There are a lot of misconceptions about phonics. A teacher might focus a weekly lesson on one sound and parents conclude their child is learning phonics. However, phonics involves much more than is commonly known. For example, currently in many classrooms the teacher might teach the a_ as in apple sound by writing it on the board. Next, kids might color a picture of an alligator. Then, maybe they’ll hold an apple to get the “kinesthetic experience” of the a_sound. All these activities are frivolous and useless. They are not phonics. They merely present an illusion of researched-based instruction. In this post, I’ll present a phonics definition and examples.
What is phonics?
When kids learn to read, they are a lot like cryptographers. They have to crack the written code. First, they map a sound to each letter symbol. Languages are imperfect codes. There are always exceptions to sound-symbol rules. However, beginning readers must first learn the most common, regular patterns. Later, they can begin to identify exceptions.
Phonics involves teaching kids the code of the written language in a systematic way. This means, they learn the code a piece at a time. Phonics allows kids to decode words they’ve never seen before. With phonics knowledge, a child can decode a word he’s never even heard. This is remarkable.
With phonics skills, a child can become an independent learner. A child can transfer his phonics knowledge to anything. He can read new books, new signs, new magazines. Since phonics unlocks the code, kids can decipher and learn from brand new content.
Phonics definition and examples
First, kids learn a piece of the code. Then, they practice that particular piece. As a result, they build their knowledge slowly. With practice, kids become experts with each new bit of the code.
Learning to read is a lot like learning an instrument. In music, the Suzuki method is popular because it is so effective. The Suzuki method teaches kids one music note at a time. In the beginning, songs are very simple. For example, if a child knows note A, C, and D, he will play a song with only these three notes. As his note knowledge and experience expands, so too does the complexity of the music he plays.
This is a lot like phonics. However, instead of notes, kids learn sound symbols.
Since phonics is widely accepted, though practiced erroneously, the word “phonics” is slapped on nearly every beginning reader book. To get a sense of phonics instruction, I’ll provide examples of phonics text. In them, you can see a phonics definition and examples.
First, kids learn letter sounds & short vowels
First, a child might learn letter sounds. They learn to hold continuous sounds and clip stop sounds. This is the first piece of the code. However, at this point, a child still may not be able to read words.
Next, a child learns short vowels. They learn that a_ says aaa as an apple. Short a words include: Pam, cat, mat, man, fan, map…etc. If he’s been doing phonemic awareness activities all along, he’ll be able to read a short a book like the following:
Dan can jam. Pam can tap. Dan and Pam tap and jam.
Short e is difficult for many beginning readers. Thus, a child might learn short i as in itch next. Short i words include: Tim, kit, mitt, bit, fit…etc. The word types expand slightly. At this point a child can read a text like the following:
Tim is fit. Tim ran and ran.
Next, a child will learn short o as in octopus. Short o words include: hop, cop, mom, Ron…etc. He’ll be able to read the following phonics text:
Rob the cat was on a mat. Rob had a nap. Zzz…
Then, a child learns short u as in up. Short u words include: cup, hug, rug, pup…etc. Kids also start practicing sight words like they, said, and you. Here’s a sample short u phonics book:
Mom and cub had a nap. They got up. They sat in the den. “The sun is up, cub,” said mom. “You can run in the sun,” said mom. “You can have fun.”
Finally, kids learn short e as in elephant. Short e words include: set, hen, den, pen…etc. Here’s a sample short e text:
Meg the hen sat on a bed. The bed was wet. Meg was sad. “I will not let the egg get wet. I will sit in the pen,” said Meg. Check out our FREE short e book.
Notice how the texts expand slightly, incorporating more and more word types. The child gradually adjusts. In music, it would be like learning one music note at a time.
Next, kids learn consonant digraphs or two letters that make one sound. Typically, they start with sh, and read a text like the following:
Shell had a fish shop. She shut the shop. She had to dash to the ship. The sun was up. Shell got a net. She had to get some fish. For a FREE sh book, check out A Wish.
Next, a child learns the th digraph:
Beth can do math in the bath. Beth has a lot of red ships. “I will add them up,” said Beth. “I have ten red ships.” For a FREE th book, check out Math in the Bath.
The research has proven that systematic phonics instruction is effective. This sort of instruction helps struggling readers tremendously. In fact, many kids simply will not learn how to read without this systematic approach.
Reading Elephant offers systematic short vowel books.
How kids learn to read
There are many phonics sounds in English. Thus, kids continue to learn in this manner. They learn one phonics sound at a time. They gain mastery. Then, they learn another.
If you’ve noticed, the text above is quite awkward. Phonics books can only incorporate limited language. They expand only as the child’s knowledge expands. Their complexity slowly builds.
Some educators take offense to this sort of instruction. They believe learning to read should be natural and that kids should start reading natural language immediately. However, systematic phonics is in line with the ample research completed in the 21st-century.
Learning to read is not like learning to speak
It turns out: learning to read is not natural. In contrast, our brains easily pick up on speech. We don’t teach children to speak. We speak in front of them and they acquire the language spontaneously. Our brains are hardwired to listen and learn new words.
Reading is different. Reading requires instruction. When a child learns to read, he must create a new neural network. He even transforms the facial and object recognition area of his brain for a brand new purpose: obscure symbol recognition. He must recognize letters, units, sight words and sight syllables. Thus, at age 5, the process of learning to read profoundly changes a child’s brain.
Many kids need step-by-step instruction
For about 30% of kids, reading requires systematic step-by-step phonics instruction. Unfortunately, these kids rarely receive the instruction they need.
Learning to read is hard. Also, the stakes are high. If you fail, your peers will view you as unintelligent. Kids are keenly aware when they fall behind in reading. They’re embarrassed. To hide their difficulties, they whisper over the words, they skip words, or they act out and disengage from instruction.
It is helpful to look at a phonics definition and examples. In the text above, you can see that new units are introduced gradually. Struggling readers need a systematic approach. They need to learn the 44 English sounds one at a time. Then, they also need to gradually learn sight words and sight syllables. Reading elephant is dedicated to serving these students.
Our phonics books teach struggling k-2 students how to read.