When I say phonics to parents I often get a slightly scared response. What's that then? Should I know about it? I'm not sure if I can do that with my kids; it's very different to the way we were taught to read at school. It may also be because of the names of some of the characters in a common reading scheme used in primary schools. A girl called Biff hardly seems like a nice, wholesome character now does she? Not like the Jennifer Yellow-Hat that I remember from school!
Phonics is basically just a new name for teaching kids to read by using the sounds of the letters or groups of letters rather than the letter names. So when reading the word cat for the first time, children sound out the sounds c-a-t, as they sound in the word, instead of the names of the letters that we know and use as adults. As they progress onto more complex words they are taught that groups of letters make new sounds, so c and h make the sound "ch", like a choo choo train, and a and r make the "ar" sound that you make when you visit the doctor and she says "Say ah". (or "ar"). So when they read words like much they can sound it out m-u-ch, and card is c-ar-d.
Knowing that these individual letters and groups of letters make particular sounds is important in the teaching of phonics and there are sets of actions that can be taught to help children remember them. Jolly Phonics is used widely in UK primary schools and the actions, stories and songs that children come home with are all found on their website.
I have heard people question phonics as a system of teaching children to read, as we all learn in different ways and not all words can be sounded out. Common words such as "said", "of" and "my" just have to be learnt by children. But phonics does not claim to be the total answer, and schools also teach whole word recognition, where children learn to look at a word and recognise it as a whole rather than trying to sound it out. Children learn the shape and look of their name, often before they learn to read the individual letters that make it up, and teachers are not claiming that there is anything wrong with this. Whole word recognition definitely has an important place in any system which teaches children to read.
Which brings me to our role as parents. It is not simply the job of the school to teach our children to read. Even before they go to school we teach our children letters, and share books with them, teaching them that a book is read from front to back and left to right and top to bottom. These things which seem obvious to us are vital for a child to know when they bring their first reading book home from school. And if as parents we also know how to break up words into sounds then it's much less stressful for us all to read "B-i-ff i-s n-o-t a b-a-d p-er-s-o-n". So let's get jolly with our kids and make phonics fun!