Phonics Definition
An Easy-to-Understand Explanation

I am a literacy teacher and my phonics definition is simple. Phonics is a code. Everyone who learns to crack it ends up reading and writing. If taught clearly and systematically, almost everyone can learn phonics...even those with learning difficulties.

Cracking The Code

Phonics is about the sounds we make in the English language when we connect letters together to read them.

Take the word phonics. It is not pronounced p h onics. The ph in this word actually says f. Here we're cracking the code or as teachers refer to it, decoding.

The opposite happens when we write and spell. We're writing the code or as teachers say, encoding. To do this we need to think about the ph sound. How is it written...with an f or with a ph?

It frustrates me, as a literacy teacher that so many professions have words they use that are difficult for anyone coming from outside that profession to understand. I think it is important to keep information as clear as possible and to avoid jargon.

For that reason my phonics definition is intentionally uncomplicated.

From Simple To Complex

The phonics system of reading and writing starts simply and becomes a little more complicated. Taken in small steps it is perfectly manageable.

First we learn the sounds the 26 letters of the alphabet make. There are about 44 different sounds that can be made with these 26 letters.

An Early Start Is Possible

You can teach these to children from about the age of four. Although this might sound very young I can assure you it's not. I have been involved with teaching four-year-olds and they are extraordinarily receptive at this age.

Most can read simple books by the age of five using the phonics method. They learn the sounds, and then they can sound out simple words.

After learning these initial sounds, children learn to blend them together. Here's an example...the word pan is made up of three letters.

To a child who hasn't seen the word before it looks unfamiliar and a bit frightening, like a word in a foreign language feels to us. But if they have learned the sounds p and a and n they will slowly be able to sound out the word pppaaaaaaannnnnnnn.

At a later stage, probably weeks later, they will be able to do it so quickly in their heads that they can say pan.

Many Words Look And Sound Different

The more complex part, when we're considering the phonics definition, is when clusters of perhaps two or three letters are put together.

There are many different combinations which are repeated in different words.

Here are a pair of letters that you'll see quite

Phonics tells us that those two letters in a word make an ay sound. Once you know that you will come across lots of words with those letters linked together.

I'll list here some words which have that letter combination in them... rain, train, refrain, again, domain, terrain, main...and of course there are many more.

With phonics, once you know that pattern of letters you will find it easy to read and write those words.

Systematic Teaching Leads To Competence

Phonics is defined by a system which makes it possible to crack the code of almost any word. It doesn't matter how long or difficult it appears.

Just for fun, sometimes I ask a child who has been reading for a couple of years to decode this word...antidisestablishmentarianism.

Initially they shake their heads and assure me they can't read it. With encouragement, however, they break it up into little pieces and work it out.

They are stunned when I tell them they have just cracked the code of one of the biggest words in the world. From that point on they are never again concerned about working out other previously unseen words.

When phonics is taught properly a reader should be able to work out almost any word. Then of course it is just as important to understand its meaning and how it is used in a sentence.

A phonics definition helps us to understand how the phonics system works. But most importantly it helps us to understand its phenomenal benefits in reading and writing. It allows us to conquer new words without fear and that is empowering!

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