How to Teach Phonics

Teaching phonics is one of the easiest things you do as a parent. It’s the easiest, because, after all, it’s just learning the basic letter sounds needed to read, and there are so many subjects more difficult than this: Latin, logic, chemistry, calculus! But to be honest, I believe it can also be difficult as well, which I will talk about below.

Phonics Curriculum

I decided to use The Ordinary Parents Guide to Teaching Reading (OPG) for phonics because I didn’t even know about Memoria Press at the time I started looking at phonics books when my first child was about three or four years old. I knew of Susan Wise Bauer, having read her book The Well-Trained Mind (third edition), and figured I would give the book written by her mother, Jessie Wise, a try. Everyone has to start somewhere, and that was my beginning.

Now, after seeing all the many books and programs for phonics, I have to say that I personally think Wise’s original book is the best phonics book/program available. It has everything that makes Memoria Press materials excellent and my first choice for curricula: no colors or pictures (therefore no distractions for the child), scripted lessons for the parent, and flashcards for review. It is just one open-and-go book, instead of lots of manipulatives or pieces or multiple books.

As a phonics book, it stands out from the crowd (and sets itself apart from the Memoria Press phonics set) by not giving pictures that the child can use as a crutch to determine the words, but instead makes them rely on their memory of phonics rules to sound out the words.

It is also, extremely comprehensive. It doesn’t just give the basic sounds, but goes into two- and three-syllable words, and many different letter patterns commonly found in more difficult words within its 231 lessons. After completing OPG, your child should be able to decode and read almost any word, which as you will see below, my first two children did excellently.

The lessons are usually short stories utilizing the list of words the child just read. Sometimes they’re even funny, and my children all enjoy reading them. Even my struggling readers are/were always asking me to do a phonics lesson (instead of me having to tell them we will do one).

And personally, I know this is counter to Memoria Press’s thought, I do not believe that phonics and writing should happen together in the same book. My children learn phonics, and they learn to write, but reading and writing are two different subjects that should not be taught together at that age. A strong reader does not mean a strong writer and a struggling reader does not mean a struggling writer. Children are sometimes ready to read before they are ready to write, especially the first/oldest or only children.

I have noticed an increasing interest at an ever younger age in all my children to write, such that this year my three year old is excited to be doing a “pre-writing” writing workbook, whereas my oldest did not start formally writing until he turned six (which coincided with the end of the phonics book)!

I also think that in kindergarten, children have enough writing to do with the copywork materials, and do not need any extra. But a mostly oral education (as far as I am able) is one part of my philosophy of education, as I will share at a later time.

So the OPG fits all this criteria, and I have yet to find a downfall with it, other than a couple sentences for the child to read have words which aren’t taught until the next lesson (I just tell the child the word), and I have to cut the flashcards out or make them myself.

I do supplement with extra “phonics-like” reading books so that they get extra reading practice with something new instead of just re-reading the same sentences and stories over again. My favorite are the original BOB books (meaning only set 1 and to some extent set 2), the American Language Readers series, and the new First Start Reading Storybooks by Memoria Press.

Most “phonics readers” are not acceptable for this purpose, putting together way too many advanced concept words with just one or two words the child is actually able to read. I have tried many different boxed sets (like the I Can Read Phonics sets, Step Into Reading phonics book sets, and the Star Wars phonics books boxed set and others) and they are just too advanced for early reading as we work through the OPG.

The last thing in my phonics arsenal is my flashcards. I use the OPG flashcards, and my own that I have written to correspond to the word lists in some lessons from OPG (this will be explained below), and also, I now use the Memoria Press phonics flashcards. Review is indispensable to mastery of phonics and the ability to read, so flashcards are an absolute must item for this subject!

Reading Aloud: Essential to Teaching Phonics

One thing essential to teaching a child to read is actually reading aloud to the child. You should think of this as part of your reading program, and start as early as possible, reading aloud as much as possible. I am not over-exaggerating this point. Having read Jim Trelease’s book The Read-Aloud Handbook (seventh edition), as well as and more importantly seeing the results in my own children (as mentioned below), this cannot be over-emphasized. Reading aloud is necessary.

Read to your toddlers before naps, before bed, at meals, or whenever they will let you read without ripping up the book or turning pages before you’re done.

Read to your preschoolers as much as possible and don’t be afraid of including books that are well above their reading level. For example, I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings out loud at bedtime to my children when they were only 2, 4, and 6 years old and they all loved it.

Read to your child even when they can read themselves. Choose books that they will love that are at or above (even well above) their reading level.

This is good family time, but more importantly, all this exposure to words, especially words they don’t normally hear will help them to identify those words when they sound them out.

Even when teaching phonics rules, the child still needs to know the words, having heard them multiple times, before trying to read them. Otherwise they will be confused even when they have sounded the word out correctly, because they do not know what it is. It is really hard to phonetically sound out a word like “bough”, for example, when you have never actually even heard the word spoken, or have only heard it spoken a few times. Children need many exposures to words in order to recognize them when learning to read, so make reading aloud an essential part of your phonics curriculum.

Actually Teaching Phonics

Phonics starts out in preschool (a year or two before kindergarten) with learning letter sounds. To advance into reading words, a basic understanding and recall of the short vowel sounds and all regular consonant sounds is necessary. I vary the teaching of this since children usually need a full year to learn letter sounds.

I teach letter sounds with multiple different kinds of flashcards, lessons 1-26 in OPG, alphabet blocks, letter magnets, wooden ABC puzzles, or alphabet books. Anything that has the letters on it will work. I say the sound and I have the child repeat after me. We look at letters everyday, usually doing about 1 letter a week, and taking a full week for review every five weeks or so to go back and review what they have learned, to make sure it’s memorized.

Once the child knows all the letter sounds (not blends, digraphs or diphthongs, just the basic sounds), then they can start blending those sounds into words and we start with the first reading lesson (#27) in OPG. We do one lesson every day, or sometimes only a half a lesson, if it is really long. I never do more than one per day.

As each new phonics rule or sound is learned, I add that flashcard to my stack so that we can review and rotate all the lessons the child should know. We review everyday before we start the next lesson. If it seems like the child is struggling too much with the review, then I just review and do not do a new lesson that day.

At one point in the book, you are supposed to review two lessons and learn one new. This is where I use those flashcards I mentioned which have the lessons’ word lists on them. I write up one flashcard for each particular sound, even if multiple sounds are taught in a lesson. This is not necessary, but it is much easier this way to add particular sounds or blends that a child is struggling on instead of having to mark that spot in the book for review.

After the lessons with all the short vowel sounds (#40), I add in a day or two a week to read from the BOB book set 1 or the short vowel phonics reader—American Language Reader 1 called Fun in the Sun, instead of reviewing flashcards. After the lessons with the consonant blends and digraphs (#64), I add book two (Scamp and Tramp) from the American Language series. After the lessons with silent “e” long vowels (#75), I add the long vowel book (Soft and White), and so on.

The Difficulty with Phonics

With all subjects, if a child is struggling, it’s usually because he needs more review with the memory work. In math, it may mean just reviewing math facts or it could mean going back and reviewing the concepts in a lesson. With phonics, though, I have learned, after successfully teaching four children to read and starting to lay the foundation with a fifth, every child is different in the way they learn to read, so reviewing words vs. reviewing concepts/sounds is not the only issue.

I have been very consistent with how I approach teaching phonics. I have used the same materials: The Ordinary Parents Guide to Teaching Reading (the original) along with the accompanying flashcards, and yet every child’s journey to reading was different.

My first son went through the book steadily at a lesson a day without any problems and by the end of phonics, he could read books as advanced as The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by himself at age 6 1/2.

My second started out mixing up b and d, and I was so worried that something was wrong, and she would never read. After a little bit of research, though, I learned it was normal, so we kept plugging away through the book, still at a lesson a day, and before she was even finished with the phonics book, she was reading the Classic Starts series by herself (which a homeschooling mother I know on the internet uses for her middle school literature program).

My third child started out well with the beginning of the book, but began struggling and needing tons of review approximately two-thirds of the way through. I had to back up about ten lessons at two or three different times and reteach and review because he just didn’t seem to be getting it. He finished the book, but was only reading easy “grade level” material or below at that point. I worried about him being a weak reader, since his siblings were such strong readers after completing the phonics book, but the next year during second grade, he blossomed from struggling to read The Courage of Sarah Noble out loud to me at the beginning of the year, to being able to read The Moffats and Paddington silently to himself by the middle of the second semester. Reading finally clicked for him. It just took some time.

My fourth child started our phonics book last year. She has been struggling the whole time, so much so that I decided to use the Memoria Press phonics flashcards and Classic Phonics book (that came with the spelling program) to supplement for review along with my main book. I think this is mostly a failure on my part and not the child—I have two high needs (one being special needs) toddler and preschooler and they took so much attention from me last year that I wasn’t able to be consistent with her phonics lessons everyday. I also have not been able to read aloud to her at the same rate that I read aloud to her older siblings. So, she is sadly just now starting on long vowels (which is only about a third of the way into the book) at the start of first grade, and she is still sounding out a lot of words. But she can read the basic words, even if slowly, and I am confident that she will be able to read much better by the end of this school year.

(Edited to add: The consistency with which we have been able to do phonics this school year is really helping her. She has actually already advanced through diphthongs and long vowels with silent ‘e’ and will start on digraphs this week. She is reading very well. Consistency with phonic is necessary. Don’t let it slip!)

All that is to say, although learning phonics is similar to other subjects, where review is so necessary when a child is struggling, it is sometimes hard to tell whether you should actually stop for review or just keep going ahead, knowing it will eventually “click” for the child.

There is this point in phonics where a child will go from struggling through and sounding out phonetically all the words, to just reading them, as you or I would read them. We call that, when it clicks, but each child is different as far as when they get to that point. The tricky thing is, knowing whether they just need to keep trucking through or to go back for review. It is not always the latter.

As I have noticed with my current phonics student, sometimes the review just frustrates the child and makes phonics drudgery, but continuing on seems fruitless as you pile more sounds onto something they are still struggling with.

It is a fine line to know whether to review or to push through. I opt, as often as possible, for pushing through, until it is obvious that they need to stop for review.

If you like what you’re reading, share this with a friend, and don’t forget to subscribe so that you don’t miss my next post on How to Encourage Reading! As always, love your children, give them a Fundamentally Classical education, and don’t stress over phonics!

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