The early years foundation stage (EYFS) sets standards for the learning, development and care of all children from birth to 5 years old to try to give them the best start in life. All English schools and Ofsted-registered early years providers must follow the EYFS, including childminders, preschools, nurseries and school reception classes. There are different early years standards in Scotland and Wales, but that said, all the provisions include the need to develop good communication and language skills. Teaching in the early years is mostly achieved through games and play but there will be opportunities for sessions to learn numbers and letters for example, including phonics.

What is phonics?

Phonics is a way of matching sounds with letters, to help build up words and subsequently, reading. It is a proven system and many children using phonics are able to read letters and short words before they enter a formal education in their reception year. Phonics can also help children to write and spell words too. But what is the best way of teaching phonics? Here are some tips to help you.

There are different forms of phonics with a slightly different teaching emphasis. These include:

Synthetic phonics

the most widely used - breaks down each syllable e.g. c-a-t

Analytical phonics

examines how words are similar/different e.g. pat/pail/park

Analogy phonics

looks at rhymes in words e.g. cake/make

Embedded phonics

taught opportunistically in the course of reading

There are different stages of phonics teaching.

Phase 1 – early years

Way before children start learning letter names, they begin their development of language skills through listening. They need to learn to listen first, enabling them to differentiate between different noises, and then tune in to the different sounds in words. You can help children become successful readers later by helping them with these listening skills.

  1. Start by asking the children to listen for different sounds in the room or outside. You could use different instruments to see if they can identify different pitches or tones.
  2. Get them to use their bodies and voices to copy sounds. They can be percussive sounds, or just noises, but the emphasis is on copying the things they hear.
  3. You can play games like “I spy” to help identify sounds at the start of words, or repeat the consonant at the start of a word several times, e.g. c, c, c, cat to emphasise the ‘c’ sound.
  4. Ask them what kind of noises different things make, e.g. a dog, a car, a train etc.
  5. Ask them to identify different sounds that rhyme such as in nursery rhymes, or alliterative beginnings, e.g. rotten rain.
  6. Split different words up into their component sounds, such as D-O-G or C-A-T.
  7. Use words from topics that the children are interested in.

Phase 2

At this stage, children start to learn to correspond letters (graphemes) with sounds (phonemes). There are 44 phonemes in the main phonics set, varying slightly depending on the type of phonics used. It is usual to start with the most common, simple, single-letter sounds. There are 19 of these, such a ‘s’, ‘a’ and ‘t’. Nurseries often start this but it’s definitely taught in reception.

  1. Phase 2 tips:
    Start simply – teach a few letters at a time, e.g. s, t, i, a, m, p, n.
  2. You can build simple words with only a few letters, e.g. with the 7 letters listed above, you can create the words ‘sat’, ‘sit’, ‘mat’, ‘pin’, ‘pat’ etc. This is known as ‘blending’. Simple words like these are known as CVC words because they include a consonant, vowel and another consonant.
  3. Once children know a few letters, use games and as many everyday opportunities as possible to point out letters in things around them. For example use road signs, adverts or magazines.
  4. Ask students to think of things that begin with a letter: “Tell me 3 things that start with the letter c” (cat, cake, candle).
  5. Stick labels on objects to identify them and use posters showing images and simple words. Label the ‘door’ or the ‘wall’ for example. Remember to use lower-case letters at this stage.
  6. Use cut-out letters, letter blocks or magnetic letters and let children start making words, experimenting with blending different sounds.
  7. Some systems use actions to help children learn the letters too and there are a myriad of phonics systems games and apps too.

Phase 3

In this phase, children learn the remaining 25 sounds, which are more complex two-letter sounds, such as ‘au’, ‘ar’ and ‘ee’. This phase (and higher phases), are usually taught from year 1 and in combination with reading simple books as part of a formal reading curriculum.

In nursery settings, focusing on phases 1 and 2 will provide a solid foundation for more formal approaches when they go to school.

Teaching phonics is just like teaching any other skill that the child is developing, so remember:

  • Each child is different and will learn at different rates
  • Children have different preferred learning styles; some learn better by visual methods, some are more kinaesthetic and some, more auditory. Try to include different styles in your phonics teaching using sounds, images, pictures and tangible items such as letter blocks to cover most styles.
  • Reading and recognising letters is not the same as understanding what is read. We may be able to read a sentence in French, but if we don’t understand what the words actually mean in English, then the activity has little effect in helping us communicate. Therefore, help children understand the words they read and build their vocabulary too. This way, they will not only be able to read the word ‘mat’ but will also understand what a mat is, what it is used for, and where they might find one.

And finally…

  • Make it fun
  • Keep sessions short to aid concentration
  • Don’t teach phonics when children are tired
  • Keep reading to children
  • Give them lots of praise!

For more information, see:




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