Unpacking Phonics Instruction in the Classroom

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Photo of Holly (Teach Starter)
Updated | 6 min read

When it comes to phonics instruction, our ultimate goal as teachers is to help our students learn the alphabetic code. Phonics is a way of teaching young readers and writers that letters represent the sounds of our spoken language. Our written language is like a code, so by helping our students learn the sounds of letters and how those letters sound when they’re combined, we are helping them to decode words when they read, as well as helping them decide which letters to use when writing.

What’s the difference between phonics and phonemic awareness?

You may be wondering, how ‘phonics’ differs from the ‘phonemic awareness’, phonemic awareness is the understanding that spoken words are made up of individual phonemes (sounds), it’s 100% auditory. Where as, phonics focuses on how sounds look in writing, which in turn, helps our young readers to decode the words by sounding them out based on sound-letter relationships. In this blog, we are going to highlight some important factors when it comes to phonemic awareness, because phonics instruction and phonemic awareness go hand in hand in the early years classroom.

Phonics Terms Defined

  • Grapheme – a letter or group of letters that represent a sound.
  • Phoneme – a speech sound made by the mouth.
  • Decoding – the ability to apply knowledge of letter-sound relationships to pronounce written words.
  • Encoding – the process of hearing a sound and being able to write the symbol that makes that sound.
  • Orthographic Mapping – process that we use to permanently store words into our long term memory.
  • Digraph – two letters coming together to make one sound.
  • Trigraph – three letters coming together to make one sound.
  • Schwa – an unstressed mid-central vowel such as the ‘a’ in again and the ‘er’ in never. Often referred to as the lazy sound.

We could help but share this hilarious video explaining the schwa sound!

Phonics Instruction in the Classroom

Tam, one of our lovely Ambassadors has recorded this fantastic mini video explaining how she tackles phonics in her classroom based on the research and best practice. In this video, Tam highlights the importance of building phonological and phonemic awareness and also a strong oral foundation. She discusses how a phonics program should be explicit, systematic and consistent and also touches on what order to teach kids their sounds.


Phonemic Awareness Activity Ideas

Even when you begin phonics instruction in the classroom, using phonemic awareness activities as warm-ups to your phonics lesson is a great way to continue to develop this important skill. Here are some quick and easy phonemic awareness activity ideas:

  • Beanbag Toss. Using three baskets that represent sounds in a CVC word and beanbags for the students to throw into the appropriate basket is a quick and easy active activity to utilise. For example, you may say to your students “Listen to this word – ‘bat’, now, I want you to throw the beanbag into the basket that represents the /t/ sound in the word bat.” The student would then throw the beanbag into the third basket to represent the final sound. You can change this up and focus only on beginning sounds etc – depending on the level of your students.
  • Jack in the Box. Pick a focus sound and have students jump out of their seat when they hear the focus word in a list of words you read out. 
  • Sorting Mini Objects based on a sound. Kids love anything ‘mini’ – I collected mini erasers from places like Kmart and then your students need to sort these mini objects based on the beginning phoneme. 
  • Hoping in hula hoops. Go outside and get the students to jump into a hula hoop for each sound in words that you say.
  • For more ideas, head to our blog – 18 Phonemic Awareness Activities for the Classroom.
Image of Beginning Sounds Sorting Activity

teaching resource

Beginning Sounds Sorting Activity

Practise identifying beginning sounds of words by sorting this set of 24 picture cards.

Teach Starter Publishing7 pagesYears: P - F
Image of Blending Phonemes Secret Message – Matching Activity

teaching resource

Blending Phonemes Secret Message – Matching Activity

Blend phonemes to build words and uncover the secret message!

Teach Starter Publishing10 pagesYears: P - 2
Image of Rhyming Match – Worksheets

teaching resource

Rhyming Match – Worksheets

Identify rhyming words through images with this set of 5 worksheets. 

Teach Starter Publishing1 pageYears: F - 1

What order should sounds be taught?

This is a question we get asked a lot – and there is no one way that all the research points towards, however, there are a number of key things to look out for that will assist in your phonics instruction in the classroom.

  1. Introduce short vowel sounds and common consonants straight away.
  2. Separate easily confused letters as well as similar sounds.
  3. Try to avoid teaching letters together that are pronounced a similar way.
  4. Include continuous sounds early to help with blending practice.

Some suggested sound orders:

How Can Sound Walls Support Your Phonics Journey?

A sound wall is a classroom display that is based on the phonology of our language. That is, the different speech sounds (phonemes) are displayed rather than just the 26 letters of the alphabet like a word wall. A sound wall is typically set up in two sections, vowels and consonants. Each phoneme represented includes an articulatory photo as well as a list of words that clearly displays the different graphemes for each phoneme.

By adding articulatory photos, children are encouraged to think about the place of articulation – that is, what’s happening with their teeth, lips and tongue when they are making a sound.

When using a sound wall at the very beginning of your phonics instruction in the classroom, you wouldn’t put the whole wall up – this would be too overwhelming for your students. Add the grapheme once the phoneme has been taught.

The beauty of this printable sound wall display is each grapheme for particular sounds are on different cards – so you can add as your students learn or become more confident with the huge variety of graphemes for the sounds in our language.

Printable Phonics sound wall

Blending and Segmenting

In the early days, blending and segmenting need to be explicitly taught. Engaging children with activities such as using playdough to initially segment the word (push down on playdough for each sound), and then blend the sounds (roll the balls into one) are great to help with blending and segmenting.

In this mini tutorial, Tam talks about the importance of teaching blending and segmenting with some activities she uses in her classroom.


Blending and segmenting resources:

Image of Segmenting and Blending Mats

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Segmenting and Blending Mats

A set of beautifully designed templates for students to practise blending and segmenting words.

Teach Starter Publishing24 pagesYears: F - 1
Image of Segmenting and Blending CVC Words Interactive PowerPoint

teaching resource

Segmenting and Blending CVC Words Interactive PowerPoint

An interactive PowerPoint for students to practise reading CVC words.

Teach Starter Publishing36 pagesYear: F
Image of SMASH IT! Blending 'l' Game

teaching resource

SMASH IT! Blending 'l' Game

Practise finding different ways to blend 'l' with other consonants with this set of 8 game boards and letter cards.

Teach Starter Publishing12 pagesYears: P - 2

Hot tip: If children struggle to blend words, concentrate on words that start with continuous sounds. Sounds you can hold such as ‘m’ and ‘s’ Other continuous sounds are f, l, n, r, s, v, z. These sounds can be held without distorting their sound.

What are Tricky Words?

Tricky words, or also known as ‘Heart Words‘ are words that have irregular spellings or tricky graphemes students may not have learnt yet. The words are often explicitly taught with a little heart above the part of the word that they need to learn ‘by heart’. For example, the word ‘said’ is a great example of how this strategy is taught to young readers. They can sound out the first sound /s/ and the last sound /d/ however the /ai/ letter combination is not easily decoded so would need to be learnt by heart, hence the little red hearts under these letters.

In the below video, Tam explains how she tackles tricky words in her classroom…


Our Tricky Word Decodable Sound button flashcards are a great place to start!

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