Helping parents to support their child through phonics

Dr Jo Taylor (UCL), Dr Laura Shapiro (Aston University, Dr Jessie Ricketts (Royal Holloway and Mrs Amy Fox (Aston University)


Being literate is key to success in the modern world, therefore the teaching of reading skills is a high priority in early primary school. Phonics is mandatory under the English National Curriculum and involves learning to break words down into letters and saying their sounds. For example, the word ‘road’ can be broken down into r-oa-d which we can blend together to say, ‘road’. A large body of research supports the use of phonics to teach word reading in young children, improving literacy levels for all children [1]. Phonological awareness is the ability to recognise and manipulate sounds in words and is a key skill for learning to read. Our research shows that children need good phonological awareness to benefit from phonics instruction [2]. We have also found that adults learn to read new languages in a similar way to children: they learn more easily if they are trained to sound words out, rather than to say their meanings [3]. 

Parents play an integral role in supporting their children’s learning and there is clear evidence that engaging parents benefits children’s learning [4]. In particular, children who grow up with higher quality home literacy environments show better literacy skills [5]. This project aims to boost the literacy skills of parents, through phonics training delivered by family learning teams. Phonics can be used successfully with children [6,7], however robust evidence about the benefits of phonics for adult readers is lacking [8,9]. 


The project aims to compare improvements in reading skills for parents taking a phonics course offered by a family learning team compared to parents taking a different family learning course (numeracy skills). 

We have been successfully working together with community and family learning teams in Birmingham, Barnsley, York, Newcastle and Leicester to co-create and evaluate phonics programmes for parents that develop key skills to help them better support their child’s reading. These courses include elements of: 

a. Phonological awareness - playing games with spoken words and sounds, focusing on the smallest units (phonemes; e.g., say the last sound in “brilliant” = “t”) 
b. Letter sound knowledge - saying letter-sounds accurately, e.g., m = “mmm” not “Em”or “muh”. 
c. Segmenting and blending written words, e.g., thing = “th - i - ng”, “thing” 
d. Irregular word reading: Reading tricky words that can’t be fully sounded-out (e.g., said).  

We have worked with a subgroup of 50 parents attending 10 of these family learning courses. We are aiming to work with more family learning teams in early 2020. On the first and last week of the phonics courses, parents have taken part in pre- and post-test assessments of reading and related skills (20-30 minutes in duration). These activities include: 

  • Phoneme deletion: hearing a word and repeating it but without a certain phoneme (e.g. ‘team’ without the /m/ gives ‘tea’). The deleted sound is either at beginning, end, or middle of the word. 
  • Letter sound knowledge: saying the sound for 51 graphemes (single letters and letter combinations)
  • Word and non-word reading: read as many real words as possible in 45 seconds, read as many nonsense words as possible in 45 seconds. 
  • Identifying irregular words: selecting words that are tricky from a mixture of regular and irregular words 
  • Reading confidence questionnaire: reading habits, feelings about reading by themselves and to their child \

Interim results

The results so far are encouraging; adults who took the phonics courses improved on a number of key reading skills following the course: sound deletion, letter sound knowledge and word reading tasks. The graphs below show the improvement in these skills following the phonics programme. Parents also reported feeling more confident about their reading and reading with their child compared to when they started the course. We are currently also collecting data from adults taking numeracy courses, who will provide a control group (to confirm that the improvements we report are specific to phonics teaching). 


The feedback we have had from the parents has indicated that they have enjoyed taking part in the reading activities. The activities were framed as the sort of games their children would do in school and parents have found these fun to try out. 

Next steps

We will be continuing this work in early 2020. We are keen to work in partnership with more family learning teams, especially with parents taking different non-phonics-based courses. They would take part in the same reading activities to check that any improvements are specific to the phonics programme. All adults who take part in the study will receive a £10 gift voucher for their time and they are free to withdraw from the study at any point. 


  1. Machin, S., S. McNally, and M. Viarengo, Changing How Literacy Is Taught: Evidence on Synthetic Phonics. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 2018. 10(2): p. 217-41. 
  2. Shapiro, L. R. and Solity, J., Differing effects of two synthetic phonics programmes on early reading development, 2016. 86 (22), 2, p. 182–203 
  3. Taylor, J. S. H., Davis, M. H., & Rastle, K., Comparing and validating methods of reading instruction using behavioural and neural findings in an artificial orthography, 2017. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146, 826-858. 
  4. Education Endowment Foundation, Parental engagement. 2018. 
  5. Carroll, J.M., et al., Literacy interest, home literacy environment and emergent literacy skills in preschoolers. Journal of Research in Reading, 2019. 42(1): p. 150-161. 
  6. McArthur, G., et al., Phonics training for English-speaking poor readers. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2012. 12: p. CD009115. 
  7. Torgerson, C.J.B., G. Hall, G., A systematic review of the research literature on the use of systematic phonics in the teaching of reading and spelling. 2006, Department for Education and Skills: London. 
  8. Brooks, G. What works for children and young people with literacy difficulties? Dyslexia-SpLD Trust. 2016; Available from: 
  9. Moss, G., et al., Current practice in using a system of phonics with post-16 learners. 2018. Education and Training Foundation.