Phonics (emergent literacy)

Phonics is the ability to map sounds onto letters (sound-letter knowledge).


Children start to develop this early decoding ability in early childhood.

The ability to decode words is strongly reliant on children having strong phonological awareness skills, which are a gateway into letter-sound knowledge.

Phonics knowledge allows children to understand the link between sounds (phonemes) and letter patterns (graphemes).

Phonics can be introduced through emergent literacy experiences.

In early childhood children will typically develop an emerging awareness of phonics, and that other aspects of emergent literacy and oral language are the main foci.

English is an alphabetic language as it has 26 letters and 44 speech sounds. Combinations of these letters are used to represent all the different speech sounds (phonemes).

In English, sound-letter patterns can be either single letters (graph), two letters (digraph), three (trigraph), or four letters (quadgraph) to spell these sounds.
Sound-letter pattern Grapheme Example grapheme Example word
1 letter making 1 sound graph b a rub cat
2 letters making 1 sound digraph ch oy chop soy
3 letters making 1 sound trigraph dge ere ridge here
4 letters making 1 sound quadgraph ough through though

Learn more about the 44 sounds of English:

Watch the 44 speech sounds video on Vimeo.

The importance of phonics

Early phonics knowledge is the key to starting to decode written words. Children can use phonics knowledge to “sound out” words.

[Children] learn to recognise how sounds are represented alphabetically and identify some letter sounds, symbols, characters and signs.
- VEYLDF (2016)

Phonics is essential for children to become successful readers and spellers/writers in the early years of schooling and beyond. Introductions to phonics through engaging learning experiences can start from the ages of 3 and 4.

Difference between phonological awareness and phonics

Phonological awareness is the awareness of speech sounds, syllables, and rhymes. Phonemic awareness is the phoneme (“speech sound”) part of this skill, and involves children blending, segmenting, and playing with sounds to make new words.

Phonics is the mapping of speech sounds (phonemes) to letter patterns (graphemes).

Phonological awareness and phonics are therefore not the same. However, these literacy foci overlap quite a lot, especially in the early years of primary school.

Key developmental milestones

The following ages and stages are a guide that reflects broad developmental norms, but doesn’t limit the expectations of every child (refer to VEYLDF Practice Principle: High expectations for every child). It is always important to understand children’s learning and development as a continuum of growth, irrespective of their age.

Early communicators (birth - 18 months):

  • developing interest in books and print.

Early language users (12 - 36 months):

  • interested in print
  • pretending to read
  • enjoying storybook reading
  • interested in syllables, rhymes, sounds
  • experimenting with mark making and drawing

Language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months):

  • growing awareness of words and print (metalinguistic skills)
  • playing with sounds and language
  • recognition of:
    • familiar words by recognising only a few letters
    • printed material
    • trademarks
    • own name
  • scanning of material from left to right
  • growing letter-sound (phonics) awareness
  • starting to experiment with writing and spelling

Early writing and spelling experiences are a great way to introduce phonics.

Introducing phonics

For introductions to letter-sound patterns, it is best to begin with the simplest graphemes.You can introduce these through environmental print, shared book reading, shared drawing and writing experiences, and letter games.

These introductory phonics patterns (graphemes) are the first building blocks of simple words.

Using just these simple patterns, educators and children can create 100s of words, all using these short vowel sounds:

  • short /a/ — for example cat dab man tap bag
  • short /e/ — for example met fed wet men get
  • short /i/ — for example kit lid nip fit fix quit
  • short /o/ — for example cot pod got top
  • short /u/ — for example cut dub tug bun

You can download this overview of phonics patterns to see the scope of sound-letter patterns from simple to complex.

More information on phonics

Irregular words

Some words do not follow the sound-letter (phonics) rules. These are known as irregular words.

  • regular words are words that can be decoded using knowledge of phonics patterns (for example get, well, which, before)
  • irregular words are words that do not conform to phonics patterns (do, said, could, yacht, doubt).

Sometimes you will come across irregular words in emergent literacy experiences. For these words sounding out won’t really work, so you can read (or spell) the whole word for children.

Look at the more complex phonics patterns to know which words have intermediate/advanced patterns, and which are irregular.

Blends vs. digraphs/trigraphs

Consonant blends are combinations of consonants that appear before or after a vowel (for example plug, splat, grump, spilt).

Sometimes blends can be confused with digraphs (for example rich, shut) and trigraphs (r i dge).

If you can break the sounds apart then you are hearing a blend:

  • for example split —> /s/ /p/ /l/ /i/ /t/
  • for example pink —> /p/ /i/ /n/ /k/.

If the sounds will not break apart then it must be a digraph, trigraph or quadgraph:

  • ship —> /sh/ /i/ /p/
  • itch —> /i/ /tch/.

Theory to practice

Introducing phonics is a key to early reading and spelling success.

An awareness of the links between speech sounds (phonemes) and letter patterns (graphemes) is one of the essential parts within the Four Resources model of reading (Luke & Freebody, 1999).

When beginning to read, children need to "break the code" of written language (decoding). When spelling they need to “use the code” to turn their speech into written words (encoding).

Evidence base

Strong evidence demonstrates the importance of phonics for literacy teaching, particularly in the early years of Primary. When educators introduce children to sound-letter patterns through engaging emergent literacy experiences, it makes the transition to early reading and spelling much smoother.

The evidence for this includes the synthesis of research literature in the Australian National Inquiry into the Teaching of Reading (Rowe et al., 2005).

In this review, they found that numerous studies support the effectiveness of phonics for early reading skills. In particular, teaching practices in early primary school that included an explicit focus on the sound-letter patterns (graphemes), and applied these to reading and writing experiences were most effective.

These findings are also replicated in Hattie's (2009) Visible Learning, the US National Reading Panel (2000) and the UK Rose Review (2006).

Getting started

Phonics: Getting started downloadable for:

  • Early communicators and early language users
  • Language and emergent literacy learners

Victorian early years learning and development framework

Outcome 5: communication

Children engage with a range of texts and get meaning from these texts:

  • listen and respond to sounds and patterns in speech, stories and rhymes in context
  • begin to understand key literacy and numeracy concepts and processes, such as the sounds of language, letter–sound relationships, concepts of print and the ways that texts are structured.

Children express ideas and make meaning using a range of media:

  • begin to recognise patterns and relationships and the connections between them.

Children begin to understand how symbols and pattern systems work:

  • develop an understanding that symbols are a powerful means of communication and that ideas, thoughts and concepts can be represented through them
  • begin to be aware of the relationships between oral, written and visual representations
  • listen and respond to sounds and patterns in speech, stories and rhyme.

Experience plans and videos

Early language users (12 - 36 months)

Language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months)

Learning foci and teaching practice