What is Phonics? And Why is it Important?

What is Phonics?

What is Phonics? How does it differ from phonological awareness? Why is it so important in reading acquisition? What if my child isn’t learning phonics in school? Answers to these questions and more coming up.

Phonics is Not Phonemic Awareness

Phonics refers to the paired association between the sounds [or phonemes] of spoken language and letters. Think of it as the marriage of alphabetic knowledge and phonemic awareness.

What’s the Difference?

Phonics is not to be confused with the concepts of phonological and phonemic awareness. Yes, they are all related however, phonics takes reading acquisition a step further by incorporating graphemes a.k.a. letters into the mix.  Phonics training is the beginning of learning to read print whereas the others help to understand and distinguish sounds heard while speaking.

Phonics Definition: A system for approaching reading that focuses on the relationship between letters and sounds. Phonics helps with sounding out unfamiliar words.

There are 44 phonemes in the English language. That means we produce 44 sounds in our throat and mouth in total when speaking in English. Yet, we only have 26 letters to construct out the written form of English.

A handful of consonants get a 1:1 sound-letter correspondence like the letters f, d, n and m. But the majority of letters can represent multiple sounds especially when they are paired with other letters to represent different phonemes altogether. Think vowel teams such as ‘ea’ and ‘oa’ or digraphs like ‘sh’ or ‘th’. We see letters used in many ways to provide a visual representation of the phonemes we use in speech. 

English has a ‘Deep’ Orthography

This means that English has what researchers call a ‘deep orthography’. Orthography is a fancy term for correct spelling of words. There is not a 1:1 letter-sound correspondence in English’s orthography. Languages like Turkish, Italian and Spanish have a transparent orthography meaning their letters represent one sound and one sound only.

Researchers have found that no matter the language’s orthography and its level of transparency,  letter-sound knowledge is central to both decoding, sight word learning, and the reading acquisition process. 

So, Why Phonics?

Phonics is important for children to learn because it sets them up with the ability to decode English’s written language. Decoding is a skill that is absolutely necessary because it is the foundation of learning how to read. Eventually, phonics instruction can fall to the wayside once children receive enough instruction to confidently approach unfamiliar words on their own. But in the beginning, all children should be exposed to phonics in a systematic and explicit manner.

Check it Out! Language and the Speed of Sight by Mark Seidenberg

Systematic Instruction

Systematic instruction means that the teacher or instructor has a clear and organized sequence for introducing letter-sound relationships. This instruction is built on logic, sequencing relationships based on the frequency and attempts to reduce confusion. For instance, the letters ‘b’ and ‘d’ are not often introduced together to prevent confusion. This gives students ample time to understand one letter before the next is introduced. 

Explicit Instruction

Explicit instruction means the teacher or instructor provides students with instruction of letter-sound relationships in a clear and precise manner. 

What Does Systematic and Explicit Look Like?

The School Run has a beautifully constructed blog post about the different “phonics phases” a child will undergo while learning to read with the phonics approach. This displays one way an instructor or teacher can plan the sequencing of phonics instruction from individual letter sounds to reading fluency. https://www.theschoolrun.com/what-are-phonics-phases

Reading Acquisition is Not Intuitive

Phonics is not the only approach to reading instruction. Another approach is whole-language. The intention here is not to pin both approaches against each other. However, whole-language instructional components are found to be considered a more intuitive approach to reading. This sounds good because instruction, generally speaking, has become more intuitive and student-centered. Yet, researchers have noticed that these intuitive approaches found in whole-language are very similar to how poor readers (not strong readers) attempt reading.

Poor readers heavily rely on context for word reading. If they lack sufficient decoding skills, relying on context is their only recourse. If poor readers are unable to decode, their system will fail them when too many words in the text become too advanced. 

NOTE: Phonics instruction prevails over whole-language when it comes to struggling readers. That is because struggling readers have deficits in the areas that phonics instruction explicitly expands on. 

Click to Purchase Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties by David A. Kilpatrick from Amazon. The majority of the information found in this post comes from this book.

When it comes to reading, we mustn’t follow our intuition. A couple of examples of this is contextual or pictorial guessing and rote-style word-learning.

Instructional Approaches that are Intuitive but not Effective

Contextual or Pictorial Guessing

One example of an intuitive reading strategy that is common in other approaches to reading instruction is using contextual or pictorial guessing to figure out unfamiliar words. Contextual or pictorial guessing undermines the importance of phonic decoding of unfamiliar words.

Rote-Memorization

Another intuitive method to teaching reading is grounded in the idea that the more a student sees a word, the better chance they will recognize it and store it into their sight word vocabulary. This idea is based on the visual memory hypothesis that claims we memorize what we see. Could you imagine using only sight to memorize the thousands of words stored in your vocabulary? We see this in classrooms that use weekly spelling lists, flashcard routines, and other rote style learning methods. Unfortunately, this type of reading instruction is pretty pervasive in today’s classrooms.

Most classrooms teach common sound-spelling relationships. In fact, many children come to school with basic letter knowledge from prior print exposure and engaging in shared reading with parents or caregivers. TBL has an entire post dedicated to showing you just how important reading books with your child is. Click here to read!

The Powerful Effects of Reading Storybooks with Your Child

For most proficient readers this provides enough of a foundation for them to begin building sight word vocabulary and decode unfamiliar words on their own beginning as early as the 1st grade. 

Most Children Learn to Read No Matter the Type of Instruction

It is true that no matter what type of reading instruction a child receives, phonics or the common whole-language approach, up to 70% ultimately learn to read. That is to say that phonics is not the end-all-be-all type of instruction that must be present in all classrooms. However, phonics instruction is the most efficient way to teach reading to students especially for those who have phonological deficits or who do not have a strong enough foundation in alphabetic principle and phonological awareness to pick up reading on their own.

Awareness of Reading Instruction Approaches is Important

I believe it is important for us to become aware of the science behind reading acquisition when it comes to our young children. Although 70% of children go on to learn how to read regardless of the type of instruction, it is pertinent to review the current instructional methods for those considered as poor readers. 

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