Understanding Phonics

phonics reading

Phonics is the study of symbol-sound relationships and their application in decoding words. This popular approach to reading instruction is used primarily for pre-readers and initial readers. Students learn about letter sounds, groups, syllables, and letter-sound relationships.

Phonemes and Graphemes

Phonemes are the sounds of spoken language, while graphemes are the letters and spellings that represent the sounds in written language. In reading instruction students learn about predictable relationships between phonemes and graphemes and then learn to apply them to word decoding. Children learn the sounds and symbols of letters first, and then how letters combine to form words.

Sight Words

Sight words are words found in the English language that do not follow phonetic rules of decoding and therefore need to be recognized by 'sight'. The most well-known and widely used list of sight words in known as the Dolch List. This list of high-frequency words was compiled in 1948 by Edward William Dolch, Ph.D. The list is made up of 220 of the words most frequently used in print. Students who learn to read through a phonics approach are likely to study these words in isolation in order to recognize them quickly in print.

Vowels and Consonants

A vowel is a phoneme or a speech sound characterized by an open configuration of the vocal tract. Vowels are A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y and W. Vowels can make both long and short sounds. A consonant is a phoneme or a speech sound characterized by some degree of closure of the vocal tract. Consonants are B, C, D, F, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, P, Q, R, S, T, V, X, Z, and sometimes W and Y. Learning to recognize vowels and consonants is an important stage of phonetic instruction.


Once early readers have learned to recognize the sounds of the vowels and the consonants, they can learn to recognize common vowel and consonant digraphs. A digraph is two adjacent letters that make up a single speech sound. An example of a vowel digraph is the 'ea' sound in the word 'seat'. An example of a consonant digraph is the 'th' sound in the word 'think'.


Blends are the common sounds that are made up from two or more phonemes. Some blends are 'st', 'bl', 'cr', 'str', 'br', and 'fl'. Blends can be found at the beginning of a word, in the middle of a word, and sometimes making up an end sound. Students who study phonetically practice recognizing common blend sounds.


Syllables are often referred to as the phonetic building blocks of words. A syllable is a unit of sound containing one vowel, or a vowel-consonant combination making up all or part of a word. A syllable must always contain a vowel or a vowel speech sound. Recognizing syllable is important for learning to decode words. Syllabication is the ability to break words up into their individual sound groups or syllables.

Advanced Phonics Skills

Although instruction in phonetics is primarily used to teach early reading skills, there are more advanced skills that can enhance the reading instruction of readers in the fluency stage of learning. Such skills include understanding prefixes, suffixes, and root words, word stress, compound words, homophones, synonyms, antonyms, and contractions. Many reading programs rely less on phonics instruction as the reader becomes more proficient and moves from the decoding stage to the reading for meaning stage of learning.

Phonics Programs and Sites

One of the most well-known programs available for both teachers and parents is Hooked on Phonics. This award winning approach to reading instruction breaks reading into bite-sized lessons and utilizes a learn-practice-play approach to instruction. To review and purchase other reading education programs, visit How To Learn.

Balanced Reading Instruction

The phonics approach to reading instruction should be only one part of a balanced reading instruction program since it primarily teaches decoding skills and word-study in isolation. It does not provide for reading comprehension instruction. Print that has been created to teach a particular reading skill is not the same as print found in literature as the rich quality of meaning is often lacking. Any successful reading program teaches both phonics and comprehension skills and includes exposure to good, classic literature.

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Understanding Phonics