Teaching phonics - the basics

Don’t confuse phonemes with letters

Experience has shown that adults often discern small units better, not in sound but in writing. There is an irony here, for teachers often bemoan the fact that children do not listen very well. Classroom experience shows that children are able to discern phonemes aurally once they have reached the phoneme-chunking stage of phonological development.

Adults, by contrast, are often almost irretrievably immersed in visual, print-borne information and find it difficult to focus on hearing the sounds rather than seeing the letters. One of the most basic mistakes adults make in teaching phonics, therefore, is that their knowledge of the letters used in the written word overrides their ability to hear the number of actual sounds in it.

For example, take the word ‘cat’. Say the word slowly and smoothly, stretching out the sounds to let them run easily into each other. Count how many different sounds you say in the word. Adults generally have no trouble identifying three sounds (or phonemes) – ‘c’, ‘a’ and ‘t’. You will note that the number of phonemes in the word ‘cat’ matches the number of letters. However, now do the same exercise for ‘chat’. You should find that ‘chat’ has the same number of phonemes as ‘cat’ but a different number of letters: the first phoneme in ‘chat’ is ‘ch’, a single sound but represented by two letters – digraph.