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The importance of phonics

Updated: Dec 16, 2021


Phonics is the knowledge that letters of the alphabet represent sounds and that they can be blended together to make words. According to the National Reading Panel (NRP) it is the second of five essential components of reading instruction.

In the 1940s through the early 1960s the popular Dick and Jane series of early readers taught children to read by repeating a limited number of words over and over until the child hopefully memorized the word. This whole word approach seemed to work well with some children. Others were able to memorize words at first when the number of words was limited and matched the pictures well. However, by third grade many of these children began to struggle and fall behind. There are over a million words in the English language and there would be no way to memorize all those words. Studies have shown that trying to memorize words as whole words is actually much harder than learning the sounds of individual letters and sounding out the words. Over time, as people encounter the same word over and over, they will eventually have the word memorized but it must start with knowing the sounds of the individual letters and letter combinations. The fact is that teaching to read through phonics rather than whole word approach is so well researched that today almost all reading curriculum will include at least some level of phonics.

Some languages are pretty easy to figure out because each letter makes one sound and so once you know that one sound you can read if you just make the sounds of the letters you see on the page in the correct order. English is much more difficult. There are 44 sounds in the English language but only 26 letters. Only 16 of the letters make only one sound. The rest make at least 2 sounds, and some make multiple sounds including silent in certain situations.

There are actually 4 things that can change the sound that a letter makes. The first is the position of the letter in a word. For example most people know that “s” makes the /s/ sound as at the beginning of “sun” and “snake” but if “s” is making the last sound in a word after a voiced letter it actually makes the sound /z/ as in “rose” and “dogs”. The second thing that affects the sound that letters make is adjacent letters. The letter “c” makes the sound /k/ if it is followed by a,o,u, or any consonant, but when followed by an e,i, or y it will make the sound /s/. Third is accent. When a vowel is found in an unaccented syllable it usually makes kind of an unnoticeable sound rather like the sound of short u. The final thing which affects the sounds that the letters make is the language of origin. English has borrowed words from other languages around the world but especially there are many English words that have originated in Latin or Greek. A reader who wants to be able to read high school science books needs to know the phonics rules that will tell him or her how to pronounce ph, and ps… These are just some of the examples of phonics rules and applications that are more advanced than what many people learn in school.

The purpose of this article is not to explain all of the phonics rules but to emphasize the importance of having comprehensive phonics instruction for all people who struggle with reading. Everyone would benefit from comprehensive, systematic, and explicit phonics instruction which leaves nothing for the reader to assume or figure out for themselves but for dyslexics it is particularly important. There are people that argue that memorizing a bunch of phonics rules would be too difficult to remember and would be boring so that the children won’t be interested. However, children naturally like to learn and are proud of their accomplishments. When they are given the information at a pace they can handle and are given plenty of time to master each skill and plenty of review so that each new piece of knowledge sticks they thrive. It makes them feel good that they can be successful. In the end instead of being the one who is behind everyone else in the class they know more about the rules of the English language than most people and have a much better chance of spelling words correctly as well.

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