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