Phase 1 Phonics: A teacher's guide

Stephanie Hammond

How can early years teachers build effective phase 1 phonics practices?

"Why is my child not learning phonics yet? They already know s,a,t,p,i,n, they want to read" "They are ready to learn phonics, they have a great awareness of sounds" Are these questions that you have heard before? Possibly from parents, carers, key workers or senior leaders. Are you unsure how to respond to these comments, but in your heart of hearts you know that what you are doing is the best for the children's development.

In this article, I am going to provide you with a guide to Phase 1 phonics. What is Phase 1 phonics? Why should pre school children be exploring patterns of sound? What are effective phase 1 activities that cover aspects of sound? How can you plan for phase 1 phonics? With this information, you will feel more confident to talk about Phase 1 phonics with parents and colleagues.


What is Phase 1 phonics?

In a nutshell Phase 1 phonics is linked directly to phonological awareness and phonemic awareness. Phonological awareness allows children to recognise and work with the initial sounds of spoken language. Phonological awareness is the awareness of all of the speech sounds of language. It's the ability to hear and distinguish sounds. When I say sounds I mean environmental sounds like a car engine or a bee buzzing. Phonological awareness includes: recognising vocal sounds, adding sounds, recalling sounds, segmenting sounds, identifying instrumental sounds and moving sounds around. Phonological awareness helps children become prepared to learn how letters and sounds go together in words. Phase 1 phonics also supports the development of speaking and listening skills.

The first step towards developing phonemic awareness is to teach children to listen carefully to the way words are spoken by adults and other children. Children need to observe the way people speak so that they can make sense of the sounds in words. As they become aware of the sounds in words, they will start to notice patterns which help them to link the sounds together to form meaningful words.

The importance of PA cannot be underestimated. Research has shown that children who have good phonemic awareness perform better academically than those who do not. In fact, research shows that children without phonemic awareness struggle to develop literacy skills.

There are three main areas of focus during Phase 1 Phonics:

1. Teaching children to listen for the sounds in words.

2. Teaching children to use the sounds in words to decode new words.

3. Teaching children to blend sounds into words.

The most sophisticated and latest to develop in children is called phonemic awareness. This skill lets children tune in to phonemes (the smallest unit of sound in a word). Phonemic awareness includes the ability to separate a word into the sounds that make it and blend single sounds into words. It also involves the ability to add, subtract, or substitute real sounds in words. An example of segmenting shark into sh-ar-k /, sh-ar-k are the phonemes. What is important to remember is that phonemic awareness is a pre phonics/Phase 1 skill that requires children to tune into the sounds. 

If a child does not have experience or has a delay in their phonological or phonemic awareness, they may find that phonics makes little sense to them. Letters represent sounds and if a child cannot hear what a word starts with for example m for mouse or c for car then they will not be able to link the letter sound to the written form moving forward. That is why it is so crucial that Phase 1 phonics is part of our day to day practice in our settings.

In 2007 Phase 1 Phonics was organised into seven different aspects, as seen in the Letters and Sounds document. This provided practitioners with specific aspects that could be covered in their setting.

The aspects are: 

  • Environmental sounds
  • Instrumental sounds
  • Body percussion
  • Rhythm and rhyme in speech and song
  • Alliteration
  • Voice sounds
  • Oral blending and segmenting
  • These aspects are divided into strands which include:
  • Tuning in (auditory discrimination)
  • Listening and remembering (auditory memory and sequencing)
  • Talking about (developing vocabulary and language comprehension)

Why should pre school children be experiencing sounds?

So, why Phase 1 phonics? I could say it is because Ofsted say children should or its part of our teaching curriculum. But ultimately it is Phase 1 pre phonics skills that children need to develop speaking and listening skills and the foundations for early reading and writing. It might seem a tenuous link that children learning to sing a song or play musical instruments is going to help with the recognition of letter sounds and words in the future. Well it is all thanks to our amazing brain and how it commutes songs, rhythm and rhyme in speech and this creates those neural links and pathways. Nursery Rhymes are not just entertaining for children, they provide children opportunities to develop an awareness of sounds. The patterns of sound that exist in a familiar rhyme help early years children with the segmenting of sounds.

Research has shown that 'The sense of fun and enjoyment that music arouses is vital to learning because changes in the chemistry of the brain when we’re having fun make learning more likely to occur.’ Mithen 2005. This blog post on singing in schools explores the topic deeper.

What are effective phase 1 activities?

I am sure you have some favourite Phase 1 phonics games and activities that you like to play with the children in your setting. Knowing the aspects of Phase 1 phonics, will help you to be more aware of the different aspects you are covering on a daily basis. You might find that some aspects overlap and that is to be expected. They can be used as a guide to planning your own activities.

Here are some examples of a few games you could play with your children and the aspects and strands they cover.


When saying the children's names consider making it alliterative for example super Sunita, excited Edward, amazing Ahmed, fabulous Freya. You can also do this with other objects such as you where is my pretty, perfect, pink pen? Can the children tune into the fact that they start with the same letter, can they hear when you make a mistake?

Children love singing together and there is no better way to get them talking than by using rhyming words. Rhyming words are great for developing children's self confidence and their ability to express themselves through song. We use a lot of rhymes in our classroom and often use them in our everyday life too. 

Sharing a rhyming or story book

This might seem very obvious but encouraging the children to join in with a text will provide you with a wealth of Phase 1 phonics learning. It is an opportunity to develop the children's listening skills. You will probably find that a good text will cover lots of different aspects. It might be that you decide to focus on one particular aspect for example voice sounds and use the text to encourage the children to join in and listening attentively. You may find that the voice sounds can be sequenced such as moo, oink, quack, splash which supports listening and remembering (auditory memory and sequencing). However you might feel that focusing on the texts rhythm and the rhyme in speech could be developed with the use of musical instruments to create a rhythm or sound effects to go alongside voice sounds.

Kim's game

Oral blending and segmenting strands covered talking about (developing vocabulary and language comprehension) Listening and remembering (auditory memory and sequencing)  and tuning into sounds (auditory discrimination). For this game you will need a tray, a selection of real objects and a piece of material to cover the tray. Firstly, look at the objects on the tray this covers the strand developing vocabulary and language comprehension. Talk about the objects and check that the children recognise what these objects are and where you might find them or how you might use them. Are they using the correct language? is it a banana or a nana!  Go through the list of objects on the tray this covers the strand, listening and remembering (auditory memory and sequencing) for example fork, bird, pen, chair The children can repeat back the order. Ask the children to turn around while you remove an object. Reveal the tray and see if the children can identify the missing object. They should orally segment the object to you for example I think it is the b-ir-d bird. You could then recall the order of the objects fork, bird, pen, chair pointing to the objects as you say them. The bird can fly back onto the tray when you say its name  and repeat. 

Singing to develop phase 1 phonics
Singing to develop phase 1 phonics

How can you plan for Phase 1 phonics?

Phase 1 phonics needs to be thought of and planned for as part of a language rich environment where communication, language, speaking and listening skills are at the heart of everything you do. After reading this article, consider how you currently plan for phonics, is it adhoc, do you have a weekly planned group session or are you systematically working through all the different aspects from one to seven? You might find that there are aspects that you cover a lot, I know I am guilty of doing a lot of rhyming through books and songs but maybe less voice sounds and alliteration. Consider your cohort and what they need, different years will benefit from different aspects and strands. How much time do you spend teaching each aspect of phonics? Is it enough? Do you teach each aspect every week? What happens if you don't teach a certain aspect? Does it make any difference? If you are not sure what to include in your planning consider the following questions: What does my child already understand about phonics? What are their strengths and weaknesses? What are their interests?

In conclusion this quote sums up why we provide Phase 1 opportunities

"The part of the brain that processes movement also processes memory, so ACTION, MOVEMENT, ENJOYMENT AND ENGAGEMENT, will spark cells into making links and establish new learning." Ros Bayley and Lyn Broadbent (Getting Ready for Phonics 2006)

If you or your setting would like to develop your understanding of Phase 1 Phonics further through training or coaching sessions contact Stephanie Hammond at Hammond Education for a free consultation or log onto her website for free phonics resources, training and development and links to phonics videos.


Phonics Glossary

1. Phonemic Awareness - Knowing how sounds are put together to make words.

2. Phonics - Learning to read using the sound-spelling method.

3. Phoneme - A single sound that makes up a word.

4. Syllable - Combination of two or three consonants and vowels that form a unit.

5. Consonant - Sound produced by closing off the airway through the mouth.

6. Vowel - Sound produced by opening the airway through the nose.

7. Alliteration - Repeating a vowel sound with another vowel.

8. Rhyme - Using a pattern of repetition of a syllable or word to create a poem or song.

9. Tone - Pitch of voice.

10. Rhythm - Pattern of beats in music.

11. Melody - Musical notes played in sequence.

12. Melodic contour - Gradual change in pitch over time.

13. Meter - Measurement of rhythm.

14. Stress - Point of emphasis in speech.

15. Intonation - Change in tone or inflection of voice.

16. Pronunciation - Articulation of sounds.

17. Accent - Place of stress.

18. Singular - One only.

19. Plural - More than one.

20. Prefix - Part of a word before the main word.

21. Suffix - Part of a word after the main word.

22. Infinitive - Word used to describe an action.

23. Gerund - Verb ending in 'ing'.

24. Conjunctive - Connective between clauses.