Phonics is the relationship between letters and sounds. Teaching phonics involves:
- phonemic awareness activities
- explicitly teaching phonics sounds
- making and reviewing sound charts
- sound cards (flashcards with phonics sounds)
- guiding students through interleaved lists of words
- teaching kids to spell sound-by-sound.
- And, yes, additionally, teaching phonics also involves teaching kids to spell the most common sight words.
Phonics ensures that kids can decode nearly any word, whether they’ve seen the word in print before or not. Without phonics, kids will likely try to memorize books.
Memorization and guessing methods break down when kids try to read new books. Of course, it’s possible to memorize family favorite read alouds. But who eternally reads the same books over and over? Throughout our educational journeys, we’re exposed to new books all the time. We learn to read so we can acquire knowledge, and enjoy stories, not so we can hear the same thing again and again.
Teaching phonics allows kids to read any book.
The Stages of Reading
In her book Proust and the Squid, Maryann Wolf outlines several reading stages. Systematic phonics instruction allows kids to walk through these stages successfully.
Emergent Reader (before Kindergarten)
There are several reading stages. First, kids notice words all around them. They understand that words are meaningful. They see mom and dad use written text to guide them in traffic, fulfill prescriptions, peruse a magazine and, of course, read aloud to the family.
This is a wonderful stage. It’s full of fun and wonder, since mom, dad and other family members can ignite the child’s imagination through read alouds. The child begins to understand that books are read front to back, sentences left to right and paragraphs top to bottom.
Some caregivers assume children are ready to read at this stage. They are not (barring a tiny minority). Most children are not ready to learn to read until age 5. Preschool teachers may lovingly try to expose children to phonics, but it doesn’t stick, at least not in any meaningful way (ie. The child cannot actually read new books the child has never been exposed to). There’s no point in putting any pressure on children under age five to read. In fact, teaching kids to read too early could backfire. Most young kids’ brains (under 5) are not developed enough to read, and therefore, if you force lessons, they can begin to hate it.
When kids are not yet school age, don’t shower them with phonics. Instead, expose them to the wonder and magnificence of stories. Go to the library. Get read alouds, let them listen to many stories and enjoy the pictures.
Maryann Wolf documents why most children are not yet ready to read until they go to elementary school:
“Although each of the sensory and motor regions is myelinated and functions independently before a person is five years of age, the principal regions of the brain that underlie our ability to integrate visual, verbal, and auditory information rapidly—like the angular gyrus—are not fully myelinated in most humans until five years of age and after. The behavioral neurologist Norman Geschwind suggested that for most children myelination of the angular gyrus region was not sufficiently developed till school age—that is, between five and seven years…What we conclude from this research is that the many efforts to teach a child to read before four or five years of age are biologically precipitate and potentially counterproductive for many children” (Wolf, 2008, p. 94 – 96).
Novice Reader (kindergarten-mid 2nd/3rd grade)
Teaching phonics to a novice reader is an amazing experience. The child is developmentally ready to learn to read, and with the right instruction, she will. If anyone wonders how k-2 grade teachers do it, this is how… they get to teach kids to read. Teaching a child to read is a gratifying process. There is a clear before and after: the child goes from not being able to read, to being able to read simple decodable stories. The child’s eyes light with wonder, and she begins to see the potential of literacy, the ability to access information on nearly anything… trees, whales, bugs, computers, art… etc.
I remember working with a second grader, Amy, who was still an emerging reader. She could not yet decode. She’d never read a book on her own. She was used to being behind and she had grown hopeless. “I can’t really read,” she said. “I just memorize.” Once we began phonics lessons, after the very first lesson, she began reading a short a book. After she gradually pieced together words, “M-a-c Mac the r-a-t rat r-a-n ran from the…” she paused to look at me incredulously. She couldn’t believe she was reading.
During the novice reader stage, phonics lessons should emphasize phonemic awareness.
With Amy, I had her segment many words “hat” into “h-aaaaa-t,” splat into “sssplllaaat” and many more. Through these activities, Amy began to learn that words are composed of discrete sounds. Educators call these sounds phonemes. Amy never knew the word “phoneme” and she didn’t need to. She simply had to practice unraveling words, which seem like one utterance, into smaller units of sound: cat becomes c-aaaa-t.
Additionally, kids need to practice blending, another element of phonemic awareness. In this activity, kids do the opposite of segmenting. In blending activities, the teacher says words slowly, carefully holding continuous sounds “sssspoooot” and the student strings the sounds together: “spot!” With Amy, I held the sounds a long time, a lot like beginning readers do before unlocking the word. I wanted her to see how we decode. I slowed the process down so she could witness and later emulate each step.
Novice readers can read phonics stories. They can read common sight words and they are learning the most common phonics sounds. For additional resources on this stage, check out our printable phonics books.
Decoding Reader (mid-2nd– 4th grade)
I dislike the name of this stage. It should really be called “fluent reader” or “automaticity stage.” But alas, “decoding reader” is what reading researchers call it.
During this stage, kids drop the staccato sound-by-sound reading and become more fluent readers. Kids can read a wider variety of books. In the “novice reader” stage, educators and parents are usually flummoxed by the lack of stories available to k-1 students. However, by the decoding reader stage, kids can read many books.
They may begin to understand the sentences they’re reading much better. In speech, we talk about 150 words per minute. If we slow down too much, it’s difficult to comprehend the message. Reading at a faster rate helps kids comprehend the story.
Speed is an important part of fluency.
For other elements of reading, including expressive reading, we can use the term prosody. Fluency includes both reading speed and prosody in its definition. However, educators often overemphasize prosody. A fluent, comprehending reader will automatically get the intonation, emphasis and phrasing right. Efforts to focus on prosody are misguided. Instead, the focus should be on systematic phonics in early grades, exposure to lots of texts, exposure to various texts, and reading comprehension strategies. Once the child reads accurately, fast enough, has a broad vocabulary and can use reading comprehension strategies, she inevitably will get the prosody right.
Reading speed is very important for reading comprehension, though there are other elements to reading comprehension. Again, we speak at over 150 words per minute. We’re used to receiving language rapidly. It’s very difficult to stay focused on slow language. Just read a book aloud at a very slow rate, and you’ll find it’s difficult to understand, even as an expert reader.
As Maryann Wolf in Proust and the Squid wrote, “With its decoding process almost automatic, the young fluent brain learns to integrate more metaphorical, inferential, analogical, affective background and experiential knowledge with every newly won millisecond” (p. 143).
Fluent, Comprehending Reader
The reader has dropped the staccato sound-by-sound reading many months ago. Her fluency is picking up. This is an exciting stage, because you can clearly see that the child is able to read, perhaps even independently. She can describe the story back to you with understanding.
For this, you can probably just use yourself as an example.
Teaching phonics improves reading ability in later grades.
I hope learning about the reading stages was helpful. Teaching phonics is a critical part of reading.
“Not being able to decode well in grade 1 predicted 88 percent of the poor readers in grade 4” (Wolf, p. 117).
To help your beginning reader, check out our step-by-step printable phonics books.
Wolf, Maryann (2007). Proust and the squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Harper Collins.