This is one of two questions regarding teaching my child to read using phonics. The other question is:

How to teach a child using phonics in a different accent?

I am a parent of a four year old boy who is starting to read at school (UK). The school is using a phonics system to teach the children to read.

I honestly cannot remember if my school taught me to read using a phonics system or not. In any case, I find teaching my child to read using phonics difficult and alien. I realise however that it would be destructive to teach a different way of reading to my child to that to which he is exposed at his school. I want to reinforce and consolidate at home the teaching that he receives at school.

That means that I need to learn phonics. While I am happy to get involved in this way, I doubt that I will have the time to get much further than the basics.

Hence the very simple question of the title. My wife and I are both active in helping our son read the lists of words that he has brought home from his school to learn.

How do we explain to our four year old, that the symbol "o" in "got" and "go" (for example) is pronounced differently, rather than being dogmatic about it? I feel that saying "Because it just the way it is", rather undermines his teachers' - and our - instruction. There are other examples, e.g. "no" and "not" etc.

Please note: I am aware that teaching to read via phonics is a contentious topic. I am not looking for a debate on phonics. It's the system that is used in my child's school to teach him to read. I am uncomfortable teaching phonics, but that's the way he is being taught at school and I am keen to support his learning.

2 Answers 2


The general rule that applies to your examples is that vowels take on their long sound at the end of a word, and their short sound when followed by a single consonent. Hence:

  • he, hen
  • hi, hit
  • go, got

Of course, English being English, every "rule" is merely a starting point to work from, with a plethora of exceptions, which is why:

  • ha is not a homonym of hay
  • to is not a homonym of toe

One website with phonics tutorials expresses these rules as follows:

  • When there is only one vowel in a word and it is anywhere except at the end of a word, it usually has a short sound.
  • Where there is only one vowel and it comes at the end of the word, it usually has a long sound.

(Usually is a crucial word there.)

Much as it may pain you, sooner or later, you're going to have to say, "Because that's the way it is." Otherwise, all these non-rhyming words would rhyme:

  • have and save
  • good and food
  • mint and pint
  • rear and bear
  • cough and tough

I realize this is simplified some, but I think an entire phonics tutorial would be outside the scope of ELU's FAQ.

Good luck with ough, by the way.

  • I learned in a similar way to this, before phonics was 'a thing' Commented Oct 13, 2012 at 21:33

So the very basics of English teach you that there are many words or characters (or symbols, as you called them) that may look the same, but do not act (in regards to speech) the same.

There, their, they're. Read and read (one is pronounced red and refers to the past tense).

To be honest, I think there are many words that repetition is the best way to teach a child. I couldn't imagine a way of explaining the

Single Letter + "o" = pronunciation

because take, T + o. With the word "To", the "o" is pronounced "ew." While with g + o, the "o" is pronounced like: Oh.

I think, rather than going in the route of "that's just the way it is" I would try to explain that sure, it is just that way, but practice makes perfect and repetition is the key. Sometimes you can use words to figure out other words, but start with the roots. To + night = tonight. Pronounced: Tew-night.

N + o = Noh G + o = Goh T + o = Tew, like two and too D + o = Dew, like due

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