Today, children are taught to read using phonics, which is all about the sounds that make up words. Children start by learning the letters and the sounds they make, and how to put them together to make and read simple words. Then they learn how letters combine to make new sounds (such as SH), and move on to longer words and new reading skills.
This guide is especially for parents to explain how phonics work and we've made these short videos to help you help your child learn to read.
Learning to read step by step
Alphablocks has five colour-coded stages to help you take phonics step by step. For each stage, you can play episodes online that focus on the skills in that stage.
These videos explain how to support your child at each stage of their phonics journey:
The different phonics levels used in Alphablocks are:
First steps – red
The first key skill in phonics is to learn the letters and their sounds. This stage introduces the most common letters and the sounds they make. This is different from the letter names many of us learned to read with.
When your child knows their first letters and sounds well, they are ready to read simple words. This involves the key skills of sounding out and blending: point to each letter to say its sound in turn, then say the sounds together to make the word. (Alphablocks do this by holding hands and saying ‘c-a-t, CAT!’, and so on.)
The other key skill is segmenting, which is the opposite of blending: listen to a word to hear which sounds make it up, and decide which letters you need to make the word.
At this stage, every letter has one sound. To help your child, it’s a good idea to get to know the exact letter sounds as they are pronounced in modern phonics.
Letters are introduced in a sequence that means that children can start making and reading lots of words quite quickly. The first letters are s, a, t, p…
Along the way, we meet some double letters (ll, ff, ss) and ck.
Next steps – orange
This stage introduces the less common letters J, V, W, X, Y, Z and Q (and, naturally, qu). With the alphabet complete, it’s time for lots of fun with simple words that use any letters.
It’s a good idea to stick with the first two stages (red and orange) until your child is confident with all their letters and sounds and happy reading simple words. Watching and playing the same episodes repeatedly is very useful.
At this point, it’s also a good idea to learn the letter names, which you can do with an alphabet song (and the ABC episode of Alphablocks).
Letter teams (digraphs) - yellow
When your child is ready, it’s time to meet the letter teams: letters that team up to make new sounds (such as CH, EE, OR). Teachers call these digraphs, which means ‘two letters that make one sound’.
In Alphablocks, the characters fuse together to make digraphs, so it’s easy to spot them. On the page, you can spot them by listening to the word (eg THAT) and breaking it down into the sounds it makes (th-a-t) to spot digraphs (th).
There are lots of digraphs. In this stage, children learn the starter set:
ch, sh, th, ng, ai, ee, oa, oo, ar, or, ur, ow, oi
There are trigraphs too (three letters that make one sound): igh, ear, air, ure.
When your child knows their letter teams well, it’s time to move on.
Letter blends – green
Often, consonants get together without making a new sound – they just blend their individual sounds together. For example, STOP starts with the two sounds ‘s’ and ‘t’, which blend together but don’t make a new sound (unlike SH).
Teachers call these blends or consonant clusters. There are lots of them. Some come at the start of words (such as step, clap, frog and street). Some come at the end (such as end, cats, lamp and best). Some words have blends at both ends (such as blend, stamp and crank).
There’s no special way to treat blends – simply blend the letter sounds in the word as normal. Getting to know them unlocks hundreds of new words and exciting stories.
Many words combine letter teams and letter blends (such as chips, flash, strong). This stage is all about getting comfortable with blends and everything that’s gone before, before taking the next step.
Long vowels - blue
This is a big step. Your child has already met some letter teams that make the long vowel sounds (ai, ee, igh, oa, oo) – now we learn that there is more than one way to make them.
You can make the long A sound (the same as its name) with the digraph ai (sail) or with ay (say). You can make the long E sound with ee (bee) or with ea (beat). And so on.
We also learn a new pattern: the words cake, Pete, mine, home and rule all have long vowel sounds, but the letter teams are separated. Teachers call these split digraphs (a_e, e_e, i_e, o_e, u_e). In Alphablocks, the character Magic E teams up with another vowel with a magic beam that joins them and shows how they work together to make the sound.
Having learned that there is more than one way to make some sounds, it’s time to discover that some letters make more than one sound. Y, who has so far been a consonant, springs into life as a vowel in words such as try, shy and happy. C and G make soft sounds in ice and cage. This goes for letter teams too: OW can make glow as well as cow.
There are some more digraphs to meet too: wh, ph, au, aw, ir, ow, oy.
CVC is short for ‘consonant/vowel/consonant’ – words such as mat, hen, big, fox, cup. These words are perfect for the early stages of reading (red and orange).
There are lots of them – but watch out for:
At every stage of learning to read, children master new phonics skills and patterns. Any word that doesn’t fit what they already know is called a ‘tricky’ word.
Many tricky words are quite common and very useful: the, said, no, I, and so on. Your child’s teacher will introduce them gradually, some at each stage.
They are also known as ‘irregular’ or ‘sight’ words. Common words are also known as ‘high-frequency’.
The best way to read tricky words together is to point out that the word is tricky and sound out the different sounds: for example, said has the simple ‘s’ sound, the tricky part (ai) that makes an ‘e’ sound, and the simple ‘d’ sound.
The high-frequency tricky words for each stage are:
RED – the, to, I, go, no, into
ORANGE – he, she
YELLOW – we, me, be, was, my, you, they, her, all, are
GREEN – said, so, have, like, some, come, were, there, little, one, do, when, out, what
BLUE – oh, their, people, Mr, Mrs, looked, called, asked, could
Many names are tricky words! Young children are often delighted to discover that their name has special letters and sounds. For example, Lily has a y that makes an ‘ee’ sound. Ashok has s and h that team up to make a ‘sh’ sound. And so on.
Phonics aims to lay a solid foundation for independent reading. When young readers have mastered the core skills, hand-holding phonics starts to hand over to the full and impressive variety of the English language. There are many more spelling patterns and alternative spellings, and these come with reading, practice and systematic teaching in school.
The basic principle of phonics still holds: build words from their component sounds and the letter groups that make them.