How to Teach Phonics Simply & Clearly to Kids

By , Staff Writer
teach phonics word mat
    teach phonics word mat
    photo hand: Anastasia Dobrusina / Getty , boy on mat: ilyaliren / Getty
    Used under Getty Images license

Teaching phonics involves helping people learn and apply the relationships that exist between sounds and letters, which are generally predictable. Through phonics, kids are able to master the art of sounding out words. Whether you're teaching a child how to read who has not yet been exposed to phonics at all or you're working with a young learner to help reinforce what they are learning in school, these strategies for how to teach phonics can help.

What Is Phonics?

Phonics is a way of teaching people how to read and write that emphasizes how the letters used to write words are related to the sounds made when words are spoken aloud. It is based on the alphabetic principle, which simply conveys that individual letters and combinations of letters are used to represent certain sounds in words.

Phonics emphasizes:

  • how to read words by connecting the letters on the page to the sounds they make
  • how to write words by connecting the sound of a spoken word to letters of the alphabet

How to Teach Phonics to Kids

The first thing kids need to learn in phonics is what the various letters sound like. Start with some short, simple words like these three-letter words for pre-readers. Choose a word to start with, then focus on helping kids master the sound made by the first letter of that word. Say, for example, you choose the word "mat." Follow the steps below to teach kids to read the word "mat."

Step 1: First Letter Pronunciation

Start with the first letter of the word, with the goal of getting the child to associate the sound of the first letter of the word ("m") with how it is written.

  1. Print the word mat (by hand or via computer) on an index card or standard sheet of paper in large, block-style letters.
  2. Show the word to the child and explain that today you will be learning how to read the word on the page.
  3. Point to the letter "m" (or underline it) and explain that this letter is called "m" and it makes the "mmmm" sound.
  4. Ask the child to practice the "m" sound with you.
  5. Ask the learner if they can think of any words that start with the "mmmm" sound, then provide reinforcement on their responses.
  6. Have the child practice writing the letter "m."

Step 2: Sound Out the Rest of the Word

Once students can recognize and make the sound of the first letter, move on to the rest of the word. This is why it's important to begin with a very short word. Reserve longer words for learners who have already mastered basic phonics strategies.

  1. Next, show the child the "at" in the word by pointing to it or circling the letter combination. You could even ask the child to circle it to boost engagement.
  2. Ask if they know what the two letters are, and provide reinforcement based on their response.
  3. Go over the names of the letters, indicating that they are "a" and "t," practicing the sound of the vowel ("a") and the consonant ("t").
  4. Explain that when certain letters appear side-by-side, there is a corresponding sound for that group of words.
  5. Explain that there is a special sound for the "at" letter grouping; pronounce it as /æt/, then ask the learner to repeat.
  6. Ask if the child can think of any other words that have the "at" sound, then provide reinforcement.

Step 3: Put the Sounds Together

Now that the child knows that "m" sounds like "mmmm" and that "at" is pronounced as /æt/, it's time to put the sounds together to form a word.

  1. Tell the child that now it's time to bring the "mmmm" sound and the "at" sound together.
  2. Point at the word and ask the child to put the sounds together to say the word.
  3. As they make the sounds, provide reinforcement to help them tweak the length of each sound to get the pronunciation right.
  4. Have the learner say the word one final time, then congratulate them on reading the word aloud from the paper.

Step 4: Apply Phonics to Other Words

Explain that the student can apply this technique to sound out other somewhat similar words. Say something like, "Now that you know what "at" sounds like, in order to read other words with this combination, you'll just need to be able to figure out the sound of the other letter(s). Isn't that great? Are you ready to try?"

  1. From there, have the student continue practicing by providing other sheets of paper with similar three-letter words that include "at" (such as cat, bat, hat, pat).
  2. Work with the child to practice the sound of the first letter, then have them combine it with the "at" sound to read the word from the page.
  3. Then, go to four-letter words that begin with diagraphs that follow the same pattern, such as "ch" (chat) and "th" (that) to build on what has now become prior learning.
  4. Next, expand to other age-appropriate four-letter that follow the consonant, consonant, vowel, consonant (CVCC) pattern.
  5. Have students practice reading and writing the words they are learning to read along the way.

Covering All the Sounds

Once students see how learning the sounds of each letter can help them read, you'll be able to motivate them to want to learn all of the sounds. That's the next step in teaching phonics. Young learners are sure to love the fun alphabet song video below, and it's a fabulous tool for teaching phonics.

Reinforce Learning Phonics With Practice

It's important to reinforce phonics learning with kids so that they build a solid foundation for reading. There are many ways to do this.

  • Make flashcards for every letter of the alphabet and common letter combinations. Work through them, a few at a time, until children have mastered all of the phonemes.
  • Read aloud to young children, asking them to do something special whenever they hear a word with a certain sound. Choose any activity kids can do (and will enjoy!) such as clapping their hands, or getting up and dancing.
  • Make each week a certain letter, combination of letters or sound and focus on practicing making the sound. Brainstorm words that start with or include your chosen letter and practice sounding out words that have it. You could choose words that start with b one week. Then, you could emphasize consonant blends another week.
  • Encourage kids to play fun and educational printable word games to help them practice their newly acquired phonics and reading skills. These online word games can also be a great option.

Beyond Teaching Phonics

Phonics learning builds on the basics above, moving from simple words that are more complex. Resist the temptation to start explaining all the exceptions in the English language as you move through the predictable patterns. That will come later. Students need to master rules and patterns that are usually correct before dealing with the complexity of the English language. Instead, expand the lessons to incorporate simple strategies for teaching sight words. There are sight word lists for kids from pre-k all the way through elementary school.