Foundational Reading Skills – Phonics

Many parents ask, “What is phonics?” or “How is phonics helpful for children in reading?”  If your child is struggling with reading, you might be thinking that just getting a phonics workbook might help, or that you can just teach the individual sounds to the letters.  Many people just assume that phonics is taught in schools, but that is not always the case. Simply put, phonics is a method of teaching people to read by correlating sounds with letters or groups of letters in an alphabetic writing system.

Some people get confused between phonics and phonemic awareness, or they think that they are the same thing.  Phonemic awareness is the understanding of how sounds work. Whereas phonics involves connecting the sounds with printed letters or groups of letters.  If your child is struggling with the sounds of language, you can read about it on my blog here.  

Over the years, many experts have argued over whether they believe that phonics are important when children are learning to read.  School curriculum has been very inconsistent in the inclusion of phonics. You or your child may have gone through school and were never even taught to read using phonics!  Your child may have just been taught to memorize lists of sight words, or worse yet, they may have been taught to just guess at every word based on the letter at the beginning or the end of the word, without ever being taught the patterns of the letters in the middle.  This creates problems later on when an older child encounters a new word they have never seen before. Without the knowledge of how to break up words into smaller parts, they are really just taking a stab in the dark and making a blind guess as to what the word is. When children are younger, they might be able to use pictures to help them to guess at the words in a story. But more advanced books don’t have pictures to help and then children get stuck and frustrated.  It is a common misconception that schools are teaching the rules of syllabication, but they are not. So children don’t know how to break up words into smaller parts to figure them out.  

For example, I had an advanced group of fifth grade readers who came across the word “veteran” in a book about an exploration to Antarctica.  So they were reading about some “veteran explorers” but they consistently read the word as “veterinarian”. It was clear to me that they had never been taught to examine the middle of words, but to simply guess based on the beginning and ending sounds.  They were very confused as to who a “veterinarian explorer” would be going on the expedition.

Children typically learn phonics in kindergarten, first, or second grade if they are even taught in school.  By third grade, most schools assume children have this skill down and it is not even included in the curriculum.  So what happens if they have not learned it? They fall further and further behind, become frustrated, and many times, they are sent to special classes for reading which causes them to feel even more singled out.  

Here are some activities you can do with younger children to help develop their skills in phonics:

  1. If your child is still working on learning the individual sounds of each letter, have fun crafting your own flashcards with some old magazines.  Just grab some 3 by 5 cards, write a letter on each one, and find a picture that starts with each letter. Your children will have fun remembering the pictures that they chose.  As a digital alternative, place a letter on each slide in either Power-Point or Google Slides. Then go on a picture hunt through the internet and use your snipping tool to insert pictures into your flashcards.  I like to place 4-5 pictures on each slide and my students love it! Don’t forget letter combinations like th, ch, sh, wh, and ph for your flashcards.
  2. Many people think of short, decodable words as they are teaching their children to read.  Words like mat, cat, sat, fat, etc. Although we use the short vowels most often, many children get confused when they encounter words with long vowels.  And there are so many letter combinations for these vowel sounds. You can teach the different vowel patterns very easily by grouping them together. There is “silent e”, “bossy R”, (R controlled vowels like star, stir, store, and fur), “two-vowel talkers”, two-vowel whiners, and consonant + le.  If you look up “Vowel Pattern Chart” on the internet, you will find lots of resources to help you. This strategy is the foundation of my tutoring program. I find that so many students have not been taught these patterns in their reading programs, so when I introduce them, I can see the light shine in their eyes with the new reading tools they have.
  3. Use the sense of touch – trace words on your palm, trace or write words on a computer screen, use sidewalk chalk, write in the air, use your finger to write in sand, salt, or shaving cream.
  4. Use manipulatives or create some of your own!  Cut letters out of newspapers or magazines, use letter tiles, magnetic letters, alphabet stamps, play-dough, Wikki Stix, letter beads, or you can even create letters out of mini chocolate chips!  
  5. Use your fridge to display word families.  Play with one family each week. Ex. bat, cat, fat, hat, mat, pat, rat, sat, vat.  If you search “Word Families” on the internet, you will find enough to keep you busy for the school year! 

If you have older children, and you feel like they need to go back and develop phonics strategies, here are some activities that you can do with them:

  1. Start by teaching the vowel patterns from #2 for younger children.  When I assess older children who are struggling to read, many times they simply haven’t been taught the most common patterns to help them sound out the long vowel sounds.  I set up a PowerPoint slide deck for my students with the 6 patterns and give them examples of each one. My older students catch onto this so quickly! Most children know the closed pattern – sat, met, sit, not, and cup.  But they do not know these patterns:
  1. Open Pattern – be, go, hi
  2. Silent E – slide
  3. Bossy R – star, turn, water, stir, sort
  4. Two Vowel Talkers  – read, play, wait, boat
  5. Two Vowel Whiners – cloud, pool, pause, draw
  6. Consonant + le – cattle, freckle, fiddle
  1. Once you have taught the vowel patterns, you can start reading together using books that are at their level.  If you have been given a reading level by your child’s school, a simple conversion chart is easy to find online and websites like Scholastic Books will tell you the levels of each book.  I like to use Reading A to Z online because they have so many books that are listed by level. As you read with your child, you can use a few different strategies to make it more fun for them.
  1. Make it something you do together.  Sit with them on the couch and take turns reading.  If it’s a short book, you can each take a page. If it’s a longer book, switch off by paragraphs.
  2. When they come to a word they don’t know, ask if they need help or time.  If they just want time, wait while they figure it out. If they want help, either tell them the word and have them repeat it, or break down the vowel patterns that they know to help them attack the new word.

So phonics is an important skill because we teach students how to decode letters into their respective sounds.  Students need to be able to break apart words into these smaller sounds so that they can read unfamiliar words by themselves.  Many students who have been identified as having dyslexia simply were not taught using phonics instruction and will improve greatly by learning this skill.  Or they may have been taught only using one of their five senses. For example, if a child has difficulty processing information visually, they may be able to learn by hearing, or by feeling, or even by tasting!  Imagine a child getting to spell out a word with chocolate chips and then getting to eat them when they are done. That wouldn’t seem like work at all!

Would you like to take this quiz to see if your child might be struggling with dyslexia?

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