Phonics: Learning to Play by Ear

Articles Index

Written by Bill Schnarr

How well does your child read?

It's an important question, one any parent should ask from time to time. Reading comprehension is a fundamental skill in our country, yet literacy rates seem to be dropping steadily with every new study that comes out.

What's the problem? Why are millions of students dropping below competent literacy and reading fluency levels every year? The answer, says a large number of literacy specialists, lies in adequate phonics training.

It is important to mention that for every educating specialist who says phonics is the answer, there is another one who says that phonics is the problem. This difference in opinion has lead to one of the biggest education-related controversies of the past 30 years.

So the real question is, "Which side is right?"

The answer to that one is simple. They both are.

Running the English Language Obstacle Course

The written form of the English Language is basically a code meant to represent the actual spoken language. This is a basic principle behind any language. By assigning a symbol to a particular sound or idea, a written language is born. Anyone who knows the code can decipher the code and understand the message.

Sounds simple, doesn't it?

In theory, it is simple. The problem with the English Language is that it is a huge, mutating creature that constantly shifts and folds. Old words fall out of common usage, and new ones take their place. Slang words become proper, and proper words become slang and take on new meanings.

Additionally, people bring bits of other languages and cultures into the mix when they immerse themselves in English speaking cultures. There are countless words and concepts that got their start in other countries, such as Russian words, Chinese words, and even words from other English dialects. Add in historical spellings and traditional spellings, and you have a language that has a life of its own.

Ideally, a language could be coded by assigning a symbol to every sound and concept. That way, there would be no ambiguity when it came to the written form of the English language; every sound and word would have it's own special symbol. Unfortunately, it would make for an alphabet that was tens of thousands of letters in length, and would take years to learn.

The English language, therefore, must be tamed and caged using only 26 letters of the alphabet and about 44 distinct sounds. Using these tools, tens of thousands of words must be created.

See where the problem is?

This is why the English language is one of the most difficult languages in the world to master. Using the basic principles of word knowledge, grammatical usage, and usage, people are able to properly discern the meanings and spellings of different words.

The amazing thing, say experts, is that by the age of six, most children have developed this skill to the point where they can hold proper conversations and are beginning the basics of writing and reading. Children exposed to a lot of writing and reading from literate parents may even be able to read on their own. A good way of practicing this is to play family board games. Children most often begin school with the basic knowledge of the alphabet and some knowledge on basic spelling. They go into their classrooms ready to soak up everything the teachers tell them. They are ready to learn.

And that's when all hell breaks loose.

The War on Reading

For many years, there has been a debate raging in the schools and legislatures between educators, parent, and politicians. It has been called the "Reading War" by its veterans and casualties, and with both sides firmly entrenched in their beliefs there has been little movement in the past 30 years.

The centre of this war is Phonics Vs. Whole Word training. Proponents of both sides have blasted their enemies with countless debates, arguments, and studies.

People who believe in the phonics system of learning scream that simply reading to children isn't enough. They must learn some groundwork before they simply go off and memorize a dictionary or two.

It's impossible for children to simply absorb the information through constant use, they say. Also, the whole word rules that say children should try and guess a words meaning, context, and grammatical context are simply too confusing for children (and instructors!) to depend on.

On the other side of the fence, the whole word crowd have claimed that boring grammar and spelling drills stifle creativity and bore children needlessly. They also say that spelling drills put an unnecessary amount of stress on children and can affect their self-esteem. Children who have problems remembering the complicated phonetic laws are seen as being "dumb" when compared to their peers.

And this is how the Reading War has gone on for the past fifty years or so, with each side throwing stones and neither wishing to give up any ground. It was only a matter of time before politicians, eager to garner votes from both sides, started slinging mud alongside the teachers and concerned parents. It has become one of the hottest debates in government, and each side has prepared themselves to dig in for a long fight. Nobody wants to give up ground to the other, and both sides fight tooth and nail to keep the other side from winning.

Ironically, it seems as though both sides may be right.

Hooking Children on Phonics

"Whole Word" training is a holistic, naturalized approach to reading and writing. Proponents say that by immersing a child in the language, the child learns to use it properly.

Simply have the child keep reading until he or she understands. In this belief, context is as important as anything, and simply reading to children is enough for teaching reading. Memorization of words is the governing factor in this approach to reading instruction.

Phonics, on the other hand, takes a different approach. Phonics instruction begins with the alphabet, and learning the sound of each letter (a = "ah" or "ai", b = "buh", etc). After that, children are introduced to sounds and basic two and three letter words ("oo" and in "too", etc.). Finally, when the child is ready, they begin learning words based on the sounds and letters they have learned.

Sounding words out is a basic technique used in phonics training.

The "Rules of Grammar" are also a product of phonetic training. Those awful, repetitive exercises you did when you were a kid are all a part of phonics training.

Now you may be thinking about how terrible and boring those exercises were, but most studies have shown that they actually help children with their reading comprehension and spelling ability. In short, Phonetic exercises work.

The problem with phonics comes with all of the diversity in the English language. Phonetically, there is no difference between words like maid and made, bear and bare, or the dreaded to, too, and two. Obviously, this is where simply sounding out words fails and another method is needed.

Coming back to whole word teaching in this case works best, experts say. In the case of complicated or unusual spellings, often memorization works best.

This is because phonics laws often become very muddied and complicated when trying to rule on exceptions and foreign words. Simply memorizing the words is an easier way to learn them instead of mastering complicated spelling laws.

By balancing regimented phonics training with the more holistic approach of whole word training, a balance can be struck where children take the best of both systems. In this way, they learn how to break words apart phonetically as well as remembering instances in the English language where phonetic laws don't necessarily apply.

The phonics/whole word fight is going to continue for a very long time. It has become an entity in itself, as politically charged as any debate in the capital. In the meantime, schools switch from one to the other, and then back again as the front lines move back and forth across the country.

What's most important is that the children receive the proper training in reading, and according to the plummeting literacy rates that just hasn't been happening. If you have a child or know a child who is having difficulty with their reading, it's important that it be fixed as soon as possible.

The best way to do that, whether you're a phonics fan or a whole word wizard, is simply to keep working at it. Mix them up; take what works for your child, make the rest fit. But keep doing it. You'll get there. Remember, Whole Word and Phonics are both aiming at the same target. A good way to remember is by spelling games.

It should be your target, too.

As an aside, if you are interested in learning more about how phonics works for your children, check out these great websites on some of the biggest Phonics programs available in the market today. The good people from Hooked on Phonics, Frontline Phonics, and WordSmart Phonics are sure to have more than you need regarding phonics related information. They're only too happy to help.

About The Author

Bill Schnarr is a successful freelance copywriter providing valuable tips and advice for consumers purchasing reading lesson plans, how children learn to read and teaching reading to children. His numerous articles offer moneysaving tips and valuable insight on typically confusing topics.

© 2004 -


Additional Links