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Sounding Out Phonics

Get the lowdown on why this teaching method is key to reading success.

If you're the parent of a beginning reader, chances are you're hearing a lot about phonics. Here's what you need to know about how your child will learn phonics and how you can help at home.

What exactly is phonics?
Phonics is knowing that sounds and letters have a relationship — it's that simple, and that complex. It is the link between what we say and what we can read and write. "Children need very explicit instructions on how the letters on a page correspond to the spoken word," explains Margie Gillis, Ed.D., project director of reading research studies at Haskins Laboratories in New Haven, Connecticut. A child who has mastered phonics can connect the sounds he knows with letters, then put them together to make words. (And then he can put words together to read sentences, and so on.)

Phonics offers your beginning reader the strategies she needs to sound out words. For example, she learns that the letter D has the sound of "d" as in "doll." Then she learns how to blend letter sounds together to make words like dog. It's not as easy as it sounds, because the 26 letters in our alphabet correspond to 44 sounds. But when your child has mastered it, this knowledge helps her read familiar words at an appropriate pace, and gives her the ability to decode and spell words she hasn't seen before.

Why is phonics important?
The ultimate goal of reading is good comprehension. But in order for your child to understand what he reads, he must be able to do it quickly and automatically, without stumbling over words. Phonics facilitates that process. With lots of practice sounding out words, in combination with other important reading skills such as phonemic awareness, letter recognition, vocabulary building, and concepts of print, he learns to read more fluently. Then he can turn his attention to grasping the passages.

How is phonics taught?
Systematically and sequentially. Teachers give children plenty of practice before moving on. Your child will read short, easy books, containing the particular letter sounds or words she's working on. Her teacher will give her lots of opportunities to read aloud, and will guide and correct her as she reads. There will also be lots of writing, to reinforce the sound-print connection. Here's what your child is likely to learn in each grade:

Letter recognition: learning the letters of the alphabet. Connecting some letters with their sounds (she'll know about 20 sound-symbol connections by the end of the year). Phonemic awareness: understanding that words are made of individual, separate sounds. She may be asked to clap out her name, make up nonsense words, or listen for the rhymes in a poem to build sound sensitivity. Reading and writing easy consonant-vowel-consonant words (in some schools). A few sight words.

First grade:
Mastery of short and long vowels. Letter combinations: The "b" sound plus the "r" sound makes the "br" blend, in which you can still hear both of the consonants you started with; "t" plus "h" makes a new "th" sound. Reading simple words, sentences and stories. Beyond phonics: word endings, like "ed" and "ing," and more sight words, such as is, was, have, and are.

Second grade:
Vowel combinations (what sound does "ea" make? How about "ai"?). Spelling patterns of increasing difficulty. Multisyllabic words and putting word parts together ("pan" plus "cake" equals pancake). Vocabulary and word recognition

How can I support phonics learning at home?
Reinforce schoolwork with easy activities.

Team up with the teacher. Ask how you can highlight phonics and reading. If you have concerns, share them. Struggling readers should be given extra-intensive instruction, either in the classroom, or in small groups with the school reading specialist. "Don't be satisfied if the teacher says 'Let's just give it some time,'" emphasizes Dr. Gillis. Children need help as early as possible in order to catch up.

Listen to your child read daily. "If he stumbles on a word, encourage him to sound it out," suggests Marci McGowan, a 1st grade teacher at the H.W. Mountz School in Spring Lake, New Jersey. But if he still can't get it, provide the word so he doesn't get discouraged. Take turns reading a paragraph at a time, to help make it more fun.

Boost comprehension. Ask questions like, "What do you think will happen next?" or "What did he mean by that?"

Revisit familiar books.
It's okay if your child wants to read favorites from earlier years. Reading easy books helps kids develop fluency, and makes them feel successful in those early stages, says McGowan. If a book has more than 5 unknown words on a page, it's too challenging, she adds.

Read aloud. Choose books on topics that excite your child, and read with gusto, using different voices for the characters. This is where you can expose your child to more challenging literature to enrich vocabulary. In the early grades, her listening level far exceeds her reading level.

Spread the joy. Show your child how much you value reading by having plenty of books and magazines around the house. And visit the library and bookstores often. You'll cultivate a lifelong love of reading in your child.

by Ellen H. Parlapiano