Phonics is the correspondence between letters and spoken sounds, or letter–sound correspondences.
Today virtually all approaches to early reading instruction in the United States include instruction in phonics. The various approaches differ in the units of sound taught and how they are taught. Some teach letter–phoneme correspondences and others teach letter–onset and letter–rime correspondences. Some teach phonics out of context and others teach it in context. However, all approaches share the same goal: to help beginning readers become independent readers.
In English, the sounds employed in phonics instruction can be phonemes or they can be onsets and rimes.
Traditionally, the unit of sound used in phonics instruction has been the phoneme. The phoneme is the smallest unit of speech that makes a difference in the meaning of a word in a given language. For example, in English, if we drop the first /s/ in the spoken word smiles, we have miles. All languages have phonemes, but the range of sound in any given phoneme differs from language to language. For example, /b/ and /v/ are distinct phonemes in English but variations of the same phoneme in Spanish.
Children who have not yet learned to read have trouble analyzing spoken words into phonemes. Adults who have learned to read can analyze spoken words into phonemes when the phonemes correspond with the spelling (as in cat) but have trouble when they do not (as in box). (The three letters of box represent four phonemes /b/, /o/, /k/, and /s/.)
Onsets and Rimes
In the 1970s, linguists discovered that spoken syllables in English consist of two natural parts: (1) any consonants before the vowel and (2) the vowel and any consonants that come after it. They named the first part the onset, and the second part the rime. In the spoken word smiles, for example, /sm/ is an onset and /__lz/ is a rime. Syllables may or may not have onsets but all syllables have rimes. For example, the word smiling has two syllables and, hence, two rimes but only one onset.
Although many languages have onsets and rimes, not all languages do. The psychological unit of the Spanish syllable is the syllable, not onsets and rimes.
Onsets and rimes may consist of one phoneme (as the /g/ and the /o/ in the word go) or more than one phoneme (as the /s/ and /m/ and the /__/, /l/, and /z/ in the word smiles). In words composed entirely of onephoneme onsets and rimes (as go), there are as many units of sound at the onset–rime level as there are phonemes. In all other words there are fewer units at the onset–rime level than phonemes. The spoken word smiles, for example, has two units at the onset– rime level (/sm/ and /__lz/) but five units at the phonemic level (/s/, /m/, /__/, /l/, /z/). Most words have more than one phoneme in the onset or the rime in at least one syllable.
Onsets and rimes are so intuitive to native speakers of English that linguists call them the psychological units of the syllable. Long before linguists discovered onsets and rimes, poets and educators used them but called them by different names. Poets speak of alliteration and rhymes, and educators speak of word families. When there is more than one phoneme in an onset or a rime, English-speaking children who have not yet learned to read are able to analyze spoken words into their constituent onsets and rimes when they cannot analyze them into their constituent phonemes. For example, they can analyze the spoken word smiles into /sm/ and /__lz/ but not into /s/, /m/, /__/, /l/, and /z/.
Letter–Sound Correspondences Letter–Phoneme Correspondences
In English, the relationship between letters and phonemes is complex. Most letters, either alone or coupled with other letters, can represent more than one phoneme. For example, the letter s can represent /s/ (as in the beginning of the print word smiles), /z/ (as in the end of the print word smiles), and /sh/ (as in the print word sugar). Sometimes a combination of two or more letters, known as digraphs, can represent a phoneme (as the ph in phonics, the th in the, the ght in light, the oa in boat, and the oo in book). Sometimes a letter e at the end of a print word can influence the pronunciation of a noncontiguous a; e; i; o; or u that occurs two letters before it (as the e in the print word smile). In one case a letter represents two phonemes: the letter x after a vowel represents /k/ and /s/ (as in the word box). Sometimes letters are pronounced in some words but are ''silent'' in others.
For example, the letter m is pronounced in the print word smile but not in the print word climb. The letter l is pronounced in the print word smile but not in the print word walk.
Sometimes the pronunciation of print words is influenced by factors other than letter–phoneme correspondences. In words known as homographs, the pronunciation depends on the word's grammatical function (as the word read in ''I didn't read this but I read that''). In some words the spelling is morphological rather than phonetic. That is, the spelling represents meaning, not pronunciation (as the ed in the print word dropped). The pronunciation of print words is also influenced by the reader's dialect. For example, depending on one's dialect, the word again can rhyme with ten or with rain.
Conversely, when converting speech to print, often a phoneme can be represented by more than one letter or set of letters. The phoneme /k/, for example, can be represented by the letter k (as in kangaroo) and by the letter c (as in cat). The phoneme _o_o can be represented by the letters o, ew, oo, ue, iew, and ough (as in to, blew, too, blue, view, and through). Phonics generalizations based on letter–phoneme correspondences are not reliable. For example, one commonly taught generalization is the ''silent e'' generalization. According to this generalization, ''When there are two vowels (i.e., the letters a, e, i, o, u), one of which is a final e, the first vowel is long and the e is silent, or, as some versions put it, ''the first one says its name'' (as in the print words smile, bone, and cake). However, in approximately one third of the print words with a silent e at the end of the word, the letter representing the vowel is not ''long'' (as the o in done and the a in have). Another commonly taught generalization is the generalization that ''When two vowels occur together, the first vowel is pronounced as a long vowel and the second vowel is silent.'' This generalization works in approximately half the words where ''two vowels occur together'' (as in the print words bead and seat) but doesn't work in the other half (as in the print words chief and been). In their search to develop reliable letter–phoneme generalizations, Betty Berdiansky and her colleagues found, among one- and two-syllable words within children's listening vocabularies, more than 211 letter–phoneme correspondences that apply to five or more words.
Letter–Onset and Letter–Rime Correspondences
The relationship between letter–onset and letter–rime correspondences is also complex. There are as many— if not more—letter–onset/letter–rime correspondences as there are letter–phoneme correspondences. As in the case of letter–phoneme correspondences, letter–onset/ letter–rime correspondences can represent different sounds (as the letter g in the print words go and giant and the letters eak in the print words beak and break). Regardless of whether one is analyzing sounds into onsets and rimes or into phonemes, the pronunciation of homographs still varies by their grammatical function, words that are spelled morphologically are still spelled morphologically, and the pronunciation of words still varies by dialect.
Nevertheless, letter–onset/letter–rime correspondences are less complex than letter–phoneme correspondence: when there is more than one phoneme in an onset or a rime, there are fewer onsets and rimes per spoken word than phonemes. Most words have more than one phoneme in the onset or the rime in at least one syllable.
Children who have begun to read make analogies between familiar and unfamiliar print words to pronounce unfamiliar print words, and they make these analogies at the onset–rime level. For example, a child who has learned to read the print words smile and small and has also learned to read the print words cart and part can figure out that the letters sm are pronounced /sm/ and the letters art are pronounced /art/. Then, when she encounters the print word smart, she is able to pronounce it using her knowledge of letter– onset and letter–rime correspondences in print words she already recognizes.
Out of Context Versus In Context
Since the first century A.D., educators have first taught children letters and/or letter–sound correspondences out of context and then asked children to read words and/or text. However, with the discovery in the 1960s that early readers read words better in context, as in stories, than in isolation, as in lists or on flash cards, some educators have shifted to teaching phonics in the context of text that children have already learned to read.
In this approach, teachers first teach children to read text through instructional techniques such as the language experience approach or shared reading. In these techniques, the teacher points to the print in full view of the children as he or she reads to them. Once the children have learned to read the text, the teacher then teaches them letter–sound correspondences in words in the text.
Children taught phonics in the context of learning to read meaningful stories are more successful in using phonics to figure out new print words than children taught phonics out of the context of learning to read meaningful stories. This can be explained by the fact that when readers read in context they use multiple founts of knowledge to read, not just one fount. They simultaneously use (a) their knowledge of the language represented in the text, (b) their background knowledge on the topic of the text, and (c) their knowledge of letter–sound correspondences to read. Children learning to read bring a competency in spoken language to learning to read that they don't yet have in letter–sound correspondences, and they use this language competency, along with their developing phonic awareness, to read.
English letter–sound correspondences are complex. However, instruction in letter–onset/letter–rime correspondences has two advantages over instruction in letter–phoneme correspondences: (1) Children who have not yet learned to read can analyze spoken words into onsets and rimes when they cannot analyze them into phonemes, and (2) there are fewer onsets and rimes than phonemes inmost words.
Children who have begun to read use their knowledge of letter–onset and letter–rimes correspondences in familiar print words to figure out unfamiliar print words. Children who are taught phonics in the context of learning to read meaningful stories are more successful in figuring out new print words than children who are taught phonics out of context.