That Magical Skill Called Phonics!


In our very first series, we discuss how children learn to read. Last week, we talked about the first element in learning to read: phonemic awareness. Today’s episode is on that element of reading marketed as the magical skill that even your two-year-old must attend a camp to learn…sorry. I got carried away there. I love phonics; I really do. It is just the camps for two-year-olds that get me going silly.

Before I go on about phonics, I want to talk about a seven-year-old who used to come to my classes. The kids would pick up books to read during the break while I got some snacks and such. When she first joined, this child started reading aloud: “T-h-e the, b-a-l-l ball, i-s is, i-n in, t-h-e the, w-a-t-e-r water.” Have you seen kids read like that? Why do you think that is? Hmm? I’ll talk about this again as we go through this podcast. Let’s see if you figured out what was happening with that child!

What is Phonics?

Phonics is the systematic instruction where a beginning reader learns the rules of the written language. In Hindi, Tamil, or most other Indian languages, if readers know the letters, they can blend the letters and read because the letter names say the sounds.

But in the English language, the letters can stand for more than one sound. C can be /c/ as in cat or /s/ as in city. That’s because the 26 letters of the alphabet are used to make 42 or 44 phonemes or speech sounds. 44 is the generally accepted total, but there are others who agree on 42. How does a beginning reader learn to tell the difference? For that, you need phonics instruction. Phonics teaches us the correct letter-sound correlation. At this stage, students learn that the sounds in the spoken language are represented by one letter or a group of letters.

For Example, The letter b says the sound /b/ as in ball, the letters sh say the sound /sh/ as in ship, and the letters ph say the sound /f/ as in phone

Remember I said systematic? Systematic means step by step. The reader begins by identifying the letters and then the corresponding sounds. That is why schools want to know if your child can identify the alphabet when you seek admission.

Once the child knows the letter and the matching sound, they must start putting different sounds together to read simple words. This is also known as blending. The child learns to identify /a/ and /t/ together and read it quickly as ‘at.’ If children can’t blend the sounds, they don’t know what to do with the letter sounds.

Remember that seven-year-old I mentioned at the beginning? She had not learned to blend the sounds to read them together as words. Instead, she had memorized the spellings of the words to read them. Many beginning readers read like that.

Once the child learns to blend simple two-letter words like at and an, the next step is to read three-letter words—CVC or consonant-vowel-consonant words. These are the short vowel words. Your word families—the at family, the an family, the en family, the ip family, the op family, and up family all fall under this category. Then come the digraphs and blends. Next come the CVCe words and CVVC words. These are the long vowel sounds, and they too form word families, like the ake family—bake, make, cake, and the ile family—file, mile, smile, tile, to name a few.

But phonics doesn’t stop here. There are more patterns to learn, including the schwa sound, variations in the sounds c and g make, types of syllables, vowel digraphs, and diphthongs.

There is an advantage to phonics being systematic. If your child struggles at one step, you can practice it more before moving on to the next step.

Why is phonics important?

If a child cannot identify words correctly, they will not understand the information in the written passage. To identify the words correctly, the reader must know

  1. the letters in the word
  2. the sounds those letters make, and
  3. how to put the sounds together to decode the word.

Understanding the phonics principles enables the child to decode newer and bigger words as the reading material becomes more challenging.

Say, for example, the readers know that f-a-n says fan. They can change the first sound to decode other words from the an family—man, can, pan. These are all single-syllable words.

Later, they will progress to two-syllable words. When readers see words like candle, cannot, and candy, they readily identify the first syllable, can. They focus on decoding the second syllable and blending the two. Children can read the words as can + dle, can+not, can+ dy. they become more efficient in their decoding.

With a strong foundation in phonics, children spend less time matching the letters to sounds and blending them. They develop better word recognition skills. Let me elaborate on that. The first few times beginning readers see a word, they start by naming the letters, then the sounds, and blend them. But after 10-15 repetitions, they look at the word and recognize it immediately. They don’t have to name the letters or sounds. As readers become more familiar with words, they read quickly and accurately. That leaves them with more time to understand the text.

In contrast, students with poor phonics skills need more time to decode the words. You know you don’t want to do something if you can’t do it well. It’s the same with kids. Struggling to read at the beginning stages can increase frustration and demotivate children from wanting to read more.

Phonics is an essential skill not only to learn to read. It is necessary for spelling as well. To spell, children must do the opposite of reading. They must break the word into its individual sounds and write the corresponding letters. This ‘breaking the word into individual sounds’ is called segmenting. For example, when students hear the word ran, they must identify the sounds in the correct order,  /r/ /a/ /n/, and then write the letters r, a, and n. As they progress, they pick up patterns in words they read, such as CVC and long vowels, and apply that knowledge to spell, improving their writing skills.

Phonics instruction is most effective when done systematically and taught through direct instruction. That means we must teach children the letter-sound correspondence and give them several opportunities to sound these out in actual words. Insufficient practice in blending sounds results in an inability to use phonics skills to decode words.

Let’s return to that seven-year-old who knew the letter sounds but couldn’t blend them. Think about how much the child had missed. At seven, she should have progressed to CVC words, then blends and digraphs, on to CVCe and CVVC to read long vowel words, and even started on syllabication. But she had none of these skills, and it wasn’t because she had any learning disability! She wasn’t taught what to do with those letter sounds. For the school’s purposes, the teacher had completed the syllabus. So, this child relied on rote memory and not the phonics rules. How many words would she have to memorize to read like this? Where would she have time to even think about understanding what she reads?

What do you take away from this? If your child is learning phonics, find out if they know what to do with the letter sounds and how to blend them to decode new words.

Read to know more:

Phonemic Awareness vs Phonics

Click here for other podcasts in this series:

The Five Elements of learning to Read

Phonemic Awareness Before Phonics

How Does Fluency Help Comprehension

Fostering Fluency at Home

Why is Vocabulary Important in Learning to Read?

Tips To Improve Vocabulary

Reading Comprehension

Reading Comprehension at Home

That Magical Skill Called Phonics!

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