Phonics instruction nearly disappeared in the 1930s, and only started making a comeback in the 1970s. Now, there are so many phonics programs to choose from it’s enough to make your head spin. How do we know which one to choose? A systematic, logical approach to phonics is the best way to teach students to read and to spell, but how exactly is that accomplished?
Traditional phonics begins with teaching the alphabet and one sound for each letter. These sounds are then blended together to sound out words. Traditional phonics teaches these phonograms (letters or letter teams that represent sounds) in a logical order, proceeding from the most common and most regular patterns to those that are less common and less regular. Each pattern is immediately applied in word families. This order has been worked out over time by teachers and linguists, and though it may vary in some details, it is a thing of beauty.
Traditional phonics is incremental; each new skill is taught after the previous one has been thoroughly practiced. For instance, after the short vowels, the student learns the long vowel sounds and silent e rule. Next he may practice consonant blends, and then learn some of the long vowel teams, such as ai, ea, ay, one or two at a time, all of which he practices not in isolation, but in word families. No frontloading, just step-by-step learning.
Principles of Traditional Phonics
1. The first principle of traditional phonics is learning to identify letters and the sounds each letter represents. Traditional phonics is synthetic phonics: It starts with letters, not with words. Students first learn one sound for each consonant and the short sound of each vowel in order to build (synthesize) words. The sounds are taught in isolation before blending and reading begin.
2. The second principle of traditional phonics is extensive practice with “consonant-short vowel-consonant” (CVC) words as the foundation of reading. It is with CVC words that students learn to blend letter sounds into words from left to right.
Memoria Press’ phonics program, First Start Reading, begins by teaching students the letter m (consonant), and then the sound of short a (vowel), and then the letter s (consonant). Almost immediately students learn to blend letters into words and words into sentences: I am Sam. The letters and sounds are practiced in isolation, but then the phonograms are practiced in the context of words. It is with CVC words that students continue to practice and master the most common sound of each of the 26 letters. It is with CVC words that students practice discriminating between those all-important, but very nuanced, short vowel sounds (bag, beg, big, bog, bug). In addition, the CVC pattern is the building block of many multi-syllable words.
3. The third principle of traditional phonics is the systematic presentation of English spelling patterns in a logical and time-tested sequence, from the simpler to the more complex. Although the order is somewhat flexible after CVC words, a typical sequence of the basic spelling (phonics) patterns covered in beginning phonics would be:
- CVC words: consonant-short vowel-consonant words (pat, pet, pit, pot, put)
- initial/final consonant blends (s/l/r-blends: sc, sl, sm, bl, cl, fl, dr, gr, pr, etc.)
- the four h digraphs (ch, sh, th, wh)
- long vowels with silent e (at-ate, mat-mate, etc.)
- long vowel teams (ay, ai, oa, ee, etc.)
- three sounds of y
- soft and hard c and g
While the exact order and selection of phonics patterns can vary, the important point is that each one is practiced in a word family that illustrates that pattern. An example of a word family is the 45 common words that spell long a with the ai vowel team: maid, claim, brain, etc. Through this systematic study of spelling patterns and word families, students learn thousands of words and the decoding skills to read thousands more. The traditional phonics sequence is effective because it is systematic, not random. It reveals the underlying order of the great variety of English spelling patterns, one pattern at a time. This orderly presentation is an aid to memory and is the very heart of phonics. Without it, many students are unable to recognize, master, and read English words fluently, for the English language has the most irregular spelling of any of the modern languages.
In addition, students develop the visual memory needed to spell English words that have multiple ways to spell the same sound (there are seven common ways to spell the long o sound). If you can spell the word boat with oa instead of bote, it is not because you have memorized a rule, but because you learned it in a word family and have seen it spelled correctly a thousand times. There are very few useful rules to help you decide among the possible spelling patterns in English.
Some parents are afraid of “sight words,” which have been so discredited by the “look-say” method of reading instruction that any appearance of a sight word is a sign of compromising with the devil of “look-say.” But in traditional phonics, they are a necessity.
In order to compose simple sentences with phonetic words, it is necessary to teach sight words along the way. The reason is because many of our most common words are irregular, and therefore do not occur early in the phonics sequence.
Many of these common words, such as the, as, she, and go, are not actually irregular but are often taught out of sequence, before their phonics pattern is covered. Learning individual words that are not part of the spelling pattern of a particular lesson is not difficult for students or distracting from the systematic presentation of phonics.
Other words, such as come, some, and said, break the rules but still have phonetic elements that can be sounded out. Only a few words, such as of, eye, are, and one, are so unphonetic it is best to just learn them by sight.
Phonics & Spelling
While students are learning basic phonics, they will practice their new phonics skills by reading stories with a high percentage of easy phonetic words, such as “The cat is on the mat.” After sufficient practice and mastery with the most common patterns, students will transition from phonetic readers to books with a richer, more natural vocabulary. At some point in first or second grade, reading starts to click and most students begin to read far in advance of their phonics instruction. At this point phonics lessons start to transition into spelling lessons, which continue to reinforce reading and spelling throughout the grammar school years. In traditional phonics, however, spelling is secondary to reading. Students are able to read ahead of their spelling ability. While spelling is important, it should not slow down or impede reading fluency. The spelling patterns are taught first for the purpose of decoding (reading), and secondarily for the purpose of encoding (spelling).
Our Peculiar Language
Here is the real truth: English is the most irregular of all of the modern languages. It is, in fact, in a class by itself. Not only does English have many phonograms with multiple sounds, it has many sounds that are spelled by multiple phonograms. There is an average of eight different ways to spell each of the long vowels in English, and there are few, if any, rules that govern these variations. This excerpt from Lord Cromer’s poem illustrates the difficulties of the English language:
Won’t you tell me why it’s true
We say sew, but also few?
And the maker of a verse
Cannot rhyme his horse with worse?
Beard is not the same as heard,
Cord is different from word,
Cow is cow, low is low,
Shoe is never rhymed with foe.
But the irregularity of English is not an argument against phonics; it is an argument for phonics. Most languages don’t teach phonics because their alphabets are regular and phonetic. In most other languages the alphabet is the only phonics needed. For English-speaking children, the alphabet is only the beginning. For English-speaking children, systematic, incremental, and common sense phonics is the classical way to teach them how to read and spell.