How Do Phonics Work? A Guide for Parents
At its most basic level, phonics is a method of teaching beginners how to read by learning to associate written letters and groups of letters (called graphemes) with the sounds they represent (called phonemes). Through this reading system, children learn to break down the words they encounter into simple groups so that they can decode (or sound out the words). Rather than teaching children whole words (where learning to read becomes and exercise in memorization), the child given tools to decode or figure out any word they come across. Phonics systems are based on a serious of concepts, which when put all together translate to reading fluency for the reader. Here are the basic concepts intrinsic to any phonic system.
There are twenty-five consonant sounds in the English language, and children must learn these sounds in order to begin to sound out words. Basically, the consonants are all the letters in the alphabet except for the vowels (b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, y, and z). A variety of fun strategies can be used to help young readers begin to associate the written letter with its sound.
The vowels comprise the five other letters in the alphabet not previously mentioned: a, e, i, o, and u. What’s tricky about vowels is that they can be either short or long, which means there are actually ten sounds to learn here. Children are generally taught the short vowel sound through association with an easily recognizable word that they are familiar with (“a” for “ant,” for example). Long vowels are easier to teach, as they basically say the name of the letter in question.
Interestingly, occasionally the letters w and y becomes a vowel, as in the words “day” and “snow.” The general rule of thumb for this is that the y is a consonant at the beginning of words and a vowel at the end.
Once a child has a basic grasp on the aforementioned sounds, the teacher will move on to blending. For consonants, there are two types of combinations: blends and digraphs. Consonant blends occur when two or three consonants appear next to each other (think “grass” and “belt”). Digraphs occur when letters combine to create a single (and new sound), such as in “sh,” “ch,” and “th.”
Vowel combinations are referred to as digraphs or diphthongs. When two vowels represent a single sound (such as “ai”), it’s called a digraph. When there is a glide from one vowel to the next or a discernable blending of the two sounds (“io” as in “foil”), this is called a diphthong.
Learning how sounds blend is an important step in the phonics system. Once the child understands how two letters blend together to create a sound, he or she can see how the letters blend into words.
This is where children are introduced to the many patterns that occur in the English language. A one syllable word like “hat” can be divided into two parts that the child then learns to sound out: “h” (the onset) and “at” (the rime). The child is then introduced to parallel words, like “cat,” “bat,” and “sat,” where they are invited to see the pattern that emerges.
All of these phonics concepts represent important tools for the reader. With these skills in hand, the young reader is then able to read increasingly complex words, sentences, paragraphs, and finally books—eventually becoming a fluent reader.