What is Phonics & How to Raise Readers using Phonics

How to Raise fluent readers by teaching them Phonics

I recently met a 10 year old student whose parents were extremely concerned about his low attention span. After a short interaction with the child, I tried to break ice by way of books and stories. The child showed extreme reluctance when it came to reading books so I gave him a simple level 2 book by Pratham Books (Relevant for children who recognize familiar words and can read new words with help). I was appalled when the child struggled to read the book. He had received 5 years of primary school education from a reputed ‘English Medium School’, however he struggled to read the simple text in the book. This incident left me questioning – How big is this gap? And how should one go about filling it?

Since I work on developing reading skills in very young children, it was time for me to reflect on what may have gone wrong in the case in question. I dug up some research only to find alarming details:

  1. One in two Indian students can’t read books meant for three classes below: ASER https://www.livemint.com/Education/WgtUkpjlzUPGhMMTgepGQM/One-in-two-Indian-students-cant-read-books-meant-for-two-cl.html
  2. For the past twelve years, ASER findings have consistently pointed to the fact that many children in elementary school need urgent support for acquiring foundational skills like Reading.
  3. Even among youth in the age group 14- 18 years, who have completed eight years of schooling, a significant proportion still lack foundational skills like reading.

A variety of tasks in daily life require reading and understanding written instructions. If children do not learn to read, they cannot read to learn.

Even though the gap is huge, it needs to be filled up with immediate action. The solution for this is teaching them how to read using systematic synthetic phonics.

International evidence suggests that Phonics is the best approach to teach all children to read with confidence. UK and international research shows overwhelmingly that systematic phonics is the most effective way of teaching reading to children of all abilities and educational backgrounds. Phonics teaching must be embedded in a language rich curriculum.

What is Systematic Synthetic Phonics?

Synthetic phonics is a method of teaching reading that ensures virtually all children can learn to read quickly and skillfully. Children are taught the correspondences between sounds (phonemes) and letters.

The English alphabet has 26 letters and each letter has a sound. However the language is more complex than just those 26 sounds (phonemes). There are essentially 44 sounds that one should be able to identify in order to read effectively. Since there are many ways in which the 26 letters of the alphabet can be used and arranged

Let me explain how. Let’s take a simple word ‘Cat’. This word if broken down has three sounds C-A-T. A child learning to read can decode the word by the sounds of the letters, rather than recognising the whole word.

However what about the word ‘Goat’? If broken down in the same technique as above it would be G-O-A-T. A child learning to read will end of decoding this word incorrectly if the same technique is applied. Does this word have 4 sounds? The answer is, no. This word may have four letters but only 3 sounds. g- oa – t. Here ‘oa’ is a digraph.

What is a Digraph?

When two letters make one sound, it’s called a digraph.

What is a Phoneme?

Phonemes are tiny units of sound in speech. When phonemes are combined, they can make up words.

The emphasis in early years teaching should be on synthetic phonics in which words are broken up into the smallest units of sound (phonemes). A phoneme can be represented by one, two, three or four letters such as: /d/ /ough/ in the word ‘dough’,  /s/ /u/ /n/ in the word ‘sun’, or /g/ /oa/ /t/ in the word ‘goat’.

When these are combined together it helps the children decode basic to complex words, articulate new words clearly and correctly, spell the words right, and become adept at reading full sentences, paragraphs and pages smoothly.

What is happening in Indian Schools, currently?

It is apparent not all schools are aware of this evidence. Most ‘English medium schools’ in India are still focusing on a rote methodology for learning how to read. They are still following the alphabetic method of teaching reading. This involves recognizing the names of the letters in the English alphabet in both capital and lowercase formats, in the alphabetical order.

Another method that is quite popular is the ‘look and say’ teaching technique, also known as the whole word method. Here the children are shown the words as a whole and prompted to ‘mug up’ the spelling of the word.

Some schools are using phonics but partly. They only introduce their students to the 26 sounds of the English alphabet. Wherever digraphs appear children revert to rote methods and ‘mug up’ spellings. This defeats the purpose of introducing phonics for it further confuses the children for in most cases it defies logic. (Refer to the example of ‘goat’).

The wheel needs to be reinvented. These methods are full of flaws: the vocabulary of a child is limited and if the child encounters a ‘new’ word that she may not have ‘mugged up’ the child fumbles and needs help.

How to Introduce Phonics to Schools in India?

Teacher training in phonics for early years teachers is the need of the hour. Phonics needs to be treated as a separate subject and not confused with the classes where children are being introduced to the alphabet. The approach should be such that even before the children learn to write, they should be able to read. Phonemes should be introduced with fun activities, musical engagements, multi-sensory activities, and stories. The intervention should be made as early as possible, preferably in the first year of preschool itself (2.5 – 3 years in India).

The brain is developing at a fast pace in the early years and from 0-6 years the synapse formation in the areas of language development peaks. If a systematic teaching of phonics is introduced in the early years it is sure to have significant benefits for children in kindergarten all the way to the end of primary school. It is also likely to benefit children in senior grades facing reading difficulties.

Many studies have found that teaching with systematic synthetic phonics has a positive and significant effect on the reading skills of younger children and also those children that are experiencing reading difficulties. (http://www.lancsngfl.ac.uk/curriculum/assessment/download/file/3.pdf)

How does Phonics foster comprehension skills?

Ultimately, it is about getting children to read fluently and fall in love with books and reading.  Not only because this is a widely recognised prerequisite for success but also because of the pleasure and fulfillment it brings with it for children everywhere.

Some may argue that synthetic phonics encourages a focus on the mechanics of reading words rather than understanding them. This, however, is untrue – for a skilled reader using techniques of synthetic phonics is able to not just identify a word from the combination of letters but also understand its meaning from the context it is being used in.

Confident reading of a wide range of texts therefore only comes after a child is confidently decoding every word – children simply have more time to attend to comprehension because they are fluent decoders.

Raising confident readers

Phonics, by far, has proven to be the best way to boost reading standards. If one wants to bring up fluent readers then phonics lessons are the best way to do it. Not only will they encourage a young learner to read quickly but also accurately.

Children who learn to read by way of phonics have a greater accuracy and reading speed. They also have superior comprehension skills with great vocabulary.

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