Phonics – a method of teaching students about phonemes (sounds) to develop phonemic awareness. It is the foundation step before learning to read using whole-word recognition.
Phonics is the main focus of early childhood language teaching and learning programs (k-3). It is a method of teaching students about phonemes (sounds) to develop phonemic awareness. It is the foundation step before learning to read using whole-word recognition. Phonics learning is the foundation for success in all subjects and it is the necessary precursor to higher-level reading and writing tasks. Students begin by practising how to read and pronounce individual letters and basic sounds. They then learn how to ‘sound out’ whole words.
Without a near mastery level of phonemes(sounds), participation, learning and performance in subjects such as maths and science is reduced because the student effectively lacks the ability read and write.
As an accompaniment to phonics, many teachers have students memorise high-frequency ‘sight-words’ to improve their reading fluency and confidence. Known as ‘whole-word learning’, this approach encourages students to learn words as if they were symbols (not dissimilar to a Chinese character). The goal of phonics is to develop automaticity: students see, process and say a word instantaneously. Automaticity enables students to read more fluidly without errors and long pauses. When reading lacks automaticity, effort is concentrated on deciphering sounds and letters and word or sentence meaning is lost. This in turn reduces comprehension and understanding.
Phonics learning is the foundation for success in all subjects and it is the necessary precursor to higher-level reading and writing tasks.
Hint: sound combinations are referred to as ‘blends’ (2 letters combined, such as ‘tr’ in ‘truck’) or ‘digraphs’ (2 letters that combine to make a new sound, such as ‘ph’) and ‘trigraphs’ (3 letters combined to make a new sound, such as ‘nth’).
Students who struggle with reading and writing commonly lack phonetic awareness. Phonetic awareness refers to the ability to read and pronounce letter and sound combinations. Remedial and intervention programs usually have students re-learn phonics from the ground up when gaps in their phonetic awareness are identified. Without a near mastery level of phonemes(sounds), participation, learning and performance in subjects such as maths and science is reduced because the student effectively lacks the ability read and write.
Hint: the number equivalent to phonetic awareness is ‘number sense’. The same principles apply – students learn single, small numbers followed by combinations such as teens. Concerns are raised when students have difficulties in both number sense and phonetic awareness compared to their peers. This could be due to high absenteeism, an undiagnosed disorder or poor teaching practices by the class teacher across all subject areas.
Another common phonics issue is when students master most letters and sounds but struggle to connect multiple sounds to make meaningful words. They are unable to easily connect sounds with any functionable level of fluidity. Usually this happens when students read each sound too slowly. Words have to be read at a certain pace in order for them to make sense just like walking or throwing a ball is very difficult when done in slow, staggered motions. Practise, exposure and repetition can help to solve this issue assuming the student does not have a processing disorder, physical disability or other issue.
There are 2 ways to prevent this problem from arising in the first place. Firstly, phonics (and in particular phonic rules) should be taught in the least complicated way possible. For example, when teaching vowel sounds, it is not helpful to use terms such as ‘short vowels’ and ‘long vowels’. Secondly, following short explicit instruction, students should immediately practise sounds using real texts such as short stories. The text should be interesting, age appropriate and visually engaging. Every time a student learns a new sound, they should practise it by reading something interesting. In addition, a multimodal approach should be used to consolidate learning. This includes hearing other people use the relevant sounds in a multitude of contexts and text types. The combination of explicit instruction, immediate practise, multimodal and multiple exposures is common.
Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and an author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of Fast Track Training Australia, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.
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