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Phonics refers to an instructional method for teaching children to read English. Phonics involves teaching children to connect the sounds of spoken English with letters or groups of letters (e.g., that the sound /k/ can be represented by c, k, or ck spellings) and teaching them to blend the sounds of letters together to produce approximate pronunciations of unknown words.
Phonics in English[edit | edit source]
Phonics is a widely used method of teaching to read and decode words, although it is not without controversy (see "History and controversy" below). Children begin learning to read using phonics usually around the age of 5 or 6. Teaching English reading using phonics requires children to learn the connections between letter patterns and the sounds they represent. Phonics instruction requires the teacher to provide students with a core body of information about phonics rules, or patterns.
- Note: This article uses General American pronunciation.
Basic rules[edit | edit source]
Alphabetic principle[edit | edit source]
From a linguistics perspective, English spelling is based on the alphabetic principle. In an alphabetic writing system, letters are used to represent speech sounds, or phonemes. For example, the word pat is spelled with three letters, p, a, and t, each representing a phoneme, respectively, /p/, /æ/, and /t/.
The spelling systems for some alphabetic languages, such as Spanish, are relatively simple because there is nearly a one-to-one correspondence between sounds and the letter patterns that represent them. English spelling is more complex, because it attempts to represent the 40+ phonemes of the spoken language with an alphabet composed of only 26 letters (and no accents). As a result, two letters are often fused together into groups that represent distinct sounds, referred to as digraphs. For example "t" and "h" placed side by side are used to represent a third sound /th/ (IPA:/θ/ or /ð/).
English has absorbed large amounts of words from other languages throughout its history, without changing the spelling of those words. As a result, the written form of English includes the spelling patterns of five languages (Old English, Danish, Norman French, Classical Latin and Greek) superimposed upon one another. These overlapping spelling patterns mean that in many cases the same sound can be spelled differently and the same spelling can represent different sounds. However, the spelling patterns usually follow certain conventions.  The result is that English spelling patterns vary considerably in the degree to which they follow the stated pattern. For example, the letters ee almost always represent /iː/, but the sound can also be represented by the letter y. Similarly, the letter cluster ough represents /ʌf/ as in enough, /oʊ/ as in though, /uː/ as in through, /ɔːf/ as in cough, and /aʊ/ as in bough.
Although the patterns are inconsistent, when English spelling rules take into account syllable structure, phonetics, and accents, there are dozens of rules that are 75% or more reliable. 
A selection of phonics patterns is shown below.
Vowel phonics patterns[edit | edit source]
- Short vowels are the five single letter vowels, a, e, i, o, and u when they produce the sounds /æ/ as in cat, /ɛ/ as in bet, /ɪ/ as in sit, /ɒ/ as in hot, and /ʌ/ as in cup. The term "short vowel" does not really mean that these vowels are pronounced for a particularly short period of time, but they are not diphthongs like the long vowels.
- Long vowels are synonymous with the names of the single letter vowels, such as /eɪ/ in baby, /iː/ in meter, /aɪ/ in tiny, /oʊ/ in broken, and /juː/ in humor. The way that educators use the term "long vowels" differs from the way in which linguists use this term. In classrooms, long vowels sounds are taught as being "the same as the names of the letters."
- Schwa is the third sound that most of the single vowel spellings can produce. The schwa is an indistinct sound of a vowel in an unstressed syllable, represented by the linguistic symbol ə. /ə/ is the sound made by the o in lesson. Schwa is a vowel pattern that is not always taught to elementary school students because it is difficult to understand. However, some educators make the argument that schwa should be included in primary reading programs because of its importance in reading English words.
- Closed syllables are syllables in which a single vowel letter is followed by a consonant. In the word button, both syllables are closed syllables because they contain single vowels followed by consonants. Therefore, the letter u' represents the short sound /ʌ/. (The o in the second syllable makes the /ə/ sound because it is an unstressed syllable.)
- Open syllables are syllables in which a vowel appears at the end of the syllable. The vowel will say its long sound. In the word basin, ba is an open syllable and therefore says /beɪ/.
- Diphthongs are linguistic elements that fuse two adjacent vowel sounds. English has four common diphthongs. The commonly recognized diphthongs are /aʊ/ as in cow and /ɔɪ/ as in boil. Four of the long vowels are also technically diphthongs, /eɪ/, /aɪ/, /oʊ/, and /juː/, which partly accounts for the reason they are considered "long."
- Vowel digraphs are those spelling patterns wherein two letters are used to represent the vowel sound. The ai in sail is a vowel digraph. Because the first letter in a vowel digraph sometimes says its long vowel sound, as in sail, some phonics programs once taught that "when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking." This convention has been almost universally discarded, owing to the many non-examples. The au spelling of the /ɔː/ sound and the oo spelling of the /uː/ and /ʊ/ sounds do not follow this pattern.
- Vowel-consonant-E spellings are those wherein a single vowel letter, followed by a consonant and the letter e makes the long vowel sound. Examples of this include bake, theme, hike, cone, and cute. (The ee spelling, as in meet is sometimes considered part of this pattern.)
Consonant phonics patterns[edit | edit source]
- Consonant digraphs are those spellings wherein two letters are used to represent a consonant phoneme. The most common consonant digraphs are ch for /tʃ/, ng for /ŋ/, ph for /f/, sh for /ʃ/, th for /θ/ and /ð/, and wh for /ʍ/ (often pronounced /w/ in American English). Letter combinations like wr for /r/ and kn for /n/ are also consonant digraphs, although these are sometimes considered patterns with "silent letters."
- Short vowel+consonant patterns involve the spelling of the sounds /k/ as in peek, /dʒ/ as in stage, and /tʃ/ as in speech. These sounds each have two possible spellings at the end of a word, ck and k for /k/, dge and ge for /dʒ/, and tch and ch for /tʃ/. The spelling is determined by the type of vowel that precedes the sound. If a short vowel precedes the sound, the former spelling is used, as in pick, judge, and match. If a short vowel does not precede the sound, the latter spelling is used, as in took, barge, and launch.
The final "short vowel+consonant pattern" is just one example of dozens that can be used to help children unpack the challenging English alphabetic code. This example illustrates that, while complex, English spelling retains order and reason.
Sight words and high frequency words[edit | edit source]
- There are words that do not follow these phonics rules, such as were, who, and you. They are often called "sight words" because they must be memorized by sight.
- Teachers who use phonics also often teach students to memorize the most high frequency words in English, such as it, he, them, and when, even though these words are fully decodable. The argument for teaching these "high frequency words" is that knowing them will improve students' reading fluency.
- There are ways to aid in the memorization of sight words through the use of multi-sensory activities such as arm-tapping.
History and controversy[edit | edit source]
Because of the complexity of written English, more than a century of debate has occurred over whether English phonics should or should not be used in teaching beginning reading. Despite the work of 19th century proponents such as Rebecca Smith Pollard, some American educators, prominently Horace Mann, argued that phonics should not be taught at all. This led to the commonly used "look-say" approach ensconced in the "Dick and Jane" readers popular in the mid-20th century. Beginning in the 1950s, however, phonics resurfaced as a method of teaching reading. Spurred by Rudolf Flesch's criticism of the absence of phonics instruction (particularly in his popular book, Why Johnny Can't Read) phonics resurfaced, but—owing to Flesch's polemical approach—the term "phonics" became associated with political ideology.
In the 1980s, the "whole language" approach to reading further polarized the debate in the United States. Whole language instruction was predicated on the principle that children could learn to read given (a) proper motivation, (b) access to good literature, (c) many reading opportunities, (d) focus on meaning, and (e) instruction to help students use meaning clues to determine the pronunciation of unknown words. For some advocates of whole language, phonics was antithetical to helping new readers to get the meaning; they asserted that parsing words into small chunks and reassembling them had no connection to the ideas the author wanted to convey.
The whole language emphasis on identifying words using context and focusing only a little on the sounds (usually the alphabet consonants and the short vowels) could not be reconciled with the phonics emphasis on individual sound-symbol correspondences. Thus, a dichotomy between the whole language approach and phonics emerged in the United States causing intense debate. Ultimately, this debate led to a series of Congressionally-commissioned panels and government-funded reviews of the state of reading instruction in the U.S.
In 1984, the National Academy of Education commissioned a report on the status of research and instructional practices in reading education, Becoming a Nation of Readers.  Among other results, the report includes the finding that phonics instruction improves children's ability to identify words. It reports that useful phonics strategies include teaching children the sounds of letters in isolation and in words, and teaching them to blend the sounds of letters together to produce approximate pronunciations of words. It also states that phonics instruction should occur in conjunction with opportunities to identify words in meaningful sentences and stories.
In 1990, Congress asked the U.S. Department of Education to compile a list of available programs on beginning reading instruction, evaluating each in terms of the effectiveness of its phonics component. As part of this requirement, the US DOE asked Dr. Marilyn J. Adams to produce a report on the role of phonics instruction in beginning reading, which resulted in her 1994 book Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print.  In the book, Adams asserted that existing scientific research supported that phonics is an effective method for teaching students to read at the word level. Adams argued strongly that the phonics and the whole language advocates are both right. Phonics is an effective way to teach students the alphabetic code, building their skills in decoding unknown words. By learning the alphabetic code early, she argued, students can quickly free up mental energy they had used for word analysis and devote this mental effort to meaning, leading to stronger comprehension earlier in elementary school. Thus, she concluded, phonics instruction is a necessary component of reading instruction, but not sufficient by itself to teach children to read. This result matched the overall goal of whole language instruction and supported the use of phonics for a particular subset of reading skills, especially in the earliest stages of reading instruction.
Similar results, based on a wide-ranging historical study of teaching how to read in other languages in addition to English, were published by Dina Feitelson in her book Facts and Fads in Beginning Reading: A Cross-Language Perspective . Yet the argument about how to teach reading, eventually known as "the Great Debate," continued unabated.
The National Research Council re-examined the question of how best to teach reading to children (among other questions in education) and in 1998 published the results in the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children.  The National Research Council's findings largely matched those of Adams. They concluded that phonics is a very effective way to teach children to read at the word level, more effective than what is known as the "embedded phonics" approach of whole language (where phonics was taught opportunistically in the context of literature). They found that phonics instruction must be systematic (following a sequence of increasingly challenging phonics patterns) and explicit (teaching students precisely how the patterns worked, e.g., "this is b, it stands for the /b/ sound"). ..
In 1997, Congress asked the Director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at the National Institutes of Health, in consultation with the Secretary of Education, to convene a national panel to assess the effectiveness of different approaches used to teach children to read. The National Reading Panel examined quantitative research studies on many areas of reading instruction, including phonics and whole language. The resulting report Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and its Implications for Reading Instruction was published in 2000 and provides a comprehensive review of what is known about best practices in reading instruction in the U.S.  The panel reported that several reading skills are critical to becoming good readers: phonics for word identification, fluency, vocabulary and text comprehension. With regard to phonics, their meta-analysis of hundreds of studies confirmed the findings of the National Research Council: teaching phonics (and related phonics skills, such as phonemic awareness) is a more effective way to teach children early reading skills than is embedded phonics or no phonics instruction.  The panel found that phonics instruction is an effective method of teaching reading for students from kindergarten through 6th grade, and for all children who are having difficulty learning to read. They also found that phonics instruction benefits all ages in learning to spell. They also reported that teachers need more education about effective reading instruction, both pre-service and in-service.
Different phonics approaches[edit | edit source]
Synthetic phonics is a method employed to teach phonics to children when learning to read. This method involves examining every spelling within the word individually as an individual sound and then blending those sounds together. For example, shrouds would be read by pronouncing the sounds for each spelling "/ʃ, r, aʊ, d, z/" and then blending those sounds orally to produce a spoken word, "/ʃraʊdz/." The goal of synthetic phonics instruction is that students identify the sound-symbol correspondences and blend their phonemes automatically. (see synthetic phonics)
Analytical phonics has children analyze sound-symbol correspondences, such as the ou spelling of /aʊ/ in shrouds but students do not blend those elements as they do in synthetic phonics lessons. Furthermore, consonant blends (separate, adjacent consonant phonemes) are taught as units (e.g., in shrouds the shr would be taught as a unit).
Analogy phonics is a particular type of analytic phonics in which the teacher has students analyze phonic elements according to the phonograms in the word. A phonogram, known in linguistics as a rime, is composed of the vowel and all the sounds that follow it. Teachers using the analogy method assist students in memorizing a bank of phonograms, such as -at or -am. Students then use these phonograms to analogize to unknown words.
Embedded phonics is the type of phonics instruction used in whole language programs. Although phonics skills are de-emphasized in whole language programs, some teachers include phonics "mini-lessons" in the context of literature. Short lessons are included based on phonics elements that students are having trouble with, or on a new or difficult phonics pattern that appears in a class reading assignment. The focus on meaning is generally maintained, but the mini-lesson provides some time for focus on individual sounds and the symbols that represent them. Embedded phonics differs from other methods in that the instruction is always in the context of literature rather than in separate lessons, and the skills to be taught are identified opportunistically rather than systematically.
Owing to the shifting debate over time (see "History and Controversy" above), many school systems, such as California's, have made major changes in the method they have used to teach early reading. Today, most teachers combine phonics with the elements of whole language that focus on reading comprehension. Adams  and the National Reading Panel advocate for a comprehensive reading program that includes several different subskills, based on scientific research. This combined approach is sometimes called balanced literacy, although some researchers assert that balanced literacy is merely whole language called by another name.  Proponents of various approaches generally agree that a combined approach is important. A few stalwarts favor isolated instruction in synthetic phonics and introduction to reading comprehension only after children have mastered sound-symbol correspondences. On the other side, some whole language supporters are unyielding in arguing that phonics should be taught little, if at all.
There has been a resurgence in interest in synthetic phonics in recent years, particularly in the United Kingdom. The subject has been promoted by a cross-party group of Parliamentarians, particularly Nick Gibb MP. A recent report by the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee called for a review of the phonics content in the National Curriculum. The Department for Education and Skills have since announced a review into early years reading, headed by Jim Rose.
Jim Rose's group has now reported and the UK Government has decreed that synthetic phonics should be the method of choice for teaching reading in primary schools in England.
References[edit | edit source]
- Phonemes are represented by characters placed between slash marks. Wikipedia uses the International Phonetic Alphabet (see Help:Pronunciation) to represent phonemes, accounting for the use of the æ character to represent the sound of the letter a in pat. This system is used because it is standardized and precise.
- McGuinness, Diane. (2004). Early Reading Instruction Cambridge: MIT Press 41.
- Wren, Sebastian. Exception Words, Southwest Educational Development Laboratory. Retrieved from http://www.sedl.org/reading/topics/exception.html, September 30, 2007.
- Abbott, M. (2000). Identifying reliable generalizations for spelling words: The importance of multilevel analysis. The Elementary School Journal 101(2), 233-245.
- Becoming a Nation of Readers, National Academy of Education, Center for the Study of Reading, 1984
- Adams, Marilyn J. Beginning to read:thinking and learning about print. MIT Press, February 1994; ISBN .
- Dina Feitelson (1988). Facts and fads in beginning reading: a cross-language perspective, Norwood, N.J: Ablex Pub. Corp.
- Snow, Catherine E., Susan Burns, Peg Griffin, eds. Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children, National Research Council, 1998 ISBN 0-309-06418-X
- National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
- Findings and Determinations of the National Reading Panel by Topic Areas
- Adams, Marilyn Jager (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-51076-6.
- Moats, Louisa. Whole language high hinks: How to tell when scientifically-based reading instruction isn't, January 2007. Retrieved Feb 12, 2008.
Structured, Systematic Phonics Instruction- is the type of phonics instruction that is most effective with at-risk or learning disabled children. This approach teaches letters and corresponding phonemes in a very deliberate order with a great deal of review (as needed). Children are able to retain this information as it is carefully taught. Phonics taught in an "as needed" approach is more characteristic of whole language.
See also[edit | edit source]
- Alphabetic principle
- English orthography
- Initial Teaching Alphabet
- List of phonics programs
- Phonemic awareness
- Reading recovery
- Synthetic phonics
- Whole language
[edit | edit source]
- Children of the Code Project
- Comprehensive Phonics Education website
- Phonemic Awareness: An Important Early Step in Learning To Read. ERIC Digest.
- More information about phonemic awareness
- Phonics in Whole Language Classrooms. ERIC Digest.
- Phonics on the Web — Phonics rules including letter sounds, digraphs, r-controlled vowels, and more.
- The Sounds of English — Comprehensive lists of English words grouped by sound and spelling.
- Lets Start Smart — Video clips for learning phonics patterns.
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