Choosing a school
Try to find a local school that uses an explicit, systematic synthetic phonics early literacy curriculum like Little Learners Love Literacy, Sounds~Write, InitialLit, Get Reading Right, or Jolly Phonics. The early years teaching sequence should cover all the main spellings of all 44 sounds, and include lots of work on blending and segmenting words with a variety of syllable structures (early and advanced phonemic awareness) plus work on word-building using meaningful word parts (morphology).
Try to steer clear of schools which use “incidental phonics” or “Balanced Literacy” and thus encourage a focus on beginning sounds not all the sounds in words, teach kids to rote-memorise high-frequency words, or teach beginners to “read” by memorising repetitive/predictable books or looking at first letters, pictures and guessing words from context (see this blog post for why this teaches the habits of weak readers, not strong ones).
If you can’t find a local school that uses explicit, systematic synthetic phonics in the early years, the good news is that you can do it at home, and it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg.
Key concepts and knowledge
Your child needs to understand that spoken words are made of sounds, and letters/spellings are how we write these sounds down.
Then she or he needs to start learning what the sounds are, and how each one is spelt. Synthetic phonics programs start off with just a small group of sounds and letters, which children practice reading and writing in little words (two or three sounds, e.g. “in”, “on”, “pin”, “nap”). They read little books containing words made just of these sounds and letters, till they master them. Then the programs gradually and systematically add more sounds and letters.
When you say a word for your child to spell, stretch it out and help your child “hear” all the sounds. Have letters available for them to choose/copy at first rather than having to write them from memory (write them on the back of an envelope if need be, or use a movable alphabet like my cheap download-print-and-laminate one). When reading, encourage your child to say a sound for each letter and then blend the sound to make the word.
Once your child knows one sound for each letter, it’s time to start introducing some sounds that are spelt with more than one letter, like “sh”, “ch” and “ng”, and then start combining consonants e.g. the “mp” in “jump” and the “gr” in “grub” and learning more vowel spellings, like oa, ai, ay, or and er, and the ways a single spelling can represent more than one sound.
Free online course
There is a great, free, online Udemy course called “Help your child to read and write” for parents of 4-6 year olds, which follows the Sounds~Write approach I also often use in clinic. It makes the task of helping kids hear the sounds in words and represent them with letters straightforward and logical. Sign up for it here. Their app, which can help you use this approach, is here.
Materials to try
- Movable alphabets such as letter fridge magnets. At first you only need single-letter ones, which are widely available, but once your child knows all the letters, you’ll need to move onto alphabets with spellings of more than one letter.
- Card games like Trugs box 1 or Milo’s Read and Grab games (yellow and light green).
- The apps listed in this blog post.
- Phonics Hero online.
- Home school resources from Get Reading Right.
- Little Learners Love Literacy books or apps, or other beginners’ decodable books (click here for my guest post on the Planning With Kids site about these).
- Sound Check (book 1) breaks down the task of writing little words well.
- The Spelfabet workbook 1, Level 1 word-building games and free First Phonics Picture book
- A whiteboard or magnadoodle board can be a fun way for children to experiment with writing little words.
Children with speech or language delays
If you’re worried about your child’s speech or language, ask a Speech Pathologist for an assessment without delay. Many schools have a Speech Pathologist who can provide this at no cost, and provide some therapy at school if necessary.
If your school doesn’t have a Speech Pathologist, you can find private Speech Pathologists in your area using the search function on the Speech Pathology Australia website. If you’re outside Australia, try this site. If you’re in Australia, you can ask your GP for a Medicare EPC/CDM referral, so that Medicare can help cover the cost of the first five sessions, or some private health funds cover Speech Pathology.
Children with speech-language difficulties are more likely to have weak awareness of sounds in words, so explicit, systematic teaching about sounds and letters is even more important for them than for other children.