(excerpted from Phonics from A to Z by Wiley Blevins; Scholastic, 1998)

To become skilled readers, students must be able to identify words quickly and accurately. To do so, they must be proficient at decoding words. Decoding words involves converting the printed word into spoken language. A reader decodes a word by sounding it out, using structural analysis and syllabication techniques, or recognizing the word by sight. In order to sound out words, a reader must be able to associate a specific spelling with a specific sound. Phonics involves this relationship between sounds and their spellings.

Phonics is not a specific teaching method. In fact, there are many ways to teach phonics. However, what most types of phonics instruction have in common is that they focus on the teaching of sound-spelling relationships so that the reader can come up with an approximate pronunciation of a word and then check it against his or her oral vocabulary.

Approximately 84% of English words are phonetically regular. Therefore, teaching the most common sound-spelling relationships in English is extremely useful for readers. As Anderson et al (1985) write, "English is an alphabetic language in which there are consistent, though not entirely predictable, relationships between letters and sounds. When children learn these relationships well, most of the words in their spoken language become accessible to them when they see them in print. When this happens, children are said to have 'broken the code.'"

One of the arguments against teaching phonics is that the approximately 16% of so-called "irregular" English words appear with the greatest frequency in text (about 80% of the time). However, these words are not as "irregular" as they may seem. Although they must be taught as sight words, the reader has to pay attention to their spelling patterns in order to store them in his or her memory. Some detractors of teaching phonics also contend that reading develops in the same way as speaking — naturally. Foorman (1995) responds by saying "humans are biologically specialized to produce language and have done so for nearly 1 million years. Such is not the case with reading and writing. If it were, there would not be illiterate children in the world."

Clearly then, most children need instruction in learning to read. One of the critical early hurdles in reading instruction is helping children grasp the alphabetic principle. That is, to read children must understand that this series of symbols we call the alphabet map onto the sounds of our language in roughly predictable ways. This alphabetic principle is a key insight into early reading. And it enables children to get off to a quick start in relating sounds to spellings and thereby decoding words.

Once children grasp the alphabetic principle and learn the most common sound-spellings found in words common to primary grade texts, their next hurdle involves the decoding of multisyllabic words. For some students, it is quite difficult to read these words. They cannot recognize common spelling patterns, or larger chunks of these words, that may aid them in more efficiently sounding them out. In addition, many more words in the books they read are not in their speaking or listening vocabularies. Therefore, learning the meanings of these unfamiliar words is critical to understanding the text. Often, parts of words such as prefixes and roots can aid in determining a word's meaning.

And, comprehension is the most important part of reading. But, how does this ability to decode words help a reader understand a text? The following flow chart illustrates that strong decoding ability is necessary for reading comprehension.

Phonics instruction helps the reader to map sounds onto spellings. This ability enables readers to decode words. Decoding words aids in the development of and improvement in word recognition. The more words one recognizes, the easier the reading task. Therefore, phonics instruction aids in the development of word recognition by providing children with an important and useful way to figure out unfamiliar words while reading.

When children begin to be able to recognize a large amount of words quickly and accurately, reading fluency improves. Reading fluency refers to the ease with which children can read a text. As more and more words become firmly stored in a child's memory (that is, the child recognizes more and more words on sight), he or she gains fluency and automaticity in word recognition. Having many opportunities to decode words in text is critical to learning words by sight. The more times a child encounters a word in text, the more likely he or she is to recognize it by sight and to avoid making a reading error (Gough, Juel, & Roper-Schneider, 1983).

Reading fluency improves reading comprehension. Since children are no longer struggling with decoding words, they can devote their full attention (their mental energies) to making meaning from the text. As the vocabulary and concept demands increase in text, children need to be able to devote more of their attention to making meaning from text, and increasingly less attention to decoding. If children have to devote too much time to decoding words, their reading will be slow and labored. This will result in comprehension difficulties.

When they read, children need to be able to use three cueing systems. These systems represent signals in text that interact and overlap to help the reader understand what he or she is reading.

  1. 1.Graphophonic cues involve a reader's knowledge of sound-spelling relationships. Phonics instruction helps children to use these cues.

  2. 2.Syntactic cues involve a reader's knowledge of the grammar or structure of language. These cues do NOT help children sound out words. Rather, this knowledge helps the reader to predict what type of word might appear in a certain place in a sentence.

  3. 3.Semantic cues involve a reader's knowledge of the world. This knowledge helps the reader to use cues in the text to discover the meaning of a word that fits into a specific place in a particular sentence. Readers use their semantic knowledge to determine if a text makes sense.

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