Phonics Prep!

As we prepare for our upcoming “Let’s Talk Phonics!” discussion next week, we might benefit from a review of terms that often confuse or amuse reading tutors.

What characterizes a good reader of the English language at any age? To some extent, that depends on the person’s purpose for reading. On the other hand, we could say that all good readers can interpret sounds “made” by symbols in order to understand what someone else has written. Maybe others here would like to add to that statement.

Granted, as we discussed earlier this year, there are many definitions for reading that don’t include “hearing” or “seeing,” but for purposes of this month’s discussion, we’ll leave it at that and use the commonly accepted definition for reading.

The English language is composed of letters and sounds that are “made up” by letters or combinations of letters. Therefore, initial reading development is linked to hearing, or phonological development.

Phonological development is a broad term that covers many skills. It relates to “listening” to words. A person who can clap the sounds of a spoken word or sentence has developed some phonological awareness, or the awareness that speech is grouped into sounds. We notice that even infants respond to sounds, some very early, long before they can actually read. Why are nursery rhymes so much fun?!

One very specific aspect of phonological development is the ability to identify very small units of sound produced by letters. That ability is called phonemic awareness.

A phoneme is a single "unit" of sound that has meaning. There are 44 phonemes in English, each one representing a different sound that a person can make. Part of what makes English difficult to learn is that each letter in the alphabet can represent more than one sound. Plus, since the alphabet only has 26 letters yet represents 44 sounds, many English phonemes are represented by two or three letters working together to represent one sound. The ability to “hear” those 44 sounds indicates phonemic awareness. People who have developed phonemic awareness can, for example, break down words into segments of sound (segmenting) or sound out words by combining letter sounds (blending).

If you want a cute explanation of the differences between the terms “phonemes, “graphemes,” and “letters,” check out the Reading Doctor’s visuals at

So here’s the catch when it comes to literacy instruction. A person cannot learn to decode the meanings of sounds represented by letters until he has acquired phonemic awareness. One way to decode the sounds that letters in words produce is called phonics. Phonemic awareness must develop for a reader to be able to decode words using phonics.

Have all adults developed phonemic awareness? No! People are not born “phonemically aware”. They acquire phonemic awareness as they learn to read. That is why literacy instruction among adult learners must test or include activities to help adults develop phonemic awareness as they learn to decode words. Phonics, then, is a way to teach people to read by correlating sounds with letters or groups of letters in an alphabetic writing system like English.

Of course, we all know that not all words in English can be decoded with phonics. In fact, the most common words in our language cannot be decoded that way. Linguists will tell you that the reason for that is that over many years, certain words were used and then misused so often that they no longer followed rules. We call those “sight words” or words that must be learned as a whole unit because they can’t be sounded out. For example, could is a sight word.

There are no rules for teaching sight words as there are in teaching phonics, but sight words can be easily integrated with phonics instruction once students begin to decode words in sentences and longer passages. In fact, many interesting practices should be integrated into phonics instruction. Phonics practice should not take very long in any learning session. Why? Basically, many people find it boring! It also requires a lot of concentration and learners can tire easily if phonics lessons are more than 15-20 minutes long. Keep it short, yes, but definitely keep it!

Adult literacy instruction has evolved a great deal over the years, and opinions have varied over the best or only ways to teach adults to read. Just to review a little history on literacy instruction to adults, two very large systems worked side by side when adult literacy methodology first started gaining a firm hold in the US: Laubach Literacy and Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA). Laubach strongly emphasized a systematic process of learning phonics, with sight words included in reading sentences and passages. LVA promoted a more flexible approach to literacy development, using the popular Language Experience Approach (LEA). With LEA, a student dictates a few sentences from a recent experience or interest. The tutor writes down the sentences exactly as the student says them, and then goes over each sentence, word by word, teaching sight words and also phonics as words came up that can be decoded. Because the sentences come from the student’s experience, meaning is never a problem. Eventually, both organizations blended into what we now know as our very wonderful organization, ProLiteracy. . If you haven’t explored the resources on that site, you are in for a treat!

Are you ready to dive into “Let’s Talk Phonics” on Monday? You’ll find that the videos you’ll watch are part of a much larger library that covers more than phonemic awareness and phonics, which represent the first reading component, called Alphabetics. The videos also cover models among the other three reading components: Vocabulary, Fluency, and Comprehension. Some add Spelling to that list. What do you think?

Below is a list of the videos that we will discuss next week:

Day 1 - Decoding - Part 1: Tutoring Using Synthetic Phonics.

Day 2 - Decoding - Part 2: Tutoring Using Analytic Phonics.

Day 3 - Decoding - Part 3: Tutoring Using Phonics by Analogy

Day 4 - Decoding - Part 4: Tutoring Using Phonics through Spelling.

Day 5 - Decoding - Part 5: Tutoring Using Phonics in Context

Day 6 - Decoding - Part 6: Tutoring Phonics Using a Multisensory Approach.

“See” you on Monday!

Your Let’s Talk Phonics Team