Phonics Explained

For those who have never studied phonics, it may at first appear a little confusing.

Fortunately, however, it is actually both logical and easy to learn. Here we offer a sort of Phonics 101. Read it through in its entirety to gain a solid grasp of how phonics reading and writing systems work. Or simply read topics that interest you.

(Note: topics are best read in order, although it is possible to jump about.)

Topics Covered:

Phonics ? A Definition The Alphabet and Phonics
Why Phonics Makes Reading Easy Understanding Digraphs
Beyond Digraphs Spelling Rules
Sight Words How Good Is Phonics?
Why Phonics Makes Spelling Easy Whole Language versus Phonics
Unconscious Phonics Principles versus Immersion
The Rise of Phonics  

Want to learn more? Try our free Introduction to Phonics E-Book (for parents and teachers).

Phonics ? A Definition

We need not be intimidated by the term ?phonics?. ?Phonics? comes from the Greek word, phone, meaning ?voice? or ?sound?. It therefore indicates a method of learning to read and write English that concentrates on sounds, or, to be more precise, the sounds the letters make. It is a method that uses the alphabet ? and the sound each letter makes ? as its cornerstone.

This is to be contrasted to systems like the ?whole language method? which ignore the letters and simply encourages students to learn each word in the English language as a whole, indivisible unit. Whole language methods are not interested in the sounds the letters make.


The Alphabet and Phonics

It is an obvious, yet sometimes forgotten fact, that the alphabet is actually a sound code. In other words, each letter stands for a particular sound ? a! for apple, b! for bed, c! for cat etc. (Note: the Fitzroy Method uses an exclamation mark after a letter to indicate that we are talking about the sound the letter makes).

This is not to be confused with the name each letter has ? e.g. ay, bee, cee, dee etc. The word ?cat?, for instance, is made up of three sounds c! a! and t! Run them together and you get the word 'cat'. It is not made up from the letter names run together ? cee, ay, tee. It makes no sense to say: ?Here is a cee, ay, tee.?

A general rule of phonics, therefore, is that words are formed by letter sounds put together, not letter names put together.

Given what we have just said, it is not surprising that phonic systems all begin by teaching students to recognize the letters of the alphabet and the sounds these letters make.

As soon as this is accomplished it is already possible to read many English words. All we need to do is ?decode? them. We see the word 'pig' on the page, for instance, and we convert the letters into sounds: p! i! g!. We run these sounds together and we get the word 'pig'.


Why Phonics Makes Reading Easy

The beautiful thing about a phonics system is that once we have learnt to recognize the letters and the sounds they make, even many large words can be deciphered (read).

Think of words like 'tunnel', 'trumpet', 'pond', 'picnic' and 'confident' ? they can all be sounded out. That is to say, if you know the basic sounds the letters make (e.g. b! for 'bat', z! for 'zebra' etc.) and you run them together (left to right), you can read all of them without difficulty.

This is perhaps the most impressive feature of a phonics program: by learning to decipher just twenty-six symbols you can already read thousands and thousands of English words!


Understanding Digraphs

Naturally, phonics has more to it than just learning the twenty-six letters of the alphabet and the sounds they make.

To begin with, we run into an obvious problem: the English language uses more sounds than there are letters to make them. There are 44 (some experts argue 45) sounds and only twenty-six letters.

Worse, some of these letters produce the same basic sound (e.g. c and k), so the gap between sounds used and the letters we have to make them is even greater. How then is this problem overcome?

The solution to the problem is digraphs. That is to say, two or more letters used together to produce a new sound, e.g. sh, ch, tion and ing.

(Note: Technically a digraph is two letters put together to form a new sound; but to avoid excessive jargon [trigraph, quadgraph etc] some systems - like the Fitzroy Method - choose to use a single broader term).

An important feature of digraphs is that they produce a different sound from the basic sounds of the letters put together. Ch, for instance, doesn?t give you the sounds c! h!, rather it gives you the new sound ch as in chug. Tion doesn?t give you the sound t! i! o! n!; rather it gives you tion as in nation.

It is therefore by using letters together to form new sounds (digraphs) that we end up being able to write all 44 speech sounds with just 26 letters.

(Note: the Fitzroy Method uses an exclamation mark after a letter to indicate that we are talking about the sound the letter makes.)


Digraphs in Practice

As soon as we start learning the English digraphs (there are about sixty common ones), we can begin forming more complex words with ease.

Take a word like birthday. It is put together by the basic letter sounds b! and d! and three digraphs, ir!, th! and ay!.

If we know these basic letter sounds and digraphs we will have no problem reading this word, even if we have never come across it before.

Let?s look at some other longer words and see how they breakdown into basic letter sounds and digraphs:

tea = t! + ea!
spoon = s! + p! + oo! + n!
freedom = f! + r! + ee! + d! o! m!
smashing = s! + m! + a! + sh! + ing!
discussion = d! + i! + s! + c! + u! + s! + sion

(Note: the Fitzroy Method uses an exclamation mark after a letter to indicate that we are talking about the sound the letter makes)


Beyond Digraphs

Extra Sounds

As seen above, sometimes letters don?t make their basic sounds. This can be the case both for both digraphs and single letters (see below). The generic term, extra sounds, is used for such cases.

Single Letter Extra Sounds

Sometimes single letters are not sounded out. Take the u in music. Here the letter u makes the sound of its letter name, not its basic sound.

The same can be said for the i in kind and the o in coma. This, in fact, happens quite often with all of the vowels. It is especially common where a vowel is placed at the end of a syllable, like the a in sensation.

Long vowels are not the only kind of single letter extra sound, however. Think of words like path or bath. Here the a gives us an ar sound as in the word bar. This is quite different to the long vowel sound of the letter a.


Spelling Rules

To help children learn to read and write more accurately we can also teach them certain spelling rules.

A good phonics program will teach these rules along with the basic sounds, the digraphs and the extra sounds.

An example of such a rule is what we do when adding -ing to a word that ends in a silent e. Here we are taught to drop the e (bake, for example, becomes baking, give - giving).

Another rule concerns adding -ing to a word with a short vowel (i.e. a basic vowel sound). Run, for instance, becomes running and sit sitting.

Here we learn that we must double the consonant to retain the short vowel sound.


Sight Words

A sight word (special word in the Fitzroy Method) is a word like said that does not follow any common English spelling rule. The letters ai in the middle of said do not make their basic letter sounds. Rather, they make the sound e as in bed. Since this is highly irregular, we have little choice but to learn the word by rote.


How Good Is Phonics?

A common criticism of the phonics method is that it is ultimately flawed due to the irregular nature of English spelling. Critics claim that English has too many exceptions for it to be worth learning spelling rules.

Is this the case?

The truth is that despite appearances, English is mostly regular. In fact, if we learn the basic letters sounds, digraphs, spelling rules and the 50 most common sight words, we find that English is in fact approximately 95% regular. This means that there will only be about 5% of words that we need to learn by rote because they don?t conform to any spelling rules. This, naturally, is far easier to do than learning every word by rote ? something which methods like the whole language method insist we must do.

From this it can be seen that phonics is an exceptionally successful approach, even if, naturally enough, it cannot claim to be 100% perfect.


Why Phonics Makes Spelling Easy

Knowledge of phonic rules saves students from having to remember every word by rote. This will only be necessary for sight words (i.e. words that don?t conform to phonic rules). All other words can simply be sounded out using the phonic rules learned.


Whole Language versus Phonics

To show just how effective phonics is, it is useful to compare it more closely to the whole language method.

To help illustrate the difference between the two systems, let?s take a word like chicken.

A student taught in phonics would break it down like this: ch! + i! + ck! + e! + n!. Here we have two digraphs (ch and ck) and three basic letter sounds (i, e! and n!).

(Note: In our instructional material for parents and teachers, the Fitzroy Method uses an exclamation mark after a letter to indicate that we are talking about the sound the letter makes. Students do not see these exclamation marks.)

If we were to approach this word with the whole language method we wouldn?t bother breaking it down into its basic sound units (technically called phonograms); instead we would simply memorize the word as a whole.

To remember it we might try using flashcards with the picture of a chicken and the word written underneath; we might try writing the word out in many different sentences; we might try recalling the shape of the ink on the page.

Whatever method we use, we will be relying on a good memory, since we have no tools (like the alphabet) to help up decode (and spell) the word.

Of course, with enough effort almost everyone can learn a word by rote, even a difficult one. Rote learning might not be the most efficient use of time, but it should get the job done ? eventually.

A more serious problem with such an approach to learning English (i.e. the ?whole language method?) is another: if we have never seen a word before - or if no one has ever taught it to us - we will be incapable of reading it.

Imagine, for instance, that the student of whole language who has just rote learned the word chicken came across the word chin for the first time.

Is he capable of reading it?

The unfortunate answer is ?no?. Since he has not been taught to read individual letters, the word might as well be written in hieroglyphics ? there is no way he will be able to 'decode' (read) it.

In contrast, a student of phonics who has already learnt the word chicken will have no difficulty reading the word chin.


Because he has already been taught all of chin?s component parts, namely ch! + i! + n!.

It is in this manner that students trained in phonics will ultimately be able to read hundreds of thousands of words, even if they have never seen them before - and even if they don?t know what the words mean.

This gives students a lot of reading confidence. It means that they will never feel intimidated by books again. They know that even without supervision they will be able to read almost everything in them.


Unconscious Phonics

Regardless of the dreams and aspirations of the whole language purists, it would be rare in practice for students of their method to totally ignore the letters in words.

What tends to occur in practice is that bit by bit - and without necessarily being consciously aware of the fact - students start to piece together the alphabet and the sounds the letters make (maybe even the digraphs as well). This knowledge then helps them to decipher words.

Of course, if students naturally work towards 'decoding' letters and words, and if knowing the basic sounds and the digraphs helps them to read, then why don't we just teach them these things?

This will not only save students a good deal of effort, it will also ensure that there are no gaps in their knowledge.


Principles versus Immersion

Teaching phonic principles assumes that children respond better to a system of rules than they do to a mass of data without any logic or pattern ? despite the fact that the rules may have many exceptions.

This is evidenced by the way the mind ? particularly the young mind ? works. Not only do children naturally attempt to uncover the logic behind the formation of words (e.g. that words are made up of letters and that these letters stand for particular sounds), they also attempt ? when young ? to bring order to English grammar by inventing words like breaked (instead of broke) and mans (instead of men).

It would therefore seem obvious that a literacy system that is constructed on logical, easily understood principles, will be more successful than an arbitrary one without rules.


The Rise of Phonics

Phonics is not a new literacy method. In fact, it is as old as the alphabet itself (approximately 3500-3700 years old). For millennia ? in all languages that used an alphabet ? children were taught to read by first learning the letters and the sound they make.

It is only very recently (from about the 1920s on) that any serious alternative was even considered. This alternative, as you may have gathered, was the whole language method.

Unfortunately for the whole language method, it brought about a decline in literacy standards in almost all places where it was trialled.

So much so, in fact, that in 1995 the United States government legislated for phonics, a move which the United Kingdom followed three years later. As a result, phonics is now required teaching in these countries - a move which will undoubtedly see a return of higher literacy standards.

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Fitzroy Phonics Professional Development Courses

Are you a parent or teacher who already uses - or intends to use - the Fitzroy Method learning materials? Would you like your child or students to excel at reading and writing?
If so, our Fitzroy Phonics Professional Development Courses will provide you with the essential knowledge and advanced learning skills needed.
We currently offer two professional development courses. Both are fully certified, easy-to-follow, and sure to help you increase your child or students' learning potential by teaching you:

  • How to effectively use the Fitzroy Phonics Method
  • How to get the most out of phonics system in general
  • Why most literacy methods fail - and what to do about it
  • Advanced learning strategies to harness the full power and energy of the mind

The courses are currently held in five countries, including: Australia, Malaysia and Singapore, and have been praised for their clarity, content and lively approach.
To learn more about our Introductory and Advanced phonics courses and find out why they will help your child, please visit our courses homepage.

Copyright Fitzroy Learning Centre, 2017
Copyright Fitzroy Learning Centre, 2016