What is phonics? Why is it important?
To read English successfully, children must learn to turn the words they see in a text into sounds, and make sense of these sounds. It is important for children to learn letter-sound relationships because English uses letters in the alphabet to represent sounds.
Phonics teaches this information to help children learn how to read. Children learn the sounds that each letter makes, and how a change in the order of letters changes a word’s meaning. For example, if we don’t pay attention to letter order, words such as ‘dog’ and ‘pat’ might be misread as ‘god’ and ‘tap’ respectively.
Studies on children’s reading development have shown that the phonics approach is more effective than meaning-based approaches, such as the whole-language approach, in improving young children’s reading skills.
The whole-language approach encourages rote memorisation based on a child’s visual memory of individual words. For example, to help children recognise the words ‘pig’, ‘big’ and ‘dig’, teachers might put these words in the following sentences and encourage the children to read these sentences multiple times: ‘I can see a big pig. The pig can dig in the mud. The pig is having a mud bath.’ Children would memorise ‘big’, ‘pig’, and ‘dig’ as three separate lexical units. They would not be encouraged to grasp that any other words containing the part ‘-ig’ (e.g., ‘fig’) would be similar in pronunciation.
Breaking the code of written language
In contrast, the phonics approach focuses on analytical skills for breaking the code of written language. Teachers would highlight that, although the words ‘big’, ‘pig’, and ‘dig’ have different onsets (beginning sounds), the three words contain the same rhyme family ‘-ig’. Children would reflect on the shared spelling patterns across the target words. Knowledge of these patterns will help children sound out familiar words, and predict the pronunciation of unfamiliar words.
Critics of phonics often claim that this approach does not focus enough on meaning. It does not encourage children to learn how to use words in meaningful contexts, and stories that are used to highlight the target letter-sound relationships are often nonsensical.
Vocabulary instruction can go hand-in-hand with phonics instruction. Key words that contain the target letter-sound relationships are first embedded in fun visuals that make sense to the children. Vocabulary instruction is followed by games through which children learn to identify and manipulate sounds.
How can parents help their children with phonics?
Parents play a crucial role in fostering children’s reading development. It helps if parents recycle the words that their children have learnt from school in their daily conversations. It also helps if parents read with their children stories that have been encountered in school.
Parents can reinforce their children’s knowledge of letter-sound relationships by asking questions such as, ‘What is the beginning letter in this word? What sound does it make? What is the last letter in the word? What sound does it make?’