The Steps to Reading: Phonics (Step 2 of 5)
Children who have learned to read have the ability to translate symbols into sense.
“Reading” involves more skills than just identifying the sounds in a word. It’s a multi-layer process. Experts have identified five skills necessary for your children to read well.
So interesting to see what researchers has discovered!
Once your children know that words are made of distinct sounds, the next skill in learning to read is to match those sounds to letters or groups of letters. This second step on the reading journey is called phonics.
The word phonics gets thrown around a lot. You might have heard that children need a “phonics-based” program. And some people use “phonics” as a synonym for “reading program.”
By definition, though, phonics means the ability to connect the sound w to the letter w. There’s no logical reason why that sound should be written with four slanted lines. It’s just something to memorize.
This is a critical step of reading, and it is taught right away, because knowing the sounds that connect to letters — called sound-to-letter correspondence — is so critical.
As children learn sound-to-letter correspondence, many reading programs include a lengthy period of phonics instruction, where children practice decoding words letter-by-letter, also known as “sounding out” a word.
But here’s a surprising thing: as soon as students understand the connection between sounds and letters, then it’s time for them to move on to think about context.
Surprised? Let’s look at this.
The Spanish language is a phonetic language. If you learn a few simple rules (such as the ll that says y, as in tortilla), the letters are consistent. The letters look like what they say.
This makes Spanish, comparatively, easy to learn to speak.
English, however, is not phonetically regular. In fact, 47% — almost half! — of the high frequency words in English are not phonetic. Think of said, my, they, who, what, and so on.
And the more advanced the reading level, the more words become irregular.
New readers do not need a heavy emphasis on irregular rules. It’s overwhelming.
In fact, in clinical practice, Dr. Karen has found that as long as children understand that vowels can make more than one sound, that is usually enough.
So: teach the basic sound-to-letter correspondence. And then teach that acan be short, as in cat, and long, as in cake. Do the same for e, i, o, and u.
Once children can read consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words, such as cat, that’s sufficient education in phonics, and you can move on.
Some programs, though, offer intensive phonics. These programs teach English “rules,” which, unlike mathematical rules, have lots of exceptions. (Arguably, they probably shouldn’t be called rules at all.)
As Dr. Karen Holinga explains, during the years that private schools focused on intensive phonics, many children became overwhelmed. Some would start to stutter, or get a stomachache before school every day.
The private schools teaching intensive phonics experienced a 30–40% failure rate by the end of first grade.
And by second grade, many children wouldn’t want to go to school.
So if you are using an intensive phonics program, and find that your children can’t seem to move forward with all these rules, or if your children dislike their reading practice, you might try to stop learning the rules and to start moving forward with actual reading.
Especially if your children have auditory processing challenge or memory issues, do not dwell on these irregular rules. No matter how much time you spend teaching the rules, this emphasis will not help children with an auditory processing delay move forward.
Which is all to say: phonics is a necessary step for all students as they learn to read. Intensive phonics is an unnecessary — and often unhelpful — method that some families use to teach their children.
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