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What is Letters and Sounds?

Letters and Sounds is a systematic approach for teaching children to read using phonics. It is used in many schools in England, but is not a mandatory part of the National Curriculum. It is split into six phases, from starting to learn about sounds at nursery to becoming fluent readers around age 7.

Traditionally, children were taught letter names like aybeesea from the start. However, letter names don’t always represent their pronunciation – examples include double u or em – and this might confuse children when they try to pronounce words made up of these letters.

The phonic approach encourages us to directly link letters (graphemes) to sounds (phonemes), and to teach children pure sounds like ahbk when encountering the alphabet. So, children learn how to put sounds represented by letters or letter groups (like ch or igh) together to read words in a more straightforward way.

Video: How to pronounce pure sounds

Learn how to pronounce all 44 phonics sounds, or phonemes, used in the English language with these helpful examples from Suzy Ditchburn and her daughter.

The relationship between the letter(s) and the sound is called a letter-sound correspondence, also known as a grapheme-phoneme correspondence (or GPC).

How do children learn to read using Letters and Sounds?

The information below outlines the letter-sound correspondences children will learn in different phases. There are a few “tricky words” introduced at each phase.

These words are common and useful for early reading and writing, but children won’t be able to decode them following the phonic rules taught up to that point. You can help your child learn them by reading aloud together.

Phase 1 | Phase 2 | Phase 3 | Phase 4 | Phase 5 | Phase 6

Phase 1 Letters and Sounds

Approx age: 3–4 | Nursery/Reception
Phase 1 supports children’s developing speaking and listening skills and linking of sounds and letters. Activities are divided into seven groups:

  • Environmental sounds.
  • Instrumental sounds.
  • Body percussion.
  • Rhythm and rhyme.
  • Alliteration.
  • Voice sounds.
  • Oral blending and segmenting.

Children should be encouraged to enjoy books from as early an age as possible. However, the focus of this phase is on listening to and repeating sounds, rather than on directly reading words.

Phase 2 Letters and Sounds

Approx age: 4–5 | First term of Reception
Phase 2 introduces simple letter-sound correspondences. As each set of letters is introduced, children are encouraged to use their new knowledge to sound out and blend words. For example, they will learn to blend the sounds sat to make the word sat.

Set 1:
s, a, t, p
at, a, sat, pat, tap, sap, as

Set 2:
i – it, is, sit, pit, tip
n – an, in, nip, pan, nap
m – am, man, mat, map, Tim
d – dad, and, sad, dim, Sid

Set 3:
g – tag, gag, sag, gas, pig
o – got, on, not, top, dog
c – can, cot, cop, cap, cod
k – kid, kit, Kim, Ken

Set 4:
ck – kick, sack, dock, sick, pocket
e – get, pet, ten, net, pen
u – up, mum, run, mug, cup
r – rip, ram, rat, rocket, carrot

Set 5:
h – had, him, his, hot, hut
b – but, big, back, bed, bus
f, ff of, if, off, fit, fog, puff
l, ll – let, leg, lot, bell, doll
ss – less, hiss, mass, mess, boss

Phase 2 tricky words:
the, to, no, go, I, into

Video: How to blend sounds to read words

Suzy Ditchburn explains how letter sounds can be blended to read words, and gives tips on how to practise phonics with your child.

Phase 3 Letters and Sounds

Approx. age: 4–5 | Reception
In Phase 3, children build on the letter-sound correspondences learned in Phase 2. They learn consonant digraphs (sounds made up of two letters together such as ‘ch’ or ‘ll’) and long vowel sounds (such as ‘igh’ or ‘ai’).

Set 6:
j – jet, jam, jog, Jan
v – van, vet, velvet
w – wig, will, web
x – fox, box, six

Set 7:
y – yes, yet, yell
z – zip, zig-zag
zz – buzz, jazz
qu – quit, quick, liquid

Consonant digraphs:
ch – chip, chat, rich
sh – shop, shed, fish
th – thin, moth, that
ng – ring, thing, song

Vowel digraphs and trigraphs:
ai – rain, tail, aim
ee – bee, leek, see
igh – high, sigh, might
oa – boat, toad, foal
oo – boot, food, moon
oo – book, wood, foot
ar – park, art, car
or – for, torn, fork
ur – hurt, fur, surf
ow – cow, owl, town
oi – coin, boil, oil
ear – dear, shear, year
air – fair, pair, hair
ure – sure, pure, manure
er – dinner, summer, letter

Phase 3 tricky words:
he, she, we, me, be, was, you, they, all, are, my, her

Phase 4 Letters and Sounds

Approx. age: 4–5 | Reception
Children will consolidate their knowledge during this phase and they will learn to read and spell words which have adjacent consonants (for example, trap, strong, milk and crept).

Phase 4 tricky words:
said, have, like, so, do, some, come, were, there, little, one, when, out, what

Phase 5 Letters and Sounds

Approx. age: 5–6 | Year 1
Children will learn some new graphemes for reading. They will also be taught alternative pronunciations for known graphemes. For example, they have already learned ow as in cow and will now learn ow as in blow.

In addition, they will learn alternative spellings for known phonemes. For example, the sound /igh/ has been learned as the grapheme igh as in ‘night’, but can also be spelled y, ie, and i-e.

New graphemes for reading:
ay day, play, crayon
ou cloud, sound, about
ie pie, tie, cried
ea sea, meat, read
oy – toy, enjoy, boy
ir bird, shirt, first
ue blue, true, glue
aw paw, claw, yawn
wh wheel, whisper, when
ph photo, dolphin, alphabet
ew new, crew, flew
oe toe, foe, tomatoes
au Paul, launch, haul
a-e make, game, snake
e-e these, Eve, extreme
i-e – like, time, slide
o-e home, bone, pole
u-e rule, June, flute

Phase 5 tricky words:
oh, their, people, Mr, Mrs, looked, called, asked, could

Phase 6 Letters and sounds

Approx. age: 6–7 | Year 2
In Phase 6 children will read with increasing fluency. They will have learned most of the common letter-sound correspondences and can read familiar words automatically without needing to sound out and blend.

Children will work on spelling, including prefixes and suffixes, doubling and dropping letters, and so on.