What kind of phonics are YOU teaching?

At creation, God gave man the ability to communicate through language. He gave him the ability to talk, to write, and even to transmit his thoughts to future generations. After the tower of Babel, the one original language was fractured into the beginnings of the more than 6,500 languages we have in the world today. In spite of this diversity however, each language has its own clear pattern of grammar, meaning, and sounds. Each language may be analyzed and written down by linguists. Then books, such as the Bible, may be translated into these languages.

The system of analyzing languages is called phonetics. Phonetics is the study of the sounds made by man’s mouth, lips, nose, and throat. These sounds are commonly known as ‘phonograms.’ In English, twenty-six individual letters and thirty-eight combinations of these letters represent these sounds. Phonics is simply a method of teaching a person how to correctly hear, see, say, and write each of these sounds and then to put them into words.

When you teach your child to read and write, you are actually teaching several skills. The main elements include reading (or decoding), penmanship (writing skills), spelling (or encoding), and comprehension. In addition, there are two aspects of phonics–-phonics for reading (“When I see these letters they say….”) and phonics for spelling (“When I hear this sound, it is spelled like this… at the beginnings of words; like this… at the ends of words; and like this… in the middle of words.”) All these skills develop at different rates. However, phonics for spelling is generally the one that is the most difficult to master and it should be introduced very systematically.

English has many patterns (rules) for the way words are spelled. We can thank Noah Webster for standardizing the spelling of our language and the meanings of words. By explaining these patterns to your child, he will be able to predict how a previously unknown word should be spelled and he will not have to memorize every spelling word.

Unfortunately, many spelling programs begin with our most commonly used words, such as ‘yes’ (should end with ‘-ss’), ‘much’ (should end with ‘-tch’) and so forth. These types of words, which Susan Mortimer has coined “Everyday Bloopers”, are exceptions to the rules. (She theorizes that because these words are used so frequently, a ‘spelling shorthand’ developed which became acceptable over time.) When these are the first words taught, a child often thinks that there are no patterns and that each word must be memorized.

So how can you find the best spelling/reading instruction for your child? Here are some important aspects to look for in any program you might use.

Make sure the program teaches both phonics for spelling and phonics for reading. It is also important that there are more words that follow a particular rule than there are exceptions to the rule. Look for a program that teaches with word families-–rhyming words such as ‘sit’, ‘fit’, ‘hit’, and ‘kit’. This really helps reinforce the idea of predictability and patterns. Also, the phonics patterns should be systematically taught in small increments. For example, the program should introduce the ‘big picture’ (the rule), and then drill with spelling words that follow that particular rule.

Find a program that teaches your child to look ahead in the word and not to just guess. For example, if you teach your child to put together the sounds of the letters from the beginning of the word (‘ba’, ‘be’, ‘bi’, ‘bo’, ‘bu’), you could run into a situation like this:
‘c’ (is it /s/ or /k/?)
‘a’ (is it a short or long ‘a’ or a short ‘u’?)
‘p’ (it is /p/)
‘e’ (is it a short or long ‘e’ or silent ‘e’?)
If a child is taught to ‘look ahead’, he will be able to decode the phonograms without guessing.

Don’t forget to consider the needs of your particular child–is your child very young and wiggly? You’ll need something that is hands-on and presents the information in a tangible (as opposed to abstract) way. Letters are representations of sounds and as such require a child to use abstract thinking skills. So help your child to relate these letters to something he understands in the visible world. (“Clever ‘C’” is an example of this from the Alphabet Island Phonics program. Girls and boys are a concept that young children understand. So, the letter ‘c’ is represented as a little boy who makes two sounds–/s/ and /k/. When he is next to the girls [‘e’, ‘i’, and ‘y’], he acts silly and says his soft sound, /s/. Elsewhere, he says his hard sound, /k/.)

Do you have an older child who just needs a good review? Use a program that presents large amounts of information in a concise manner so that he can cover a great deal of material in a short amount of time.

Reading and spelling are critical skills that will make a big difference in your child’s entire academic experience. However, remember that phonics is not an end in itself. The goal is for your child to be able to read God’s word for himself and to be able to communicate what he learns effectively in writing to others.

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