Phonics has several related meanings – the relationship between speech sounds and their letter symbols, the methods used to teach that relationship, and the process of using letter-sounds relationships to sound out (decode) words.
The English written language is an alphabetic code in which spoken language is represented by symbols (letters) grouped into words. By learning the relationship between speech sounds and letter-symbols, children can use this code to read almost any word.
English is more complex than other alphabetic languages but it is still has conventions that can be learned. Around 50% of words in English are directly decodable from their written form and a further 36% violate only one sound–letter rule (usually a vowel), 10% can be spelt correctly if morphology and etymology are taken into account, and fewer than 4% are truly irregular.
Scientific research has demonstrated that initial phonics instruction is the single most effective word-decoding approach for students. All children benefit to some extent from such instruction but children at risk of reading failure achieve greater success under a phonics regime, as do those in the average range, and those who are making progress, but slowly.
In 2005, the Committee for the National Inquiry into Teaching Literacy in Australia recommended that teachers provide systematic, direct and explicit phonics instruction to allow children to master the essential alphabet code-breaking skills required for foundational reading proficiency.
There are two main approaches to explicitly teaching phonics: synthetic phonics instruction and analytic phonics instruction. Their effectiveness differs markedly. The model known as ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ has the strongest research support.
In synthetic phonics, students learn the associations between letters and their sounds in a clearly defined, incremental sequence. Students also learn the highly important skills of blending (putting sounds together to make words) and segmenting (sounding out words).
KEY RESEARCH FINDINGS
The US National Reading Panel’s review of research on phonics instruction in 2000 found:
Subsequent research has shown the power of systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) in particular.
In Clackmannanshire, Scotland, school beginners who were taught by the synthetic phonics method were found to be reading at seven months above their chronological age after one year, and similarly advanced beyond their peers taught by analytic phonics. Six years later, the synthetic group’s word-reading ability was three-and-a-half years ahead of the analytic group, and almost two years ahead in spelling. Disadvantaged children achieved a similar rate of progress. Only 5.6% of the students taught synthetic phonics were behind in word reading at the five-year follow-up. In a longer term follow-up, students taught by the two methods were re-assessed at age 10. Children taught by the synthetic phonics method not only maintained their advantage but increased it over time.
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Speech to Print.
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Sonnenschein, S., Stapleton, L.M. & Benson, A. (2010).
The relation between the type and amount of instruction and growth in children’s reading competencies.
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