Teaching Tuesday: How to Teach Phonics

Chibesh. Soolamundo. Unamtilating.

Did you "read" those words? Actually, you couldn't possibly have read them - I made them up. What you did was decode them - you used your knowledge of phonics to say the sounds associated with the letters.

Knowing all the phonics rules won't make your kid a great reader - but she won't be a great reader unless she learns a lot of the phonics rules. Some rules are simple; "b" says /b/ and "t" says /t/. Some rules are not; "oo" can say the sound in "zoo" or the sound in "cook". Even though, logically, it should say long /o/, as "ee" says long /e/. The more you learn about English, the more you realize it makes no sense.

There are 44 phonemes (smallest sounds of language), but there are only 26 graphemes (smallest units of written language), or letters. So one (huge) part of phonics is teaching which graphemes can make which phonemes, or which letters make which sounds. This is one of those times where flashcards can be very useful, though Lovebug's first grade teacher called them, "soundpacks", which is probably more accurate and definitely more clever than "flashcards". Another way to work on letter/sound association is to let - or even encourage - kids to read the same books over and over. It doesn't have to be those annoying sets of phonics books that you can buy at the book fair (though Goddess knows my kids just loved those Scooby-Do ones I was talked into), but any books with simple, repetitive and rhyming language. Dr. Seuss, for example.

Another part of phonics instruction is using that letter/sound knowledge to decode. It seems simple when your little one is figuring out "cat" or "mom", but when your second grader is tackling the word "instruction", it's a lot more complicated. One thing I like to do is blending*. It trains kids to decode challenging words; I made Ironflower and Lovebug practice it (just a few minutes a couple days a week) even when they figured out the word before we'd started. Basically, using a notebook or a dry erase board, I'd write a word like "instruction". Then I would tell them to look for "chunks" - graphemes, smaller words, long vowels, prefixes, suffixes. We would underline the chunks they found, so "instruction" would look like "instruction". Next we would start blending the sounds together. I'd have them say the first two sounds, "in" and "s", then I'd have then put the sounds together, "ins". We'd continue adding sounds, "inst", "instr", "instru", instruc", "instruction". When I did this with classes and reading groups, I would use words that emphasized whatever they were working on - consonant digraphs (ch, sh, th, wh), long vowels (like ay, or i_e), vowel digraphs (oy, oo), prefixes (in, re) and suffixes (ing, ed). But if you're just supplementing at home I wouldn't worry too much, I would just choose words similar to those your kiddo struggles with when s/he reads aloud to you.

For a far more intellectual discussion of phonics instruction, you should check out Reading Rockets.

*Shamelessly stolen from a reading curriculum I used in the late nineties called "Open Court". It was the total opposite of the methodology I'd been taught in graduate school. But it totally worked. 

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