Phonics is an interesting modern technique used to teach reading and writing to children with the help of sounds rather than the conventional whole word method. Phonics can be thought of as the visual representation of the sounds we produce. Research studies have found phonics as a method of teaching, to be more effective than the general alphabetical method, especially when it comes to reading skills in children.
Phonics for Kids: Phonemic Awareness
Phonemic Awareness is an important precursor to phonics. Phonemic awareness refers to the ability of a child to hear, identify and manipulate sounds into spoken words. This is an oral skill but it also requires the child to analyze the sound of spoken words. It is an important step towards better reading and comprehension development in the child.
Phonics for Kids: The problem with English
English is not an easy language. The complexity arises due to the fact that there are 44 unique sounds but are represented by only 26 letters of the alphabet. Naturally, English letters do NOT carry one-to-one correspondence with the sound they intend to produce. For instance, letter ‘B’ is pronounced as ‘bee’, but in many words such as “Ball” or “Bat”, it is pronounced as ‘ba’. In many other cases, the same group of letters may be pronounced in different ways. The same combination of letters, “ch” for example, sounds very different in words such as, “chair”, “machine” and “Christmas”. Such intrinsic features of the English language add to the complexity in learning it.
Phonics for Kids: The Whole Word Method
The “Whole Word” method of reading has been explored as a solution to the above mentioned problem. Although inefficient, this method has been used to reduce the difficulty of learning multiple pronunciations of the same letters.
The whole word method is primitive in its approach. It requires children to memorize the whole word rather than a collection of individual sounds. This is a tedious task for a child as he/she may encounter 6-8 new words per day. The whole word approach makes the words feel more like an ideograph or a symbol. Similar to the Mandarin language. It necessitates that the child memorize the word as a design or shape, just as we remember some brands using their logos. According to Dr. Samuel Blumenfeld, “When you impose an ideographic teaching on an alphabetic writing system, you get a reading disability.”
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A child who is accustomed to the whole word method often finds itself at a disadvantage whenever it confronts a new word. Its brain works much harder to decipher what it is reading. Naturally, it is much harder for such a child to be a good reader.
Phonics and Learning
Any letter in a language has three basic components: Shape, Name and Sound. For example, the letter ‘B’ has a definite shape, a name “Bee” and a sound “ba”. While the alphabetic approach focuses only on the name and shape of a letter, phonics emphasize on all three dimensions.
Phonics begins by making the child aware about phonemes. Phonemes are the basic units of sound. A phoneme may be consisting of a single, double or triple letter representation. It is not necessary that phonemes must be taught in the alphabetic order.
In fact, researchers have found out that the most effective order of teaching phonemes is :
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2 Approaches to Phonics
Two of the popular methods are Analysis (or Segmentation) and Synthesis (or Blending).
Analysis (or Segmentation)
Analysis (or Segmentation), as the name implies, is to divide a particular entity into several parts. In this way of teaching, we divide a word in to the various sounds it comprises. It can also be viewed as stretching a word long enough so that its components are distinct. For example, Bat is stretched into b-a-t or chair is stretched as ch-air.
Synthesis (or Blending)
Synthesis, on the other hand, is the process of combining. While teaching phoneme synthesis, a child is made aware of the various guidelines to form a word from sounds. These are not a strict set of rules and there may be exceptions. But they do provide a general structure to the child about formation of words from sounds. Researchers have found out more than 150 such guidelines for the English language. Even if 150 guidelines sounds like a lot, it is still a far more efficient method than the whole-word method.
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While Analysis is a good tool for a child when it comes to reading, Synthesis is handy when it comes to writing. For best results it is recommended that both these methods be used together.
A Note to Parents
Parents should avoid the following practices that hinder or cause an adverse effect on the child’s development. A common problem is the wrong pronunciation of phonemes. It is a natural tendency to complete the sounds produced by a phoneme with some additional sounds (usually aa for Indians) that can lead to weird outcomes. For example, we tend to teach sounds by speaking out “ba”, “ta”, “fa”, “ra”, “ga” instead of “b”, “t”, “f”, “r” or “g”. If the child gets accustomed to that, frog and bat would be fa-ra-o-ga or ba-a-ta rather than f-r-o-g or b-a-t. Therefore it is strongly recommended is that we teach the proper sound of each phoneme.
Another problem that usually goes unnoticed is the use of the initial sound of a word to serve as an example. Generally, it is a practice to teach alphabet by presenting an example that starts from the particular letter. But it is a better practice to teach the child by stretching out a word into various sounds rather than focusing on one specific sound. In this way, the child will learn how the sounds combine to make up words rather than hearing these sounds in isolation. It is similar to the musical notes and the chords. Just like notes are combined to form a chord, a child must learn phonemes and be able to combine them to produce words.
Activities that Ira suggests
We suggest the following activities to enhance your child’s phonemic awareness.
- Flash cards
You can create flashcards with various phonemes written down. Initially, ask the children to read out the content of the flashcards. It is better to present random cards to them and make the session like a game. After he/she masters reading out the sounds, you can reverse the action. Ask the child to pull out flash cards for the sound he/she hears. You can further combine cards to spell out a word.
- Replacing Phonemes one by oneWhile teaching to spell out words, always try to replace phonemes one by one, instead of switching over to new words. Children generally observe the change of a single phoneme with more interest. For instance, the pattern P-a-t, P-u-t, P-o-t, P-i-t, P-e-t will be grasped by the child easily as compared to P-a-t, C-u-t, S-i-t.
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Hopscotch is enjoyed by most children. We can convert it into a ‘Letter Hopscotch’ by inscribing phonemes into the cells. The child must spell out the phoneme he/she steps on to. In case he/she steps on the crossbar, he/she must spell out the 2-letter phoneme.
Ask the child to pull out a random flashcard and get any object whose name consists of the sound represented by that particular card. Such scavenger hunts will teach the child about the practical applications of phonemes.
Make them read storybooks aloud
Applicable for children who have begun to read words. Let the child read out stories. It enables the child to analyze and synthesize new words. You can help the child with the difficult words, but avoid saying it out completely. Instead, encourage the child to do so with a few helpful hints.
The English language is unfortunately not inherently phonics oriented unlike most Indian languages like Hindi or Tamil, which have adequate characters for the sounds. Phonics method enables children to crack the alphabetic code of letter combinations and helps them become proficient readers.
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 “A Closer Look at the Five Essential Components of Effective Reading Instruction: A Review of Scientifically Based Reading Research for Teachers.” Learning Point Associates, 2004. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vocabulary_development https://pure.royalholloway.ac.uk/portal/en/publications/comparing-and-validating-methods-of-reading-instruction-using-behavioural-and-neural-findings-in-an-artificial-orthography(11dc627f-1ea3-4e1e-9048-0928c0ff2e38).html https://www.mumsnet.com/learning/phonics/helping-your-child-learn-to-read-using-phonics National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). (2001). Phonics Instruction. http://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/PRF-teachersk-3-phonics.cfm A Review of the Research on Effective Phonics Instruction: How Evan-Moor’s Daily Phonics Supports Sequential Skill Development in Decoding Tarra B. Henry, M.Ed., CET, NBCT