When teaching young children to read, phonics can be taught informally at the beginning. Your goal, initially, is to give them the general idea of what it means to be a reader and to help them learn to love it. Phonics are work, more work than sight reading, and so they are given less emphasis at first.
Phonics, the ability to sound out a new word, is important to reading over a lifetime. It takes too long to memorize every word you want to read. A child needs to be able to work through new books alone by sounding out unfamiliar words, as well as being able to figure out new words from context. However, a child who is focused on sounding out every word will finish the story—or even the page—with no idea what he just read. The mechanics will be so all-consuming he won’t be able to concentrate on the storyline or the pure enjoyment of reading. The best readers have a large store of memorized words—sight words—and the ability to sound out new words or to figure them out through the context. The more “word attack” skills the child has, the better he will read.
When you’re teaching your child the alphabet, you can informally talk about the sounds. The problem with teaching the sounds independently is that saying the sound tends to add an “uh” sound to the end, making it difficult to actually sound out a word. The word dog will end up sounding like “duh-aww-guh.” We might be able to speed it up and translate that into dog, but a child will find it difficult.
A better way is to teach it in the context of full words. Create a space in your learning area where you can put up a bulletin board or poster board. At the top, write both the capital and lower-case versions of the letter you are working on. Collect pictures of words that begin with that letter. Remember that some letters have more than one sound and some words that begin with a letter don’t sound like the main sound. For instance, shoe starts with an S, but the S is combined with the H to make an entirely new sound. Avoid those types of blends. Choose a sound you want to focus on first and teach it. Later, when your child has one sound for each letter, you can add new sounds. When reading new words, you can mention the alternate sound.
Show your child the letter and ask him to read it. He should already know both the upper-case and lower-case versions of the letter. Tell him each letter makes a sound and you want him to listen to the words you’re going to talk about to see if they have the same sound in them.
Ask him to choose one picture.from the group you set out and name it. Let him attach it to your board. Follow up with a second picture. After you’ve done a few of them, say the words in a list. Help him discover there is a sound in common. “Listen when I say these words: L-l-l-l-lion. L- l-l-lamp. L-l-l-Lucy. Hear the L-l-l- sound? Now let’s see if we can find more words with that sound at the beginning.
You can do this in one of two ways, depending on the readiness and maturity of your child. The easiest way is to have him continue to choose pictures from your collection and to have all of them start with that sound. This is good for younger children or children with less experience with learning games. An older, more experienced child can be given a few pictures that don’t start with that sound to choose from. The first time you play, use only “right” answers. Later, when you’ve been at this for a while, use other letters as well, beginning with those your child already knows the sound of. You can vary this by having him sort the pictures based on initial sound.
Once he understands how to recognize initial sounds, you can help him realize every letter in a word has a sound. Choose a word that is important to him and show him how you sound it out. Do this with a variety of words, first saying each sound slowly and individually, and then gradually speeding up until it sounds like the actual word.
When your child is experienced with this, you can speed up the sounding-out process by teaching him to see several letters as a unit. A simple homemade tool can teach this process. All you need is a file card, scissors, and a marker. Slice off one end of the card the short way. Choose a letter combination found in many short words. For instance, you might start with “at.” Write these letters somewhat to the right of the card in letters large enough for your child to easily read.
On the strip, write letters that can go in front of “at” to make a three-letter word. You might choose to make the words cat, bat, hat, sat, and mat.. Now, in front of the word “at” you will need to cut a rectangle large enough for the strip to slide through. As you slide the card, the new letter will show through to form a complete word. You’ll need to experiment to make the sizes come out right. This is a fast way to help a child understand how words are made from familiar letter combinations and to practice phonics. First, teach the child to sound out the base combination. Then show him how the word chances as the first letter changes.
Make a variety of these cards. You can also change the middle vowel or the ending letter. When you teach blends, add them to the sliders. The extra bit of action involved in sliding the strip makes the lesson more interesting to the child.
If your child attends a traditional school, he will be given formal phonics training in school. If he is going to homeschool, or if you’re teaching a preschooler, you’ll need to include the phonics yourself. However, you probably don’t need worksheets for preschoolers, unless they happen to enjoy them. Informal teaching and teaching games are better ways to help preschoolers learn without pressure.