What is Phonics?

Phonics is the Connection Between Letters and Sounds

Phonics stems from the Greek word "phono" which means sound. Phonics is the explicit teaching of the connection between letters and sounds. Phonics implies that written language is a description of the sounds of a spoken language as well as a way to encode words and meaning. Students who learn to read through phonics are taught an explicit sound-symbol relationship. They are not only taught how to read recognized words, but they are given the tools to decode unknown words as well.

The Problem of Phonics in English

The twenty-six letters of our alphabet are insufficient to describe the forty-five sounds that comprise spoken English.

English presents a unique difficulty when teaching phonics. The twenty-six letters of our alphabet are insufficient to describe the forty-five sounds that comprise spoken English. This has led to a great debate about the value of phonics instruction for teaching reading and spelling to English speakers. Many phonics programs teach approximate phonics which describe only 45-50% of words. In order to bridge the gap, many educators then teach sight words. Sight words, such as the Dolch List, are thought to be words that cannot be described phonetically in English. This leaves an enormous task for learning to read and spell in English, since a well-educated adult knows approximately 200,000 words. Such an approach leaves approximately 100,000 common words to be memorized by sight.

Systematic Phonics

Due to the research of linguists and educators such as Dr. Orton, a systematic phonics has been developed which describes 98% of English words. Systematic, explicit phonics teaches all the sounds of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet. For example, students are taught not only the short and long sounds for the letter A, but also that it says /ah/ as in "ma". They are taught that S says two sounds /s/ as in "sand," and /z/ as in "has."

Systematic, explicit phonics also teaches all the two-, three-, and four-letter combinations that are used to represent the sounds of English, because the twenty-six letters of the alphabet alone are inadequate. Finally, systematic phonics introduces the spelling rules which govern the letters, providing clues to pronunciation and spelling. By providing students with a complete picture of the language, there is no room for confusion, no need to continually tell students "that is an exception," and no need for sight words.

Systematic phonics is an efficient way to learn to read.

When students learn to read using a systematic phonics program they will be able to understand the reason that a word is spelled in a particular manner, thereby reducing the amount of rote memorization needed to learn to read and spell. Systematic phonics is an efficient way to learn to read.

Critical Thinking Skills

Learning systematic phonics teaches students how written languages work. Rather than simply memorizing words, they learn the logic underlying written language, and how to think critically about lannguage. When students learn to read using a systematic, explicit phonics program they are learning basic linguistic skills and therefore become better world language learners. For example, English has a heavy Latin influence, with more than 80% of multi-syllable words stemming from Latin roots. When students learn basic rules such as: "C softens to /s/ before an E, I, or Y; otherwise C says /k/," they are learning a rule which governs other Latin-based languages such as Spanish, French, and Italian. In the process they are also developing the critical thinking skills and tools to analyze other languages and learn them efficiently.

Phonics education is critical to developing strong readers, spellers, and writers. It is the foundation of learning a written language. When a student understands the phonetic system of English, she will be prepared to not only read in English but tackle the challenge of learning other languages as well.