Phonics: A Tool for the Task of Reading

By Jan Joss

Say the word "phonics" in a crowd, and the definitions of it wi11 be as varied as the people. Some remember lists of words they recited in school long ago. (One set of high school seniors put on their graduation regalia and did a take-off of their well-remembered kindergarten graduation. They recited together the words they all still knew verbatim from phonics drill charts they had recited over and over again twelve years earlier.) Others cannot remember having studied phonics at all. Many assume phonics is a claim made by good schools. Even educators vary in what they think phonics is and does.

All educators, even those in the present "whole language" camp, claim to teach phonics. For some educators it is a skill thrown in gradually after children are reading well by sight and context - a little something extra to help with the hard words. Educational journals are beginning to include articles like "Teaching Phonics in the Whole Language Classroom" or "Learning to Say the P Word Again." On the other end of the spectrum, those reacting to lack of good phonics teaching are crying "the more, the better," and some have reduced the act of reading to a process of sterile decoding. For those educators, phonics is almost sacred - a set of sounds and rules that each child must master, most before he attempts to read anything.

What Is Phonics?

Simply stated, phonics is the study of basic phonetics. The spellings of the forty-four sounds of the English lan- guage, presented in a variety of sequences and levels of intensity make up the content of all phonics programs. If we had forty-four letters in our alphabet and each letter, we could teach children to read in forty-four easy lessons. Many languages have this regular sound/symbol relationship. But English has only twenty six letters, so obviously some letters must represent several sounds. Beyond that, because of the variety of origins of our words, we have two hundred and fifty ways to spell the forty-four sounds. If we say we are going to "pare a pair of pears," we know we are going to cut the skin from two samples of a particular kind of fruit. If we had a completely regular sound/symbol relationship, we would not have the three spellings, but we also could not express ourselves concisely.

In English we seldom have to say, "We have not word for that idea." But the price we pay for this lovely language is that when young children are trying to figure it all out it is the most difficult.

How and How Much?

How a teacher chooses to teach phonics reveals his definition of reading and also his understanding of how most children learn to read.

Some modern educators compare the process of learning to read to learning to talk. They contend that babies are not sent to talking school, but rather, when left alone, will learn to talk with no direct instruction. They would surround the cniiv wiih many opportunities to learn and let the natural process take place.

But a simple look at the many older children who do not read and the growing number of illiterate adults in our country makes it obvious that learning to read does not naturally follow learning to talk.

Learning to read is, in reality, more like learning to swim. Intervention and direct teaching must be components in the experience. Children who learn to swim usually spend many happy hours near the water. They splash fearlessly and enjoy the cool wetness of it. They watch those swimming near them and go through a period when they are pretending to swim. Then one day, a swimmer shows them fundamental skills while at the same time, giving them time to practice in shallow water. The individual who is to become a strong swimmer continues to improve his movements and his endurance. His instructor may be replaced by a coach and although lots of swimming is essential to improvement, coaching continues to be part of the training process.

Some phonics teaching methods being attempted currently in schools would encourage students to read by putting them into deep water with no instruction. Other programs keep the children on the land to practice breathing and learning the strokes (rules and sounds) before they allow them to get wet - that is, to begin getting the message of the word noises they are making.

A balanced phonics program will invite children into the joy of reading, and at the same time provide them with the instruction they need to become fluent, skilled readers.

Comprehension and Phonics in Balance

As a child takes the first step in phonics, that of phonemic awareness (simply getting the big idea that strings of sounds form words), he should deal with words that have personal meaning. He can dictate sentences and watch as an adult writes the words, seeing his own words in print. Attempting to "read" the words he sees or asking how to spell words he hears are indications of developing phonemic awareness. Although much of this awareness develops during normal childhood contacts with literate adults, deliberate encounters in a "school" atmosphere will help him build this foundation for phonics instruction. A balanced phonics program should include student dictation.

Listening comprehension and phonics can develop simultaneously. While the child is building his phonics skills little by little, he can also be learning many other things. Participating in listening lessons with strong questioning strategies and listening to stories just for the joy of it can increase a child’s comprehension skills. Comprehension and phonics must be kept in balance even at these early stages.

Later as students begin to recognize specific sounds, children should encounter each sound in interesting words that demonstrate the sound rather than being bombarded with isolated sounds in repetitive drill. Keeping this sound/ meaning connection is also important for future comprehen- sion. For example, in Bob Jones Press materials these interesting words demonstrate the sound as part of an illus- trated song. The vehicle of music communicates the phonic elements in a way that children can easily remember. The song isolates the sound just long enough for the children to identify it, but then pops it right back into a word - a worthy word, one which brings vivid thoughts to a child.

As soon as the children know enough sounds to form even a few good words, they should read that limited text with a conscious awareness of the idea as well as the sounds of the words. The little sentence, "I win!" has great meaning if it is connected to a story about a game or a race. On the other hand reading nonsense syllables or reading lists of words out of context creates a meaningless non-reading experience. These practices allow a child to make proper "word noises" very early and sound as though he is reading. But it is a high price to pay; future comprehension deficien- cies may be traced to these early encounters with meaningless text.

Focus on Syllables

In every syllable (one beat of a word) is a vowel sound. Although English has only five vowel letters, they represent a wide variety of vowel sounds. Although children can most easily identify a vowel sound at the beginning of a word, it is more frequently in the middle of a syllable or a one-syllable word. The letter "o," however, does not always represent the short sound (the one you hear at the beginning of October and in the middle of hot). The sound of the "o" in "note," in "shout," in "oil," in "lemon," in "scissors," in "spoon," and in "cook" varies, but it will nearly always make

the short sound when it is in what we call a closed syllable.

The words "hop," "top," and "chop" are closed syllable words, as are "kick," "lick," and "pick." Both sets of syllables have one vowel letter. The first set ends in one consonant letter, the second set in two consonant letters. A closed syllable, then, is one that has a single vowel letter followed by one or more consonant letters.

The reader gets the signal for which of the many sounds "o" represents from the letters that follow it, not from the letters that precede it. (Notice "cope" and "copy.")

Within a given pattern, the vowel sound is much more regular. This pattern is a graphemic base, a rime or a phonogram, depending on which linguists work you are reading. No matter what they are called, these patterns are the element in the English language that give it phonetic order. The Blue Backed Speller, probably the first "phonics teaching help," used these patterns to make sense of the vowels. It included lists of word families.

Word families provide an interesting avenue for practice. They not only look alike, they rhyme. Children love to rhyme things, so for them to read lists like these is not a hard task.

met - bat - tan
net - mat - man
bet - sat - van

Reading word families is a much more satisfying form of practice than the "sounding out" of individual letters and the blending of those letters back into a word. The "sounding out" child would say: /mah//eh//tuh/rather than the whole word "met." In the long view, it is far easier to spend the extra time at this point in the process to help a child say the whole word, than it is to wait for a later time and try to break him of the habit of "sounding out" every part of a word.

Some would be cautious when looking at this method because of the need for left-to-right eye progression. Indeed, in English our sentences do progress from left to right across the page and this is a learned skill. But the letters of a three, four, or even a five-letter syllable can be absorbed simultaneously. A study reported in the Smithsonian in 1985 explained that the brain working with the retina makes ten billion calculations per second. The Lord gave us His word in written language and obviously meant for us to be able to read it. In fact, an adult takes in several words with one focus of his eyes. A fluent reader makes three "eye leaps" across a line of type.

Finally, to focus on comprehension while practicing word families requires a meaningful context. In a sample activity, a child might look at a word card or a word written on the chalkboard as the teacher reads a context sentence. When it is time for the word to fit in the sentence, the teacher stops and the child pronounces the word he is looking at. He waits to say the word until he hears the context of the sentence.

dip (I’d like to take a dip in the lake.)
tip (Daddy gave the waitress a big tip.)
slip (The ice is slick; don’t slip! )
chip (May I please have a potato chip?)
ship (I’d like to sail on a big ship.)
rip (My dress has a bad rip.)

As the teacher gives the beginning reader a context sentence like one above, the child is involved in more than putting sounds together to make word noises. He is learning to use all the skills used by good readers. First, he is processing the sentence syntax to know what the grammar of the sentence predicts. Second, he is using the meaning of the other words in the sentence. Third, he is using his own background information about the topic. Some would say this method "gives away" the word, that a child need know no phonics to get it. But is that true?

slip (The ice is slick; don’t !)

The child could say run, fall, slide, or walk, but he says slip because he puts the phonics information he knows with the other information.

So practicing the word-family words in context has two benefits related to comprehension. One is that he gets the meaning of the whole sentence and the other is that he realizes letter/sound associations are part of the process we call reading. Repeated practice reading these words is phonics drill. Drill is important and this kind of drill is not harmful or boring!

After a good foundation with the short-vowel, closed-syllable word families, students are ready for the three major long-vowel word families. Since they have practiced cap, always seeing as (not just "a," then "p") they will not be confused when they see "cape." They will learn "ape" as the new phonogram and recognize the marker "e" pattern as a long-vowel pattern. In words like "seed," "rain," and "coat," the two-vowel pattern gives the signal for a long-vowel sound. The words "go," "me" and "Bi-ble" have syllables that end in a vowel. These open syllables are the third long- vowel pattern. (Notice that in each of these words, the practice of "sounding out" sequentially without regard for what follows would end in a faulty pronunciation. One of the negative results of the sounding of isolated letters is often a choppy reading habit that must later be remedied.

The final obvious pattern is related to the letter "r." In words like "shark," "fern," and "care" the "r" that follows the vowel letter gives the reader a clue about the sound pattern involved.

There can be little doubt that vowels are best taught in connection with patterns that give them consistency and that they be practiced within a context that gives meaning to the type.

Phonics is a tool - one used consciously by beginning readers and subconsciously by mature readers. It’s like driving a car. When you are first learning, you think about each thing you are doing. Later you forget that you are using all that knowledge until you drive your new car for the first time. Then you bring out all that knowledge and apply it consciously, just as a mature reader does when he encounters a new word.

Phonics is important and necessary. But phonics is a tool for teaching the most important life skill reading.