Phonics teaches children the link between letters and the sounds they make. Phonics is the 2nd step of the reading processs. You teach phonics after teaching your child phonological awareness.
Phonics instruction provides children with skills for blending individual sounds into words. It involves lightening fast connections between different parts of the brain, where a person must:
- Visually see printed text
- Identify individual letters within a word
- Associate the appropriate sound that goes with a certain letter or letter combination
- Remember each letter-sound unit while continuing to decode the remainder of a word
- Move the mouth muscles to correctly blend and pronounce the individual sounds into a recognizable word
When you realize how many different parts of the brain are involved with reading, you can understand how much mental energy it takes to learn and apply phonics.
The goal of phonics, however, is NOT to have children continue to sound out every word they come across.With consistent practice, children eventually learn to read words quickly and easily. They move from sounding out simple 3-, 4-, and 5-letter words to being able to read the word automatically. As your child grows older, they can rely on their basic phonics skills to break down larger, more complex words they come across.
Why Not Just Teach Sight Word Reading?
Educators have debated the benefits of phonics over whole language instruction for well over 50 years. The whole language approach, also known as sight reading, simply teaches children to read entire words instead of learning to sound them out. Whole language reading teachers expect children to memorize the pronunciation of tens of thousands of words.
Sure, if a child sees a word frequently, they can memorize it. But what happens when a child is reading text on their own and they come across an unfamiliar word? If no one is nearby to tell them what the word is, they have no skills for reading that word on their own.
Think of it this way:
Before a child can run across rocky terrain without falling, they literally go through the steps of learning how to walk, skip, and jump. They practice how to stand on one foot and walk up and down a hill. You give them the skills to visually assess a situation so they can apply the right motor skills to successfully navigate different surfaces. Eventually, they’re running around without thinking about where they need to place every footstep.
The same is true with math skills. We encourage kids to work with math manipulative and count on their fingers before memorizing their addition and multiplication tables. The time you invest in teaching phonics – even a child who has taught themselves how to read – provides them with life-long decoding skills.
For example, a kindergartener learns to sound out C-A-T as the word “cat”. Eventually, they’ll read the word effortlessly and automatically. By 5th grade, they may come across an unfamiliar word like “catapult”. Rather than stumble or skip the word, they can break it down into chunks and sound it out as cat-a-pult without difficult. By the time they reach 8th grade, however, the student should be able to see words like “cataclysm” and “catheter” and recognize the first syllable will be pronounced differently because of the phonics rules they’ve learned.