Summary: Studying Phonics is NECESSARY to develop phonological processing skills, but not much use for actual reading. At minimum, your student needs mastery of the BLENDING program on this website.
But it is Morphology, the units of meaning in words, that is more important for actual reading. Training materials for Morphology are provided in the SPELLING program on this website. And if you have time, start exploring the history of words with your student. Etymology, the study of word origins, ties together structure and meaning in written English.
On this website, ‘Phonics’ refers to Synthetic Phonics (‘SP’), sometimes called Blended Phonics. There is another kind of phonics called Analytic Phonics which is more rule-based. Both work fine, the secret ingredient in both is to work with your child every day.
Synthetic Phonics teaches the approximately 40 sounds (‘phonemes’) required for spoken English, and associates those sounds with spellings (‘graphemes’). To illustrate, here is the phrase ‘Synthetic Phonics’ in the representation used for our training materials.
The sound is provided above the spelling where they are different. Notice two different spellings of the /ih/ sound in ‘synthetic’. Vowel sounds are in red, consonant sounds in blue, and every syllable has exactly one vowel.
Phonics puts emphasis on phoneme-level understanding of encoding text and on the distinction between sounds and spelling. Sounds are taught in isolation and then blended into syllables and words. Reading with Phonics is mechanical decoding of written language into spoken language without reference to meaning, much as a music player converts coded data into sounds.
Through SP, students develop ‘phonlogical awareness’, the explicit understanding that syllables are composed of discrete sounds. They practice manipulating phonemes, specifically blending and segmenting (‘phonological processing’). A deficit in these two skills is a clear diagnostic marker for reading disability, and this deficit can only be overcome with intensive phonics. Phonics also helps students learn plausible spellings, for example ‘fone’ and ‘fown’ are possible codings of ‘phone’ but ‘foon’ and ‘fawn’ are not.
Synthetic Phonics does NOT use onset-and-rime (words that start or end in the same way such as ‘make’, ‘bake’, and ‘rake’), whole-to-part instruction (‘fun’ and ‘fish’ start with the same sound, can you identify it?), rules (‘i before e except after c’), or indirect teaching methods. The direction is always part-to-whole patterns, using explicit instruction (distinctions that are not important if you aren’t a phonics teacher).
Most importantly, SP does NOT teach that ‘letters make a sound’ or allow that there are ‘silent letters’. There are about 40 sounds that are mapped to about 200 common spellings. “Sight-words” are a small list of exceptions, usually around 100 words, which are merely common words with uncommon spellings like ‘aunt’ and ‘laugh’; instructors find it easier to teach special cases than to add a spelling for each one.
The BLENDING program on this site is a mini-SP program focused on blending and segmenting using the five short vowels, suitable for both emerging readers and older impaired readers. It provides focused, necessary training in phonological awareness, blending, and segmenting, and should be drilled to mastery by all students.
A criticism of phonics is that the complexity of the English spelling-sound mapping creates ambiguities for a reader. Other written languages have an almost one-to-one mapping between sounds and spellings, but English is prolific in spellings, for example the /ee/ sound is spelled ‘e’ as in ‘be’, ‘ee’ as in ‘meet’, ‘ea’ as in ‘beat’, ‘ie’ as in ‘chief’, ‘ei’ as in ‘receive’, ‘e_e’ as in ‘Pete’, ‘i’ as in ‘ski’ , ‘ey’ as in ‘key’, ‘y’ as in ‘hurry’, and ‘i_e’ as in ‘suite’, and the same spelling may have different pronunciations, for example the ‘ie’ in ‘thief’, ‘friend’, and ‘pie’.
If you want to try teaching these mappings, we provide a well-regarded synthetic-phonics program called ‘Stairway to Phonics’ in our PHONICS section. Unfortunately it is not interactive or web-based, and is not particularly easy for a parent or volunteer to use.
If you want to try Analytic Phonics, then order the superb book ‘Toe-by-Toe’. It is an absolutely wonderful analytic-phonics program, easy-to-follow, and incorporating record-keeping. You can get it from the publisher here.
Just as Phonemes are the units of sound in language, Morphemes are the units of meaning. Morphemes include root words, affixes, and parts of speech. We recognize that the words ‘dog’ and ‘dogs’ are related, and that the -s suffix has meaning.
Consider the following word-matrix for the bound root ‘duce’, from the Latin ‘ducere’ meaning lead or bring.
‘Re-‘ is a prefix meaning ‘again’ with a sense of ‘back to the original’, we see it in ‘return’ and ‘renew’. The word ‘reduce’ is the sum re+duce, figuratively meaning to ‘bring to an original condition’.
One of the rules of English spelling is to drop a final ‘e’ from the root when adding a suffix that begins with a vowel. With this rule, we know how to spell words with ‘duce’, for example:
Here’s another one. ‘E-‘ is a prefix meaning ‘up from’ or ‘out of’, we see it in erupt (‘rupt’ meaning break as in ‘rupture’, meaning breaking upwards) and erect (‘rect’ meaning straight as in ‘rectangle’, meaning straight upwards ). There is a word ‘educe’ which means ‘bring out or develop (something latent or potential)’, but commonly we see it in this form:
And of course that is exactly what it does.
The morpheme ‘duce’ links the meaning of ‘reduce’ and ‘educe’, and also ‘induce’, ‘introduce’, and ‘produce’ from the word-matrix above. There are more ‘duce’ words – consider ‘deduce’ (to lead toward a conclusion) and ‘seduce’ (to lead astray). Hopefully you begin to see how skilled readers can read, spell, and understand words that they may never have seen before. If this is new to you then perhaps you sense the delights of studying the origins and history of words – etymology.
The SPELLING program on this website teaches the rules of joining bases and affixes, and provides tools for exploring the etymology of words.
We believe that phonics are NECESSARY to develop phonological awareness and plausible-spelling skills, but not sufficient or even useful in becoming a skilled reader. The English writing system simply doesn’t work that way.
We can illustrate this problem by looking at the phonics of a word as we add affixes. Consider what happens to the phonemes and syllable boundaries of ‘educe’ word as we added the suffix ‘-ate’ using the easily-understood framework of morphology:
The ‘e-‘ prefix maps to a different sound, but that’s just the start of the carnage. ‘Duce’ has three phonemes, mapped to spellings’d’, ‘u_e’ and ‘c’. The first phoneme actually changes (/d/ to /j/), the second gets a different spelling (‘u_e’ to ‘u’), and the third is bumped to the next syllable. (This is Ontario dialect, in other dialects the /ue/ phoneme might also shift to another sound /uh/ ‘e-juh-cate’.)
In spoken English, words change form, and written English represents those changes through Morphology. Phonics is a static analysis, disconnected from Morphology. It provides no guidance to decoding different forms of words, no hint of their related meaning, and no direction to their related spelling.
A phonics-minded person might look at the ‘cate’ syllable in ‘educate’ and claim it is phonically regular based on the ‘a_e’ spelling of /ah/. But the longer word ‘education’ breaks Phonics once again – it no longer has an ‘a_e’ spelling, the ‘t’ maps to a new sound /sh/, and the ‘cate’ syllable is fractured.
If you are thinking that ‘educe’ is a wayward example then consider ‘reduce / reducible’ or ‘product / production’. Phonics simply doesn’t guide readers, not even with the extravagant number of spellings provided for decoding common words. (But Phonics is NECESSARY to develop phonological awareness, and helpful for plausible spelling, so don’t even think of passing it over. At minimum, ensure that your student has mastery of the drills in the BLENDING course on this website.)
We believe that students must study Morphology to build vocabulary, decode compounded words, and develop spelling on the path to becoming a skilled reader. But that’s still not enough. There is something else going on.
Consider a series of words with the grapheme ‘tw’ – two, twin, twice, twelve, twenty, twine, twirl, twist. Did you notice the ‘two-ness’ of all those words? These words are ‘bases’, but they share a common unit of meaning, a two-ness that is shown in their spelling.
These words are linked though their history, their Etymology. History ties together the meaning and structure of words, and explains the rational basis of the English writing system. The best explanation of this process comes from Gina Cooke: