Phonics refers to an instructional design for teaching children to read. Phonics involves teaching children to connect sounds with letters or groups of letters (e.g., that the sound /k/ can be represented by c, k, or ck spellings).
Phonics in English
Phonics is a widely used method of teaching children to read, 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.
Note: This article uses General American pronunciation.
Note: This page or section contains IPA phonetic symbols in Unicode. See International Phonetic Alphabet for a pronunciation key.
From a linguistics perspective, English spelling is based on the alphabetic principle. In an alphabetic writing system, letters are used to represent speech sounds, or phonemes. For example, the word pat is spelled with three letters, p, a, and t, each representing a phoneme, respectively, /p/, /æ/, and /t/.
The spelling systems for some alphabetic languages, such as Spanish, have relatively simple spelling systems because there is a nearly one-to-one correspondence between sounds and the letter patterns that represent them. English spelling is more complex because, although the spelling patterns usually follow certain conventions, every sound can be legitimately spelled with different letters or letter combinations.  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 /i/, 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, /u/ as in through, /ɔf/ as in cough, and /æɔ/ as in bough.
Although the patterns are inconsistent, when English spelling rules take into account syllable structure, phonetics, and accents, there are literally dozens of rules that are 75% or more reliable. See reference -Abbott, M. (2000). Identifying reliable generalizations for spelling words: The importance of multilevel analysis. The Elementary School Journal 101(2), 233-245.
A selection of phonics patterns is shown below.
Vowel phonics patterns
• Short vowels are the five single letter vowels, a, e, i, o, and u when they produce the sounds /æ/ as in cat, /ɛ/ as in bet, /ɪ/ as in sit, /ɑ/ as in hot, and /ʌ/ as in cup. The term "short vowel" does not really mean that these vowels are pronounced for a particularly short period of time. The use of the term is more conventional than meaningful.
• Long vowels are synonymous with the names of the single letter vowels, such as /eɪ/ in baby, /i/ in meter, /ɑɪ/ in tiny, /oʊ/ in broken, and /ju/ in humor. The way that educators use the term "long vowels" differs from the way in which linguists use this term. In classrooms, long vowels sounds are taught as being "the same as the names of the letters."
• Schwa is the third sound that most of the single vowel spellings can produce. The schwa is an indistinct sound of a vowel in an unstressed syllable, represented by the linguistic symbol ə. /ə/ is the sound made by the o in lesson. Schwa is a vowel pattern that is not always taught to elementary school students because it is difficult to understand. However, some educators make the argument that schwa should be included in primary reading programs because of its importance in reading English words.
• Closed syllables are syllables in which a single vowel letter is followed by a consonant. In the word button, both syllables are closed syllables because they contain single vowels followed by consonants. Therefore, the letter u' represents the short sound /ʌ/. (The o in the second syllable makes the /ə/ sound because it is an unstressed syllable.)
• Open syllables are syllables in which a vowel appears at the end of the syllable. The vowel will say its long sound. In the word basin, ba is an open syllable and therefore says /beɪ/.
• Diphthongs are linguistic elements that fuse two adjacent vowel sounds. English has four common diphthongs. The commonly recognized diphthongs are /aʊ/ as in cow and /ɔɪ/ as in boil. Four of the long vowels are also technically diphthongs, /eɪ/, /ɑɪ/, /oʊ/, and /ju/, which partly accounts for the reason they are considered "long."
• Vowel digraphs are those spelling patterns wherein two letters are used to represent the vowel sound. The ai in sail is a vowel digraph. Because the first letter in a vowel digraph sometimes says its long vowel sound, as in sail, some phonics programs once taught that "when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking." This convention has been almost universally discarded, owing to the many non-examples. The au spelling of the /ɔ/ sound and the oo spelling of the /u/ and /ʊ/ sounds do not follow this pattern.
• Vowel-consonant-E spellings are those wherein a single vowel letter, followed by a consonant and the letter e makes the long vowel sound. Examples of this include bake, theme, hike, cone, and cute. (The ee spelling, as in meet is sometimes considered part of this pattern.)
Consonant phonics patterns
• Consonant digraphs are those spellings wherein two letters are used to represent a consonant phoneme. The most common consonant digraphs are ch for /tʃ/, ng for /ŋ/, ph for /f/, sh for /ʃ/, th for /θ/ and /ð/, and wh for /ʍ/ (often pronounced /w/ in American English). Letter combinations like wr for /ɹ/ and kn for /n/ are also consonant digraphs, although these are sometimes considered patterns with "silent letters."
• Short vowel+consonant patterns involve the spelling of the sounds /k/ as in peek, /dʒ/ as in stage, and /tʃ/ as in speech. These sounds each have two possible spellings at the end of a word, ck and k for /k/, dge and ge for /dʒ/, and tch and ch for /tʃ/. The spelling is determined by the type of vowel that precedes the sound. If a short vowel precedes the sound, the former spelling is used, as in pick, judge, and match. If a short vowel does not precede the sound, the latter spelling is used, as in took, barge, and launch.
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.
Sight words and high frequency words
• There is a body of words that do not follow these rules; they are called "sight words". Sight words must be memorized since the regular rules do not apply, e.g., were, who, you.
• Teachers who use phonics also often teach students to memorize the most high frequency words in English, such as it, he, them, and when, even though these words are fully decodable. The argument for teaching these "high frequency words" is that knowing them will improve students' reading fluency.
History and controversy
Because of the complexity of the English alphabetic structure, more than a century of debate has occurred over whether English phonics ought to be taught at all. Beginning in the mid 19th century, some American educators, prominently Horace Mann, argued this point precisely. 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. The popularity of phonics rose, but many educators associated it with "back to basics" pedagogy and eschewed it.
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 quality 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 the antithesis of this emphasis on getting at the meaning. Parsing words into small chunks and reassembling them had no connection to the ideas the author wanted to convey. Much of the whole language theory easily dovetailed with phonics, but the whole language emphasis on understanding words through 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, leading to intense debate and ultimately to a Congressionally-commissioned book and two government-funded panels focused on phonics.
The book Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print (Adams, 1990) argued that phonics is an effective way for students to learn to read. Adams argued strongly that both the phonics and the whole language advocates are right. Phonics is an effective way to teach students the alphabetic code. By learning the alphabetic code early, 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 education. This result matched the goal of whole language instruction while the means, at least in the earliest states of reading instruction, supported the advocates of phonics.
The argument, 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 published the results in the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children (Snow, Burns, and Griffin, 1998). The National Research Council's findings matched those of Adams. Phonics is a very effective way to teach children to read, 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 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").
The most recent attempt to determine what approach made the most sense was undertaken by the National Reading Panel (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2001), which examined quantitative research studies on phonics (as well as other areas of reading instruction). Their meta-analysis of hundreds of studies confirmed the findings of the National Research Council: phonics is a more effective way to teach children to read than is embedded phonics or no phonics instruction. They found that phonics has particularly strong benefits for students of low socio-economic status.
Different phonics approaches
Synthetic phonics is a method employed to teach phonics to children when learning to read. This method involves examining every spelling within the word individually as an individual sound and then blending those sounds together. For example, shrouds would be read by pronouncing the sounds for each spelling "/ʃ, ɹ, aʊ, d, z/" and then blending those sounds orally to produce a spoken word, "/ʃɹaʊdz/." The goal of synthetic phonics instruction is that students identify the sound-symbol correspondences and blend their phonemes automatically. (see synthetic phonics)
Analytic 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 hallmark of traditional whole language phonics programs. Phonics is taught in the context of literature using "mini-lessons," short lessons that emphasize phonic elements with which the teacher has seen students struggle. The focus on meaning is generally maintained, but the mini-lesson provides some time for focus on individual sounds or phonograms. Embedded phonics differs from other methods in that the instruction is always in the context of literature and that separate lessons are not typically taught.
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, as Adams advocated. This combined approach is often called balanced literacy. Proponents of various approaches generally agree that a combined approach is important. A few stalwarts favor isolated synthetic phonics and introduction of intensive 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. Generally, however, the balanced literacy approach has settled much of the disagreement in the United States.
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.