Teaching phonics - the basics
 

Understand the technical terms

Crucial to any exploration of phonics for teachers, teaching assistants and other practitioners is the need to clarify the core concepts and terminology used. Spend a few moments thinking about how you would complete each of the following sentence starters. Try to capture the essence of each term by jotting down key words and phrases:

  • Phonic is …
  • Phonemic awareness is …
  • Phonological awareness is …
  • Phonetics is …

Invite other colleagues to engage in this task and share your comments. A useful starting point is to consider which of the four terms felt least threatening – or most familiar – to each of you, as well as what you have each written down.Discuss how you felt when trying to differentiate these terms. Many teachers, students and teaching assistants report an uncomfortable level of inadequacy, even embarrassment. This often leads to consideration of the importance of open discussion and direct training in both initial teacher education and subsequent professional development courses. A glance down the list shows that all the four terms share the same stem phon - linking them all in some way to sound.

A focus on the term ‘phonics’, however, cannot solely encompass sound, but also the association between a sound and the symbol(s) used to depict that sound in writing. Teachers may be familiar with educational psychologists’ reports which sometimes refer to ‘sound to symbol’ and ‘symbol to sound’ processing. This kind of language is more accurate than ‘sound to letter’ and ‘letter to sound’ processing. The moment we make reference to the symbolic information of writing we move into ‘graphic’ rather than ‘phonic’ information. Hence it seems that the term ‘phonics’ is better understood as a shorthand term for either ‘grapho-phonics’ (if the literacy process is reading) or ‘phono-graphics’ (if the literacy process is spelling/writing). Now our original terms have multiplied. We have:

  • Phonological awareness
  • Phonics
  • Graphological awareness
  • Graphics