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Wednesday, April 20, 2022

What is phonics and why is it important for your child?


Guest post by Geoff Taylor, the Cluster Academic Manager, SEA at the British Council

If I were to ask you how many letters there are in the English alphabet, you would know the answer (26).

If I were to ask you what the English vowels are, you would know the answer (a, e, i, o, u).

However, if I were to ask you how many sounds there are in English, would you know the answer? (It’s 44.)

Why are there more sounds than letters in English?

It is because letters can have more than one sound. For example, the ‘a’ in ‘apple’ sounds different to the ‘a’ in ‘plate’. It sounds different again in ‘hear’. We see this a lot in English. The ‘ie’ in the word ‘tie’ rhymes with ‘eye’, but the ‘ie’ in ‘pier’ rhymes with ‘ear’. Letters can have more than one sound.

So, what is the relationship between sounds and spelling in English? How do we know when a letter has a different sound? And most importantly, how can we teach this to our children?

Luckily the answer is very simple…through Phonics!

Phonics teaches children the relationship between sounds and spelling. It helps them develop reading and writing skills. If a child can say the word, Phonics will teach them how to spell the word and how to read the word.

It may look as though there is no relationship between sounds and spelling in English (for example, ‘rain’, ‘reign’ and ‘rein’ sound the same but are spelt differently) but there are rules that can be learned to explain these differences.

A simple rule is the ‘Magic E’. The ‘a’ in ‘tap’ sounds different to the ‘a’ in ‘tape’. This is because the ‘magic E’ at the end of ‘tape’ changes the sound of the ‘a’. We see this with ‘hat’ and ‘hate’, ‘fin’ and ‘fine’ or ‘bit’ and ‘bite’. Adding the ‘e’ to the end of the word changes the sound. There are songs for children explaining these rules, like this one for the Magic E:


Another common rule is that when you put two vowels together, we only hear the first one. For example, we hear the ‘o’ in ‘boat’. We do not hear the ‘a’. We hear the ‘a’ in ‘train’. We do not hear the ‘i’. Again, there are songs that teach this rule to children:


Phonics is about understanding these rules and applying them when reading and writing.

This skill is taught to children in Western schools. All schools in the UK teach Phonics to help children develop literacy. Research from the Ministry of Education in Australia states “The evidence is clear… instruction in Phonics during the early years of schooling is an essential foundation in teaching children to read.” Research also shows that Phonics could be most important in countries where children speak two or more languages, such as Malaysia.

However, Phonics is not without problems. While it can help children learn how to read and write a word, it does not help them know what the word means. Focussing only on Phonics can mean that children only read books that help them learn the phonics rules. If we want them to develop the habit of reading for pleasure, it is better to encourage them to read anything that they are interested in.

At the British Council, we use Phonics as part of a balanced strategy to help children learn to read and write in English. We believe that learning should be fun, and that children learn best in a relaxed and friendly environment. Helping children learn the rules of Phonics is useful, when done correctly it helps them develop a love of reading and a passion for learning that can last a lifetime. This is the aim of all good courses that develop literacy for children, and this is the aim of the British Council’s Phonics programme.

About The British Council in Malaysia

The British Council in Malaysia offers English courses for kids and teens. Your child will learn more than just language, they will develop skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, leadership, and making connections.

Our July intake is now open for registration, with early bird promo as low as RM599 per term, valid until the end of May. If you are interested to know more, please visit our website or book a free consultation with our friendly consultant.

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