Reading is such a complex process that an estimated 10 million children struggle with learning to read. The good news is that most of these children, given the proper instruction under the five components of reading, will progress out and become strong and avid readers. One component, proven to have a severe impact on reading success, is phonics.
Teaching reading is a big task. Big enough that a comprehensive approach needs to be taken, which is why research now identifies that reading instruction should include five components:
- phonemic awareness – the ability to hear and identify phonemes, the smallest units of sound
- phonics – the sound/grapheme relationship of letters and combinations make words and meaning
- fluency – the ability to read with ease, to read accurately, quickly and expressively
- vocabulary – the knowledge of word meaning
- comprehension – using the four other components to conjure meaning in a written passage
Exclude one of those components and children may suffer in their reading skills and experience unnecessary difficulty in learning to read.
Phonemic awareness is the fist step to effective reading instruction. You can read all about phonemic awareness in our first post of this series. Today I will answer your questions about phonics. Following this, in the next few months, will be more posts about the five components of reading and how teachers can be sure to include each within their reading instruction.
What is Phonics?
Phonics is the relationship between sounds (phonemes) and the letter combinations (graphemes) that represent those sounds. In phonics-based instruction, the goal is to teach children to read and write the most common sound-spelling relationships so that they can easily sound out words. This is a crucial step in the reading process.
Phonics is NOT phonemic awareness.
Why is Phonics Instruction Important?
To become skilled readers, children need to have a strong base in phonics. Research shows that good readers do not skim and sample text, but rather attend to every word. They process the letters or each word in detail, although doing so very rapidly. This ability to rapidly sound out words leads to rapid recognition of words, allowing the brain more freedom to focus on constructing meaning from the text.
This makes sense. The less the brain has to work on decoding words, on sounding them out, the more mental energy it can devote to making meaning from the text, which is the overall purpose of reading.
Studies of phonics and spelling development show that high school students who excel at reading have a strong foundation in phonics and were taught to effectively sound out words at the beginning of their reading instruction in elementary school. This tells us that early phonics exposure and instruction in the primary grades has a longitudinal impact on reading success.
But…Phonics is Difficult
Take a look at some numbers and facts:
- There are 40 phonemes (sounds) in the English language.
- But, there are only 26 graphemes (letters). That’s only half as many letters in the English language than there are sounds.
- And, those 40 sounds are represented by over 250 spellings!
That’s a lot of pressure when learning to read.
So, How are Phonics Skills Developed?
There are two approaches to teaching phonics. Systematic, explicit instruction or incidental, implicit phonics instruction.
What are Phonics Skills?
- letter identification – to recognize letters and name them
- letter sounds – to generate the appropriate sound for individual letters
- rhyming words – to identify and generate words that have the same endings (and are often in the same spelling family)
- syllables – to identify the number of syllabes in a word
- blending – to read individual sounds within in a word and blend them together to read fluidy
What are Some Tips for Teaching Phonics?
- Teach phonics daily, whether the approach be explicit or implicit.
- Build on a foundation of phonemic awareness.
- Instruction should be focused and intentional.
- Provide practice and exposure with various kinds of text.
- Assess, whether formal or informal, regularly so as to progress monitor.
- Provide intervention at first signs of struggle.
What Else Does Research Say About Phonics?
- “That direction instruction in alphabet coding facilitates ealy reading aquisition is one of the most well-established conclusions of behavioral science.” (Stanvich, 1994 in “Are discrepancy-based Definitions of Dyslexia Empirically Defensible?”)
- “Good readers rely primarily on the letters in a word rather than context or pictures to identify familiar and unfamilar words.” (Ehri, 1994 in “Development of the Ability to Read Words: Update”)
- “The low aptitude children learn the phonics they are taught, and do not pick it up as a by-product of more general reading”. (Barr, R., & Dreeben, R., 1983 in “How Schools Work”)
- “Such results suggest that direct instruction in sound-spelling patterns in first and second grade classrooms can prevent reading difficulties in a population of children at-risk of reading failure.”… “Once decoding skills are automatized, growth in text comprehension follows (Foorman, Francis, Shaywitz, et al., 1997 in “Early iInterventions for Children with Reading Problems”)
What About Preschool Literacy Instruction?
Just like teaching reading in kindergarten and above consists of five important pillars of instruction, preschool literacy is also guided by its own four components. Check out these articles for more information about how to teach literacy in an early childhood classroom:
The Big Four of Preschool Literacy Instruction: An Introduction
The Big Four of Preschool Literacy Instruction: Print Awareness
The Big Four of Preschool Literacy Instruction: Alphabetic Principle
The Big Four of Preschool Literacy Instruction: Oral Language Development
The Big Four of Preschool Literacy Instruction: Phonological Awareness