Phonics is the study of the way in which spellings represent the sounds that make up words. (Phonics is not the study of speech sounds in general — that is phonetics — but only of the ways in which they are represented by conventional spellings.) In reading education, children are taught the sounds of letters and how those letters combine to form words.
The European languages share the Roman alphabet, while many of the Slavic languages use the Cyrillic alphabet. Some European languages have many irregularly pronounced words, which children must memorize. English has hundreds of “spelling words” for children to learn.
When teaching phonics, the schoolchildren are taught the following rules in English pronunciation:
The Basic Phonics Rules
- Each letter is like an animal, which has a name and the sound(s) that it makes. e.g. A cat says “meow”, a G has a name of “Gee” but it says “Gaa” (with the Aa sound suppressed.)
- Each vowel has two sounds: one long and one short. The long sound is the same as its name. The long sounds are in Ape, Eat, Eye, Oh, and You. Their short equivalents are A (a as in at), E (e as in elm), I (i as in it), O (o as in hop), and U (u as in up). (A criticism of this statement would be that in fact every vowel has a third sound — the schwa — the sound of a vowel that is unstressed in an unstressed syllable. The schwa is the most frequent vowel sound in English.
- Each syllable is made by blending the sounds of each component. e.g. reading the word by adding one sound at a time, as in -e, -ed, bed.
- When a single vowel letter is in the middle of a word (or syllable), it usually says its short sound. e.g. “Got”, “Bed”. But there are many exceptions to this rule. See irregular vowels below.
- When a single vowel letter is in the end of a word (or syllable), it usually says its long sound (or its name.) e.g. “Go”, “Be”.
- When two vowels go hand in hand in the same word (or syllable), the first vowel usually says its own name (long sound) and the second vowel stays silent. e.g. “Bake” (Ay sound + silent E), “Goal” (Oh sound + silent A), etc. But there are many exceptions to this rule. See irregular vowels below.
Irregular vowels: Many combinations of letters do not following the single or two vowel rules mentioned above. These special combinations and sounds must be memorized. Common examples include, but are not limited to, the following:
- IGH as in “High” and “Sight”
- -NG as in “Sing”, “Song”, “Sung”.
- OST as in “Most” (but not “Lost” or “Cost”!) uses the long sound instead of the usual short sound.
- OW has two different sounds as in “Low” and “Cow”
- ED has three different sounds as in “Lifted”, “Walked”, “Played”.
- OI does not follow the two vowels rule, e.g. “Moist”, “Boil”.
- Double O has two different sounds as in “Book” and “Loose”.
- OUS as in “Nervous”.
- AU as in “Fault”, “Haul”, etc.
- -SION and -TION and -CIAN are pronounced as “shun”.
- OUGH has up to 6 different sounds, such as “Cough”, “tough”, “Thought”, “Through”, “Trough”, “Bough” etc.
Many words do not follow these rules; they are called “sight words”. Sight words must be memorized since the regular rules do not apply. e.g., “The”, “Are”, “You”.
This was the belief before the discovery of the forgotten phonics rules from the 1800s. (See external links below). There are phonics rules for these, and all but a very few words in the English language.
Theory and alternatives
Synthetic phonics is a reading program employed to teach phonics to children when learning to read. This method involves looking at every part of the phonic without necessarily taking into account the blends or meaning (e.g. “s-t-r-e-e-t”).
Analytic phonics involves looking at the phonic blends (e.g. “str-ee-t”).
Some educators who support the phonic method believe that when children master the pronunciation rules, they can read on their own. The children will be able to tie the written words with the spoken English they hear on TV and around the house. (Kids living in non-English-speaking households could have a hard time learning to read this way.)
Educators who oppose teaching phonics believe knowing the sound without knowing the meaning of the word does not work. Some educators do not teach the pronunciation rules; words in books are read aloud in class. The children are supposed to remember how each word sounds one by one as they encounter them in the context of a story or other reading materials. Some “smarter” kids recognize certain pronunciation patterns on their own and can then extrapolate how to read new words; the less fortunate can become illiterate if they fail to do enough reading exercises.
Some school systems, such as California’s, flip-flopped between the two controversial extremes over the years. Nowadays, some schools would do both Phonic and the whole language approach because most educators now recognize that the two systems complement each other and each alone has its drawbacks.