What Is Phonics?

what is phonics

Throughout February I am going to be running a series of posts on education, with a key focus on literacy. Literacy is something that I am pretty passionate about. Having a child who has needed assistance with literacy has significantly broadened my understanding of how we can help kids learn to read.

Put simply the best thing we can do is teach them phonics (via an explicit or synthetic approach). Report after report handed down to Australian governments has said this, but there has been little change in the way children are taught in schools.

After I wrote about this issue late last year in this post, I had a number of comments and emails asking for more info on phonics.

While I am passionate about phonics, I am not an expert! But thankfully there is a wealth of great information out there for parents to obtain a better understanding of phonics and the research behind teaching kids to read and below I share some great starting points.

What Is Phonics?

There is a fantastic Australian version of a Canadian 13-page booklet titled Reading: Breaking Through the Barriers. It was easy piece to read and one of the most informative guides I have read on phonics. You can download a free version from MultiLit (“Making Up Lost Time in Literacy”) here – Reading: Breaking Through the Barriers. MultiLit is a research initiative of Macquarie University.

The booklet will take you through:

  • What phonological awareness is and why it is so important.
  • Explains what decoding is and what phonemes are.
  • The principle of phonics.
  • Fluency and comprehension.
  • Defines explicit or synthetic phonics.
  • Examines the different teaching methods for reading – whole of language and phonics.

I recommend this discussion guide to all parents who have kids, even if they are already reading.

Phonics vs Whole of Language

My friend Alison has a fantastic blog called Spelfabet, which has excellent articles on literacy and phonics. It also has an online shop which sells phonics products for kids.

Alison has made the video above {click through to the blog if you cannot see it} which explains:

  • What the proper, scientific research tells us is the very best way to get children reading,
  • Why so few teachers and schools are currently properly equipped to teach chidren reading this way (not their fault, in her view),
  • What we might do to help change this for the better, to ensure that we get all children reading, and that illiteracy and poor literacy is prevented wherever possible.

If you know of some great phonics resources for parents, please leave a link in the comments below!


  1. says

    My little one is only 21 months old so we are a ways off reading but we are still doing phonics!
    We watch the “Jolly Phonics” videos on YouTube and then incorporate the songs when we are playing with him.
    For example he might ask for some cheese so we would spell cheese and then we would sing “c-h says [ch sound], c-h says [ch sound], all the letters make sounds and c-h says [ch sound]”
    I don’t mean to sound totally crazy…we find that it is a bit of fun and is really useful in interacting with our toddler.

  2. Fiona says

    I agree that many schools/teachers are not well equipped to teach phonics. It’s frustrating that many (most?) University teaching courses do not “teach the teacher” the full phonics system. This may change though, as the new National Australian Curriculum requires the teaching of digraphs. Many schools have delayed implementation of the curriculum in 2013 due to industrial action, but maybe by 2014 schools will be in-servicing staff and it will start to flow into the system.

    For parents who want a pain-free introduction to phonics, the Letterland computer program is really fun and engaging for kids (I have no affiliation but have seen how much kids enjoy the programme.)

    • says

      Thanks for the tip about Letterland Fiona. I agree abt teacher training not addressing phonics well enough and am hopeful things will change with the new curriculum framework.

  3. says

    My eldest needed a couple of months working on phonics with a speech therapist towards the end of prep and although prior to that her reading had been at normal levels after the therapy she was advanced for her age. She did have particular challenges though that required intervention, most notably she couldn’t pick out rhyming words. Both the schools I’ve had kids at taught phonics using THRASS charts and I found it useful to have a small chart at home for them to refer to and so I could help them if they needed it. My mum was a school teacher (early primary when phonics was taught) and she always maintained that kids needed to be taught phonics.

    • says

      I better add that the THRASS system works with phonemes (there are 44 discrete sounds in the english language) and teaches kids the letter combinations that are used to represent those sounds. This system reduces the number of words that need to be learned by sight because they don’t obey the rules.

  4. jacquickelly says

    This is great web site which is a good begin for phonics and it is for the most part free. http://www.starfall.com/. My children love it. I have phonics cards too, jolly phonics and thrass and both are good I prefer jolly phonics for the younger children as it engages the learner with actions, sounds and sight catering for different learning styles.

  5. says

    Hi Nicole,
    In 2010 we published a book called Teaching Kids to Read – A guide for teachers and parents. It was written by Fay Tran who was a specialist literacy teacher at Geelong Grammar (now retired).

    The book is now in its 4th reprint and is available from our website. http://www.wilkinsfarago.com.au/teaching_kids_to_read.html, or alternatively you can download free phonics cards that will assist with the teaching of Phonics.

    Fay Tran was also a partner of the National Year of Reading last year and is also a contributor to the following website http://learning2read.com.au/

    Happy reading!