Phonics is a widely used method of teaching to read and decode words, although it is not without controversy (see "History and controversy" below). Children begin learning to read using phonics usually around the age of 5 or 6. Teaching English reading using phonics requires children to learn the connections between letter patterns and the sounds they represent. Phonics instruction requires the teacher to provide students with a core body of information about phonics rules, or patterns.
The spelling systems for some alphabetic languages, such as Spanish, are relatively simple because there is nearly a one-to-one correspondence between sounds and the letter patterns that represent them. English spelling is more complex, because it attempts to represent the 40+ phonemes of the spoken language with an alphabet composed of only 26 letters (and no accents). As a result, two letters are often fused together into groups that represent distinct sounds, referred to as digraphs. For example "t" and "h" placed side by side are used to represent a third sound /th/ (IPA:/θ/ or /ð/).
English has absorbed large amounts of words from other languages throughout its history, without changing the spelling of those words. As a result, the written form of English includes the spelling patterns of five languages (Old English, Danish, Norman French, Classical Latin and Greek) superimposed upon one another. These overlapping spelling patterns mean that in many cases the same sound can be spelled differently and the same spelling can represent different sounds. However, the spelling patterns usually follow certain conventions. The result is that English spelling patterns vary considerably in the degree to which they follow the stated pattern. For example, the letters ee almost always represent /iː/, but the sound can also be represented by the letter y. Similarly, the letter cluster ough represents /ʌf/ as in enough, /oʊ/ as in though, /uː/ as in through, /ɔːf/ as in cough, and /aʊ/ as in bough.
Although the patterns are inconsistent, when English spelling rules take into account syllable structure, phonetics, and accents, there are dozens of rules that are 75% or more reliable.
A selection of phonics patterns is shown below.
The final "short vowel+consonant pattern" is just one example of dozens that can be used to help children unpack the challenging English alphabetic code. This example illustrates that, while complex, English spelling retains order and reason.
Because of the complexity of written English, more than a century of debate has occurred over whether English phonics should or should not be used in teaching beginning reading. Beginning in the mid 19th century, some American educators, prominently Horace Mann, argued that phonics should not be taught at all. This led to the commonly used "look-say" approach ensconced in the "Dick and Jane" readers popular in the mid-20th century. Beginning in the 1950s, however, phonics resurfaced as a method of teaching reading. Spurred by Rudolf Flesch's criticism of the absence of phonics instruction (particularly in his popular book, Why Johnny Can't Read) phonics resurfaced, but—owing to Flesch's polemical approach—the term "phonics" became associated with political ideology.
In the 1980s, the "whole language" approach to reading further polarized the debate in the United States. Whole language instruction was predicated on the principle that children could learn to read given (a) proper motivation, (b) access to good literature, (c) many reading opportunities, (d) focus on meaning, and (e) instruction to help students use meaning clues to determine the pronunciation of unknown words. For some advocates of whole language, phonics was antithetical to helping new readers to get the meaning; they asserted that parsing words into small chunks and reassembling them had no connection to the ideas the author wanted to convey.
The whole language emphasis on identifying words using context and focusing only a little on the sounds (usually the alphabet consonants and the short vowels) could not be reconciled with the phonics emphasis on individual sound-symbol correspondences. Thus, a dichotomy between the whole language approach and phonics emerged in the United States causing intense debate. Ultimately, this debate lead to a series of a Congressionally-commissioned panels and government-funded reviews of the state of reading instruction in the U.S.
In 1984, the National Academy of Education commissioned a report on the status of research and instructional practices in reading education, Becoming a Nation of Readers. Among other results, the report includes the finding that phonics instruction improves children's ability to identify words. It reports that useful phonics strategies include teaching children the sounds of letters in isolation and in words, and teaching them to blend the sounds of letters together to produce approximate pronunciations of words. It also states that phonics instruction should occur in conjunction with opportunities to identify words in meaningful sentences and stories.
In 1990, Congress asked the U.S. Department of Education to compile a list of available programs on beginning reading instruction, evaluating each in terms of the effectiveness of its phonics component. As part of this requirement, the US DOE asked Dr. Marilyn J. Adams to produce a report on the role of phonics instruction in beginning reading, which resulted in her 1994 book Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. In the book, Adams asserted that existing scientific research supported that phonics is an effective method for teaching students to read at the word level. Adams argued strongly that the phonics and the whole language advocates are both right. Phonics is an effective way to teach students the alphabetic code, building their skills in decoding unknown words. By learning the alphabetic code early, she argued, students can quickly free up mental energy they had used for word analysis and devote this mental effort to meaning, leading to stronger comprehension earlier in elementary school. Thus, she concluded, phonics instruction is a necessary component of reading instruction, but not sufficient by itself to teach children to read. This result matched the overall goal of whole language instruction and supported the use of phonics for a particular subset of reading skills, especially in the earliest stages of reading instruction.
Similar results, based on a wide-ranging historical study of teaching how to read in other languages in addition to English, were published by Dina Feitelson in her book Facts and Fads in Beginning Reading: A Cross-Language Perspective . Yet the argument about how to teach reading, eventually known as "the Great Debate," continued unabated.
The National Research Council re-examined the question of how best to teach reading to children (among other questions in education) and in 1998 published the results in the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children. The National Research Council's findings largely matched those of Adams. They concluded that phonics is a very effective way to teach children to read at the word level, more effective than what is known as the "embedded phonics" approach of whole language (where phonics was taught opportunistically in the context of literature). They found that phonics instruction must be systematic (following a sequence of increasingly challenging phonics patterns) and explicit (teaching students precisely how the patterns worked, e.g., "this is b, it stands for the /b/ sound"). ..
In 1997, Congress asked the Director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at the National Institutes of Health, in consultation with the Secretary of Education, to convene a national panel to assess the effectiveness of different approaches used to teach children to read. The National Reading Panel examined quantitative research studies on many areas of reading instruction, including phonics and whole language. The resulting report Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and its Implications for Reading Instruction was published in 2000 and provides a comprehensive review of what is known about best practices in reading instruction in the U.S. The panel reported that several reading skills are critical to becoming good readers: phonics for word identification, fluency, vocabulary and text comprehension. With regard to phonics, their meta-analysis of hundreds of studies confirmed the findings of the National Research Council: teaching phonics (and related phonics skills, such as phonemic awareness) is a more effective way to teach children early reading skills than is embedded phonics or no phonics instruction. The panel found that phonics instruction is an effective method of teaching reading for students from kindergarten through 6th grade, and for all children who are having difficulty learning to read. They also found that phonics instruction benefits all ages in learning to spell. They also reported that teachers need more education about effective reading instruction, both pre-service and in-service.
Analytical phonics has children analyze sound-symbol correspondences, such as the ou spelling of /aʊ/ in shrouds but students do not blend those elements as they do in synthetic phonics lessons. Furthermore, consonant blends (separate, adjacent consonant phonemes) are taught as units (e.g., in shrouds the shr would be taught as a unit).
Analogy phonics is a particular type of analytic phonics in which the teacher has students analyze phonic elements according to the phonograms in the word. A phonogram, known in linguistics as a rime, is composed of the vowel and all the sounds that follow it. Teachers using the analogy method assist students in memorizing a bank of phonograms, such as -at or -am. Students then use these phonograms to analogize to unknown words.
Embedded phonics is the type of phonics instruction used in whole language programs. Although phonics skills are de-emphasized in whole language programs, some teachers include phonics "mini-lessons" in the context of literature. Short lessons are included based on phonics elements that students are having trouble with, or on a new or difficult phonics pattern that appears in a class reading assignment. The focus on meaning is generally maintained, but the mini-lesson provides some time for focus on individual sounds and the symbols that represent them. Embedded phonics differs from other methods in that the instruction is always in the context of literature rather than in separate lessons, and the skills to be taught are identified opportunistically rather than systematically.
Owing to the shifting debate over time (see "History and Controversy" above), many school systems, such as California's, have made major changes in the method they have used to teach early reading. Today, most teachers combine phonics with the elements of whole language that focus on reading comprehension. Adams and the National Reading Panel advocate for a comprehensive reading program that includes several different subskills, based on scientific research. This combined approach is sometimes called balanced literacy, although some researchers assert that balanced literacy is merely whole language called by another name. Proponents of various approaches generally agree that a combined approach is important. A few stalwarts favor isolated instruction in synthetic phonics and introduction to reading comprehension only after children have mastered sound-symbol correspondences. On the other side, some whole language supporters are unyielding in arguing that phonics should be taught little, if at all.
There has been a resurgence in interest in synthetic phonics in recent years, particularly in the United Kingdom. The subject has been promoted by a cross-party group of Parliamentarians, particularly Nick Gibb MP. A recent report by the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee called for a review of the phonics content in the National Curriculum. The Department for Education and Skills have since announced a review into early years reading, headed by Jim Rose.
Jim Rose's group has now reported and the UK Government has decreed that synthetic phonics should be the method of choice for teaching reading in primary schools in England.
Structured, Systematic Phonics Instruction- is the type of phonics instruction that is most effective with at-risk or learning disabled children. This approach teaches letters and corresponding phonemes in a very deliberate order with a great deal of review (as needed). Children are able to retain this information as it is carefully taught. Phonics taught in an "as needed" approach is more characteristic of whole language.