WHAT IS PHONICS?

Definitions

 

Phonics

A clear and concise explanation of the term ‘phonics’ can be found on the Five from Five website:

Phonics has several related meanings – the relationship between speech sounds and their letter symbols, the methods used to teach that relationship, and the process of using letter-sound relationships to sound out (decode) words. https://fivefromfive.com.au/about

As a teaching method, phonics involves explicit and systematic teaching of the relationship between the sounds of spoken language (phonemes) and the letters (graphemes) that represent these sounds. These are often referred to as grapheme/phoneme correspondences, shortened to GPCs. In the readers I use the term sound/letter relationships.

 

A great deal of recent research has shown that the most effective approach to teaching reading is Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP). For relevant publications, see:

 

https://fivefromfive.com.au/publications

 

The method is systematic because of the clearly defined sequence in which the sound/letter relationships are taught; it is ‘synthetic’ because of the focus on synthesis in putting sounds together to make words.

 

The SSP approach recognizes that, while understanding the relationship between speech sounds and their letter symbols is essential, there are five key components in effective reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. I give definitions of these terms under Processes.

 

In schools that don’t use the SSP approach, you may come across the term ‘analytic phonics’.

See Reading in Schools for more information on this.

 

Decoding

This is the activity of recognising the relationship between sounds and letters, and putting the sounds together to read words (blending).

 

This may sound simple and obvious, but English is not a phonetic language, and so written English is a complex code. While there are only 26 letters in the alphabet, there are around 44 different sounds that have to be represented by those letters. There are around 288 ways of combining letters to represent those 44 sounds. The relationships between sounds and letters have to be explicitly and systematically taught – otherwise learning to read can be a confusing and frustrating experience.

 

Decodable readers

These are readers that introduce sound/letter relationships in a systematic sequence corresponding to the sequence in which they are taught via explicit instruction. The readers provide essential practice at decoding.

 

Processes

Teaching a child – or children – to read is a complex process, but it can be broken up into broad, overlapping components. The components are not sequential in the sense that one is completed before the next one begins. For example, phonemic awareness has to be developed first, but it continues to develop throughout the process of learning to read.

 

Learning is divided into the Foundation Code or Initial Code, and the Extended Code.

 

The Foundation Code

Introducing children to the Foundation Code includes the following components:

 

Phonemic Awareness

This is the understanding that words are made up of sounds, and the ability to recognise those sounds within specific words. It also involves the ability to manipulate those sounds: to join them up to make words (blending) or to break words down into their component sounds (segmenting). Although phonemic awareness is the foundational skill, it continues to develop in increasingly complex ways through all the phases of learning to read.

 

Explicit instruction of phonemic awareness can be done initially without the use of written words. It is very important for the child to be able to hear the sounds. (Think of yourself starting out to learn a foreign language). See Teaching Resources.

 

Alphabet Knowledge

This involves learning the relationships between the sounds of spoken language, and the letters of written language. These relationships are, for the most part, systematic and predictable, and this is where phonics instruction comes in.

 

In teaching the Foundation Code, only lower case letters and the sounds represented by the letters are taught at this stage, not the names of the letters (as in the ABC). Only the single consonants and short vowel sounds (a as in cat; e as in bed; i as in dig; o as in dog; u as in bug; y as in fly) are introduced at first.

 

There is an emphasis on keeping the consonant sounds crisp and short (e.g. ‘b’ not ‘buh,’ ‘t’ not ‘tuh’) to make blending of the sounds easier.

 

The letters are introduced in clusters, in a specific order, which aims to avoid confusion in terms of the appearance and/or sound of each letter. So, for example, this is a frequently used sequence of clusters:

 

s m t a p i f r

o c d h

e n g l

k u b j

w

qu z

v

x

y

 

When children have mastered the first cluster of letters, they can begin to blend the letters to read three-letter words like cat, sat, fit. These are called CVC words (consonant-vowel-consonant).  As new sound/letter relationships are learned, more CVC words can be introduced.

 

After the single-letter sounds come the consonant digraphs (two letters that make one sound):

 

ck ll ff ss zz (at the end of words)

sh ch

th ng wh

 

Making words and writing

With SSP, writing begins early. As children learn to read (decode) words by blending sounds, they learn to spell or write words by segmenting or breaking down the word into sounds.

 

Reading Connected Text

This involves decoding words and then putting them together to read phrases and then sentences. This introduces the challenge of decoding a word, then holding onto its meaning as the subsequent words are decoded. Decodable readers are normally introduced as soon as the child has mastered the first cluster of sound/letter relationships.

 

High Frequency Words

In order to be able to read passages of connected text, children need to learn words that have been grouped under a category called High Frequency (HF) Words. HF words are the words that occur most frequently in everyday English, and many of these are ‘linking’ words that point to or connect other words – words like and, but, a, the, this, he, his. Lists of the 100 most frequently used words also include words like mum, dad, big, run, and so on.

 

Many HF words can be decoded, and so don’t present a problem, but many have irregular spelling, and so can’t be decoded in the normal way – for example, the, a, go, to, he, I. Other HF words – like make or home – can only be decoded at a later stage, once the Extended Code has been introduced.

 

With SSP, the words that cannot be decoded are often referred to as tricky words. These words are introduced gradually, and a lot of practice is necessary to improve fluency in reading connected text.

 

Reading connected text also introduces a range of new text features to be decoded:

  • upper case letters (for names and the beginning of sentences)

  • punctuation, like full stops, exclamation marks, question marks, and the possessive apostrophe (Jane’s book)

  • compound words like hotdog or lipstick

  • two-syllable words like running, upset

  • letters that are added on to the end of a word for grammatical reasons, like the plural –s (hats), the –s for the third person singular present (he runs), and the -ed for past tense (she skipped).

 

Fluency, Comprehension, and Vocabulary all become important once connected text is introduced. These evolve slowly, in conjunction with one another, and with extensive practice.

 

Fluency refers to the ability to read at a reasonable speed, without hesitations, pauses and errors. It is closely related to comprehension.

 

Comprehension refers to the ability to understand what is being read, and depends on good decoding skills and vocabulary.

 

Vocabulary refers to the range of words that children are able to recognise and use in speaking and writing, and is very important for comprehension.

 

Detailed explanations of these components of reading, their significance, and how they are related, can be found at:

https://fivefromfive.com.au/five-keys-to-reading

 

CCVC/CVCC words

Introducing these words – like stem and jump – requires a renewed focus on phonemic awareness. Unlike the digraphs, (e.g. sh, th) in which two consonants make one sound, here each of the adjacent consonants makes its own sound, and the two sounds have to be blended.

 

These words are introduced late in the process of teaching the Foundation Code, with more introduced as children learn the Extended Code. CCVCC words, and CCCVC or CVCCC words are introduced gradually as children master the skill of blending adjacent consonants.

 

The Extended Code

 

The Extended Code is made up of the more complex sound/letter relationships, where a single sound is represented by two or more letters. These are mostly long vowel sounds – for example the long e sound in sheep, or the long i in night. These are called vowel digraphs or trigraphs. There are also more consonant digraphs to learn (e.g. ph in phone, kn in kneel).

 

By the time the Extended Code is introduced, children have learned the fundamental ways in which sounds relate to letters, and how to blend and segment sounds. The focus now is on the many new letter patterns that have to be learned. Whereas in the Foundation Code there is a one-to-one correspondence between a particular sound and a particular letter (except for the tricky words), here it becomes more complicated. The same sound may be made by many different letter patterns – for example the long e can be made by ee, ea, y, ie, e, eo, and so on. Or, a particular letter, or letter pattern, may represent different sounds – for example, the ie in pie, and the ie in chief.

 

Phonics with Feeling readers focus on the Extended Code. See Why Phonics with Feeling? for more information on this.

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