What is phonics?

What is phonics?

Hanna asks, 'Why are primary schools so intent on using phonics and is this a good thing?'

Phonics is a method of teaching reading through identifying the sounds of words (phonemes) and connecting them with spellings (graphemes).

Phonics has been around for ages. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first use of the term 'phonics' to refer to a method of teaching reading to 1901. In all likelihood you had some phonics instruction at school. However, there are different types of phonics: synthetic and analytical. It is a type of synthetic phonics which the government is currently pushing in school.

Why is the government so keen on phonics? Studies have shown that phonics helps children learn to read faster.

What’s wrong with phonics? “Faster” doesn’t mean “better”. Intensive phonics instruction concentrating on sound combinations tends to draw the emphasis from reading for pleasure. In some programmes children are actively discouraged from reading books that are beyond their phonic level - ‘the cat sat on the mat’ can only engage an inquisitive child for so long. Some schools have invested their money in phonics programmes rather than stocking the school library.

And phonics is complicated. English is not like Spanish or Italian, there is not a straightforward one-to-one correspondence between sounds and spelling, we have more than 40 sounds in spoken English and only 26 letters in the alphabet.

We’ve taken so many words from so many different languages and often retained something of their spelling patterns. Think of homographs (words that are spelled the same but are pronounced differently) for instance e.g. row /rəʊ/ ‘in line’ and row /raʊ/ ‘argument’. In the 19th century those calling for spelling reform would point out that in English ‘fish’ could be written ‘ghoti’ if the ‘gh’ is pronounced /f/ as in ‘tough’, the ‘o’ pronounced /ɪ/ as in ‘women’ and the ‘ti’ pronounced /ʃ/ as in ‘nation’. As a child advances there are more and more phonic rules. The author Paul Jennings in his book The Reading Bug offers the image of phonics as being like a really complicated traffic light system. Imagine, he says, if the traffic light rules were thus:

  • ‘A red light means either stop of stop if there is another car nearby.
  • If a red light is accompanied by blue, give way only to four-wheeled drive vehicles.
  • In fine weather a red light may be ignored altoghether.
  • If a red light is accompanied by a blue light and a pink light, stop when the temperature is over thirty degrees Celsius.

Jennings points out that there are twenty-three different ways of writing the sound oo /u:/ in English:

oo as in moon

u-e as in tune

ui as in fruit

ew as in few

ough as in through

ou as in soup

ugh as in Hugh

ui-e as in bruise

wo as in two

oe as in canoe

ieu as in lieu

o-e as in lose

oup as in coup

iu as in jiujitsu

oeu as in manoeuvre

eu as in sleuth

ous as in rendezvous

ou-s as in mousse

ooh as in pooh

ue as in glue

u as in flu

u-e as in rule

oo-e as in loose

And even if a child learns those combinations, they can be left with an ability to decode words and pronounce them properly without knowing the meaning of the word.

We don’t read just to pass tests. We read for a reason and an over-reliance on phonics can obscure this one important point. We read for information, for entertainment, a fact the government has completely overlooked in their new reading test for 5 and 6 year olds.

So, how do you teach a child to read and gain a love of reading? Jim Trelease's book The Read-Aloud Handbook is very good, as is The Reading Bug by Paul Jennings.  Also, have a look at my blog post on reading (when I've written it)!

For more on phonics in schools have a look at the Michael Rosen's blog.