What is phonics?
Simply put, phonics is the connection between graphemes (letter symbols) and sounds. Because we have been readers for a good portion of our lives this relationship seems apparent and common sense. However, in reality there is no natural connection between words and their meanings. For example, there is nothing innately “cup-like” about the word “cup”. Even more, the written letters making up the word “cup” do not reflect anything about an actual cup. The word and its written form are agreed upon by English speakers and thus must be learned in order to communicate.
At the very core of phonics lies the alphabet. In order to master phonics a person must master the alphabet. Letters then need to be connected to their corresponding sounds. As we know as English speakers, this is easier said than done. Many letters can represent a number of different sounds. Thus learning phonics is an ongoing process for a developing reader.
Elements of Phonics
The correspondence between letters and sounds presents itself in several different ways. While letters remain the same, sound comes in different units: syllables, onsets and rimes and phonemes. Each syllable is made up of an onset, a rime or a combination of both. An onset is any consonants presented before a vowel in a syllable. For example, in the word “star”/st/ is the onset. Conversely a rime is any vowel and consonant(s) following an onset. In “star”/ar/ is the rime. Phonemes are the small units of sound that make up a word. While “star” consists of only one syllable, it contains four different phonemes: /s/ /t/ /a/ /r/.
Role of Phonics in Reading
As you may have noticed phonics and phonemic awareness (the understanding that words are comprised of small segments of sound) are intimately connected. Phonics relies heavily on a reader’s phonemic awareness. The reader must not only understand that words are made up of phonemes (small units of sound), he must also know a number of phonemes. Since a reader’s primary phonemic awareness develops through speaking and listening, most children come to reading with many phonemes stored in their knowledge banks. Phonics instruction connects these phonemes with written letters so that they can transfer their knowledge of sounds to the printed word. This is why phonics instruction is an important component of early reading education.
The goal of phonics instruction is to help readers quickly determine the sounds in unfamiliar written words. When readers encounter new words in texts they use the elements of phonics to decode and understand them. There are a number of ways in which phonics can be applied to reading. Synthetic phonics builds words from the ground up. In this approach readers connect letters to their corresponding phonemes (sound units) and then to blend those together to create a word. For example, if a reader encountered the word “apple” and did not recognize it, he would sound out each segment of the word (/a/ /p/ /l/) and then blend these sounds together to say the entire word. Analytic phonics, on the other hand, approaches words from the top down. A word is identified as a whole unit and then its letter-sound connections are parsed out. This approach is especially helpful when a reader comes to words that cannot be sounded out (such as “caught” and “light”) and reinforcement of sight words. Analogy phonics uses familiar parts of words to discover new words. When applying analogy phonics to the word “stun” a reader notices that the second half of the word is the same as other familiar words (“sun” and “fun”). She can then apply her knowledge of this phoneme to easily decode the word.
Impact of Phonics on Reading Ability
Phonics instruction has a strong impact on the reading abilities of young children. Those receiving phonics instruction in the early grades (K-1) showed significant gains in their reading comprehension and spelling abilities and moderate growth in oral reading skills. Studies show that children in grades 2-6 also show growth in these areas, but theirs is not as considerable as that seen in primary grade students. At the upper grades, phonics instruction has a positive impact on the reading abilities of disabled, low achieving non-disabled students as well as those from low socio-economic backgrounds. These groups of children showed growth in their abilities to decode and spell new words. However, their reading comprehension skills were not affected by phonics instruction.
- Reading Skills