Introduction

Around 20% of the world’s population speak English and it has successfully found its place as the global language. Theoretically, it should be easy to learn, right?

Wrong.

English is a very tricky language. Although it consists of only 26 letters, the way that these letters are used together is complicated.

So how do you teach it to students? 

Language is a code. When we’re writing or speaking, we are encoding various letter patterns into meaningful words. When we are reading or listening, we are decoding these patterns and making connections that mean something to us.

Over the years, the concept of phonics has evolved in order to teach children how to easily crack this code.

A Beginner’s Guide to Phonics

Phonics is a system that deals with the relationship between letters and sounds in a language. Phonics follows certain principles. All 26 letters of the English alphabet stand for unique sounds. In addition, these 26 letters combine (ai, ew, ck, ch, etc) and together they too stand for unique sounds. When we break a language into its smallest units, coding and decoding the language gets much easier. 

Let’s decode the terms used while teaching phonics:

Phoneme

A phoneme is a sound as it is said. It is the smallest unit of sound. Denoted by /a/ for apple, alley, alligator (Not A for ace, aide, etc.)

Grapheme

When a phoneme (sound) is written, it is called a grapheme. The letters in the English alphabet are examples of graphemes. 

Onsets

Everything before the vowel. 

Rimes

The vowel and everything after it.

Example: hat – /h/ (onset) + /at/ (rime)  

Digraph

Two letters that work together to make a single sound. Example – ph, sh.

Trigraph

Three letters that work together to make a single sound. Example – igh, tch

Split digraph

Two letters that work together to make the same sound ((a-e, e-e, i-e, o-e and u-e), separated by another letter. By adding an ‘e’ to the end of the word, the hard sound of the first vowel can change to a longer softer sound.

Example – ‘Hug’ turns into ‘huge’; ‘Kit’ turns into ‘Kite’.

Types of Phonics

Phonics is broadly categorized into 4 different types:

Embedded Phonics

This type of teaching phonics is used along with whole language learning. The emphasis here is on context. The child is asked to guess the meaning of the word based on what he’s reading.

There are many pros and cons to this, but language teachers generally don’t use this method of teaching, as the skills are not taught in a systematic way.

Analytical Phonics

This method works in a top-down approach. The students are taught to analyze the entire word and look for sound patterns, first and last letters and how they relate to other words. This approach is also called implicit phonics. Blending and building of words are not usually taught in this method. Students are expected to identify new words by recognizing the phonemes they already know, by identifying repeating patterns, and through context clues. 

Analogy Phonics

This method asks the students to guess an unfamiliar word by relating it to a word they already know. For example, if they are taught the word bring is split into br (onset) – ing(rime), they will be able to recognize the rime ‘ing’ and blend it with any rime they see and make more ‘ing’ words such as ring, ding, cling, etc.

The drawback of this method is that the students are expected to memorize an extensive list of onsets, rimes and word patterns in order for them to successfully make the analogy and learn new words.

Synthetic Phonics

Synthetic phonics is the explicit method of teaching phonics. It breaks down every word into its smallest unit or phoneme. The students are taught to synthesize (hence the name) each word from its individual sounds. 

This method is widely regarded as the best way to teach kids to read. Some people even recommend starting this with kids as young as 2!

Synthetic Phonics vs Whole Language Method

Let’s take a word like chicken.

Using his knowledge of phonics, a child will break the word down like this: ch + i + ck + e + n. Here we have two consonant blends (ch and ck) and three basic letter sounds (i, e, and n).

If the child were to approach this word with the whole language method he or she would simply memorize the word as a whole and recognize it on sight. There is absolutely nothing wrong with learning words by sight. However, a child who only knows how to read by sight may confuse words that seem to look identical like “house” and “horse”. Both start with a ‘ho’ and end with a ‘se’. Also, the ease of rote learning may differ from child to child.

Knowing the songs that letters sing and putting that knowledge to use will give your emergent reader an additional tool in making reading easy.

Is Synthetic Phonics the best way to learn how to read?

Whole Language advocates believe that immersing a child in language (through books, conversations at home and school, movies, etc.) is more than enough to make them confident readers. Constant exposure to a variety of vocabulary will definitely help children read more fluently. But it requires well-read parents, the right environment and a surplus of 1000 books by the time the kid turns 4. Read about how Multistory’s co-founder enabled his 6-yr-old child to read chapter books without using a single phonics lesson.

The beautiful thing about phonics is that once the child has learnt to recognize the letters and the sounds they make, they have a strategy for figuring out new words. Even large words can be deciphered by blending sounds. This method needs to be taught systematically, without the interference of whole language methods. 

The child should also be exposed to a variety of literature, discussions and introduction to vocabulary in their proper context.

Conclusion

We all want the best for our children. In order to help them succeed in an increasingly competitive world, a systematic approach to learning will be a big step in the right direction.

Did you already know all the above information but are struggling to implement a good phonics reading program? Stay tuned for next week’s post, where I will give you a beginners guide to teaching phonics in classrooms.

Psst – Don’t want to wait till next week? Check out My Reading Companion for systematic instruction, flashcards, activities, stories, reading tips and tricks, and more! Or reach out to us at contact@multistory.in for a sample copy!

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