Number one for English language teachers

Introduction to Onestop Phonics

A comprehensive introduction to the Onestop Phonics series for young learners by Rachel Finnie. The article includes an explanation of what phonics is, approaches to teaching phonics and an outline of the modules in the Onestop Phonics series.


Why bother teaching phonics? Isn't it enough to simply teach our young learners the alphabet?

This is a question that's been posed for many years. Before trying to provide the answer, it's worth looking at phonics in a bit more depth.

First of all, let's clarify what exactly phonics teaching is. Phonics teaching involves teaching children the relationship between the written letters of the alphabet (the graphemes, to use their technical name) and the individual sounds of spoken language - i.e. the phonemes.

The phonemes are the smallest parts of spoken language that combine to make up words. They are the speech sounds, not the actual letters, in a word. For example, the word look has four letters but only three phonemes (l, oo and k).

The English alphabet has 26 letters but around 43 phonemes (it's hard to specify the exact number as there are variations due to accent and dialect).

The aim of phonics teaching is to help learners understand that there are systematic relationships between written letters and spoken sounds (even though the vagaries of the English language mean that these relationships are not always entirely predictable). Knowledge of phonics helps children recognize familiar words and also decode new words. It means they are better equipped to enter into (and also enjoy) the world of reading and pronouncing English words.

It's generally found that learners who struggle with reading have one of two main difficulties - either comprehension problems, or trouble identifying, using and/or learning the sounds of speech that correspond to the letters. Phonics teaching addresses the latter area of difficulty extremely efficiently.

So, to answer the opening question, phonics teaching prepares our children for language learning and that fact alone makes it worth the effort. And, no, it is not simply enough to teach the alphabet in isolation. Key research findings on phonics teaching indicate that systematic phonics instruction is more effective than no phonics instruction at all and makes a significant difference to the pace at which a child's word recognition, spelling and reading progresses.

Phonemic awareness is therefore a valuable tool for all language learners.

Anchor Point:2 How can we teach young learners phonics?

There are several different approaches to phonics teaching, all of which can help to stand children in good stead. Each approach focuses on a slightly different aspect of the letter-sound relationship, but each is valid as a teaching tool.

Approaches to phonics teaching include:

  • teaching children how to convert letters or letter combinations into sounds and then how to make those sounds into recognizable words;
  • teaching children to analyze letter-sound relationships in familiar words;
  • teaching children to use words or parts of word families they know in order to identify new words with similar letters/letter combinations;
  • teaching children to break words down into phonemes and to make words by writing letters for phonemes;
  • teaching children letter-sound relationships during the reading of connected text.

Crucially, when it comes to young learners, there are many ways to make phonics teaching fun and imaginative. Many word games, word/picture activities, spelling quizzes and so on, can be adapted so as to be useful tools when it comes to teaching phonics.

Anchor Point:3 How can we see whether or not children have phonemic awareness?

Children can show us they have phonemic awareness in various ways, including:

  • recognizing which words in a set begin with the same sound (play, potato), include the same sound (walks, talking) or end with the same sound (hat, cat);
  • isolating and saying the first or last sound in a word (dis the first sound in dog, kis the last sound in book);
  • combining sounds to make a word (m- a- pmakes map);
  • breaking down whole words into separate sounds (shoeis made up of shand oo).

Anchor Point:4 The phonics series

The Onestop Phonics series for young learners provides teachers with comprehensive guidelines regarding phonics teaching, including specific suggestions about how to structure a series of phonics lessons, and will also to provide teachers with a range of tools which they can use with their students.

Specifically, the series begins with a detailed look at the alphabet. Specially designed food characters that will appeal to young learners form the basis of this module. Each character has its own flashcard and is accompanied by a downloadable podcast, PDF worksheets and teaching notes. Further modules will deal with specific letter sounds and letter combinations, again with accompanying worksheets and teaching notes. There will also be two more in-depth modules which focus on tools for teaching phonics to young learners and include a range of activities that are useful in the classroom.

Anchor Point:5 Useful references

Gerald Kelly: How to Teach Pronunciation, Longman (2000)

Joanne Kenworthy: Teaching English Pronunciation, Longman (1987)

Bonnie B. Armbruster and J. Osborn: Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read, The Center for the Improvement of Early reading Achievement, USA (2003)

Adrian Underhill: Sound Foundations, Macmillan (2005)

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Readers' comments (7)

  • I am going to use these ideas with my adult learner who at the age of 65 has decided to learn English and has no idea how to pronounce letters!

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  • Hello Hilary,

    That's brilliant! We hope it goes well.

    Best wishes and happy teaching,

    The onestopenglish team

  • Hi Marina,

    Thank you for your comment.

    Rachel Finnie suggests that in this case, the child would benefit from a phonics course – and that you as the teacher should go back to basics with the student and establish phonemic awareness (i.e. help the child to understand the relationship between the English letters and the sound(s) they can make). Without that basis, the child may always struggle with reading, so even if it feels like a step backwards, it will be worth doing this and progress from there on should be much faster, particularly with reading.

    We hope this helps.

    Best wishes,

    The onestopenglish team

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  • This is an interesting and helpful article. It's seems that phonics are rarely taught on ESL courses. The lesson plans on here are useful for beginners, but I am wondering what my approach should be when teaching phonics to a child who has already been studying English for 3 years. The child in question has great comprehension and speaking skills but struggles massively with reading and writing. Should I follow a phonics course as outlined by the English National Curriculum or is there something more specifically geared towards ESL students? Thanks.

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  • Thanks!

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  • Excellent! I'm looking forward to using these materials with my (rowdy) young learners :)

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  • I hope I can use some of the material in my classes in Taiwan.

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  • Excellent!Phonics for me is one of the most important part of teaching English.

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