The majority of English speakers today think that phonics means that each consonant letter in the alphabet represents one sound, and that each vowel letter represents two sounds (the vowel's long and short sounds). These misconceptions hobble the power of teaching with a phonics method. People undertaking the task of teaching others to read would benefit from a more complete definition of phonics, as follows:
Phonics is a method of teaching reading and spelling by explicitly teaching:
46 phonemes to cover all the sounds of the English language
89 phonograms to cover all the single-letter and multi-letter graphemes that can be used to represent the sounds of English in print
30 rules to guide the encoding and decoding of English words (for a complete list of rules, refer to the book titled, “Uncovering the Logic of English”)
For best success, these 165 things should be taught through frequent and enjoyable instruction.
Educator Linda Schrock Taylor explains the impact of this short list in the article here where she writes, “When I first meet a remedial reading class, whether at the elementary, high school, or college level, I begin by offering them a choice. I explain that they can either learn to read using the ‘I Haven't Had That Word Yet’ method, which means that they will have to be taught, and memorize, around 250,000 words to be an exceptional reader; or… they can learn: 26 ABC's, 29 Rules, and 70 [Phonogram] Spellings for 44 Sounds. They always choose the second method, especially since they have a head start in that they usually know those ABC's.”
(You may notice Taylor’s list of “26 ABC's, 29 Rules, and 70 [Phonogram] Spellings for 44 Sounds” differs from mine. The differences are that my list places the ABC’s within the 89 phonograms, has 1 more rule and 2 more sounds. Variations in phoneme and phonogram counts are common among different reading programs and linguistic experts. However, for those who count phonemes, phonograms and rules to be the cornerstones of literacy, these variations are minimal and of little concern.)
I admire the quote by the teacher and English curriculum developer Sharon Madsen who once said, “Literacy is the ability to demonstrate personal proficiency in speaking, spelling, writing, and reading English plus the ability to teach it to another.”
What if everyone already proficient in English could also teach it? Could we avoid reports like the following?
- Nearly 80 percent of New York City high school graduates need to learn basic reading, writing and math skills before they can enter the City University’s community college system. (Source: CBS Local Media)
- About 23 percent of high school graduates seeking a military job who take the Armed Forces Qualiﬁcation Test (AFQT), which measures Math Knowledge, Arithmetic Reasoning, Word Knowledge, and Paragraph Comprehension, fail to achieve a qualifying score. (Source: Shut Out of the Military)
- A 2003 assessment found that only 13% of Americans scored as proficient readers. (Source: 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy)
- A 1992 assessment found that only 3% of Americans read at the highest literacy level, level 5, and only 16% read at the next highest literacy level, level 4. (Source: 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey)
For anyone who wants to prepare to teach reading, I recommend stocking your own literacy bookshelf with the following books:
- Uncovering the Logic of English by Denise Eide - Currently $13.60 for paperback and $7.99 for a Kindle edition.
- The Writing Road to Reading by Romalda Bishop Spalding - Currently $18.47 for a paperback.
- A Home Start in Reading by Ruth Beechick - Currently $4.00 for a printed pamphlet.
- A Path for the Exploration of Any Language Leading to Writing and Reading by Muriel I. Dwyer - Currently $7.00 plus shipping for a printed pamphlet.
- The ABCs and All Their Tricks by Margaret M. Bishop - Currently $10.87 for paperback or $15.41 in hardback.
For all of the above, you’ll spend about $55.00 on books, plus shipping. In return, you’ll have access for the rest of your life to some of the best information for establishing fluency in reading and writing.
In the following YouTube video, a teacher trained in Montessori methods gives an overview of how to teach the letter sounds to very young children. The most useful part of the video for me was at the 2:40 point in the video where the teacher shared a kinesthetic game centered around the letter sounds. Basically, to play the game, the teacher has the child trace a letter on a card and say the sound it makes out loud. Then, she sends the child off to place the card in another room where it can be retrieved later. She'll repeat this for each of the letters in a short word. Then, one at a time, she asks the child to bring the cards back by asking for each card by the sound of the letter on it. When the child brings the correct cards back, she knows the letter sounds are starting to sink in.
I've been playing this with my 2-year-old using homemade felt phoneme cards. Our game works like the one in the video, but we go beyond the alphabet and do phoneme cards for SH, TH, NG, etc per the list of primary graphic symbols for each phoneme in my phoneme chart here. My daughter has a lot of fun with it!