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Phonics is the Sound-Code

Phonics is a clever invention, and a Must-Have Skill for learners!
But Phonics is not perfect, and Phonics is not enough.


Phonics is the sound-code of writing.
In this code, alphabet letters represent the sounds of speech.


Writers pull words apart into separate sounds--they segment the words.

And then they use the code of Phonics to write symbols in place of the sounds.

s   u   n          sh   oe

Readers use Phonics by rapidly naming the written sounds, and blending the sounds together into words.

“S-s-uh-n-n.”         “Sh-h-h-oo”

With Phonics, we have a way to change the sounds of speech into a lasting, written form, and back again.
     We can leave a note for the neighbor.
     We can leave a memoir for our children’s children’s children.


Do we read with Phonics alone?
Try this famous example:


It is hard to do without some hints:

Sound ‘gh’ as in ‘laugh’
Sound ‘o’ as in ‘women’
Sound ‘ti’ as in ‘motion’
(Clue: Aquatic animal)


Here is a more reasonable example that includes some language information:

uhbaut uh coarder uv ciks

(Clue: What time is it?)

This can be a cumbersome way to read.


It helps when there is connected language that makes sense:

Moast uv thuh tighm thair is moar to kunsidor
than just sowndeeng owt werdz.

Did it get easier toward the end?

Your skills in language prediction help you to de-code the written sounds in this meaningful passage.


Phonics is not perfect.

Here is the basic problem with Phonics in English:

     We have 26 alphabet letters.
     But we have over 40 speech sounds.

There is not enough alphabet to go around.
So some letters have to team up to cover the leftover sounds.

That’s why sometimes it takes two letters to make one sound:

sh     ee    ch     oa     ng

And the code was invented by a committee which never actually met.
So some letters rather needlessly do double- or triple-duty

sity?  city          hiz?  his        shuger?  sugar

Letter X, on the other hand is completely wasted.
It imitates ‘ks’ (fox) or ‘z’ (Xerox).

Teach kids the truth about speech sounds with Playful Sounds.


We can teach patterns, but there are limits

lie     die     fie    tie     pie

hie?  hi           bie?  bye            mie?  my
sie?  sigh            gie?  guy
nie?  nigh            rie?  rye            drie?  dry

What’s a poor teacher to do? Fortunately, there are choices.

Choice 1: There are Phonics approaches which make sense of it all in great detail.

Some are wonderfully analytical:

     Children can learn about ‘The Five Kinds Of Silent Finel E,’
     and ‘The 22 Exceptions to I-Before-E-Except-After-C-

     They can learn that ‘or’ can say ‘er’ after ‘w,’
     as in ‘work’ or ‘worm;’
     and that ‘sh is used at the beginning of a word
     or at the end of a syllable,
     but not at the beginning of any syllable after the first one
     with the exception of ‘ship’ as in ‘friendship.’


My computer must know all of these Phonics rules, because it can ‘read aloud’ quite well--if you call that ‘reading.

But students do not need to navigate the written word with Phonics alone.

There are lots of other clues woven into the things we read.

The real trick is to get all of the skills working together as a system.

Language is the organizing principle that holds it all together . . . which brings us to

Choice 2: We can teach a basic set of sturdy, fluent Phonics skills.

At the same time, we make sure to weave Phonics into the sophisticated language skills that children already have and use.

Remember: The idea is to get all of the skills working together as a system.


When we make a strong connection between the code, the Mind’s Ear and the child’s spoken language . . .

  • We are teaching the truth about Reading
  • And we are making sure that children are engaging the part of their brain that understands language!

Learn more about connecting skills with language throughout this website.


As for the more pesky rules of English Phonics:
I think a good time to work with these is through the spelling program as students move up through the grades.


The bottom line on Phonics:
There is much more to language than just the sounds of language. There are:

  • Word meanings
  • Sentences
  • Concepts
  • and more.

And so there is much more to reading than just Phonics.


Beginners tend to depend on Phonics.

They are, in fact, often preoccupied with the effort of ‘decoding’ sounds and words.

It gobbles up their attention.

This is normal.

They are still building their ‘Rapid-Accurate Naming’ for Phonics sounds.


There is not much attention left over to think about the meaning of what they are reading.

That is why beginners may object to books without pictures.
Pictures add meaning.

It takes some sophistication to learn something new,
from the printed word alone.

But when the written language system is fully connected with the original spoken language, reading works!

Remember: All of the skills work together as a system.


Continue The Shortcut ~ The Whole Treehouse

More on this topic:
Phonemic Awareness and Phonics in Action