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Phonics: It's Different from Cipher Knowledge

Sebastian Wren, Ph.D.

Phonics is rapidly becoming a term that has two very different meanings.  First, and historically, the term "phonics" has referred to an instructional approach that explicitly emphasizes letter-sound relationships.  Recently, however, people have been using the term to describe knowledge and understanding of letter-sound relationships, but that is a very different thing.

The research has been quite clear that children must develop good "word-attack" skills (what researchers in reading call "Cipher Knowledge") to be successful readers, which means children need to become adept at breaking words apart and sounding them out.  To do this, children depend upon their knowledge of the relationships between letters and sounds (or again, to use fancy words that researchers use, "grapheme-phoneme relationships").  Children must internalize these relationships and learn that the letter O could correspond to one of a few sounds (/OO/, /OH/, /AW/, etc), but could not possibly correspond to any of a host of other sounds (/H/, /G/, /T/, etc).

In English, the relationship between letters and sounds is quite complicated (See "D is for Decoding"), and that, more than anything else, has fueled the Great Debate in reading instruction.  As I said, traditionally, the term "phonics" refers to an approach used to teach children to read that emphasizes the letter-sound relationships.  For some phonics teachers, teaching phonics involves explicitly teaching children certain "rules" that can help them to sound out words (e.g. "when two vowels go a-walkin' the first does the talkin'").  Unfortunately, because English is such a complicated writing system, describing the relationships that exist between letters and sounds in English would require more than 600 rules.

And even if there weren't so many rules, it turns out that humans are much better at detecting patterns than at applying rules.  Our whole perceptual system is geared towards finding patterns in our environment, but we are just not very good at remembering and applying abstract rules.  And we're especially bad at applying rules that are far from universal (the "when two vowels go a-walkin'" rule is only true about 60% of the time).  It is one thing to say that children need to learn the relationships that exist between written letters and spoken sounds, and it is quite a different thing to say that children need to be explicitly familiar with abstract rules that describe those relationships.

And many phonics advocates would agree.  Traditionally, teaching children letter-sound rules was a part of phonics instruction, but some "factions" have attempted to redefine phonics, and this is serving to muddy the Great Debate even further.  A quick review of the literature revealed these different phonics philosophies:

• Synthetic phonics:  explicitly teach students letter-sound relationships, and teach students to use this knowledge to break written words down to letters and sound them out.

• Analogy phonics:  Teach students to make analogies to known words by focusing on word families.

• Analytic phonics:  Teach students to analyze letter-sound relations by comparing unknown words to known words.

• Phonics through Spelling:  Focus on phonics during writing experiences.

• Imbedded Phonics:  Teach phonics through real reading experiences.

There should not be any debate as to whether or not children need to learn the letter-sound relationships -- they clearly do.  Research has shown repeatedly that good readers analyze words at the letter level, and that good readers rapidly and automatically sound out words.  The question hinges on how best to teach children the letter-sound relationships.  Traditional phonics approaches (typically synthetic phonics) were not very effective.  Some researchers have shown a slight advantage for using analytic and analogy phonics approaches, and there is no rule that says these approaches can not be combined with imbedded phonics and phonics through spelling.

What is critically important at this point is that we understand that what children must learn is the cipher (letter-sound relationships), and that the cipher is context dependent.  In English, the relationship between letters and sounds is very loose -- many letters relate to the same sounds, and many sounds can be represented by the same letters.  Just think about how many ways there are to represent the sound /i/ in English:


The way a letter is pronounced depends upon the word that letter is in, and children who have internalized the cipher understand that.  Phonics lessons that drill letter-sound relationships in isolation (not in the context of words) are fairly ineffective.  Phonics lessons that drill abstract letter-sound rules, are also fairly ineffective.

The term "phonics" refers to an instructional approach.  "Cipher knowledge" refers to a child's implicit understanding of the letter-sound relationships that exist in the English writing system.  Let's start a campaign to keep these terms and concepts separate.

For those interested in this topic, there is an informative article called "Phonics Rules" that can be downloaded here.

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Last Updated 8-7-03