Phonics Explained

When we speak, we put together a lot of different sounds and we make our tongue and mouth move very quickly to put the sounds together to make words.

A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound a letter represents – like ‘d’ means ‘dah’ and ‘g’ means ‘guh’. To make the word ‘dog’ we put together the sounds d – o – g and make our mouth do three sounds very quickly making the word ‘dog’.

You might have heard the word grapheme. A grapheme is where one sound can use different letters or letter combinations. For example the word blue – the colour has the last sound ‘oo’, but it’s spelt with a ‘ue’. Whereas the word blew meaning the past tense of blow also has the last sound of ‘oo’ but is spelt with an ‘ew’. So the two words have the same sound which is the phoneme but are written in two different ways which is the grapheme.

The way reading is taught, is to use what teachers call ‘phonics’ and ‘phonemic awareness.’
Phonics is where children firstly learn to ‘decode’ the phonemes – the sound of each letter,
then they learn to decode the ‘blends’ which is two letters together, like s and h together make ‘sh’ and c and h together make ‘ch’. Children learn to read by putting the phonemes and blends of a word together and that’s called phonics.

Despite the hope “this year might be different” or “maybe something will click soon,” studies have shown, if a child is not proficient with phonics or decoding by the end of year 2, chances are they never will be.
In fact, according to leading American researcher, Joseph Torgesen, in his 2004 paper Preventing Early Reading Failure , results of six early intervention studies revealed that on average, more than 26% of primary school children fail to reach the 30th percentile in word-reading ability using traditional phonetic decoding intervention. Torgesen’s said that, “These studies reflect one of the consistent findings in our research on interventions with late primary children. If children’s impairments in word-reading ability have reached moderate or severe levels, our current interventions cannot typically bring their reading fluency rates to the average range.”
Ultimately, Torgesen concluded that, for the majority of students, phonics is an effective method for the early literacy instruction in the educational system.
But, if children have not learnt to decode phonemes and use phonics by the end of year two, or at latest, year three – they will probably never understand phonics.
They might learn all the rules and you might think they know how to put the words together, but they don’t use those rules when they are reading.

If your child has had special education at school or had a remedial tutor and continues to struggle, there is help and hope. Don’t wait for your child to struggle for another year.

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Tom MullallyPhonics