Phonics – The root of reading

Article By: Hilda Erasmus | 31 May 2019

What do you want to achieve with a reading programme in the Foundation Phase? This is a critical question. Teachers often rush through a curriculum in order to get learners ready for the formal assessment rather than taking the time to work with the learners to ensure a deep-rooted understanding of phonics. At the end of the Foundation Phase (Grade 3), we expect learners to read with comprehension. But how often do we get to that point where we are satisfied with the reading ability of the learner?

Here is a scenario that you might be able to relate to: Nataly is a Grade 3 learner, when she reads she will suddenly start to sound simple words and if you ask her to tell you what she read, she is not able to do so. What went wrong?

There are many aspects of reading to take into consideration before you can pinpoint the specific problem.


The phonics was not completely engraved in Grade 1 and 2. I am not talking about knowing the alphabet because the learner probably knows the alphabet off by heart. I am talking about the more difficult blends and three letter combinations. When a learner knows all the phonics and blends, it will make reading a lot easier. Phonemic awareness is the basic foundation of reading any text.

High frequency words

High frequency words are commonly mixed up with sight words. High frequency words are the words that usually do not have any meaning but are used a lot while the learner reads. This would be words like: is, am, are, them, those, etc. These words should be introduced one by one. It is best to start with the words that have the sounds that the learner already knows. It is important that the learner knows these high frequency words off by heart. If they do not recognise the word immediately, they will start to spell it out. The human brain is very powerful. You must have seen those social media posts that mix up the letters in the middle but you can still read the words. For example:

I can stlil raed the txet as lnog as the frist and lsat ltters are the smae.

This is exactly how the high frequency words work. The learner must “guess” the word rather than read it. They must see the whole word rather than the different letters in each word.

Sight words

Sight words are those words that we would put up in the classroom and use with the themes. Sight words are often longer, difficult words like giraffe, chimpanzee, elephant, impala, etc. The learners must use their phonics to spell out these words. They don’t have to know these words at all, as they learn how to read fluently, these words will become part of their high frequency words as well. Reading with comprehension comes down to the ability to understand language through phonological awareness. If a learner does not read with comprehension in Grade 3, it is time to take some serious steps backwards. Rather put the curriculum on hold for a day or two and do a simple assessment on phonics by asking the following questions with some sound cards.

  1. Does the learner know all the letters of the alphabet in any order?
  2. Does the learner know all the blends and sounds with two vowels or two consonants like “oo” or “-er”?
  3. Does the learner know all the three letter sound combinations like “str-”?
  4. Can the learner read simple words?
  5. Can the learner read more difficult words?
  6. Does the learner know the high frequency words without sounding them?
  7. Can the learner build simple words?
  8. Can the learner build more difficult words?
  9. Can the learner read a sentence without sounding the letters?
  10. Can the learner read a paragraph without sounding the letters?

If any of the answers to these questions is “no” that will indicate where the learner was left behind. Try to catch up with activities until the learner can answer “yes” to all 10 questions.

Let’s take number 10 as an example. If a learner reads a paragraph, but still needs to sound some of the words, he/she will lose the context of the story and will not be able to remember what the story was about. If the learner can read fluently, but does not understand the context it is important to teach the learner reading comprehension skills by asking the questions first before he/she reads the text.

Reading with comprehension comes down to the ability to apply one’s knowledge of language to written text. Learners like Nataly find alternative ways to read and write and in the long run when she cannot read with comprehension, she will misread questions in examination papers and write down the wrong answers. In the end, she will not live up to her full potential because she cannot read as well as she should.

It is very important to ensure that phonological awareness and high frequency words are engraved in a learner before you move on to more difficult words and sentences. Teachers should create an enriched learning environment to ensure the development of phonics and reading and to ensure that all the requirements are met before moving on to the next phase.