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
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
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.
• 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
• Phonics through Spelling:
Focus on phonics during writing experiences.
• Imbedded Phonics: Teach
phonics through real reading experiences.
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
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
For those interested in this topic,
there is an informative article called "Phonics
Rules" that can be downloaded here.