Understand PHONICS Once and For All – What EXACTLY is the Phonics Approach?

If your child is learning to read, or about to learn to read, you may have heard of the term ‘Phonics’, and how this system is widely used for teaching reading.

But, do you know EXACTLY what Phonics is? Do you know what Phonics instruction involves?

Do you know the different types of Phonics approaches there are?

And, what’s more surprising… How incredibly unalike they are in practice!

Did you also know that the Phonics approach also has certain limitations and complexities and the ways around these?

By the end of this post, you’ll have a very clear understanding of what Phonics, the different approaches to Phonics instruction are, the challenges to the Phonics approach, and much more!

Knowing all of this will make a huge difference on how well you’ll be able to support your children or students on their learn-to-read journey.

So, let’s get started!

What is Phonics?

Phonics is a system for teaching reading that focuses on teaching the individual sounds of a language (of the English language, in this specific case) and how they relate with letters.

For instance, with the Phonics approach we learn about the /b/ sound. We learn to hear it, and to recognize it. And, then, we learn that this sound is represented by the letter ‘B’ / ‘b’.

After learning these relationships between sounds and letters, we learn to blend or push all the sounds together to read words.

For instance, once know that the letter ‘B’ makes the /b/ sound, the ‘U’ makes the /u/ sound and the ‘S’ makes the /s/ sound, we are ready to read the word ‘bus’ or the word ‘sub’.

This is the gift that alphabetic-based languages give us. Each letter of the alphabet represents a sound. We do not have to learn and memorize each individual word all by itself. We can rely on a code to help us read. Reading in alphabetic languages is nothing else but decoding.

Phonics: limitations and complexities

However, the Phonics system has certain limitations and complexities.

One of the main problems that we have in English is that we have 44 sounds, but only 26 letters in the alphabet to represent those sounds.

That poses a little bit of an issue, don’t you think?

Well, fortunately, English has come up with different ways to sort out the shortage of letters, as you will learn.

I will talk about the limitations and complexities in the English language, and I will briefly touch on the solutions we can find to these limitations.

  • Letters can make more than 1 sound. For instance, the letter C can make the /k/ sound as in ‘cat’ or ‘cot’, and the /s/ sound as in ‘cent’ or ‘pencil’, and even the /sh/ sound occasionally, as in the word ‘crucial’. Fortunately, there are normally reasons behind why sometimes letters make one sound or another. That means that we can learn rules and patterns to help us read these letters successfully.
  • We have letters that, when together, make a new sound. For instance, the letters ‘ch’ (that normally team up to make the /ch/ sound, and is chat or church) or the letters ‘th’ (that team up to either make the voiced /th/, as in ‘this’ or ‘that’, or unvoiced /th/ as in ‘thin’ or ‘thick’). This is one of the genius ways in which the language has sorted out the problem of having more sounds than letters!
  • Different sounds can be represented in different ways. For instance, the /s/ sound, can be represented by the letter ‘s’, but sometimes (as we’ve learned before) is represented by the letter ‘c’.
    Another example: the /f/ sound can be represented by the letter ‘f’, but sometimes (less often, but sometimes) is represented by ‘ph’ (as in ‘phone’) or even gh (as in ‘laugh’).
  • Silent letters. Sometimes letters can be silent in English. Normally there’s a reason for them to the silent, but we need to learn why this happens and when it happens. A very popular example of this is the ‘magic E’, which occurs at the end of words, and signals the previous vowel to say its name rather than making its sort sound. This is why we read the words make, take, time like this:
    • /m/ /ā/ /k/
    • /t/ /ā/ /k/
    • /t/ /ī/ /m/
      Note: ā and ī represent long vowel sounds.INSTEAD OF
    • /m/ /a/ /k/ /e/
    • /t/ /a/ /k/ /e/
    • /t/ /i/ /m/ /e/
  • Exceptions and irregularities. Of course, there are exceptions and irregularities. These exceptions actually talk about the history of a language, and how it evolved in many different ways, leaving certain words spelled differently and not following the norm. The good thing in English these exceptions in the English language is that they tend to follow patterns and, we, humans, love patterns. They really help us stick things in our long-term memory. For instance, you can learn about the ‘h’ not making a sound in the words: when, white, where, why all at the same time, rather than separately. Seeing the same pattern in all of these words will truly facilitate your child’s job.

How to tackle the complexities of the English language when teaching reading?

So, while the fundamentals of learning to read with Phonics are easy, the layers of complexity that the English language presents (or any language – each language has its own set of difficulties) also mean that there needs to be a well-thought order and structure if you want to be successful at teaching a child to read with Phonics.

Some of these concepts can be a bit tricky for children, so you can’t just introduce all of these things at the same time. You need to go slowly, practice a lot and build up upon what he/she already knows in a very gradual way.

This is the reason why sometimes some people neglect the gift (and advantage) that having an alphabetic system gives us and use certain strategies, such us just asking children to memorize words.

This is very unfortunate, in my opinion. It really sets many children for failure, and turns many others into just average readers.

The key in my opinion is using a system, a learn to read Phonics program that has thought of all of these complexities and has come up with a structure and an order that makes sense.

Different types of Phonics

To complicate things even further there are also different types of phonics.

The two most popular phonics methodologies are: Analytic and Synthetic phonics.

However,  even though they both have the “label” phonics attached to them, they are in fact really different in their approach to teaching reading. 

Analytic phonics is named after the word “analyze” because that is precisely the core of what children are asked to do in Analytic Phonics: analyze the words that they are presented with.

When analyzing words, they are doing ‘detective work,’  looking for clues and cues that can help them figure the symbols (letters) out.

Words are presented to children before sounds in Analytic Phonics. Children learn to recognize them by sight. Later on, using their analysis skills, children are supposed to learn to figure out the connections between letters and sounds in words.

Analytic phonics goes from words to sounds (whole-to-part approach), rather than from sounds to words.

In Synthetic phonics, children focus on learning the sounds in the English language first, then they learn letter-sound correspondences, and, finally, children are taught to blend those sounds together (or synthetize them) to read actual words.

If you want to know even more about the differences between Synthetic and Analytic Phonics, I recommend you read this article on our blog.

There are EVEN more types of Phonics!

For instance, ‘Embedded phonics‘ (also called ‘Implicit Phonics’).

Why is it called implicit?

Because this is an indirect approach to Phonics.

The main focus on this strategy is to understand the meaning of the context on the text we read.

Basically, the strategy in Embedded Phonics goes like this:

  1. Children are presented with a book with lots of pictures and little text. The educator explains what the book is about and there is a discussion around what is expected to happen. For instance, the teacher could explain: ‘This book is about animals that live in different places. What animals do you think we will see and where do you think they’ll live?’
  2. Then, the teacher starts reading the book. Children see, for instance, a monkey in a zoo. The teacher reads the sentence: ‘This monkey lives in the zoo.’ Children are asked to repeat the sentence and point to the words. Then, they are congratulated, because (apparently) they are “reading”!
  3. When children make a mistake, they are encouraged to look at the picture or use other guessing strategies. Children are not encouraged to sound words out as part of these ‘guessing’ strategies. In fact, with embedded or implicit phonics, there is very limited explanations about letter-sound relationships.

If any, the main focus is on the first letter on words and how can that letter can help us predict what the word could be based on the context.

The context is king in embedded phonics, not sounds.

It feels like this approach is based on the trite statement: ‘We read to understand.’, but in an extremely poorly-understood way.

You probably have heard this statement a million times, too.

While I fully agree that we DO read to understand the meaning of the words (otherwise, what is the point in reading?!), that doesn’t mean that it is ok to skip learning how to learn and guessing words.

If you want to know more about how reading comprehension works, and how to improve it, I suggest you watch this video!

Final Thoughts on Phonics

As you can see, there is a lot to Phonics and to reading instruction.

Phonics is a label that is has been thrown out to  many different types of approaches to reading.

Even when these approaches are so divergent that it is difficult to understand what exactly is that they have in common, and why they are all part of the ‘Phonics’ family.

When you are looking to implement the Phonics approach at home or in the classroom, or if you are a parent that wants to understand more about the type of instruction your children get at home, don’t just settle for ‘Phonics’.

Find out more about the techniques used on the program, and what Phonics really means for the person that is talking to you.

If you want to watch this information on video, check this video out:





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