There are basically 44 sounds (phonemes or phonograms) in the English language, and phonics programs teach children to read by familiarizing them with single letter sounds and the sounds of letters in combination.
Most phonics programs start with letter recognition. Once the child can recognize his A, B, Cs and knows the sound each letter makes (usually starting with the short vowel sounds), he will start making short words which follow a consonant‑vowel‑consonant pattern such as rap. The next step will be to introduce consonant blends (two or three consonants together): rap becomes scrap. Then the child usually learns the long vowel sounds by adding a silent e to the end of a word: scrap becomes scrape. The rest of the phonics course is devoted to digraphs (two letters that together make one sound such as th, ch, sh, wh, ui, ay, oe); diphthongs (two vowels that make a distinctive sound such as oi, ou); combinations that make their own sound (such as ould, igh, tion); R‑controlled words (such as car, fern, nurse); and sight words that are not phonetic like “the.”
Reading teachers have found there are three predictable plateaus a child will reach where learning seems to “stall out” for a time before the child can go further. The first plateau is learning the alphabet, the second is at the letter blending stage, and the third is at the long vowel stage when silent e is added. Many teachers find that once a child passes the long vowel stage, he seems to “take off” and sails through the rest of the program.
Reading instruction for homeschoolers seems to follow the “3 Rule.” If your child has difficulty learning to read, no matter which reading programs you try, the third one usually works not because it’s the best of the three, but because by the time you try the third one you are more confident and your child has assimilated everything taught in the first two.
Types of Phonics Programs
Phonics programs come in many sizes, shapes, and prices, but are all variations of common themes:
Theme #1: “Ladder Letters.” Ladder Letter programs teach letter combinations in the following format: ba (“baa”), be (“beh”), bi (“bih”), bo (“boh”), bu (“buh”), with a consonant or consonant blend before the vowel. To make a word, the child would then add an ending consonant to the ba, be, bi, bo, bu to make bat, bet, bit, bot, and but. Sing, Spell, Read and Write is an example of a Ladder Letter phonics program.
Theme #2: “Word Families.” Word Family programs are also called Linguistic Approaches. The linguistic approach has been found to be more effective than Ladder Letters because it teaches the child to read according to the way words are usually broken into syllables. The child is taught to read word families such as an, at, am, en, it and then beginning consonants or consonant blends are added to the word family. For example, the word family at is used to form bat, cat, dat, fat, gat, hat, lat, mat, nat, pat, rat, sat, vat, wat and the child sounds them out as b‑at, c‑at, f‑at, etc., not as ba‑t, ca‑t, fa‑t like in the Ladder Letter approach. Even the nonsense words like lat are syllables of larger words like latitude. Alpha-Phonics and Bob Jones Press use a word family approach.
Theme #3: “Bells and Whistles” or “Bare Bones.” Some phonics programs have , songs, prizes, and many other extras that enhance the basic phonics teaching, others just stick to straight phonics. The “Bells and Whistles” programs claim that their fun, colorful, multiple‑ reinforcement approach makes learning to read easier and more pleasant for children and teachers. The “Bare Bones” programs claim that no additional frills are necessary; that all the extras prolong the teaching process, distract from reading, increase the price, and are only there to entice the child into doing something he has not yet seen the need for.
Theme #4: “Rule Based” versus “Reading Based.” Some programs teach phonics according to spelling rules and claim that teaching this way makes children better spellers. Writing Road to Reading and Phonics for Reading and Spelling are rule‑based reading programs. “Reading Based” programs focus more on getting the child reading, bringing in rules when they apply, but not making them the focus of the reading program. They claim that rule‑based programs frustrate young children and squelch their natural desire to read. There is also evidence that rule‑based programs produce poorer readers because the rules act as “censors” in the children’s minds as they read, slowing them down and dulling comprehension.
Learning to read versus reading to learn
Some parents mistakenly believe that once a child can read he is then ready to begin learning on his own through reading. However, most children cannot read to learn until about the fourth grade.
There are three skills necessary in order to enjoy reading and to benefit from it.
The first is automaticity. It takes at least 20 minutes of reading a day for several years before reading becomes automatic. Until automaticity is reached, a child will be too focused on decoding to glean much content from what he is reading.
The second skill is visualization. The ability to picture in one’s mind what is being read enhances comprehension and memory. Parents can help a child learn to visualize by reading vivid passages aloud, stopping frequently to ask the child to describe what is being read. Another way to develop visualization is to read picture books to a child without letting him see the pictures, ask him what he imagines the pictures look like, then compare his imagination to the artist’s illustrations.
Finally, the child must have enough of an experience base for what he is reading to make sense to him. Children with a wider range of experiences, such as travel, attending plays and musical performances, visiting museums, and interacting with a variety of people learn to read more quickly and have greater reading comprehension.
Usually it takes a child until fourth grade to have reached a level of automaticity, to have acquired the visualization skills, and to have accumulated a broad enough base of life experiences to begin learning through reading. Girls tend to be better early readers and more active readers. Boys usually do not become independent readers who read for pleasure until they are aged ten or older. Part of the reason for this is that boys usually have more frustrating learning‑to‑read experiences than do girls, because in early schooling concentrates on reading, writing, and linguistic activities that favor the fine motor skills and verbal abilities of girls.