After phonics, what

After Phonics, What?

For the past several decades, parents and teachers have labored to teach children to read by helping them to learn the sounds of each letter and sounding them out to form words. The overall method is generally referred to as “phonics.” Unfortunately, the term “phonics” has mistakenly become a ubiquitous term meaning “the study of all letter sounds.” The simplicity of implementing phonics into a teaching technique is also the basis of its greatest problem in teaching the reading of English.

The word “phonics” is a shortened term for “phonetics.” Many languages can be said to be phonetic in the sense that one letter always represents the same sound. Beginning readers, sadly, soon learn that written English is not consistently phonetic. This makes written English one of the more difficult languages for people to learn to read and spell.

In English, the consonant sounds are phonetic in most instances. As a result, we can generally use phonics methods to begin to teach students to read the consonant letters. Of course, students eventually must learn a few exceptions to the universal application of phonics to the pronunciation of consonants.

The situation is substantially different for vowel letters. In English, vowel sounds are not coded phonetically. This is because every vowel letter can represent several vowel sounds. For example, the vowel letter “a” is read differently in the words “at” and “ate”, and “e” is read differently in “bed” and “bead”. Students (both children and adults) can readily see the visual distinction between “at” and “ate”, but are too often at a loss about why we read the letter “a” as a short vowel in the “at” and a long vowel in “ate”. Using a learning-to-read technique based entirely on phonics presents beginning readers with unwarranted confusion, stress and frustration when they try to “read” vowel letters phonetically.

There is a relatively new method that systematically helps beginning readers to know when each of the different sounds associated with a specific vowel is applicable and when it is not. It’s called syllabics.

The approach taken by syllabics is substantially different from phonics. When students have mastered reading all the consonants and the six main consonant blends, they are ready for the only thing left for them to learn: how to read the vowel letters, a, e, i, o, and u.

The secret to correctly reading a vowel letter lies in the way the word is spelled. Every word has a spelling code that clearly tells the student how to read each vowel letter in that word. Because they are the easiest to learn, syllabics begins with the shortest words (one syllable words). After students have mastered the basic spelling codes, which enable them not only to recognize how virtually any one-syllable word is pronounced and spelled, they are almost ready to leap forward to multi-syllable words.

The most common spelling code is what has been arbitrarily termed by many reading experts as the “VC” code. A word with the VC code contains only one vowel letter and ends with a consonant letter.

Just consider the words “at”, “sat”, and “scratch”. The rule for a word that has the VC spelling code is to read the vowel with a short vowel sound. When students have mastered the VC code, they can correctly apply it to any word with the VC code, “sounding-out” every consonant and vowel in order to “read” the word.

Applying the simple rule makes it completely unnecessary for students to guess or to memorize how to pronounce the letters.

For the student and the teacher, the most interesting aspect of the syllabics method is that there are only six codes to learn. Once they are all mastered, students will have conquered the challenges presented by phonics-based programs: They can now read virtually every English word. The exceptions are the groups of words that don’t comply with any known rule.

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