There are so many good, evidence based programmes available now to support parents and educators in developing early reading and spelling skills.

These are based upon teaching phonics in a systematic, explicit manner.

If you don’t have the background knowledge about why a specific scope and sequence needs to be followed however, when things go ‘wrong’ (which they will invariably do for approximately 10% of children in any classroom), you won’t know how to adjust your teaching to ensure that all children learn and make steady progress.

Let us help by answering some of the most frequently asked questions about supporting children’s early reading and spelling skills when things don’t go as planned.

  1. What is the difference between phonological awareness and phonics?

Phonological Awareness: As we have mentioned in previous Chatterbox blogposts here ,  this term  refers to the ability to recognise and manipulate the sounds of spoken language, such as segmenting words into syllables, and identifying individual sounds (phonemes) within words. It’s a vital pre-reading skill that children require before they can then map ‘letters’ (also referred to as graphemes) to their speech sounds for the purposes of spelling and reading.

Phonics: Phonics, on the other hand, involves connecting these sounds (phonemes) to written letters (graphemes). It’s about learning the relationships between letters and the sounds they represent.

There is a difference between these two concepts and children need BOTH if they are to be successful in acquiring early literacy skills.

  1. What are the most important foundational phonological awareness skills to master?

Ideally, children will master the ability to segment words into syllables, identify sounds in various word positions and segment as well as blend sounds within words. If you had to pick the most important of these early developing skills of these to master, it would have to be the ability to segment (break words apart into component individual sounds) and blend (stretch these sounds back together to form a word) as these two skills link beautifully to spelling and reading.

So many children we meet have good awareness of individual speech sounds and the letters used to represent these (i.e. phonics), however without the phonemic awareness skills of segmentation and blending, they are unable to progress to spelling and reading simple words.

  • 3. How does speech link to literacy?

Speech and literacy are closely connected.

Reading and spelling essentially involves translating spoken language into written form.

Helping children to ‘crack the code’ involves showing them how their speech sounds map to the written form.

  1. How to help children read and spell words with less regular spellings

When encountering irregular or challenging words, so many of us are tempted to make comments such as “This is a tricky word.  You just need to remember it”.

Contrary to common belief…Very few words need be described in this way.

Sure, many words use less regular / common spellings of sounds but it is far more helpful to explain this to children with comments such as “This word has some tricky parts.  In this word the …. sound is spelled with this spelling” than to encourage children to use their visual memory alone to learn the words.

Children can easily become confused if we give them the message that some words can be sounded out whilst others have to be memorised by sight.  Nonsense!  All words require us to understand the links between our speech sounds and the spellings which represent these.  Some words just use less common spellings than others.

  1. So where do ‘sight words’ fit into all of this?

The term ‘sight words’ is quite misleading.

Words we encounter with high frequency in texts are more readily recognised than those that are less common.  Some of these words have regular spellings with 1:1 speech sound to letter correspondence.  Others have less regular or less common spellings representing speech sounds.

Teaching high frequency words certainly helps children leap into reading and writing sentences and texts more readily so there is a place for teaching them. Why not start with those high frequency words that use common spelling patterns to help children really consolidate their ability to utilise their phonological awareness and phonics skills OR start by teaching a small number of high frequency words that truly do have irregular, rare spelling patterns.

  1. How to choose a good decodable reader series

Look for decodable readers that align with the phonics skills your child is learning. Check if they progress systematically .  There are now plenty of decodable series available that combine high interest story lines with progressively more complex phonic concepts.  A great place to start is the SPELD nsw website

  1. How should you align your spelling and reading programs?

Ensure that your spelling and reading programs complement each other. So often we see predictable readers operating alongside an explicit, phonics intervention programme for the lowest performing students in the class. This doesn’t make any sense and nor does the use of weekly spelling lists that target semantic themes or phonic concepts not yet being addressed in your reading programme.  Children need to be able to spelling what they can read and vice versa.  The skills taught in spelling should align with the reading curriculum.

We hope these answers provide clarity and guidance in supporting the development of early reading and spelling skills. Remember that each child is unique, so adapt your approach to their individual needs and pace of learning. A strong foundation in literacy is a gift that will benefit them throughout their lives.

Enjoy nurturing an interest and early fascination in how words sound with your child and you will be setting them on the path for reading and spelling success!