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phonics


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The sounds which make up spoken language. Thus, for example, the letter A has a name (which we pronounce ‘ay’), but also represents a number of sounds, depending on its use. The sound it makes in the spoken word ‘bad’, for example, is different from the sound it makes in ‘spade’, and different again from its sound in ‘scarf’, and so on. One of the ways in which children may be taught to read is through recognition of these sounds and the way they link together to build up whole words. This is known as the phonics approach to reading.

Within the teaching of phonics there are two distinct approaches, synthetic phonics and analytic phonics, and there is continuing debate over which is the more effective. Synthetic phonics is so called because it ‘synthesizes’, or puts together, groups of sounds. For example, one phoneme (a word which indicates the smallest unit of sound into which language may be broken down) may be represented in a number of different ways in writing, so that the ‘o’ sound we hear in ‘phoneme’ may be represented by other combinations of letters, depending upon the word. Thus, ‘ow’, ‘oa’, and ‘ough’ can sound identical when read aloud, even though they are represented on the page by quite different graphemes (ways we express phonemes in writing). When a child is taught to read English using synthetic phonics, they will learn to recognize up to 44 phonemes and the graphemes used to represent them. From this they can progress to sounding out whole words by blending the phonemes together. Where this approach is used, children begin learning early in their first year of primary school, and will learn, as a whole class, up to six sounds a week. They are shown the grapheme, listen to the sound, repeat it, and perform a related action, such as drawing the grapheme in the air. This multi‐sensory ‘drilling’ is designed to reinforce the learning. A disadvantage, however, is that phonetically irregular words, for which English is notorious, are not so easily decoded using only this approach.

Analytic phonics is an alternative approach to the teaching of reading which encourages the learner to break down each word into its component sounds and spelling patterns. Thus, the initial vowel sound of the word can be merged with the sound that follows, as in ‘c‐at’, and the inherent rhyme utilized to recognize or form other words which conform to the same spelling pattern (for example, ‘h‐at’, ‘r‐at’, ‘b‐at’, and so on). This approach works well in helping learners to recognize phonetically irregular words, such as ‘would’, ‘should’, and ‘could’ as conforming to a common pattern.

In the current debate over the efficacy of teaching methods for reading skills, government policy encourages the synthetic phonics approach.

Further Reading:

K. Goouch and A. Lambirth (eds) Understanding Phonics and the Teaching of Reading (Open University Press, 2008).

Subjects: Education.


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