EducationPhonics: the Science behind its effectiveness

December 3, 2019

In the world of literacy, there has been a debate between two schools of thoughts on how reading is taught in schools and at home. On one side of the fence, it is believed that teaching phonics and phonemic awareness allows young children to develop a stronger foundation for reading.

On the other hand, there is the belief that the Whole Word Approach is the modern way to go, where children are taught to recognise words as whole units instead of breaking them down into parts and sounding them out. Because of the vastly different methodologies in how reading is achieved with these two methods, literacy researchers aim to resolve the “reading wars”, emphasising the importance of teaching phonics in establishing fundamental reading skills in young children.

Therefore, it is worth wondering why there are so many phonics classes in Singapore catering to the minds of young children.

Is there some truth behind the effectiveness of teaching phonics and phonemic awareness to children for them to progress in reading?

What have scientists found out and how effective is phonics in helping young children read?

Read also: 5 Clues That Indicate Reading Readiness in Young Children

The research into reading


Unlike speaking, scientists have concluded that reading does not always come naturally to young children. Being surrounded by books and having the early exposure of being read to does not often lend strength to a child’s ability to read on his own without some help.

Compared to speaking, reading requires some guidance to help children form meaning to the words that they see in the book. The Whole-Word Approach method believes that children will naturally be able to recognise the words if they are exposed to it enough, without the need for phonics.

However, researchers have discovered that the dependency on this method alone resulted in a lower literacy rate among the children, in comparison to those who were taught phonics at a foundation level.

In using phonics to teach reading, teachers and parents are both engaged in systematically breaking down the words into parts, and then parts into sounds, which essentially is the basis of the English language. Each letter makes a sound, and each sound contributes to how the word is formed.

While this rule may not always make sense for all the words we see as English is made up of several borrowed words from other languages, the core of this method remains. By empowering young children with the ability to decode words, they will be able to utilise this strategy when they are reading independently too.


Different strategies of teaching phonics


Despite the numerous phonics classes available in Singapore, how do you know which is the best class for your child?

Understanding that there are different strategies involved in teaching phonics may help you make this decision better.

There are four main types of phonics instructions: synthetic phonics, analytical phonics, analogy phonics and embedded phonics.

Here is a breakdown of what these different types are.

Synthetic phonics

This is the most widely used approach to teach children how to read. Synthetic phonics focuses on the sound that each individual letter makes and then blending it together to form the sound of the word. For example, “CAT” is broken down to /k/, /æ/, /t/ and then blending it together to make the sound of the word.

Analytical phonics

This method begins with the whole word and children are asked to analyse the word in isolation. They are taught to compare a sound pattern within the words and usually, this method goes hand-in-hand with the whole-word approach.

Analogy phonics

This method is a more advanced phonics instructional method where children learn about onset (front part of a word) and rimes (back part of a word). For example, they use phonograms to learn about word families such as “cake, make, bake, lake, flake” where the onset changes but the rime (-ake) remains the same.

Embedded phonics

This is probably the least effective way of teaching phonics where phonics is done through opportunities faced by the children. There is no explicit instructions on guiding children in embedded phonics. Rather, this method utilises the whole language approach where children learn the words in context to the story they are reading, and phonics is taught only if the child is unable to decode the words independently.

Read also: When is the best time to teach phonics to children?

Based on the four methods, it suffices to say that phonics classes should incorporate synthetic phonics for young children before bringing in both analytical and analogy phonics as methods to teach children how to read.


Phonics and whole-word approach – hand-in-hand system


The best way forward from this movement is ensuring that neither method is taught in isolation. Phonics alone cannot work without word recognition and vice versa.

With the MindChamps Reading programme for children aged 3-7 years old, you will be able to find the balance that is required for children to gain traction on their reading progress. Pairing both phonics and whole language approach in both reading and comprehension, this phonics class will be suited for parents who are interested in enrolling their children in an engaging, learning environment where their love for reading can be developed.

Written by Danielle Hee


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