A method of teaching beginners to read and pronounce words by having them relate letters to sounds.
Phonics is generally thought of as the traditional method of teaching someone how to read. Throughout the 20th century, its popularity has periodically risen and declined, but it has never been abandoned altogether. There are two main ways of incorporating phonics into the reading curriculum: the synthetic and analytic approaches. With the synthetic approach, children learn the 44 basic sounds that can be produced by the 26 letters of the English alphabet, and vocabulary words are only introduced when all the letter sounds have been mastered. Students are taught to sound out unfamiliar words one letter at a time based on their sounds. With the analytic method, students first acquire a basic vocabulary of words they know by sight and then study the relationships of letters and sounds by analyzing how they operate within these words.
Phonics is generally taught by dictation and drills and by testing students on their ability to spell individual words accurately. It relies on both visual and auditory memory, independent of meaning (which is used as one of the chief arguments against this method). Because auditory discrimination is so important in phonics, ear training, often in the form of listening games, is generally part of phonics programs. The various phonetic elements (long and short vowels and consonants) are introduced one at a time, often accompanied by keywords that reinforce memorization of each sound (such as "apple" for the short a). Another common technique in phonetics instruction is the use of word families (also called phonograms), a group of words that share a common beginning, middle, or ending sound (such as all, ball, call, etc.).
Phonics has been used universally throughout history to teach reading in languages that have alphabets. Formal phonics instruction was first introduced into school systems in the United States at the end of the 19th century, eventually replacing the rote alphabet memorization that had prevailed before that time. A synthetic approach was employed, and diacritical marks over, through, or under letters were used to indicate long and short vowel sounds, silent letters, and other sounds. One popular practice was teaching long words by encouraging students to find familiar shorter words inside them.
After its introduction, phonics rapidly became the dominant mode of reading instruction and flourished until the 1920s, when it fell into disfavor. By that time, the "look-say" method of instruction (also called "see and say" or "whole word") based on memorizing whole words by sight had been adopted by a number of private schools and was rapidly gaining popularity in the most prestigious teacher-training institutions, including Columbia University and the University of Chicago. In 1929, the Dick and Jane readers, based on the new methods, were developed by Scott Foresman. In the succeeding years, other major educational publishers followed suit. By the 1930s, the whole word approach to reading had become the dominant system throughout the nation and it remained so until the early 1960s. Students read stories which gradually built up a vocabulary of words they could recognize on sight. By the end of each grade level, they were expected to be familiar with a specified number of words. In contrast to the synthetic phonics approach, comprehension and interpretation were part of the reading program from the beginning, and phonics drills in isolation from the reading of sentences or stories were discouraged.
In the 1950s, reading educators underwent a period of reassessment touched off by the 1955 publication of Rudolf Flesch's best-selling Why Johnny Can't Read. Arguing that reading competence among the nation's children and adults had suffered a serious decline, Flesch blamed the whole-word teaching method, advocating a return to synthetic phonics. The professional turmoil of the late 1950s and early 1960s produced a plethora of new theories and reading methods, including new phonics programs, methods based on linguistics, individualized reading instruction, the Language Experience approach, and a renewed interest in the Montessori method of teaching reading. Phonics was often introduced into the curriculum earlier and more directly than in the preceding decades and received more attention than it had in preceding years.
In the 1970s, instructional emphasis began shifting toward what would eventually become known as the whole-language approach, which advocated teaching reading in a literary context by using stories and poems that would interest and motivate youngsters and (in many cases) by downplaying the mechanical rote teaching of phonics. The 1990s has seen a renewed interest in phonics instruction, as parents and educators worry about declining reading
Chall, Jeanne. Learning to Read: The Great Debate. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983.
Fields, Harriette. Phonics for the New Reader: Step-by-Step. Firestone, CO: Words Publishing, 1991.
Flesch, Rudolf. Why Johnny Can't Read—And What You Can Do About It. New York: Harper & Row, 1955.
——. Why Johnny Still Can't Read: A New Look at the Scandal of Our Schools. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.
McCuen, Gary E. Illiteracy in America. Hudson, WI: GEM Publications, 1988.
Vail, Priscilla L. Common Ground: Whole Language and Phonics Working Together. Rosemont, NJ: Modern Learning Press, 1991.
Reading Reform Foundation
Address: 7054 East Indian School
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
Telephone: (602) 946-3567
(Organization interested in promoting use of phonics in teaching of reading.)