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The Importance of Phonics

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By Susan E. Canizares, Ph.D. Q: My child seems to memorize words instead of sounding them out. Do you think she needs more work in phonics? A: This is a tough question because there are so many factors that play a part in the process of learning to read. Phonics is certainly one of them, and most children do benefit from explicit teaching of the sounds letters make.

Let's look at the whole picture of how reading is possible and then examine more closely what you can do if your child is having difficulty with the phonics piece of it. There are three major aspects of the reading process that kids need to internalize to be successful.

Comprehension: First, there is what we call the semantics or the meaning of the words and sentences. Basically, it means that your child must be able to understand what he reads. It is possible to read all the words aloud correctly, yet still not be able to comprehend the meaning of what they say. Teachers check this by asking questions such as "Why did the dog run away?" or "What color was the dress that Sally was wearing?"

Grammar: Second, there is the grammar that words and sentences are built upon. This does not necessarily mean that at age 6, 7, or 8 your child should be able to name all the nouns or verbs in a sentence. But she should have some idea of how language works. This helps the reading process go more smoothly, because as your child reads, she will use certain expectations of the ways words fit together.

For example, in the sentence "The dish ran away with the _______," only a certain kind of word will logically fit after the word the. "Spoon" is the obvious answer, but if your child did not know the nursery rhyme and substituted "boy" or "dog" instead, she would still be obeying the rules of grammar. The rules allow for a noun in that place, but not, say, an adjective. We would not say "the dish ran away with the big." Your child's teacher might build grammatical awareness through her own reading aloud to the class. She might read a sentence and pause before the last word to let the children chime in.

Phonics: Third, there is phonics, the knowledge that both individual letters (like t, c, and p) and combinations of letters (like tr, cl, and ph) have specific sounds. Phonics is critically important because it allows children to figure out how to read words they have never seen before. Knowing certain phonetic rules also helps children generalize from words they know how to read to new words. For example, if a child knows the "silent e rule," she can probably read the words like, bike, and hike. But the real power comes from being able to transfer this rule to a whole new set of words and read gate, mate, and late.

If your child has trouble reading new words, try to examine exactly what is stumping her.


• Has she understood what she has read thus far? (Comprehension)

• Can she use that knowledge combined with her understanding of how language works to think about what the unknown word might be? (Comprehension plus grammar)

• Can she attempt to sound out the word? (Phonics) In this instance, you could help her look first at the beginning sound, then at other parts of the word.

In the earlier example of "The dish ran away with the _______," if your child came up with the word saucer instead of spoon, she would have made use of all three systems even though she did not provide the correct word. Saucer is an indication of comprehension because it makes better sense than boy or dog. It is also a noun and fits grammatically. Finally, it begins with the same sound as spoon and therefore shows some phonetic applications.

Remember, the process of learning to read can be very difficult. There is a lot going on in your child's mind as she tries to figure it out. Looking carefully at all aspects of reading can help you understand what she may be doing right, even when it seems like she is doing something wrong.

About the Author

Susan Canizares holds a PhD in language and literacy development.

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