Early Literacy and Phonics

Article excerpt

Note: In this article, we use the following conventions: single quotes to refer to a grapheme (e.g. 'b') and forward slashes to refer to a phoneme (e.g. /b/ refers to a sound that the letter 'b' can represent).

What is phonics?

Phonics is the set of relationships between the sounds in our language and the patterns of letters that can represent those sounds.

When we understand what phonics is, we understand that

* Letters are seen

* Sounds are heard

* In written English, one sound can be represented by different letters or groups of letters

'e' in 'she'      'ee' in 'sheep'   'ea' in 'pea'
'y' in 'funny'    'eo' in 'people'  'ie' in 'piece'
'e-e' in 'these'  'ey' in 'monkey'  'i' in 'ski'

* In written English, one letter can represent different sounds

/ee/ in 'he'      /e/ in 'bed'          /i/ in 'pretty'
/o/ in 'encore'   /[??]/ in 'between'

* A letter represents sounds only in the context of words (ie. a letter on it's own has no sound).

While there are 26 letters in the English alphabet, there are many more sounds--approximately 44 (depending on dialect). Thus there is no simple one-to-one correspondence between the letters and the sounds. In addition, the phonemes of spoken English vary with different dialects. Spoken American English, for example, sounds different to spoken Australian English.

This is further complicated by the fact that a phoneme is not one sound; it is a set of slightly different sounds which are perceived more easily by young preliterate children than literate adults. For example, the /p/ sound in 'pin' if different from the /p/ sound in 'spin' (in the latter, it gets a /b/ quality and young children will sometimes spell 'spin' as 'sbin'). For literature adults, visual memory has taken over. They see 'spin' with a letter 'p' so they think they are pronouncing a /p/ sound even though the second sound in the word is closer to /b/ than /p/.

How can I teach phonics from children's writing?

From day one of school, all children are expected to write. From their first pieces of writing, teachers learn about the children's knowledge of reading and writing at that time. First attempts to write show whether the children have early print concepts such as print direction, word, sentence, letter. In most classrooms, some new entrant children consider that scribble is writing, while in that same room, other children know that writing goes from left to right across a page; that in writing, words do not touch; that words are made up of sounds which are represented by letters.

Children's early writing reveals exactly what each of them knows about phonics.


In the first month of her Grade I year, a young writer begins a draft of a story called 'The Rhino That Had No Horn'. In following lessons she added many more pages. What does this piece of writing tell about this child's understanding of phonics?

She knows letters represent sounds in words

e.g. 'or' represents /or/ in 'horn'

'b' represents /b/ in 'baby' and 'brave'.

She is hearing all sounds in words

e.g. 'gronaps', 'perents', 'compeat'.

She knows one letter may represent different sounds

e.g. letter 'i' in 'him', 'Rino'

She knows one sound may be represented by different letters

e.g. the /a/ sound in 'they', 'baby'

She is over-generalising some sound-letter representations, but these generalisations inform the teacher of teaching/learning opportunities.

e.g. letter 'o' representing the /o/ sound in 'gronaps' (grown ups).

When reading, the letter-sound relationships in texts need to be processed very quickly. The wonderful thing about writing is that it dramatically slows down the speed of processing letter-sound relationships. As children say the word they want to write, they repeat it over and over again as they identify the sounds in the word and write letters to represent them. …