Trying To Nail Down: What is phonics?

Phonics is the system of matching written letters to spoken sounds.

Clearly understand "what is phonics" and you are on your way to helping your child learn to read.

This system let me put my thoughts into the words of this page. It allows you to see these letters and repeat my words "to yourself" (ie. you are not likely reading out loud right now). Putting spoken words into written words is spelling. Looking at written letters and speaking words is reading.

Phonics is so powerful that when one indian tribe saw it they asked for a test. They assumed trickery or magic.

Phonics is so fundamental that even though European and North American native languages are not similar, phonics existed for both language types when these people groups fist met.

If your child is learning to read with phonics then they will begin with letters, letter names or letter sounds. (It might be better if they started with "What is phonics?" too - but the usually don't.) Letter names are normally called the ABC's or the alphabet.

ABC's or alphabet looks like this:

ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ or abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz

letter names sound like this: "ay", "bee", "see", "dee", "ee", "eff". . .

letter sounds look like this:

a says /a/ like the first sound in apple

b says /b/ like the first sound in bell

ch says /ch/ like the first sound in chair . . .

ch has two letters. It is still often called a singular "letter sound".

When a child can look at a group of letters and know the letter's sounds, then they will say the sounds together smoothly to pronounce a word. This is called blending or sometimes "sounding out". Most often "sounding out" is used for when a reader blends together sounds in a new word they have not seen before.

Now for the tricky part. In English not every letter makes the same sound all the time. Plus, more than one letter can make the same sound. This is not an intentional "boobie-trap". It helps to tell hey/ hay, there/their, and way/ weigh apart.

If letters can make more than one sound and you want to know which sound fits in a certain word, then you need a phonics rule. Most phonics rules go something like this:

If a vowel is at the end of a syllable then it makes its long sound.

(If this is confusing to you then you and I think alike : )

If a vowel is within a syllable then it makes its short sound.

Rules like these beg the questions

What is a vowel? A vowel is a letter that makes an open mouthed sound. English vowels are A,E, I, O, U and sometimes y.

What is a long vowel sound? A long sound is when A,E,I,O, U and sometimes y sound like the letters names for A,E, I, O, U. These sounds can be held for a "long" time. (ie. AAAAAAA)

We very, unscientifically say that "if you can swallow a bug while you say a letter name then it's a vowel." I normally get questioned one time about "k". Please observe: if you are saying that sound in the presence of a gnat, the bug will get stuck in the back of your throaght, SOOOO k is not a vowel. :)

What is a short vowel sound? A short sound is an A,E,I,O,U sound that is held for a short time. So /a/ as in apple, /e/ as in egg, /i/ as in in, /o/ as in odd, and /u/ as in up.

The "within" and at the end of a syllable parts of the above phonics rules is the really easy part. If a letter comes last in a syllable it is "at the end". If it is anywhere else it is "within".

The hard part of the rules are what is a syllable and how can you tell? Hmmm. A syllable is a part of a word. It has one vowel sound plus all the other sounds that blend with the vowel. If you can hear rhythm in a word you likely " hear" syllables.

Word into syllables:

easy = ea sy

homade = ho made

instill= in still

According to the phonics rule the "o" of homade is long because it is the last letter in the syllable "ho".

Both "i"'s of instill make short sounds (/i/ as in it) because it appears in the middle or as the first letter of the syllables.

If you can't hear the break in words with the rhythm than you can follow these rules to figure out where syllables start and end:

Divide syllables between double consonants (consonants are all the other letters that are not vowels and are spoken with closed mouth for at least part of their sound)

ie. middle = mid dle

letter= let ter

Prefixes and suffixes normally make their own syllables:

Prefixes are word beginners like: re, un, de, as in refuse, undo, decide.

Suffixes are endings like: ing, er, est as in running, hunter, funniest.

There are many more prefixes and suffixes. These are just examples. In my opinion their are so many that they muddy up the process of learning to read for most children.

Now that you can theoretically divide up a word into syllables in a mere fraction of a second you can read at the speed of light. Unconvinced? Me too.  We improved phonics rules to get around this issue.  Read about improved rules called English Decoder.

The rules I have just described are an excellent finishing school to the ins and outs of our language. They can be really hard to teach to a young reader. Even if you do get these rules across the rules do not work all the time. Ouch!


Still within the definition of "what is phonics?" we could use different rules that tell us when a letter will make which sound. From the top:

What is phonics? Phonics is the system that matches spoken sounds to written letters. Any clues that help make these matches more clear is fair ground for a true phonics program.

One more word you need in order to understand "what is phonics?" That word is "phonogram" - specifically "Horton" phonograms. When we match sounds and letters we find that some letters work in teams. Ch is an example.

When all the letter teams and single letters that are matched to sounds are listed we have a phonogram list. Our English phonograms list was standardized in the early 1900 by a Mr. Horton.

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To read more about English Decoder phonics rules go to Phonics rules that end frustration or Learn More About English Decoder Phonics