Phonics is Not a Dirty Word

  • 5 February 2020
  • Jerri Pirc

Phonics is not a dirty word.


Advocates of science-based reading programmes are again becoming more vocal and visible and phonics is regaining its rightful place among the building blocks of reading success.  I attended a workshop recently and was surprised to learn that the “war on reading” was still happening here in New Zealand and internationally. What the heck?

It seems so simple.

  • Reading comprehension is dependent on both language comprehension (the knowledge of vocabulary and sentence structure) and decoding skills (word recognition).
  • We know that children who come to school with a strong language component are at a distinct advantage. However, most children need to be taught the skills for the code component or word recognition.

Simple; right? Then let’s get on with teaching decoding. What do we need to teach our brains to decode to become good readers? The answer is simple.

Use the four building blocks of reading:

  1. Phonological awareness- being able to manipulate the parts of spoken words. E.g. rhyming and first sounds. It is critical as it is the basis for making connections between a word as speech and a word in print. By the way, English has 44 different speech sounds, so we’re talking lots of connections between speech and print.

  2. Print concepts- being able to recognize the letters of the alphabet and know a few rules. E.g. basics such as front and back of the book, capital letters, punctuation

  3. Phonics and word recognition- putting sounds together to read words, E.g. sounding out words, which letter combinations make what sounds

  4. Fluency-putting it all together to read sentences and books.

Learning to decode is a critical first step in becoming a lifelong reader. I cringe when I hear someone cueing a young reader with, “Does it make sense? /Look at the pictures. /Take a guess.” We want young readers to default, if you will, to decoding, using the parts of the brain that will help them read what they see versus guessing. If we’ve done a good job with phonological awareness and phonics, this should be a natural strategy.  If not, maybe it’s time to reflect on how you can better address phonological awareness.

Here in New Zealand decodable books are more frequently being used in our schools. Some of our libraries are now getting requests from parents to supply decodable books. Decodable books are a whole other blog.

In the meantime, if this piqued your interest, you could read more on the following links. And congratulations if you read the word “phonics and are still with me (unclenched jaw or not).

As always, please share, subscribe to my newsletter, comment, and follow me on Facebook Jerri J. Pirc, the author. And of course, feel free to buy a book or two. Also, check out my photo gallery. You may recognize a face or two.

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  • Darlene
  • 5 Feb 2020
  • 2:14 pm

Great read! Agree wholeheartedly!

  • Amy Saunders
  • 17 Feb 2022
  • 3:14 am

Hello there! I must agree with your suggestion that we must help kids to distinguish different pronunciations of words first. This makes me think of my neighbor's two-year-old grandson who has started speaking simple words a little bit now. I'll ask his parents to keep this information in mind so they'll get him something useful as a guidance.

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