What is phonics?
Phonics is a coding system for language that goes beyond the 26 letters of the alphabet. It teaches children 44 phonemes (sounds such as “f”) and 250 graphemes (letter combinations such as “ff” or “gh”).
How do children learn phonics?
Children first learn the letters and sounds of the alphabet. But learning the alphabet alone will not teach children how to read since each letter has more than one sound and spelling. The 44 phonemes (sounds) and 250 graphemes (letters) make up all the words in the English language.
Children master the phonemes and graphemes in order to learn how letters and sounds form words. In phonics instruction, children practice taking words apart and then putting them back together in a process called decoding and encoding. The more adept they become at decoding letter-sound combinations, the better they are at reading, spelling and writing.
Simply put, phonics is like Lego blocks for reading. The more adept children become at manipulating the blocks, the bigger the structures they will construct. And the more comfortable children become at segmenting and blending phonemes, the more challenging the words they will learn to read and write. Of course, some irregular and/or high frequency words can’t be decoded using phonics. These irregular or sight words must be memorised.
It is very important to learn phonics in order!
Synthetic phonics practice is systematic. Children must familiarize themselves with the letter-sound correspondences in English starting from the most common ones and gradually moving to the less common ones. Phonics does this by encouraging children to break down words into their individual phonemes (segmenting) and to put phonemes together to form a word (blending). In doing so, phonics equips children with the tools they need to decode words they haven’t seen before, on the basis of their knowledge of how letters are usually pronounced.
For example, learning what sound (phoneme) the letters c, a and t usually make enables a child to read the word cat. Change the first letter from c to h and the child should be able to read hat. Words like cat and hat are the first ones that children learn to read because they are short and consist of a simple vowel connecting two simple consonants; other similar examples are sad, fun, mat. Such simple words are referred to as CVC (Consonant-Vowel-Consonant) Words.
Phonics instruction then gradually moves onto CVCC words, such as kick, duck and kick, The word kick has the grapheme ‘ck’ which is associated with the sound or phoneme ‘k’. For example, notice that cat, kite, and duck all contain the same k-sound, but in each of these cases this sound is represented by different letters or the graphemes: c, k, and ck.
The reverse is also possible in that the same letter or combination of letters (graphemes) corresponds to different sounds (phonemes) in different words; for example, the digraph ea corresponds to 3 different sounds in bread, mean, and break. This means that there’s no one to one correspondence between letters and sounds, in that the same sound is written in different ways in different words and the same letters are pronounced in different ways in different words making reading a potentially distressing experience for beginners. However, these complexities don’t mean that words are spelled and pronounced in an arbitrary way.
Overall, even though the same sound can be represented by different letters or combinations of letters, not all possible representations of a sound are equally common. For example, the sound ‘f’ can be written as f (funny), ff (bluff), ph (phone), or gh (laugh). But ph and gh are less common than f and ff.
Why don’t children just memorize whole words?
Memorizing each word like a picture - a method called the “whole word” approach - is inefficient. The whole word method also doesn’t give children the tools to sound out new words on their own.
There are over 170,000 words in use in the English language. The average adult has a vocabulary of about 30,000 words. If we had to learn to read every word by memorizing each word like a picture, even adults wouldn’t be able to read! It would be like learning the sum of every number to 1 million instead of just learning the factors.
By contrast, learning how to read through phonics is extremely efficient and effective. There are only 44 phonemes and 250 graphemes which make up words. While it may sound like a lot, it’s a lot easier to learn the phonemes (sounds) and graphemes (letter combinations) that make up words, than it is to learn 170,000 unique words.
Phonics is a process that builds on itself. A child who can read “pet” and “rat” can also read words like “trap,” “rapt,” and “pattern,” even if they don’t know the meaning of the words. This frees up a child’s brain to focus on learning the meaning of unfamiliar words instead of just decoding them.