Letters and Sounds explained or Synthetic Phonics unplugged

The phonics programme Letters and Sounds was produced in 2007 by the UK Government. In the UK, schools are not required to use Letters and Sounds in teaching the basics of literacy. Rather, schools are required to teach using a phonics-based programme. Letters and Sounds meets this criterion, but equally schools may use any of a number of commercially available programmes.

This brief summary of Letters and Sounds may be useful for those who are not familiar with it. The full document runs to over 200 A4 pages, so what follows is no more than an outline.

The programme divides the process of phonics-based learning into six phases, starting with Phase One and working up to Phase Six, as follows:

Phase One

When: Phase One of Letters and Sounds is taught as part of the Early Years Foundation Stage, in the Reception year (in the UK), when children are aged four – five. 

            Duration: One year (the school year).

What is covered: The activities in Phase One are mainly adult-led, focusing on oral segmentation and blending of familiar words. The activities cover seven ‘aspects’:

  1. General sound discrimination – environmental sounds
  2. General sound discrimination – instrumental sounds
  3. General sound discrimination – body percussion
  4. Rhythm and rhyme
  5. Alliteration
  6. Voice sounds
  7. Oral blending and segmenting.

These activities ‘are designed to help children:

  • listen attentively;
  • enlarge their vocabulary;
  • speak confidently to adults and other children;
  • discriminate phonemes;
  • reproduce audibly the phonemes they hear, in order, all through the word;
  • use sound-talk to segment words into phonemes.’

The overarching aim in Phase One is ‘for children to experience regular, planned opportunities to listen carefully and talk extensively about what they hear, see and do.’

Note that the systematic learning of phonemes or graphemes is not covered in Phase One. Nor is ‘reading’ as a learned activity, although the importance of exposing children to books and the pleasure of books is emphasised.


Phase Two

When: At the beginning of Year One (in the UK): ages five – six.

Duration: Six weeks.

What is covered: Nineteen letters are taught in Phase Two, in five discrete sets:

Set 1    s          a          t           p

Set 2    i           n          m         d

Set 3    g          o          c          k

Set 4    ck        e          u          r

Set 5    h          b          f, ff       l, ll       ss

These sets are taught at the rate of roughly one set per week. In addition a number of ‘tricky’ (i.e. not fully decodable) high-frequency words are introduced:

            the                  to                    I                       no

            go                    into

Children also begin to blend and segment with letters. By the end of Phase Two many children should be able to read some VC (vowel-consonant) and CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words.


Phase Three

When: Following Phase Two in Year One (UK).

Duration: Minimum 10 weeks, maximum 12 weeks (as necessary).

What is covered: A further 25 graphemes are taught in Phase Three, with most of them comprising two letters (e.g. oa). Children continue to practice and reinforce CVC blending and segmentation.

Set 6    j           v          w         x

Set 7    y          z, zz     qu      

            plus the following graphemes:

ch        as in    chip

sh        as in    shop

th        as in    thin/then

ng        as in    ring

ai         as in    rain

ee        as in    feet

igh      as in    night

oa        as in    boat

oo        as in    boot/look

ar        as in    farm

or        as in    for

ur        as in    hurt

ow       as in    cow

oi         as in    coin

ear      as in    dear

air       as in    fair

ure      as in    sure

er        as in    corner.

In addition a number of additional ‘tricky’ (i.e. not fully decodable) high-frequency words are introduced:

            he                   she                  we                   me

            be                   was                 you                 they   

            all                   are                  my                   her


Phase Four

When: Following Phase Three in Year One (UK).

Duration: Four weeks, immediately following Phase Three.

What is covered: Consolidation of children’s knowledge of graphemes in reading and spelling words containing adjacent consonants and polysyllabic words (e.g. CVCC, CCVC, CCCVCC words).

In addition a number of additional ‘tricky’ (i.e. not fully decodable) high-frequency words are introduced:

            said                have               like                 so

            do                   some              come              were  

            there              little               one                 when             

            out                  what


Phase Five

When: Following Phase Four in Year One (UK).

Duration: Thirty weeks.

What is covered: Broadens childrens’ knowledge of graphemes and phonemes for use in reading and spelling. An extensive list of new graphemes and phonemes is provided.

In addition a number of ‘tricky’ (i.e. not fully decodable) high-frequency words are introduced:

            oh                   their               people                       Mr      

            Mrs                 looked                       called             asked



Phase Six

When: Throughout Year Two (UK).

What is covered: By the beginning of Phase Six children should know most of the common GPCs. They should be able to read hundreds of words.

During this phase a shift from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading’ takes place, with children reading longer and less familiar texts independently and with increasing fluency. Phase Six is therefore far less prescriptive in terms of defining the children’s learning outcomes.

Stephen Rickard is Creative Director of Ransom Publishing Ltd. He regularly writes and presents on issues surrounding literacy and reluctant/struggling readers.