What is phonics? A Phonics definition [2022]

Reading is a key part of every child’s development. Success at school relies on a child’s ability to read. Recent studies have shown that 50% of children lack the basic skills needed to start primary school, a problem that the pandemic exacerbated. Literacy skills will also make finding jobs later in life much easier. On top of that, studies have found that children who enjoy reading and writing have better mental well-being than those who don’t

As a parent, you want to guarantee your child’s reading skills. But there are lots of approaches to literacy education. While looking into things, you may have stumbled on something called phonics. So what is phonics?

What is phonics? A Phonics definition

Phonics definition

Phonics is a language instruction method. It is used to teach children the relationship between letters and the sounds that they make. When a child understands forms of letters and their sounds, the child can recognise those letters and sounds within other words. The basic learning path is this:

  1. The child learns sounds
  2. The child learns that letters represent sounds
  3. The child learns that letters and sounds make up words 
  4. The child can recognise those letters and sounds in other words

Let’s look at an example. In phonics, we would teach a child that the letter ‘m’ makes the /m/ sound. When the child encounters the word ‘mouse’ (which includes the ‘m’) they will recognise the ‘m’ and sound it out at the beginning of the word. 

The phonics method enables children to sound out words independently.

The Parts of Phonics

To understand what phonics is, we can break down its elements into two categories. 

What are phonemes?

A phoneme is the smallest sound in a word. Each word contains multiple sounds which we can break down into its phonemes. Let’s deconstruct the word ‘sound’.

‘Sound’ contains:

  • /s/ - as in speak
  • /ou/ - as in pronounce
  • /n/ - as in neat
  • /d/ - as in daily

A phoneme will be the same in different contexts. It’s applicable in many situations so it’s great to get kids to understand their phonemes.

There may only be 26 letters in the English alphabet. But there are many phonemes that can be made of the same letters! It is generally agreed that there are 44 phonemes in English.

What are graphemes?

A chart of English phonics graphemes
A chart of graphemes in English, source: The School Run

The other side to phonics is graphemes. Graphemes are the smallest kind of written language. They represent phonemes. A grapheme can consist of a single letter (like ‘i’) or several letters (like ‘sh’).

A single grapheme can represent several phonemes. Let’s look at the English example of ‘a’. That grapheme can be pronounced as the /a/ in ‘hat’. But it can also be sounded out as the /ay/ in ‘famous’. 

Graphemes can be confusing to a child. That’s why it’s so important that they learn phonics from a skilled tutor!

What is phonics education going to do for my child’s reading?

Knowing the phonics definition is one thing. But why should your child learn phonics?

Phonics has proven itself to be one of the best teaching methods in languages like English and Spanish. Unlike many other teaching methodologies, phonics does not require any rote-learning. This learning method encourages understanding in different contexts. Studies by the International Literacy Organisation have shown that phonics-based approaches are more effective than others.

When should my child start learning phonics?

It is generally understood that a child is ready to start learning phonics once they already know several key language learning concepts:

  1. The letters of the alphabet.
  2. Something called ‘phonological awareness’. Phonological awareness is the child’s ability to separate sounds within a word and pronounce them.

These two concepts work in tandem with graphemes and phonemes, which we spoke about earlier. Once children can grasp the alphabet and separating syllables within words, they are ready to learn phonics. Every child is different. But in general this will be around the age of 3 or 4. 

Can apps help your child learn phonics?

A video from Teacher Hannah's 'Phonics Phase 2' Course, from the Lingumi app

Kids who are ready to learn phonics are at the perfect stage to be using language learning apps. The Lingumi app utilises a variety of learning activities, interactive conversations with teachers, learning games, and educational songs to teach speaking and reading skills. Your child can gain confidence in their reading abilities with Lingumi using short, daily 10-minute lessons taught by experienced teachers.

Lingumi offers English, Spanish and Chinese speaking lessons, but has recently added Phonics lessons too If you want to dive specifically into phonics you can check out phonics lessons with teacher Hannah.

Your role in teaching phonics as a parent is paramount. Reinforcing what children learn after their lessons is a must. Stick around while your child is learning phonics on Lingumi. After lessons you can ask them questions about the phonemes and graphemes that they learned. Point at letters and ask what sounds they make!

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