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The Second Pillar of Reading - Phonics

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

Remember the 5 pillars of reading that I mentioned? This week, it's time to look more closely at the 2nd pillar, which is phonics.

You may remember hearing about a program called Hooked on Phonics, back in the day. It's still around and still promising to teach children how to read, because phonics is one of the essential reading skills.

The only problem with a focus on phonics is that it's not the only reading skill your child will need - it's part of a larger whole, which is why it's only one of the 5 pillars.

So what actually is phonics? It's the process of connecting sounds (remember phonemic awareness?) with letters (sometimes called graphemes). The interesting thing about letters is that they are completely arbitrary. There is nothing about the shape of the letter "w" that requires it to represent the sound at the beginning of the word "well," other than we all agree that it does. In many languages, it actually sounds like a "v" instead, which is why all my friends in Germany called me "Vendy" when I was an exchange student in high school.

It's also important to know that there is no 1-to-1 correspondence between sounds and letters. The letter "s" can represent 3 different sounds, depending on the word: /s/ in "sleep," /z/ in "dogs," and /sh/ in "sugar." Most consonants only represent one sound, but the vowels all have multiple possible sounds, and it can be challenging to learn the different patterns that create those different sounds.

For beginning readers, it's best to focus on the most common sound represented by each letter, so we usually start with the short vowel sounds: a as in apple, e as in elephant, i as in igloo, o as in octopus, and u as in umbrella. Of course, there are regional accents that can affect sounds too - in many versions of British English, the short 'o' sounds like the beginning of the word orange.

What matters most is consistency when trying to teach phonics to a beginning reader. Start with a few sounds at a time and build on those until they can put them together to form words. Many phonics programs begin with "satpin," because there are a lot of words that can be made with those 6 letters: sat, pin, tap, sip, tip, tan, and so on.

If your reader is struggling with 3-letter words, try 2-letter words, like at, an, in, it, is, and even nonsense words like ip and ap. The idea at this point is to connect the letters with the sounds they represent, not to get hung up on meanings.

Please comment below with any questions you have about phonics or any other aspects of reading.

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