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Phonics is a method for teaching reading and writing of the English language by developing learners' phonemic awareness—the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate phonemes—in order to teach the correspondence between these sounds and the spelling patterns (graphemes) that represent them.
The goal of phonics is to enable beginning readers to decode new written words by sounding them out, or, in phonics terms, blending the sound-spelling patterns. Since it focuses on the spoken and written units within words, phonics is a sublexical approach and, as a result, is often contrasted with whole language, a word-level-up philosophy for teaching reading.
Since the turn of the 20th century, phonics has been widely used in primary education and in teaching literacy throughout the English-speaking world. Synthetic phonics is now the accepted method of teaching reading in the education systems in the UK and Australia.
- 1 Basic rules
- 2 Handling of sight words and high frequency words within phonics
- 3 Different phonics approaches
- 4 History and controversy
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 External links
Cognitive reading skills
Both the lexical and the sub-lexical cognitive processes contribute to how we learn to read.
- Sub-lexical reading
Sub-lexical reading involves teaching reading by associating characters or groups of characters with sounds or by using phonics learning and teaching methods. Sometimes argued to be in competition with whole language methods.
- Lexical reading
Lexical reading involves acquiring words or phrases without attention to the characters or groups of characters that compose them or by using whole language learning and teaching methods. Sometimes argued to be in competition with phonics and synthetic phonics methods.
English spelling is based on the alphabetic principle. In an alphabetic writing system, letters are used to represent speech sounds, or phonemes. For example, the word pat is spelled with three letters, p, a, and t, each representing a phoneme, respectively, /p/, /æ/, and /t/.
The spelling structures for some alphabetic languages, such as Spanish, are comparatively orthographically transparent, or orthographically shallow, because there is nearly a one-to-one correspondence between sounds and the letter patterns that represent them. English spelling is more complex, a deep orthography, partly because it attempts to represent the 40+ phonemes of the spoken language with an alphabet composed of only 26 letters (and no diacritics). As a result, two letters are often used together to represent distinct sounds, referred to as digraphs. For example, t and h placed side by side to represent either /θ/ or /ð/.
English has absorbed many words from other languages throughout its history, usually without changing the spelling of those words. As a result, the written form of English includes the spelling patterns of many languages (Old English, Old Norse, Norman French, Classical Latin and Greek, as well as numerous modern languages) superimposed upon one another. These overlapping spelling patterns mean that in many cases the same sound can be spelled differently and the same spelling can represent different sounds. However, the spelling patterns usually follow certain conventions. In addition, the Great Vowel Shift, a historical linguistic process in which the quality of many vowels in English changed while the spelling remained as it was, greatly diminished the transparency of English spelling in relation to pronunciation.
The result is that English spelling patterns vary considerably in the degree to which they follow rules. For example, the letters ee almost always represent /iː/, but the sound can also be represented by the letters i and y. Similarly, the letter cluster ough represents /ʌf/ as in enough, /oʊ/ as in though, /uː/ as in through, /ɒf/ as in cough, /aʊ/ as in bough, /ɔː/ as in bought, and /ʌp/ as in hiccough, while in slough and lough, the pronunciation varies.
Although the patterns are inconsistent, when English spelling rules take into account syllable structure, phonetics, etymology and accents, there are dozens of rules that are 75% or more reliable. It should be noted, however, that this level of reliability can only be achieved by extending the rules far outside the domain of phonics, which deals with letter-sound correspondences, and into the morphophonemic and morphological domains. For an estimate of the reliability of strictly phonic rules, we still cannot do much better than the 1963 study by Theodore Clymer.
A selection of phonics patterns is shown below.
Vowel phonics patterns
- Short vowels are the five single letter vowels, a, e, i, o, and u, when they produce the sounds /æ/ as in cat, /ɛ/ as in bet, /ɪ/ as in sit, /ɒ/ or /ɑ/ as in hot, and /ʌ/ as in cup. The term "short vowel" is historical, and meant that at one time (in Middle English) these vowels were pronounced for a particularly short period of time; currently, it means just that they are not diphthongs like the long vowels.
- Long vowels have the same sound as the names of the vowels, such as /eɪ/ in baby, /iː/ in meter, /aɪ/ in tiny, /oʊ/ in broken, and /juː/ in humor. The way that educators use the term "long vowels" differs from the way in which linguists use this term. In classrooms, long vowel sounds are taught as having "the same sounds as the names of the letters". Teachers teach the children that a long vowel "says" its name.
- Schwa is the third sound that most of the single vowel spellings can represent. It is the indistinct sound of many a vowel in an unstressed syllable, and is represented by the linguistic symbol /ə/; it is the sound of the o in lesson, of the a in sofa. Although it is the most common vowel sound in spoken English, schwa is not always taught to elementary school students because some find it difficult to understand. However, some educators make the argument that schwa should be included in primary reading programmes because of its vital importance in the correct pronunciation of English words.
- Closed syllables are syllables in which a single vowel letter is followed by a consonant. In the word button, both syllables are closed syllables because they contain single vowels followed by consonants. Therefore, the letter u represents the short sound /ʌ/. (The o in the second syllable makes the /ə/ sound because it is an unstressed syllable.)
- Open syllables are syllables in which a vowel appears at the end of the syllable. The vowel will say its long sound. In the word basin, ba is an open syllable and therefore says /beɪ/.
- Diphthongs are linguistic elements that fuse two adjacent vowel sounds. English has four common diphthongs. The commonly recognized diphthongs are /aʊ/ as in cow and /ɔɪ/ as in boil. Three of the long vowels are also technically diphthongs, /aɪ/ (ah-EE or "I"), /oʊ/, and /juː/, which partly accounts for the reason they are considered "long".
- Vowel digraphs are those spelling patterns wherein two letters are used to represent a vowel sound. The ai in sail is a vowel digraph. Because the first letter in a vowel digraph sometimes says its long vowel sound, as in sail, some phonics programmes once taught that "when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking." This convention has been almost universally discarded, owing to the many non-examples. The au spelling of the /ɔː/ sound and the oo spelling of the /uː/ and /ʊ/ sounds do not follow this pattern.
- Vowel-consonant-E spellings are those wherein a single vowel letter, followed by a consonant and the letter e makes the long vowel sound. The tendency is often referred to as the "Silent-e Rule", with examples such as bake, theme, hike, cone, and cute. (The ee spelling, as in meet is sometimes, but inconsistently, considered part of this pattern.)
- R-controlled syllables include those wherein a vowel followed by an r has a different sound from its regular pattern. For example, a word like car should have the pattern of a "closed syllable" because it has one vowel and ends in a consonant. However, the a in car does not have its regular "short" sound (/æ/ as in cat) because it is controlled by the r. The r changes the sound of the vowel that precedes it. Other examples include: park, horn, her, bird, and burn.
- The Consonant-le syllable is a final syllable, located at the end of the base/root word. It contains a consonant, followed by the letters le. The e is silent and is present because it was pronounced in earlier English and the spelling is historical.
Consonant phonics patterns
- Consonant digraphs are those spellings wherein two letters are used to represent a single consonant phoneme. The most common consonant digraphs are ch for /tʃ/, ng for /ŋ/, ph for /f/, sh for /ʃ/, th for /θ/ and /ð/. Letter combinations like wr for /r/ and kn for /n/ are technically also consonant digraphs, although they are so rare that they are sometimes considered patterns with "silent letters".
- Short vowel+consonant patterns involve the spelling of the sounds /k/ as in peek, /dʒ/ as in stage, and /tʃ/ as in speech. These sounds each have two possible spellings at the end of a word, ck and k for /k/, dge and ge for /dʒ/, and tch and ch for /tʃ/. The spelling is determined by the type of vowel that precedes the sound. If a short vowel precedes the sound, the former spelling is used, as in pick, judge, and match. If a short vowel does not precede the sound, the latter spelling is used, as in took, barge, and launch.
These patterns are just a few examples out of dozens that can be used to help children unpack the challenging English alphabetic code. While complex, English spelling does retain order and reason.
Handling of sight words and high frequency words within phonics
Sight words and high frequency words are associated with the whole language approach which usually uses embedded phonics. According to Put Reading First from the National Institute for Literacy, embedded phonics is described as indirect instruction where "Children are taught letter-sound relationships during the reading of connected text. (Since children encounter different letter-sound relationships as they read, this approach is not systematic or explicit.)".
In systematic or explicit phonics, students are taught the rules and the exceptions, they are not instructed to memorize words. Memorizing sight words and high frequency words has not been found to help fluency. Put Reading First adds that "although some readers may recognize words automatically in isolation or on a list, they may not read the same words fluently when the words appear in sentences in connected text. Instant or automatic word recognition is a necessary, but not sufficient, reading skill. Students who can read words in isolation quickly may not be able to automatically transfer this "speed and accuracy".
- There are words that do not follow these phonics rules, such as were, who, and you. They are often called "sight words" because they are memorized by sight with the whole language approach. These words should not be placed on a Word Wall to avoid confusion for a student learning beginning sounds.
- Teachers who use embedded phonics also often teach students to memorize the most high frequency words in English, such as it, he, them, and when, even though these words are fully decodable.
Different phonics approaches
Blended phonics (US) or Synthetic phonics (UK)
Blended phonics (US) or synthetic phonics (UK) is a method employed to teach children to read by blending the English sounds to form words. This method involves learning how letters or letter groups represent individual sounds, and that those sounds are blended to form a word. For example, shrouds would be read by pronouncing the sounds for each spelling "/ʃ, r, aʊ, d, z/" and then blending those sounds orally to produce a spoken word, "/ʃraʊdz/." The goal of either a blended phonics or synthetic phonics instructional programme is that students identify the sound-symbol correspondences and blend their phonemes automatically. Since 2005, synthetic phonics has become the accepted method of teaching reading (by phonics instruction) in the United Kingdom and Australia. In the US, a pilot programme using the Core Knowledge Early Literacy programme that used this type of phonics approach showed significantly higher results in K-3 reading compared with comparison schools. See Synthetic phonics.
Analytical phonics has children analise sound-symbol correspondences, such as the ou spelling of /aʊ/ in shrouds but students do not blend those elements as they do in synthetic phonics lessons. Furthermore, consonant blends (separate, adjacent consonant phonemes) are taught as units (e.g., in shrouds the shr would be taught as a unit).
Analogy phonics is a particular type of analytic phonics in which the teacher has students analyze phonic elements according to the phonogrammes in the word. A phonogramme, known in linguistics as a rime, is composed of the vowel and all the sounds that follow it in the syllable. Teachers using the analogy method assist students in memorising a bank of phonogrammes, such as -at or -am. Teachers may use learning "word families" when teaching about phonogrammes. Students then use these phonogrammes.
Embedded phonics is the type of phonics instruction used in whole language programmes. Although phonics skills are de-emphasised in whole language programmes, some teachers include phonics "mini-lessons" in the context of literature. Short lessons are included based on phonics elements that students are having trouble with, or on a new or difficult phonics pattern that appears in a class reading assignment. The focus on meaning is generally maintained, but the mini-lesson provides some time for focus on individual sounds and the symbols that represent them. Embedded phonics differs from other methods in that the instruction is always in the context of literature rather than in separate lessons, and the skills to be taught are identified opportunistically rather than systematically.
Owing to the shifting debate over time (see "History and Controversy" below), many school systems, such as California's, have made major changes in the method they have used to teach early reading. Today, most[which?] teachers combine phonics with the elements of whole language that focus on reading comprehension. Adams and the National Reading Panel advocate for a comprehensive reading programme that includes several different sub-skills, based on scientific research. This combined approach is sometimes called balanced literacy, although some researchers assert that balanced literacy is merely whole language called by another name. Proponents of various approaches generally agree that a combined approach is important. A few stalwarts favour isolated instruction in Synthetic phonics and introduction to reading comprehension only after children have mastered sound-symbol correspondences. On the other side, some whole language supporters are unyielding in arguing that phonics should be taught little, if at all.
History and controversy
Phonics derives from the Roman text The Doctrine of Littera,[dubious ] which states that a letter (littera) consists of a sound (potestas), a written symbol (figura) and a name (nomen). This relation between word sound and form is the backbone of traditional phonics.
Phonics in the United States
Because of the complexity of written English, more than a century of debate has occurred over whether English phonics should or should not be used in teaching beginning reading.
The use of phonics in American education dates at least to the work of Favell Lee Mortimer, whose works using phonics includes the early flashcard set Reading Disentangled (1834) and text Reading Without Tears (1857). Despite the work of 19th-century proponents such as Rebecca Smith Pollard, some American educators, prominently Horace Mann, argued that phonics should not be taught at all. This led to the commonly used "look-say" approach ensconced in the Dick and Jane readers popular in the mid-20th century. Beginning in the 1950s, however, inspired by a landmark study by Dr. Harry E. Houtz, and spurred by Rudolf Flesch's criticism of the absence of phonics instruction (particularly in his popular book, Why Johnny Can't Read) phonics resurfaced as a method of teaching reading.
In the 1980s, the "whole language" approach to reading further polarized the debate in the United States. Whole language instruction was predicated on the principle that children could learn to read given (a) proper motivation, (b) access to good literature, (c) many reading opportunities, (d) focus on meaning, and (e) instruction to help students use meaning clues to determine the pronunciation of unknown words. For some advocates of whole language, phonics was antithetical to helping new readers to get the meaning; they asserted that parsing words into small chunks and reassembling them had no connection to the ideas the author wanted to convey.
The whole language emphasis on identifying words using context and focusing only a little on the sounds (usually the alphabet consonants and the short vowels) could not be reconciled with the phonics emphasis on individual sound-symbol correspondences. Thus, a dichotomy between the whole language approach and phonics emerged in the United States causing intense debate. Ultimately, this debate led to a series of Congressionally-commissioned panels and government-funded reviews of the state of reading instruction in the U.S.
In 1984, the National Academy of Education commissioned a report on the status of research and instructional practices in reading education, Becoming a Nation of Readers. Among other results, the report includes the finding that phonics instruction improves children's ability to identify words. It reports that useful phonics strategies include teaching children the sounds of letters in isolation and in words, and teaching them to blend the sounds of letters together to produce approximate pronunciations of words. It also states that phonics instruction should occur in conjunction with opportunities to identify words in meaningful sentences and stories.
In 1990, Congress asked the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to compile a list of available programs on beginning reading instruction, evaluating each in terms of the effectiveness of its phonics component. As part of this requirement, the ED asked Dr. Marilyn J. Adams to produce a report on the role of phonics instruction in beginning reading, which resulted in her 1994 book Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. In the book, Adams asserted that existing scientific research supported that phonics is an effective method for teaching students to read at the word level. Adams argued strongly that the phonics and the whole language advocates are both right, and that phonics is an effective way to teach students the alphabetic code, building their skills in decoding unknown words. By learning the alphabetic code early, she argued, students can quickly free up mental energy they had used for word analysis and devote this mental effort to meaning, leading to stronger comprehension earlier in elementary school. Thus, she concluded, phonics instruction is a necessary component of reading instruction, but not sufficient by itself to teach children to read. This result matched the overall goal of whole language instruction and supported the use of phonics for a particular subset of reading skills, especially in the earliest stages of reading instruction. Yet the argument about how to teach reading, eventually known as "the Great Debate," continued unabated.
The National Research Council re-examined the question of how best to teach reading to children (among other questions in education) and in 1998 published the results in the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children. The National Research Council's findings largely matched those of Adams. They concluded that phonics is a very effective way to teach children to read at the word level, more effective than what is known as the "embedded phonics" approach of whole language (where phonics was taught opportunistically in the context of literature). They found that phonics instruction must be systematic (following a sequence of increasingly challenging phonics patterns) and explicit (teaching students precisely how the patterns worked, e.g., "this is b, it stands for the /b/ sound").
In 1997, Congress asked the Director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at the National Institutes of Health, in consultation with the Secretary of Education, to convene a national panel to assess the effectiveness of different approaches used to teach children to read. The National Reading Panel examined quantitative research studies on many areas of reading instruction, including phonics and whole language. The resulting report Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and its Implications for Reading Instruction was published in 2000 and provides a comprehensive review of what is known about best practices in reading instruction in the U.S. The panel reported that several reading skills are critical to becoming good readers: phonemic awareness, phonics for word identification, fluency, vocabulary and text comprehension. With regard to phonics, their meta-analysis of hundreds of studies confirmed the findings of the National Research Council: teaching phonics (and related phonics skills, such as phonemic awareness) is a more effective way to teach children early reading skills than is embedded phonics or no phonics instruction. The panel found that phonics instruction is an effective method of teaching reading for students from kindergarten through 6th grade, and for all children who are having difficulty learning to read. They also found that phonics instruction benefits all ages in learning to spell. They also reported that teachers need more education about effective reading instruction, both pre-service and in-service.
Phonics in the United Kingdom
There has been a resurgence in interest in synthetic phonics in recent years, particularly in the United Kingdom. The subject has been promoted by a cross-party group of Parliamentarians, particularly Nick Gibb MP. A recent report by the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee called for a review of the phonics content in the National Curriculum. The Department for Education and Skills since announced a review into early years reading, headed by Sir Jim Rose, formerly Her Majesty's Inspector and Director of Inspection for Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education, UK.)
The report does address the question of why children's reading and writing (especially for boys) have not been meeting expectations. Paragraph 3.25 of the Final Report states "This suggests that it is far more often the nature of the teaching than the nature of the child which determines success or failure in learning the 'basic' skills of reading and writing. This is not to say, however, that there is any lack of willingness or capability on the part of primary teachers to develop the required expertise in the teaching of beginner readers once convinced of the benefits to children of doing so. Rather, the main obstacles have been long-standing systemic confusion and conflicting views, especially about the teaching of phonics. As more research and practice now converge in strong support of high-quality, systematic phonic work, schools can be confident that their investment in good-quality phonics training for teachers and in good systematic phonic programmes, whether commercial or provided by the National Strategies, will yield high returns for children."
In November 2010, a government white paper contained plans to train all primary school teachers in phonics.
Phonics in Australia
On 30 November 2004 Brendan Nelson, Minister for Education, Science and Training, established a National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy. The Inquiry examined the way reading is taught in schools, as well as the effectiveness of teacher education courses in preparing teachers for reading instruction. The first two recommendations of the Inquiry make clear the Committee's conviction about the need to base the teaching of reading on evidence and the importance of teaching systematic, explicit phonics within an integrated approach.
The executive summary states, "The evidence is clear ... that direct systematic instruction in phonics during the early years of schooling is an essential foundation for teaching children to read. Findings from the research evidence indicate that all students learn best when teachers adopt an integrated approach to reading that explicitly teaches phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary knowledge and comprehension." The Inquiry Committee also states that the apparent dichotomy between phonics and the whole-Language approach to teaching "is false". However, it goes on to say "It was clear, however, that systematic phonics instruction is critical if children are to be taught to read well, whether or not they experience reading difficulties."
In the executive summary it goes on to say the following:
"Overall we conclude that the synthetic phonics approach, as part of the reading curriculum, is more effective than the analytic phonics approach, even when it is supplemented with phonemic awareness training. It also led boys to reading words significantly better than girls, and there was a trend towards better spelling and reading comprehension. There is evidence that synthetic phonics is best taught at the beginning of Primary 1, as even by the end of the second year at school the children in the early synthetic phonics programme had better spelling ability, and the girls had significantly better reading ability."
Phonics in Canada
Including Canada in education-related discussions remains convoluted by the lack of federal oversight. Ontario is Canada's largest province and its attitude toward Phonics, to marginalize and devalue it despite widespread average-to-poor literacy results, is not atypical across the country.
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