What is Phonics?
Without phonics, words on a page are meaningless symbols. With phonics, symbols become words that students can understand and interpret. Without phonics, there is no reading. With phonics, all the other reading skills become possible.
The ability to transform written symbols into sounds.
Another term for phonics is “decoding.” Letters on a page are a form of symbolic code, and “decoding” means understanding that code. A student who can break that code is able to sound out the letters and create spoken words. When you look at text and read it aloud, you are decoding. Even when you read silently, you are hearing the words in your head. You are doing phonics.
However, before phonics can make any sense at all, students must have some skill in phonemic awareness. Students must have some understanding that words are made of individual sounds before they can begin learning how those sounds are represented by letters.
Breaking Down Phonics Skills
Like all other reading components, phonics is not a single skill. Phonics is three skills, which together you use to turn written symbols into sound.
producing the sound for each letter or letter combination and then blending those sounds into words. (a.k.a. “Blending”) Example: Say the sounds for “D”, “O”, “R”; now put them together to make a word.
using knowledge of how letter combinations sound in a known word to help decode a new word. (a.k.a. “Comparing”) Example: If you already know how to pronounce “ower” in “flower,” then you know that “power” likely has a similar pronunciation because it has the same “ower” combination.
memorizing what sounds are associated with various letter combinations in words, and then analyzing words to find those letter–sound associations. (a.k.a. “Remembering”) Example: Analyze the word “sleep” for letter–sound associations, remembering that the sound for the “sl” letter combination, the long-e sound of the “ee” combination, and the sound of the “p” letter.
Explaining These Sub-skills
Synthetic phonics: “Synthesize” means combining parts into a whole thing. With synthetic phonics, you synthesize the individual sounds into whole words. Students learning this skill will produce the sounds for individual letters and digraphs (two letters that combine into a single sound, such as “th”). Students focus on the parts of words and blend them together into whole words. Generally, this is the first phonics skill students begin to learn.
Students start by learning sounds that correspond to letters in the alphabet, and then they begin learning to decode very simple words that have one sound for each letter, which they can blend into a whole word. Once students learn the “k” sound for “C”, the “uh” sound of “U”, and the “p” sound made by the letter “P”, they can sound out each letter in “cup”, and synthesize those sounds into a whole word.
Analogous phonics: “Analogy” means comparing something you do not understand to something you already understand. When you recognize how they are similar, you can begin to understand the new thing. With analogous phonics, you recognize a familiar letter combinations in a new word, one that you already know how to pronounce. Then, you use that knowledge to help you decode the new, unfamiliar word.
Students learn this skill through clusters of words have similar letter patterns and combinations, such as “fall,” “ball,” “call,” and “wall.” Once they have learned to pronounce the sound of “all” in the word “fall,” they can quickly learn to decode new words with the “all” letter combination because they only need to decode the new letters.
Analytical phonics: “Analytical” means examining something new and then breaking it down into recognizable parts. This is the opposite of synthetic phonics because students start with the whole word and then analyze the parts for letter–sound associations they have been taught.
Analytical phonics is necessary when the sounds for the individual letters cannot be synthesized into the correct sound. For example, the sounds of the letters “I”, “G”, “H”, and “T” in “right” cannot be blended into the “ite” sound; you have to memorize the way they sound when written together.
Integrated Use of the Phonics Sub-skills
Phonics experts debate whether synthetic or analytical phonics are better, with research data suggesting that synthetic phonics may be more useful for most students. Experts who take this approach say that instead of tackling whole words, students should focus on letter sounds and blending them together. One argument they make is that the English language has too many sounds and too many ways to represent those sounds in writing. Trying to memorize them all (the analytic approach) is going to be unnecessarily difficult. And this is likely true.
But what they fail to recognize (or admit) is that even with the synthetic approach, you skill have to memorize that certain letters and letter combinations are pronounced in certain ways, which is more in line with the analytic approach.
And then there is the second sub-skill: analogous phonics. It looks like a combination of synthetic and analytical phonics: take a word, break it into known and unknown parts, and then blend those parts together.
The truth is that each of these sub-skills requires a different set of mental processes, each sub-skill contributes to the other two, and good readers use all three. We help students become strong readers by giving them guidance and practice in all three skills.
For synthetic phonics: you break new words into letters and letter combinations you have memorized (analytic), compare combinations with other words (analogous) for clues on how they sound, and then blend the sounds of those parts into a word (synthesis).
For analogous phonics: you recognize letter combinations within words (analytic), recall other words with that combination and how those words are pronounced (analogous), and then you blend the sounds of the letter pattern with any other letters or letter combinations in the word (synthesis).
For analytical phonics: you study a whole word (analytical), remember the sounds associated with certain letters and letter combinations learned from other words (analogous), recall the sounds of any additional letters and letter combinations, then blend them together into words (synthesis).
As you begin to think about designing instructional activities for phonics, remember that students need all three skills and incorporate them into the activities: sounding out and blending, finding similarities with other words, and applying direct instruction and memorized patterns to study whole words.