Phonics: The Most Important Skill that Beginning Readers Learn

Phonics is at the heart of how children learn to read. If you have a young reader, you might remember how exciting it was when he or she started learning letters, or how proud your child felt the first time he or she sounded out a word. It’s like watching a whole new world open up for your child.

Once children know the letters of the alphabet and the sounds they stand for, they’re ready to use those building blocks to read words and simple sentences. Building strong phonics skills in the early years of school is the key to your child becoming a strong, independent reader.

What is Phonics?

Letters stand for sounds in spoken language. If you think of words and sentences as a code, then when you read, you’re breaking the code. You’re matching letters to sounds so that you can sound out words. That’s de-coding, and it’s what phonics is all about.

For example, the letter t stands for the sound /t/. Your child can blend these sounds together — /t/ /ŏ/ /p/ — and read the word top. The majority of words young kids come across are decodable, from simple words like top to more challenging ones like peach or raccoon.

Why is Phonics Important?

Phonics is, hands-down, the best way to teach kids to read words. This is well-supported by research: we know that systematic phonics instruction is better than any other approach when it comes to learning to read. Why is it so effective? Because phonics gives your child the tools to read almost every word he or she comes across. And that’s really powerful.

Learning phonics will have a big payoff for your child. The more success your child has using phonics to read words, the more capable and confident he or she will feel about reading. Your child will want to have that feeling of success again and again, so it’s great motivation to keep at it when reading gets tougher.

How Do Children Learn Phonics?

Phonics is best taught systematically, starting with the easiest elements and working up to more challenging ones. For most kids, it begins in kindergarten and wraps up by the end of second grade. Here’s a quick look at what learning phonics will be like for your child each year:

  • Kindergarten is all about exploring how letters and sounds work. Children learn to recognize the letters of the alphabet, and they learn how to hear the individual sounds in a word. When they put these two things together—when they match letters with their sounds—they’re learning phonics. After a year filled with learning and fun, your child will be able sound out words like cat or bed.
  • First grade is the big year when it comes to learning to read, and it’s all about phonics. Your child will learn a lot—he or she will go from reading easy words like bat to words with long vowel sounds like shake, to words with vowel combinations, like train. By the end of the year your child will be able to read most one-syllable words, and many two-syllable words, like picnic or rocket.
  • In second grade, children really grow as readers. They strengthen first-grade phonics skills and learn more advanced ones for tackling harder words, like rainbow or suddenly. Your child will learn to break longer words into small parts, like syllables, and prefixes and suffixes. By the end of the year, when phonics instruction wraps up, a major milestone is in sight: fluency!

From kindergarten through second grade, learning to read is exciting, but it can also be challenging. There’s a lot of trial and error, and sometimes you’ll see your child struggle. This is completely normal. With the right instruction and lots of practice and encouragement, your child will master these skills. You’ll see him or her reading words correctly and without a lot of effort—even the really hard ones.

Easy Ways to Support Your Child

So, how can you support your child? Well, let’s start with this: you don’t have to be a teacher! Your child will learn phonics at school, but there are some great ways you can support your child at home. And they’re all easy to do.

  • Find opportunities to explore letters and sounds and words with your child. When you’re driving or at the store, look at signs and try to spot the letter your child’s name starts with. Or point out words your child can decode, like pet or stop.
  • Make sure you have lots of books at home that your child can succeed with. Easy Readers are perfect—they’re at the right level of difficulty for beginning readers, and you can find lots of them at the library or book store.
  • Give your child lots of loving encouragement and support. This is something that you can do better than anyone else! Keep reading sessions relaxed and positive. Listen to your child read, praise his or her efforts, and don’t hesitate to step in to help if your child gets frustrated.
  • Keep reading aloud to your child and having fun together with books. Read your child’s favorite picture books, or try a chapter a night from a short chapter book. Enjoying these books is a wonderful motivator for your child to learn to read on his or her own.

Learning phonics and beginning to read is a huge milestone, and so much learning is packed in to just a few years. It’s an exciting time! With the right kind of phonics instruction, along with encouragement from you, your child will get off to a great start and become a skilled, confident reader.

Give your child a strong foundation in phonics and get the guidance you need to support his or her reading development at home.

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