Phonics : Teaching Children to Learn the Letter Sounds

In Jolly Phonics the main sounds of English are taught, not just the alphabet. The sounds are in groups. Some sounds are written with two letters, such as ee and or. These are called di-graphs. oo and th can each make two different sounds, as in book and moon, that and three.

To distinguish between these two sounds, the digraph is represented in two forms.
Each sound has an action which helps children remember the letter(s) that represent it. As a child progresses you can point to the letters and see how quickly they can do the action and say the sound. As a child becomes more confident, the actions are no longer necessary.

Children should learn each letter by its sound, not its name. For example, the letter a should be called a (as in ant) not ai (as in aim).

Similarly, the letter n should be nn (as in net), not en. This will help in blending. The names of each letter can follow later.

The letters are not introduced in alphabetical order. The first group (s, a, t, i, p, n) has been chosen because they make more simple three-letter words than any other six letters.

Sounds that have more than one way of being written are initially taught in one form only. For example, the sound ai (rain) is taught first, and then alternatives a-e (gate) and ay (day) follow later.

Examples can be found on the Jolly Phonics Website (under useful websites below).

How Phonics is Taught by Year Group/Phase


Phonic Knowledge and Skills

Phase One (Nursery/Reception)

Activities are divided into seven aspects, including environmental sounds, instrumental sounds, body sounds, rhythm and rhyme, alliteration, voice sounds and finally oral blending and segmenting.

Phase Two (Reception) up to 6 weeks

Learning 19 letters of the alphabet and one sound for each. Blending sounds together to make words. Segmenting words into their separate sounds. Beginning to read simple captions.

Phase Three (Reception) up to 12 weeks

The remaining 7 letters of the alphabet, one sound for each. Graphemes such as ch, oo, th representing the remaining phonemes not covered by single letters. Reading captions, sentences and questions. On completion of this phase, children will have learnt the "simple code", i.e. one grapheme for each phoneme in the English language.

Phase Four (Reception) 4 to 6 weeks

No new grapheme-phoneme correspondences are taught in this phase. Children learn to blend and segment longer words with adjacent consonants, e.g. swim, clap, jump.

Phase Five (Throughout Year 1)

Now we move on to the "complex code". Children learn more graphemes for the phonemes which they already know, plus different ways of pronouncing the graphemes they already know.

Phase Six (Throughout Year 2 and beyond)

Working on spelling, including prefixes and suffixes, doubling and dropping letters etc.


Blending is the process of saying the individual sounds in a word and then running them to-gether to make the word. For example, sounding out d- o- g and making dog. It is a technique every child will need to learn, and it improves with practice.

To start with you should sound out the word and see if a child can hear it, giving the answer if necessary. Some children take longer than others to hear this. The sounds must be said quickly to hear the word. It is easier if the first sound is said slightly louder. Remember that some sounds (digraphs) are represent-ed by two letters, such as sh.

Children should sound out the digraph (sh), not the individual letters ( s - h ). With practice they will be able to blend the digraph as one sound in a word. So, a word like rain should be sounded out r-ai-n, and feet as f-ee-t. This is difficult to begin with and takes practice.

Some words in English have an irregular spelling and cannot be read by blending, such as said, was and one. Unfortunately, many of these are common words. The irregular parts have to be remembered. These are called the ‘tricky words’.

Identifying sounds in words
The easiest way to know how to spell a word is to listen for the sounds in that word. This is called segmenting. Even with the tricky words an understanding of letter sounds can help. Start by having your child listen for the first sound in a word. Games like I-Spy are ideal for this. Next try listening for the end sounds, as the middle sound of a word is the hardest to hear. Begin with simple three-letter words such as cat or hot. A good idea is to say a word and tap out the sounds.

Three taps means three sounds. Say each sound as you tap. Take care with digraphs. The word fish, for example, has four letters but only three sounds, f-i-sh. Rhyming games and poems also help tune the ears to the sounds in words.

Other games to play are:
a) Add a sound: what do I get if I add a p to the beginning of i n k? Answer: pink..
b) Take away a sound: what do I get if I take away p from pink? Answer: ink. Other examples as above, and f-lap, s-lip, c-rib, p-ant, m-end, s-top, b-end.

Spelling the tricky words
There are several ways of learning tricky spellings:
1) Look, Cover, Write and Check. Look at the word to see which bit is tricky. Ask the child to try writing the word in the air saying the letters. Cover the word over and see if the child can write it correctly. Check to make sure.
2) Say it as it sounds. Say the word so each sound is heard. For example, the word was is said as ‘wass’, to rhyme with mass, the word Monday is said as ‘M-o-n-day’.
3) Mnemonics. The initial letter of each word in a saying gives the correct spelling of a word. For example, laugh – Laugh At Ugly Goat’s Hair.

The Actions

s Weave hand in an s shape, like a snake, and say ssssss.

a Wiggle fingers above elbow as if ants crawling on you and say a, a, a.

t Turn head from side to side as if watching tennis and say t, t, t.

i Pretend to be a mouse by wriggling fingers at end of nose and squeak i, i, i.

p Pretend to puff out candles and say p, p, p.

n Make a noise, as if you are a plane – hold arms out and say nnnnnn.

c k Raise hands and snap fingers as if playing castanets and say ck, ck, ck.

e Pretend to tap an egg on the side of a pan and crack it into the pan, saying eh, eh, eh.

h Hold hand in front of mouth panting as if you are out of breath and say h, h, h.

r Pretend to be a puppy holding a piece of rag, shaking head from side to side, and say r.

m Rub tummy as if seeing tasty food and say mmmmmm.

d Beat hands up and down as if playing a drum and say d, d, d.

g Spiral hand down, as if water going down the drain, and say g, g, g.

o Pretend to turn light switch on and off and say o, o; o, o.

u Pretend to be putting up an umbrella and say u, u, u.

l Pretend to lick a lollipop and say ll llll.

f Let hands gently come together as if toy fish deflating, and say ff f f f f.

b Pretend to hit a ball with a bat and say b, b.

ai Cup hand over ear and say ai, ai, ai.

j Pretend to wobble on a plate and say j, j, j.

oa Bring hand over mouth as if you have done something wrong and say oh! ie Stand to attention and salute, saying ie ie. ee or Put hands on head as if ears on a donkey and say eeyore, eeyore.

z Put arms out at sides and pretend to be a bee, saying zzzzzz.

w Blow on to open hand, as if you are the wind, and say wh, wh, wh. ng Imagine you are a weightlifter, and pretend to lift a heavy weight above your head, saying ng…

v Pretend to be holding the steering wheel of a van and say vvvvvv.

oo oo Move head back and forth as if it is the cuckoo in a cuckoo clock, saying u, oo; u, oo. (Little and long oo.)

y Pretend to be eating a yoghurt and say y, y, y x Pretend to take an x-ray of someone with a camera and say ks, ks, ks.

ch Move arms at sides as if you are a train and say ch, ch, ch.

sh Place index finger over lips and say shshsh.

th th Pretend to be naughty clowns and stick out tongue a little for the th, and further for the th sound (this and thumb).

qu Make a duck’s beak with your hands and say qu, qu, qu.

ou Pretend your finger is a needle and prick thumb saying ou, ou, ou.

oi Cup hands around mouth and shout to another boat saying oi! ship ahoy!

ue Point to people around you and say you, you, you.

er Roll hands over each other like a mixer and say ererer.

ar Open mouth wide and say ah. (British English) Flap hands as if a seal and say ar, ar,

Phonics games that can be played at home

  • Mood Sounds
  • Say a letter sound and ask the children to repeat it. Ask the children to say the sound as if they were angry, happy, frightened etc.
  • Gobbler/Muncher Game
  • Use a cereal box to make a person. E.g. Gordon the gobbler. Have a large hole for the mouth. Collect a variety of objects beginning with 2 different sounds. Ask your child to select an ob-ject from your tray that begins with a certain sound. Children feed the object to the gobbler with replies with an mmmm sound if they are correct.
  • Hoop game. Get 2 hoops, trays or plates and place a letter card on each of them e.g. s and a. Have a varie-ty of objects beginning with these 2 sounds. Ask your child to select an object and say the name of it. Repeat it several times and then ask your child to place it on the correct letter tray.
  • Croaker. Introduce a puppet to your child. Explain that it is finding it hard to say some words. Ask your child to select an object out of a bag. The puppet pronounces it incorrectly – maybe missing off the initial or end sound. The children help the puppet say the word correctly emphasising the part of the word that was missing. E.g. The puppet says ‘encil’ the child can say the word correctly ‘pencil’ and then the adult can emphasise the ‘p’ sound that was missing. 
  • Rogue Sound Game. Show a variety of objects to your child. All of the objects to have the same initial sound ex-cept for one item. Children to identify which is the rogue item. E.g. sun, sausages, cup, scissors.
  • Bingo. Bingo boards can easily be made to suit the ability of your child. You can use them in a variety of different ways to help your child learn the letters of the alphabet. Make a board containing 6 letters of the alphabet. Then make a set of 6 letter cards that match the board. You can make 2 boards to play a matching game with your child or one of you could be the bingo call-er and say the letter on the cards and the other person finds the letter on their board and puts a counter or toy on it. You can just match the letters or you could have some objects to match to the letter boards. Your child can then pick an object and place it on the correct letter to show what sound the object begins with.

Useful Websites
Teachers TV – Early Reading and Phonics -
Jolly Phonics Website -
Pronouncing the Phonemes -
Phonic Activities/Games –
Letters and Sounds -

Introduction to Phonics