Using magnetic letters for remote phonics fun

The third UK lockdown has brought families and educators new challenges and new ways to do so many things. In fact, during a recent family video call I discovered a new activity to enjoy with my four-year-old granddaughter Daisy – one that is only possible when we’re not in the same room! 

Last year Daisy was enjoying making the sounds of the car indicators on our car journeys. For several months now, during our family calls, and conversations with Daisy I’ve noticed her increasing enjoyment in making up words and finding words that rhyme (as well as simply enjoying making a racket).

Daisy is taking part in short videoconferenced nursery class sessions each day and completing her assigned activities at home with Mummy and Daddy. This nursery class home learning has been building up Daisy’s phonetic knowledge for several months now. 

She particularly enjoys telling me which letter she’s been learning to sound out at nursery and together we find the names of things that begin with that letter. This is all before the conversation moves on to strings of made-up words that start with a particular letter or sound, until eventually Daisy bumbles off to play!

A feel for phonics

All of these activities have developed Daisy’s ability to make a range of sounds. The capacity to make a range of different sounds is very important; children are taught to read using phonics, which is about the sounds that letters make within a word. 

Once a child is familiar with the letter sounds (called phonemes), they are then ready to read simple words by sounding each letter and then blending those sounds together to say the word.

This week, during our family video call, Daisy spotted a set of phonics cards that she had been using with Mummy and Daddy. Daisy held a card up to the screen for me and I had to sound out the letters and blend the sounds together to be able to say the word. Each card has an accompanying image on the reverse side, and Daisy took great delight in telling me that I was correct and showing me the image. 

The following day I asked Daisy’s Daddy if he could find Daisy’s set of magnetic lower-case letters and a baking tray, and have them to hand for our next family call. I prepared a set of magnetic (lower-case) letters and a baking tray as well. 

Given that Daisy had begun engaging with letter phonemes, I wondered if we could play with the magnetic letters together and maybe Daisy could practise some sounding and blending. I wasn’t sure how successful this might be when I suggested it at the end of one of her active days, which include home-learning sessions, little household jobs, unstructured play and (increasingly confident) bike rides!

Successful sounding out

During the call, Daisy spotted the magnetic letters on her table, so I held up my baking tray full of my magnetic letters to show her that I had some too! 

Preparing materials for an activity and simply leaving them out to be discovered, as Daisy’s Daddy did in this instance, is often more effective than telling a child “we’re going to do an activity now” and explaining the task to them before beginning. Spontaneity can create a sense of ownership for a child embarking on a learning activity. 

Unexpectedly, at this point Daisy decided to position her set of letters in exactly the same (random) order as my letters on her baking tray, telling me the sound of each letter as she did so and holding up her tray to show to me the result. 

Even if this was as far as the activity went, I felt it counted as a success because it gave Daisy a fun opportunity to randomly sound out the various letters of the alphabet. By coincidence, what I did next matched an activity Daisy had been doing during the day with Mummy in a phonics app lesson – another example of how digital experiences can be usefully translate into physical play.

An iPad shows an image from a lesson on the Reading Eggs app
Daisy has started to enjoy phonics lessons on the Reading Eggs app

Magnetic letter activity

  • I cleared the tray of all the magnetic letters apart from ‘a’ and placed it in the middle of the tray.
  • Daisy sounded out the ‘a’ phoneme. 
  • I placed ‘t’ to the right of ‘a,’ but not next to the ‘a’. Daisy sounded out the ‘t’ phoneme.
  • Then we both said the ‘a’ and ‘t’ phonemes as we pushed the letters together – the sounds blended and became at.
  • The activity continued to hold Daisy’s attention, so I added a consonant in front of the ‘a’; all three letters were spaced out, the letters were sounded out and then pushed together to blend to make a word. 
  • We repeated this, keeping the ‘at’ and changing the first consonant letter – c, r, m, b and p – cat, rat, mat, bat and pat.

Another time we could use ‘a’ and ‘n’, ‘an’ – can, pan, man, fan, van; or ‘i’ and ‘n’, ‘in’ – bin, fin, pin, win. But, at this point, Daisy wanted me to copy her. 

She proceeded to spell out a long nonsense word, telling me the phoneme for each letter as she placed it on her tray; I had to replicate her made-up word on my baking tray. 

I couldn’t see what letters Daisy was picking out as she had her tray flat on the table. This meant she had to communicate the letter phoneme clearly to me, so that I could pick the letters in order. When she had finished her nonsense word, I held up my tray and Daisy held up hers and we had a matching set of letters! There was much cheering and clapping from Mummy and Daddy. 

Daisy’s obvious enjoyment means that this is an activity we will repeat. In fact, Daisy then continued to add more and had so many letters for me to sort that they wouldn’t all fit onto my (smaller) baking tray and I was told “You’re going to need a bigger tray!”

Granny Smith says…

  • Pre-readers start to have favourite words and names that they’ve become familiar with during their play. They may enjoy finding the letters for the name of a character, a vehicle or colour. Previous blogs have hinted at Daisy’s interest in wild animals and big cats and she asked if she could find the letters for ‘lion’ for me to put on my tray. We did this together, with Daisy then asking me to turn the letter ‘Z’ on it’s side to make N. This kind of activity has the potential to grow with Daisy’s phonetic knowledge.
  • Not for the first time, this session included several periods where Daisy took control of the game and roleplayed educating her grandmother. Moments like these shouldn’t be discouraged; they prevent a child from feeling like the sole focus of attention and help them think about the activity from a different perspective because they have to prompt and direct the grownup for a change!
A girl holds up a metal baking tray covered by magnetic letters

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