Thursday, July 19, 2012

Phonics: The Basics


Phonics applies a child's knowledge of speech sounds (phonemes) to alphabetic letters (graphemes).  Phonemes are the smallest meaningful components of speech sounds, and similarly graphemes are the smallest meaningful components of written language.  In English, the graphemes are our alphabet: A, B, C, D...

It is important to remember that a grapheme can correspond to more than one sound.  For example, the letter "C" corresponds with the sounds /s/ and /k/.  A phoneme can also correspond to more than one grapheme.  In this case, the sound /k/ relates to both the letter "C" and the letter "K."

Understanding this letter-sound relationship builds a foundation for decoding words.

Research Findings

The National Reading Panel concluded that systematic phonics instruction from kindergarten through sixth grade provided considerable gains in students' skills.  This was also true for those having difficulty learning to read in general.  In the earlier grades improvements in decoding, spelling, and comprehension were seen, and in the older grades decoding, spelling, and oral reading skills increased. However, comprehension skills did not improve with direct phonics instruction for older students.

Low achieving students, students with disabilities, and students from a low socioeconomic background also saw improvement in reading skills with systematic phonics instruction.  In fact, this type of instruction also improved the spelling skills of those students who were already good readers with the biggest gains seen in kindergarten and the rate of improvement decreasing in later grade levels.  Unfortunately, this finding did not hold true for struggling readers, and only small improvements in spelling skills were seen with systematic phonics instruction. 

Approaches to Instruction

Phonics is one of the most debated topics in reading instruction.  How to teach it and how much of it should be taught has been discussed for years.  The National Reading Panel examined five approaches to phonics instruction.  TeachingLD, an organization devoted to providing information and resources for teaching students with learning disabilities, summarized the information from the NRP.  Their work can be found in the chart below:
Analogy Phonics
Teaching students unfamiliar words by analogy to known words (e.g., reading brick by recognizing the -ick in the known word kick).
Analytic Phonics
Teaching students to analyze letter-sound relations in previously learned words to avoid pronouncing sounds in isolation.
Embedded Phonics
Teaching students phonics skills more implicitly and incidentally by embedding instruction in text reading.
Phonics through spelling
Teaching students to segment words into phonemes and to select letters for those phonemes (i.e., spelling words phonemically).
Synthetic Phonics
Teaching students explicitly to convert letters into sounds (phonemes) and then blend the sounds to form words.

Other sources like the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development also include a sixth approach:

Onset-Rime Phonics
Teaching students how to identify the sound of the letter or letters before the first vowel (the onset) in a one-syllable word and the sound of the remaining part of the word (the rime).

So what is the best approach?  That is where much of the debate lies.  Research from the NRP did show that a systematic approach to phonics instruction produced the best outcomes for students.  A systematic approach includes a clear set of procedures combined with a sequential set of lessons.  However, no recommendations were made regarding which approach to use, when to use it, or for how long, and this is where opinions vary greatly.

What is known is that a systematic approach yields the best results.  From that knowledge, schools and teachers can integrate systematic phonics instruction into their reading curriculum with their specific students' needs in mind.

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