The Importance of Phonics


People might assume that the most important foundational knowledge needed is letter recognition. After all, parents and teachers invest a great deal of time into teaching children their ABC’s. While letter recognition is vital knowledge, letter-sound recognition can often be overlooked as a building block in the process of teaching children to read. Phonemic awareness and phonics, 2 of the 5 Big Ideas in Reading, are both key components of a quality literacy instruction block. 

What is phonemic awareness?

Phonemic awareness is the knowledge that words are made of individual sounds called phonemes. This skill focuses solely on the sounds in a word. Students who have strong phonemic awareness will understand: 

  • dough has 5 letters, but only 2 phonemes 
  • you can change the /s/ in /song/ to /l/ and have the word /long/

With phonemic awareness, students are able to blend and segment words. They can also substitute, add, and delete phonemes to create new words. 

Phonemic awareness instruction doesn’t require pencil and paper. It should be done orally, practicing all of the above-mentioned skills to help students understand how to manipulate the sounds in words.

What is phonics?

Phonics is the understanding of the relationship between letters and sounds. There are 44 sounds in the English language. There are approximately 250 ways to spell these sounds. Some letters make more than one sound, and some sounds need more than one letter. (It’s no wonder that reading can be a struggle!) This chart breaks down the phonemes of English and gives examples of words that use each one. 

Phonics instruction should follow a clear scope and sequence that is developmentally appropriate and builds on skills that students are mastering. As students learn about the relationship between the sounds of letters and letter combinations, they are able to apply that knowledge to read unfamiliar words that follow a familiar pattern.

While phonemic awareness is developed through oral practice, phonics skills require written practice. Students need to be able to see the letters they are practicing with. However, this doesn’t mean that phonics instruction can only be done through worksheets or online games! Incorporating multisensory activities appeals to all learners and helps cement new concepts in young minds. Consider some different ways this could happen in your classroom or home:

  • Sandpaper tracing
  • Creating play-doh letters
  • Writing in shaving cream
  • Writing in sand
  • Assign gestures to certain sounds or letter combinations
  • Listen to phonics songs, such as any on Jack Hartmann’s YouTube channel
  • Writing a word family on a dry erase board or chalk board
  • Word building with letter tiles or magnetic letters
  • Air writing letters

How are phonics and phonemic awareness different?

Phonics and phonemic awareness sound like two very similar topics. There’s no doubt they share a low of overlap, but it’s important to address them as two separate skills in the classroom. Quality reading instruction in the younger grades includes both phonics and phonemic awareness practice. Let’s take a look at what separates the two:

PhonicsPhonemic Awareness
Understanding of the letter-sound relationshipUnderstanding of phonemes (sounds that makeup words)
Visual and auditory instructionOral and auditory instruction
Students need alphabetic knowledgeStudents don’t need to see words or letters
Skills: letter recognition, vowel patterns, blends and digraphs, bossy r, diphthongsSkills: rhyming, sentence segmentation, phoneme isolation, blending, segmentation, addition, deletion

Let’s talk about the word though. 

Phonemic awareness is being able to separate the word into its two sounds /th/ and /ō/. 

It’s being able to change /th/ to /g/ and make the word go.

Phonics is understanding that in order to spell the sound /th/ it takes the digraph th

It’s the knowledge that ough makes the long o sound, just like in the word dough.

Both types of knowledge are important for students to successfully be able to read and write with fluency.

Why is phonics and phonemic awareness instruction important?

For many adults, reading is an automatic skill. When we read, we focus on what the text is communicating and we don’t have to consider how to read unfamiliar words. For young students, much of their reading effort is concentrated on decoding. As they strengthen their foundational phonics knowledge, they’re able to transition to a focus on the meaning of the text.

When students are not provided with systemic, explicit phonics instruction, it’s challenging to move past the ‘sound it out’ stage of reading. Even with an understanding of letter-sound relationships, a child will be challenged when they come across a consonant blend such as str or a digraph such as sh.

Successful phonics instruction leads to reading automation, so students don’t have to stop and think about what sound ch makes, because they can automatically recall that information. Reading automation leads to reading fluency, so students can read with speed and intonation. 

Reading automation and fluency ultimately go hand in hand with comprehension. When students don’t have to give all of their attention to how to read the text, they can focus on the message. What’s happening in the story? How does it make them feel? Can they recall similar stories? 

How does this apply to me?

It’s vital to include both phonemic awareness and phonics when teaching children to read.

Parents, practice letters with your child. Point out familiar letters, practice spelling their name, and always read, read, read. Even with young children, you can practice simple phoneme manipulation, like isolating the first sound of a word. 

Teachers, let’s not settle for a literacy block that doesn’t include time for both skills.

Now it’s your turn? What’s your favorite way to help kids practice their phonics skills? Let us know in the comments!

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