Review: Using Jolly Phonics at home

Piglet enjoying Jolly Phonics at 3.1yo
Piglet enjoying Jolly Phonics at 3.1yo

A number of readers have asked me about materials I use to teach our children how to read, particularly Jolly Phonics, so I figured it’s time for a series of posts.

First, let me say I’m not the best person to ask for reviews of the latest reading programmes. I usually research available resources on the market as thoroughly as possible, decide on something and if works well for us, we stick to it.

I study my chosen resource a few times (nerd, yes!) and create or look for supplemental activities to enrich our experience, following the individual learning styles and personal preferences of our children.

At home, we adopt a three prong approach to reading and writing: 1) Jolly Phonics and Jolly Grammar; 2) Reading aloud; and 3) Readers. In this post, I share about Jolly Phonics and why I feel it’s an excellent programme. (I am not affiliated in any way to Jolly Phonics or its distributors.)

What is Jolly Phonics?

Jolly Phonics is an extremely comprehensive one year programme, used in Australian and UK schools with outstanding results. It provides a thorough foundation for reading and writing by using a synthetic phonics method of teaching letter sounds in a fun and multi-sensory way. I love its child-centred approach. There are stories, songs and hand actions for each letter sound, hands-on activities and games to play.

In Jolly Phonics, children learn how to use letter sounds to read and write words. They learn five basic skills:

1) Learning letter sounds – 7 groups of 6 sounds = 42 alphabet sounds, including digraphs.
2) Learning letter formation – how to form and write letters.
3) Blending letter sounds – how to blend the sounds together to read and write new words.
4) Identifying sounds in words – “segmenting”, which improves spelling.
5) Spelling tricky words – words with irregular spellings which must be learned separately.

The Phonics Handbook

The Phonics Handbook is the best starting place. It provides detailed lesson guides to teach the five skills and all the 42 letter sounds. There are over 100 photocopiable sheets, as well as activities and games for reading and spelling. Suitable words are given for dictation and blending activities.

But why phonics?

Unlike programmes which require children to learn words by sight (memorising tons of flashcards or learning the alphabet names that make up words – so boring, in my view), Jolly Phonics teaches children the 42 letter sounds of the alphabet and encourages them to blend the sounds together to read regular words. There are some irregular (“tricky”) words to be learned separately, but they aren’t many.

In fact, just after learning the first group of letter sounds (s, a, t, i, p, n), children are immediately encouraged to blend regular words that use these sounds, such as “sat”. At this stage, they learn the letter by its sound. For instance, for “sat”, they learn “ss-aa-tt” and not the letter names, “ess-ai-tee”. As the next letter sounds are taught, more words can be read.

Learning this “reading code” makes it possible for children to work out unknown words, simply by blending letter sounds. Good readers do this when they encounter a word they haven’t seen before. This is so much easier and more efficient than memorising hundreds of words. The latter approach is much slower as there are only so many words the brain can remember at a given time. Research has shown that the reading and spelling ages of children who have used Jolly Phonics (for one year) are typically 12 months ahead of their actual age.

Lamb’s spelling at 5.7yo (without memorisation)
Lamb’s spelling at 5.7yo (dictation on the spot without previous viewing or memorisation)

What to buy and where?

I bought The Phonics Handbook, Finger Phonics Books 1-7, Jolly Phonics Word Book (useful lists of words, ideal for dictation and blending practice), Jolly Phonics Cards (flashcards), Jolly Songs (book and music CD), Jolly Phonics DVD, Jolly Phonics Workbooks 1-7 and two sets of Jolly Phonics Readers. There are other products in the Jolly Phonics range, but I feel these are sufficient for our needs. We don’t want to spend too much time on phonics as there are so many other things to do in a day!

These materials were bought locally from ExtraZeal Sdn Bhd. If I remember correctly, they cost a total of about RM800 (2010 prices). You could also try sourcing for them online (new or second hand) (eg. Amazon) and compare prices to see which is cheaper, but note additional shipping costs.

Here’s the address for ExtraZeal: 88A, Jalan SS24/2, Taman Megah. Tel: 03-7880 0118. Email: It’s facing the LDP, behind Secret Recipe, on the same row as a car workshop. The shop is located on the first floor, so the signage isn’t obvious. Enter through the glass door and press the buzzer on the inner landing. Cynthia and Ros at ExtraZeal are very helpful and always ready to provide practical information.

ExtraZeal also sells My Jolly Phonics, a kit containing selected resources for home use. In my opinion, this is helpful for parental reinforcement at home provided the child is already learning Jolly Phonics at preschool. However, if you’re planning to homeschool, I would recommend purchasing The Phonics Handbook as a primary resource as the home kit isn’t as technical or informative as the detailed teaching lessons in The Phonics Handbook. Use the Handbook with other individual materials (such as the Cards, Songs, Workbooks).

ExtraZeal runs workshops on how to teach Jolly Phonics once a year. (There is one coming up on 28 June 2014. Call ExtraZeal for more details.) I attended a workshop in 2010. I feel it isn’t absolutely necessary to attend one if you study The Phonics Handbook thoroughly, but a workshop is very helpful you want advanced help with the material and teaching suggestions for classroom application. I benefited from the workshop’s additional teaching ideas and extra hands-on activities to supplement my teaching. At the time, I was already pregnant with Lamb, our second child. My husband and I knew we would be using Jolly Phonics to homeschool more than one child, so we agreed that attending the workshop was a investment.

Is Jolly Phonics worth it?

I have no regrets investing in Jolly Phonics for four reasons. First, it is so enjoyable. Our kids have such fun, learning to read and write. I have fun too, teaching them. It is so pleasurable to see their excitement at being able to figure out words on their own.

Second, we now have four children who will be using Jolly Phonics so the cost is spread out. We also save on kindergarten expenses.

Third, Jolly Phonics is easy to use. Before, I didn’t know a thing about phonics. I learned in the old school system. But I found The Phonics Handbook so easy to understand. It is very systematic and has plenty of teaching ideas to help novices like me. Photostating, laminating and preparing the relevant resources was a bit labour intensive, but only at the beginning. The effort was well worth it.

Finally, Jolly Phonics has outstanding success worldwide in teaching children to read and write independently at a young age. This is also our experience, at home.

My eldest child started with Jolly Phonics in her fourth year, which is the year I am told Jolly Phonics is taught in schools. However, my younger children started at age three and two respectively. I hadn’t planned to start so early with the littler ones as I always feel that very young children should just spend a lot of time playing, be read to and have lots of cuddles! But they saw their older sister enjoying her Jolly lessons and wanted in on the action too. I adapted the lessons and activities to their age, doing just a few minutes each day according to their pace. “Less is more” – we don’t force learning at home and most times, the children usually want to do more than I anticipate. Jolly Phonics is fun, if adults don’t stress about it!

Piglet enjoying Finger Phonics at 3.1yo
Piglet (3.1yo) enjoying a Finger Phonics board book

I suppose I could have just spent a lot of time reading to my children, showing them flashcards and hoping that they would just “get it”, learning how to read. But I felt I needed a programme to guide our learning at home. I was also attracted to the multi-sensory, creative and systematic aspect of Jolly Phonics.

Looking back, I am so happy we chose Jolly Phonics. Using the programme, I was really amazed how many words my children could spell at four years old. These were words they hadn’t seen beforehand. They hadn’t memorised them. They were blending letter sounds together to read those words. Soon, they were reading sentences. Together with reading aloud on a daily basis and going through some Readers, I believe Jolly Phonics (and its follow-up, Jolly Grammar) has played a significant role in helping my children to read and write, and enjoy whole books, independently, by the time they were five to five-and-a-half.

Books like these.

Favourite reads at 5yo
Cherished reads at 5yo

A whole world has opened up to them at an early age, and I’m so glad they can occupy themselves with books in their free time.

A favourite activity - reading new books every week
A favourite activity – reading new books every week

I believe if parents follow the gentle support and guidance that is recommended by Jolly Phonics (no Tiger Moms please!), children won’t feel they are being forced to learn anything and they will in fact learn much more. Piglet, my three year old asks for his “lessons” every day. We spend very little time on phonics, maybe just 10-15 minutes. Often, he wants more. He can now blend sounds together to read some regular words and can also recognise letter sounds in things that he sees. At a café last week, my latte arrived and he said, “ ‘Kuh” for “cup”, Mama!”

Reading Jolly Phonics at park 3yo

This picture almost shames me. A three year old who reads enough at home shouldn’t bring books to the park! But just this one time, Piglet couldn’t be persuaded not to bring his Finger Phonics board book along.

The important thing is not how early our children learn, but that they enjoy the process and build a life-long love of learning. I think Jolly Phonics, together with reading aloud and following several Readers, has helped us achieve both goals.


You might also be interested in stories and tips on reading and writing: Reading: Getting it; Learning the alphabet and honing glueing skills; Fun ways to learn writing the alphabet; Another love letter; The Almighty gets a love note; Reading ROCKS!; Reading mania.

Did this post help you? If you have any questions, please ask them in the Comments section (below the title of this post). I’ll do my best to respond, and if it’s a question that begs a long answer you might get another blog post! If you use Jolly Phonics, do share your experience so others can benefit as well. Thank you so much!


UPDATE: Since March 2017, I have started running a workshop called Phonics@Home. It is a four-hour workshop that equips parents with basic knowledge and practical skills of how to teach their children using Jolly Phonics. It is a small-group workshop, limited to six participants, so that everyone gets to ask questions, engage in role-playing sessions with personal feedback from me, and participate in hands-on games and activities related to phonics learning. Participants leave with a take-home Parent Kit containing the Jolly Songs CD and useful activity tools to reinforce learning at home.

In our private Facebook group exclusively for post-workshop participants, everyone is invited to share stories about how Jolly Phonics is working for them, or ask a question that might benefit the others. I also share updates of how we continue using Jolly Phonics in our own home and fresh learning ideas that emerge as we do so. 

Please contact me if you’re interested to participate. Thank you!




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Our homeschool curriculum

This month I am participating in iHomeschoolNetwork‘s Not Back to School Blog Hop. Each week in August I will share a different area of homeschooling. This week is Curriculum week.

There are 3 children homeschooling with me, ages 6, 4 and 18 months. This is our third year homeschooling and it has been one of the best things I have ever done. It has helped cement our relationships, organized our life at home, made my stay-home mom experience meaningful and enjoyable – what more can I say!

I should point out though that this year, we decided to send our eldest to a preschool which teaches all its subjects in Malay (a second language for us, first language being English) because the plan is for all our children to attend national school. We feel this would be best in the multi-racial context of Malaysia – all its complexities considered. However, I would consider any time learning with mom as homeschooling, so Puppy is homeschooled outside formal school hours.

This is our curriculum at the moment.

1. Bible
We use various Bibles – the adult version (one-on-one reading with our 6yo) and the Word and Song Bible (reading aloud with all 3 kids at bedtime). Over the past two and a half years we have completed a few children’s Bible story books – the Beginner’s Bible, the Family Time Bible, the Egermeier Bible, the Action Bible (cartoon version). I find doing a wide variety of children’s Bibles helps reinforce learning. We use the adult version to memorize. Having a memory verse chart (marking the dates we memorize, and which verse is memorized) has been very useful and makes it fun for the kids. They also like counting their stickers and it’s been a nice counting activity going past 100! Bible reading happens in the afternoon before the boys’ nap time, and also at night just before bed so we get to combine reading adult and children versions.

2. Language Studies
Our language studies are in two parts – reading aloud and learning to read.

(a) Reading Aloud. This helps to build vocabulary by listening to the language and is great for learning all kinds of subjects like Science, World Culture, Art and History using living books. We love books from Sonlight (using all the ones P4/P5 and Core B this year). Time permitting, we also use the Ladybird Peter & Jane series and other random ones the kids pick off the shelves.

(b) Learning to Read. We love Jolly Phonics and Jolly Grammar. JP is a fantastic, multi-sensory phonics program used in the UK and Australia. The teacher’s handbook makes it great for home use too. Two years ago I attended a training program so I could learn to teach it even better – no regrets. When my eldest was 4yo, she learned to read words she’d never seen before after just 2 months on the program. When she was 5, we moved on to Jolly Grammar 1. This year we are doing JG 2. She can now spell pretty well (simply by figuring out the sounds in words, not using memorization) and can read independently too – books at 8-10yo level. The Boxcar Children are one of her favourites so I’ve been purchasing a lot of used ones in the series. Our 4yo has finished learning all the JP sounds and we’re doing a lot of blending and tricky words these days.

3. Writing
We’ve done Handwriting Without Tears, a fun handwriting program written by physiotherapists for preschoolers’ physical and other multi-sensory needs in mind. It was fun for my eldest when she was 4yo. My 4yo now seems to get along fine without it and anyway I’m not encouraging him to write too much at this age. Air writing, crafts to strengthen the fingers, and a bit of colouring are enough right now without unduly stressing his little hands.

4. Math
We started with Singapore Math kindergarten level books in 2010 and I find they provide an excellent foundation. They systematically introduce and reinforce math concepts using a Concrete-Pictorial-Abstract approach and my kids learn well with spiral progression so … thumbs up so far! My 4yo is loves using Pattern Blocks and sometimes plays with his 6yo sister’s Base Ten kit. Both also watch MathTacular and it’s always a spectacular hit.

Pattern blocks – so cool for learning shapes and basic math concepts
Base Ten – a hit from Day 1

5. Malay and Chinese language
Right now it’s reading aloud from local story books, listening to music CDs and some singing. Some of the Chinese books have accompanying CDs.

6. Sensory, Living Skills
We love Montessori, I’ve spent many worthwhile hours researching and making up games. Simply helping out with everyday matters in the kitchen, laundry, cleaning – all that also counts as school. Our 18mo is passing me stuff, learning to put away things where they belong and using a damp cloth to wipe surfaces.

But of course boys can learn to make gingerbread men …
… and decorate sweet things

7. History, Geography, World Cultures
These lessons come from our Sonlight reading aloud (stories from Japan, Morocco, China, etc). Sometimes we do home projects that relate to it (eg cooking Indian food if we read a story from India). There is a big world map in front of our worktable and it is well used.

I love that we can learn history so effectively from reading true to life stories rather than boring textbooks. We have explored the World Wars and refugee issues, the latter being especially helpful since our children know some refugee children personally. Currently we are exploring beliefs and world religions.

8. Science
We love Usborne books, the Berenstein Bears science book and do home projects as often as I can manage. Right now we’re studying magnets and I thought it would be fun to include a game related to that at our 4yo’s birthday party last month, which we did – fishing for treats.

9. Physical Education
The great outdoors are great for working out those little wiggles and really develops both the physical and intellectual! After 1 hour outside every morning (house yard or park), the boys are more than ready to sit down for 1.5 hours of school. 1 hour again in the evening (house yard, swimming, park) for the boys and girl. Simple resources – scooter, ride-on toys, bicycles, ball games, hopscotch. We use coloured cones for navigating around with, chalk to draw a traveling course on the ground, hoola hoops to jump into and out, plus my laptop sometimes for accompanying music! Two weeks ago we started on Homeschool Family Fitness and are now trying to do sit ups and push ups everyday, recorded on a chart for each child – excluding our 18mo, but he tries his best nevertheless!

10. Nutrition
Just watching and helping me everyday in the kitchen – learning the names of veggies, nutritional value of foods.  No resources to buy except the food we eat! Our 18mo is learning to peel a hard-boiled egg, the 4yo and 6yo are learning how to fry eggs, how many minutes makes a hard-boiled egg, what goes into pasta sauce, what are good and bad foods, which foods require refridgeration, why we want to avoid processed foods … so many things.

11. Music
(a) There’s lots of variety to just listen to on AccuRadio.
(b) We’re memorizing the Bible using the Word and Song Bible book and CD series (of all the other Bible music CDs we have, the kids love this the best of all and have memorized a lot from it) …
(c) And sing lots of Jolly Songs (learning and reinforcing sounds of the alphabet, from Jolly Phonics). In the past we did some Jolly Music (good for classroom learning but also adaptable for home use) our schedule this year has been too tight to follow through.
(d) We also use various instruments (maracas, bells, xylophone, other home-made instruments). Our 4y0 is playing on a junior drum kit (home lessons from Sweet Man because he’s not ready for formal lessons yet) and our 6yo is playing the piano (home lessons from me) doing Bach and Mozart right now.                                                                  (e) Recently we started listening to Leonard Bernstein and it’s such fun, the kids are picking up a lot.

12. Art
This year we are using more of ARTistic Pursuits and it’s been great. Wonderful lessons, a genuinely artistic way of approaching art.

13. Nature Study
We live in the city, so regular park visits are great for us. (Here’s an old post on what can happen in just one morning.)

Digging in the mud yields interesting finds

It’s a lot to pack into our schedule, some days we do more, some days less. My first year of homeschooling was a steep learning curve and although it’s tapering off a little, I know I have so much further to go as a teaching mom. At the same time, I’m learning to be flexible and just enjoy the ride!

Upcoming posts:                                                                                                                                      Our school room. (What should I do, photograph our whole house?)
Fun ways to learn writing the alphabet (Part 2).

(Note: I do not have any financial interest in any of the products described above. We just use them and like them.)

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