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What is Phonics?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 23, 2024
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Reading and writing in alphabetic languages depend on sound-symbol correspondences, that is, relationships between letters and sounds. One of the chief ways of unlocking the mysteries of reading and writing for children is phonics, a method of instruction that teaches these correspondences and uses them to help learners in both these areas.

In English, there is not a one-to-one relationship between sounds and symbols. Each sound may be spelled by more than one symbol or symbol cluster, and a single symbol or symbol cluster may signal different sounds, depending on context. Phonics gives learners a statistically good shot at sounding out a word in a way that either matches what they know or is close enough that other clues, like context, will help them figure it out.

Phonics programs typically begin with sounds for individual letters and then teach them connected in words. Often, the material is artificial, with pages of, for example, three-letter words that all have a “short a” sound, and no context or narrative connection. Nevertheless, running together the sounds for the letters h, a — short in this context since it is followed by a consonant, and t, will likely produce something identical or very similar to an acceptable pronunciation for hat. Note that we cannot make too fine a point of many pronunciations, due to regional differences in dialect. A learner who recognizes that the word hat corresponds to the thing you put on your head and can pronounce it understandably while reading is doing just fine.

Whole language is the name of another pedagogical approach, in which the focus is on language in context. Students are more likely to be asked to recognize whole words in the context of real language situations, whether signage, household items, or story books. They also may be invited to put down their thoughts as best they can, using “creative” spelling, which is generally used as the focus of lessons in the correct spelling of the words the child chose, so that spelling lessons are personalized.

Some people understand phonics as a component of whole language, while other people understand them as diametrically opposed pedagogies. There are good reasons to combine the two, including explicit teaching of sound-symbol correspondences with opportunities to see and use language in context. And there are good reasons to allow learners to express themselves in writing before they are perfect and then show them the phonics rules that will help others to understand their communications.

Consider these two points. First, the fact is that adult native speakers who are experts in English do not read phonetically every word they see: words like stop on a stop sign are recognized by their configuration and context, just the points that whole language makes. Second, unless an adult is an exceptional human being or has very little occasion to express him- or herself in written language, he or she will likely misspell words now and again. This does not, and should not, keep the adult from written expression, and the same can be said of children. This argues for a combination of phonics and whole language approaches as the best language instruction.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Language & Humanities, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By comfyshoes — On Jul 01, 2010

Many programs on the market teach children how to read. Parents can facilitate this process at home. The book "Ordinary Parents Guide to Teaching Reading" by Jessie Wise provides systematic phonics instruction in a scripted format so a parent can teach their child phonics lessons in a progressively more difficult manner. With over 230 lessons, children beginning learning consonant sounds and end decoding multisyllablic words at a 4th grade level. Encouraging tips and answers to the most frequently asked questions regarding reading instructions arm the average parent with the knowledge necessary to teach their own child phonics.

By oasis11 — On Jul 01, 2010

Phonics teaches children predictable patterns in written language. Mastering these patterns and rules creates a strong foundation for children and makes reading easier. While there are sight words that do not follow this pattern, introduction of these types of words is best by offering the pronunciation along with its definition as the whole language format suggest. Combining sight words with daily phonics instruction enhancing the child’s reading experience. With significant phonics knowledge, a child begins to decode unfamiliar words and eventually learns to read. Reading is the cornerstone of a child’s academic experience and is a significant educational milestone when a child learns to read for the first time.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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