Phonics is the second essential component of reading. If you missed the first component, phonological awareness, I highly recommend you stop reading this post and go back to read the first reading component. Without a good understanding of phonological awareness, students may have a hard time with phonics.
So what is phonics? In my own words, phonics means the understanding that letters make sounds, and when you put letters together they form words. If you don't understand how to manipulate sounds, it makes it much harder to add in letter symbols that are supposed to be strung together to form words. This again is another reason that explicitly teaching phonological awareness is so important before phonics instruction is introduced.
Phonics is to written language as phonological awareness is to oral language. You need both in order to understand how to read and comprehend. When phonics instruction is taught, it is best to start with the most common letter sounds found in words. When I refer to letter sounds, I mean the sounds letters make in the English alphabet. The way you introduce these sounds to students will help them with reading fluency (Discussed in detail later in this post).
Phonics instruction can be a little tricky. It wasn't until I took my first class in "teaching reading" in college that I learned how to teach "synthetic phonics." Before taking the class, I had to think back to when I was younger and was taught how to read. I remember learning the letters of the alphabet and the sounds they made, but I really don't remember learning how to say the individual sounds, the order in which they were introduced, or how to string letters/sounds together to form words. While taking the class in college, I was surprised by how some letter sounds are pronounced. Watch the video, titled Pronunciation Guide, found at the end of the blog to hear the most common sounds that letters make. The guide also gives an appropriate sequence for introducing sound/symbol relationships to learners. (But first, I encourage you to go through the alphabet and try to say the most common sounds that letters make before watching the video. I had to laugh at myself and even questioned my career choice once I figured out how to correctly pronounce sounds and combinations lol Thanks again Dr. Darch).
There are two common errors I notice students tend to make during phonics instruction.
1). Not blending the beginning sound/grapheme in with the other sounds/graphemes when given words to decode and 2). Mispronouncing the vowel sound(s) (Teachers, can I get an amen?) Modeling to students how NOT to stop in between the sounds will help with error number one. I like to give my students relatable examples. Do you know how Dory sounds when she is speaking "whale" in the movie Finding Nemo? Well, if you don't know, just watch the video below. Notice how she says words slowly and she doesn't stop in between the sounds. This is how students should practice blending sounds so errors won't occur. The most challenging part about this, in my opinion, is to help students blend initial "stop" sound words. (Side note I want to explain the difference between a stop sound and a continuous sound. A stop sound is when a sound can't be held or extended. I'll use the letter "t" as an example. The sound /t/ cannot be extended. And if you're thinking, "Yes, it can," remember the letter "t" is not pronounced /tugh/ 🤷🏽♀️. A continuous sound is a sound that can be held or extended. Think of the sound that the letter "m" makes. It says /mmm/ and you can hold that sound until you need to breathe again, thus meaning it can be extended and held.
Teaching students the six syllable types is what I found most helpful in dealing with error number two. Every syllable must have a vowel. If students mastered phonological awareness, then breaking words into syllables should be an easy task for them. You can teach students how to count syllables by putting your hand under your chin when saying a word. Afterward, count how many times your jaw hit your chin. That number gives the number of syllables in the word and will make it easier to break apart a word for decoding purposes. Knowing the syllable types is also great for spelling (but that's for another post). Holmes Tutoring uses color-coded letter tiles to help demonstrate syllable types. It's an excellent resource to help students practice. I've listed the six syllable types and their meanings below. I got this information from the All About Learning Press website (They have some great AND free resources).
Types of Syllables
1. Closed (ends with a consonant)- has a short vowel sound, as in the word mat.
2. Open (ends in a vowel)- the vowel makes a long sound, such as apron.
3. Vowel consonant-e- where the vowel is typically found at the end of a word and is silent. The silent vowel makes the other vowel, which is typically found in between two consonants, make the long vowel sound, such as made or bake.
4. Vowel teams (my favorite to teach)- where two vowels are put together to make one long vowel sound. The first vowel says its name and the second vowel is silent. Many teachers teach the saying, "The first one does the talking and the second one does the walking." An exception is when "oo" is together, as in moon. Diphthongs are also placed in this category. Special rules apply to those words.
5. Consonant+l-e- found in words like handle, puzzle, and middle.
6. R-controlled (contains a vowel followed by the letter "r"). The "r" is bossy and says its name instead of the vowel, such as in the word bar.
Like with all complex tasks, it's easier to start with the simplest task, and then move on to more complex ones. This allows mastery to take place and confidence to build. The Science Research Association (also known as SRA) published a popular program called DISTAR. A lot of you educators may have heard of it. I am going to be referencing this program regarding how letter sounds and words are pronounced and introduced. Watch the video found below for the pronunciation guide mentioned in the DISTAR program.
A good reading program should introduce actual reading as soon as possible. Once students have mastered a few letter/sound correspondences, they can then begin to read words with those letters. This is usually done with decodable books. Don't feel the need to teach every single word before a decodable book is introduced. High-frequency words can be taught in conjunction with decodable readers.
I cannot recommend the book, Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, enough to parents and educators looking for a reasonably priced phonics program for beginning readers. I've personally used this program and the late author of this book, Zig Englemann, is the person who coined the term "Direct Instruction." He co-authored this program to be used for homeschooling families and kept the price affordable so it could be available to families (Thank you Zig)!
*Update: I put together a FREE e-program to help you learn how to use the book, Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. This book does a great job of introducing phonics skills in a carefully controlled sequence. Subscribe to the website today and begin your FREE e-program.
Visit the Phonics Assessments and Resources blog to get your FREE phonics resources today!