Skip to content
Start improving your work-life balance - try PlanBee for FREE for 7 days
Start improving your work-life balance - try PlanBee for FREE for 7 days


What is Phonics?

Phonics is a method of teaching people to read by linking the sounds letters make to the letter symbols used to represent them. This is sometimes called phoneme-grapheme correspondence.

What is a phoneme?

A phoneme is the sound a letter or letters make. The word ‘had’ is made up of the phonemes /h/ /a/ /d/. The word ‘bean’ is made up of the phonemes /b/ /ea/ /n/’. In the word ‘bean’ the two letters ‘e’ and ‘a’ make one sound.

In English there are 44 phonemes. One phoneme can be represented by letters in different ways. For example, the phoneme /f/ can be spelt ‘f’ or ‘ph’.

What is a grapheme?

A grapheme is a letter or a group of letters. English has 26 letters in the alphabet, 44 phonemes and around 250 graphemes.

The phoneme (sound) /or/ is written using multiple graphemes including /or/ as in fork, /au/ as in haunted, /oar/ as in board, /our/ as in four, /oor/ as in door and /au/ as in August.

What is a digraph?

A digraph is two letters used to represent one sound. These letters can be consonants or vowels. For example, ch, ai, qu or ur. In Letters and Sounds, digraphs are taught from phase 2 onwards.

What is a digraph? Sound cards showing digraphs

What is a split digraph?

A split digraph is two letters that are not next to each other that represent one sound. They used to be called magic e. Examples of split digraphs include /a-e/ as in ‘cake’ and /e-e/ as in ‘athlete’. Split digraphs are taught from phase 5 Letters and Sounds onwards.

What is a split digraph? Sound cards showing split digraphs

What is a trigraph?

A trigraph is three letters used to represent one sound. These letters can be consonants or vowels. For example, air, igh, air or ure. Trigraphs are taught from phase 3 onwards.

What is a trigraph? Sound cards showing trigraphs

Sound Button Phonics

Sound buttons are often used to help children identify the sounds within a word. They are often written as dots and dashes underneath the letters. Sound buttons help to split a word into its separate sounds. This makes it easier to identify and blend all the sounds together to read the word.

Sound button phonics examples

Phonics Sound Families

Sound families in phonics refers to groups of graphemes and spelling patterns that make the same sound. For example, the graphemes ‘f’, ‘ff’ and ‘ph’ all belong to the same sound family. Some graphemes can belong to different sound families depending on the word they are being used in.

Phonics Families | Phonics Sound Families Examples

Phonics Phases

The teaching of phonics in the Letters and Sounds document has been organised into six phases. The letters and sounds order was designed to help practitioners and teachers teach children how the alphabet works for reading and spelling in a specific sequence. Children start with Phase 1 phonics in nursery and should have reached the end of Phase 6 phonics by the end of year 2. The aim of phonics is that children become fluent readers and accurate spellers by the end of Phase 6.

Phase 1 Phonics

Phase 1 phonics is typically taught in Nursery. Phase 1 activities focus on developing children’s speaking and listening skills, phonological awareness and oral blending and segmenting. Children should take part in lots of fun activities that involve repeated refrains, singing, rhymes, identifying sounds and sharing books. They also start to orally blend and segment words. For example an adult might say “please can you pass me the c-u-p”. The child should start to blend the sounds and identify the word ‘cup’.

Phase 2 Phonics

Phase 2 phonics teaches children at least 19 letters, in 5 sets, over 6 weeks at the start of Reception. The progression moves children on from oral blending and segmentation to blending and segmenting with letters. The aim is that by the end of the phase most children should be able to read and spell some vowel consonant (VC) and consonant vowel consonant (CVC) words. Examples of these words include ‘at’, ‘is’, ‘dog’, ‘mat’. They will also learn to read some high-frequency ‘tricky’ words.

Phase 3 Phonics

Phase 3 phonics teaches children another 25 graphemes, most of them comprising two letters, for example ‘oa’, ‘ch’ and ‘er’. By the end of phase 3 children can represent each of about 42 phonemes by a grapheme and they continue to practise CVC blending and segmentation. Phase 3 phonics is taught in Reception over 12 weeks.

Phase 4 Phonics

Phase 4 phonics supports children to consolidate their knowledge of graphemes in reading and spelling words containing adjacent consonants and polysyllabic words. Polysyllabic words are words that have more than one syllable. Phase 4 phonics is taught in Reception and takes 4-6 weeks to complete.

Phase 5 Phonics

Phase 5 phonics supports children to broaden their knowledge of graphemes and phonemes for use in reading and spelling. They learn alternative pronunciations for graphemes they already know as well as for new graphemes. When spelling words they will learn to choose the appropriate graphemes to represent phonemes and begin to build word-specific knowledge of the spellings of words. Phase 5 phonics is taught throughout Year 1.

Phase 6 Phonics

Phase 6 phonics supports children to become fluent readers and increasingly accurate spellers. By the end of Phase 6 they should be able to read hundreds of words using one of three strategies: Reading them automatically, decoding them silently and decoding them outloud.

Year 1 Phonics Screening Test

The Year 1 phonics screening check was piloted in approximately 300 schools in June 2011. The statutory phonics screening check for all children in Year 1 was rolled out shortly after the pilot.

The purpose of the phonics screening check is to confirm that all children have learned phonic decoding to an age-appropriate standard. This is done by giving children phonetically decodable real and fake words to read.

Children who do not reach the passmark should receive extra support from their school to ensure they can improve their decoding skills. They retake the phonics screening check in Year 2.

A teacher teaching phonics holding up the word had

Phonics Words

During the teaching of phonics, children practice their skills by reading a variety of decodable and non-decodable words. The words children can decode increase as they pass through the phonic phases and learn more sounds. Alongside these decodable phonics words children learn Tricky Words. These are words from the Letters and Sounds word lists that cannot be decoded.

FREE Phonics Tracker

FREE Phonics Flash Cards

FREE Phonics Sound Mat

FREE Tricky Word Flash Cards

LESSON PACK The Alphabet

FREE Alphabet Colouring Page