchased from Edventure.

4. Segment to spell – lay out the letters you have taught, e.g. for my set 1 and 2. I stretch out words like “tap” and “sit”. Initially, I need to stretch so much that is almost like sounding out the three individual sounds.

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Eg.

Can you spell “cat”, (raise three fingers), “ccc..aaaaa..t” (bend each finger at each sound, this gives the child a hint on how many sounds there are to listen out for).

If the child spells with a K, you can ask what is the other letter with the same sound. (One phonics logic / rule is that we usually use “k” before the vowels I and E.)

When revising again, I stretch the words lesser after each revision. I try not to use fanciful letter magnets, and I like those sets that comes in red for vowels.

4. Blend to Read – Write out the word and get the child to decode. You can also write short sentences comprising of the letters that the child has learned.

Here is a video of my son who just figured out what blending is, as you can see the reading is choppy and really slow. Keep practising and it will get more fluent.

Is learning Phonics sufficient for language development?

No, phonics is just a part of learning to read. Language skills consist of reading, writing, speaking, listening and vocabulary. Reading picture books and engaging in daily conversations are essential in building a good language foundation. There are many other fun language activities such as charade, story-creation and word games that you can play as a family to work on your child’s language skills.

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