Parents often come to my office worrying about phonics instruction – occasionally because teachers do not completely explain the mechanics and at times because of myths that permeate the world of education.
Before I go into the effects of phonics on spelling, first let me explain what reading instruction through phonics is. Phonics is the system of relationships between letters and sounds in a language. When a kindergartener learns that the letter D has the sound of /d/ and a second-grader learns that “tion” sounds like /shun/, they are learning phonics.
The National Reading Panel, composed of experts in fields of literacy, was asked by the United States Congress to examine the research on the teaching of reading. The panel found that phonics instruction is essential to beginning reading instruction. They also found that phonics most benefits children who are experiencing difficulty learning to read.
Because written language can be compared to a code, knowing the sounds of letters and letter combinations helps children decode words as they read. Knowing phonics will also help students know which letters to use as they write words.
Children generally learn phonics in kindergarten through second grade. In kindergarten, children usually learn the sounds of the consonant letters (all letters except the vowels a, e, i, o, and u). First- and second-graders typically learn the sounds of all letters, letter combinations, and word parts (such as “ing” and “ed”). They practice reading and spelling words containing those letters and patterns. Second-graders typically review and practice the phonics skills they have learned to make spelling and reading smooth and automatic.
If students do not master the different phonemes, they will be unable to attain fluency, comprehension, higher vocabulary, or appropriate spelling (four essential skills developed in later levels of reading). When the rest of the class moves onto these later skills, your child might be lost if he has not mastered the phonemes appropriate for each grade level.
There are several different types of phonics instruction based on the explicitness by which the phonic elements are taught and practiced in the reading of text. Among those different types of instruction are:
Analogy phonics: This form of phonics instruction includes teaching unfamiliar words by analogy to known words – for instance, recognizing the section “ick” in the word “kick” and applying it to the word “brick.”
Embedded phonics: In this implicit form of instruction, students read texts and learn the phonic skills through words they encounter in the texts.
Phonics through spelling: This method teaches students to segment words into phonemes and select letters for those phonemes.
Synthetic phonics: Perhaps the most common form of phonics instruction, this method teaches students to explicitly convert letters into sounds then blend the sounds to form recognizable words.
One of the myths that accompanies phonics instruction is that it affects spelling later in life. In reality, studies have shown that children who study reading through phonics have significantly better spelling scores than those who study using the whole language approach. When taught in a systematic and consistent way, phonics can greatly improve not only spelling, but comprehension and fluency as well.
But, what is fluency and why is it important? The speed with which you read and understand the text is an important indication of your proficiency in a language. Reading fluency is the ability to read text accurately and quickly. Fluency bridges word decoding and comprehension — this set of skills allows readers to rapidly decode text while maintaining a high level of comprehension. Reading fluency encompasses rate of words read per minute and the ability to read with expression.
With fluency, as with most reading skills, practice makes perfect. Once children master phonics, reading books and poems both aloud and to themselves will ensure their fluency increases. One great poem that encourages fluency (and also always makes children laugh) is Janet Wong’s “Noodles:”
Noodles for breakfast,
Noodles for lunch,
Noodles for dinner,
Noodles that crunch,
Noodles to twirl,
Noodles to slurp–
I could eat
Noodles all day! Burp!
Poems are a great way to show children that sometimes words are grouped together in phrases and need not always be decoded separately.
Comprehension or “understanding” is perhaps the trickiest part of teaching students to read in any language. There are multiple levels of comprehension: