Phonics is a method of teaching how to read and spell by relating spoken sounds called phonemes and written letters, letter clusters, or syllables called graphemes. The correspondence between graphemes and phonemes is called the alphabetic code.
Over the years, phonic-based instruction has been credited as the foundation for acquiring reading and literacy skills. It has led to significant disapproval of the whole language approach for early reading, which emphasizes teaching reading and writing by learning whole words.
The phonics reading approach involves separating the letters of each word, sounding them out, and then blending the sounds together to recognize and pronounce the word. It teaches sounds and letter shapes that enable decoding printed text.
Studies have suggested children should be able to read and write phonetically between kindergarten and 1st grade. This is a stepping stone to becoming accomplished readers who can read complex unfamiliar words while understanding text meanings even past their reading level.
Why Teach Phonics?
- Phonics improves reading, spelling, and writing skills. It helps kids recognize words they have heard but have not seen in print and also help them decode unfamiliar words by sounding them out. Children create a mental picture of graphemes that match the phonemes made and put these in text.
- Phonics instills good grammar and strong communication skills. This is key to developing early literacy skills. It boosts confidence in speaking. Poor reading skills can lead to lifetime illiteracy.
- Boosts fluency and reading comprehension. Reading comprehension and fluency are impossible if one cannot read single words well or reads slowly. Phonics helps in learning single words then one can understand long texts.
- Improves vocabulary and mental dictionary since most students learn to decode new words and store them in the long-term memory.
Types of Phonics Approaches
Phonics instruction should be systematic and explicit starting from simple to complex words.
- Synthetic or blended phonics
This approach involves separately pronouncing the sound of each letter in a word and then merging the sounds together to form the word. This letter-sound association helps in word recognition.
- Analytic phonics
Instead of grapheme separation and sounding out phonemes in a word then blending sounds children practice words with a common phoneme like bat, big, bear
- Analogy phonics
This involves analyzing phonic elements according to phonograms or speech sounds in a word. Rime also called phonogram comprises the vowel and the syllable that comes after the initial consonant sound like in p an, b an. Rimes enable mastery of word families.
- Embedded or incidental phonics
In this approach, systematic phonics instruction is not followed. Phonics elements are taught when they are incidentally encountered in the literature context. Learners are expected to infer sound-letter association. It’s part of the whole language approach.
Phonics Instruction Versus Other Methods
Phonics cannot be used as a stand-alone strategy of literacy teaching.
According to Timothy Shanahan, an educator and member of the National Reading Panel, systematic, explicit phonics and literacy teaching in primary schools is recommended and should incorporate letters, sounds, decoding, and phonemic awareness combined with oral fluency, reading comprehension, and writing.
He suggests segmenting and blending be taught to kindergarten and 1st-grade kids as the core phonemic awareness skills. He says all the above lessons be equally spread out between 60-90 minutes. However, phonics is recommended as the first step to learning other skills.
Phonics is different from phonemic awareness which involves hearing, identifying, and manipulating sounds in words paying no attention to alphabet letters. The latter is under phonological awareness which deals with the sound structure. It is the basis for understanding the alphabetic code and also a key determinant of future reading proficiency. It helps in sound manipulation and recognition. It involves:
- Identification of rhymes and alliteration.
- Adding, changing, segmenting, blending, and removing sounds or syllables.
Through the orthographic mapping process, good readers decode words by reading from left to right then store these words in long-term memory. This helps develop sight vocabulary and a mental dictionary.
On the other hand, the hierarchical decoding process helps in learning irregular words by focusing on irregular elements like vowel-digraph and silent-e.
The whole language approach is not as effective as phonic teaching which is based on the idea that most words can be decoded easily and the more complex ones will be encountered and memorized later after understanding the common ones and basic sound-letter associations. Read about various parenting styles.
The major downside of phonics is that it’s centered on reading and not comprehension. This may lead to a student knowing to read accurately but not understanding the words and context of a sentence.
Also, most English words don’t follow spelling rules. This is where the highly discredited ‘sight words’ approach comes in handy. It is focused on memorization rather than understanding how a word comes about. This is considered confusing and tedious to logical readers. However, it cannot be ruled out since most sight words are not decodable and just need memorization.
Phonics instruction has been proven to effectively boost literacy standards among young learners. It’s central to developing good reading skills.
This has led to the successful use of phonics-based teaching in primary or elementary schools in countries like the UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and is slowly taking root in many other countries.
Phonics screen check, a phonics assessment test is slowly being accepted in some countries despite the high-profile debates it has brought. Even so, the whole language approach is still being used in some countries since they focus on meaning and context.
Phonics Frequently Asked Questions
What are phonics and examples?
Phonics is a method of teaching reading. Examples are systematic phonics.
What phonics means?
It’s a method of determining the association between graphemes and phonemes.
How do you teach phonics?
Phonics instruction should be sequential.
What are the different types of phonics?
Synthetic, analytic, analogy, and embedded phonics.