Best Practices for Teaching Phonics

Phonics is the ability to pair individual sounds with a visual symbol (letters). This method is frequently used to teach reading. Phonics teaches the sounds that letters or groups of letters make when spoken. Phonics is the process of matching sounds to letters. Reading experts refer to this as the alphabetic principle. This process is where the auditory (sounds) are integrated with the visual symbols. This is known as auditory-visual integration.

Phonics is the second principle in the process of reading and joins the first principle, phonemic awareness. The alphabetic principle and phonemic awareness do go hand in hand. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate individual sounds in spoken words. Phonics, on the other hand, takes that a step further. Phonics is the ability to pair individual sounds with a visual symbol (letters). So, what are the best practices for teaching phonics? Continue reading.

How do we teach phonics?

We start teaching phonics early on when we match a word that is given aloud to a picture of it. This is typically started in preschool and/or kindergarten. The goal of teaching the Alphabetic Principle, phonics, is to help children grasp the idea that letters and letter patterns represent the sounds of spoken language. Specific phonics instruction helps children learn the relationship between written and spoken language.

For example, if I were to say show me the picture of a cat, and the student pointed to the cat, they would pair the spoken word with a visual representation. A next step might be pointing to the picture that begins with the /d/ sound (ex: desk). Once that is established you would then ask the student to match the sound of /d/ to the letter /d/, after teaching the students that these squiggly lines (letters) stand for the sound of the letters.

The Alphabetic Principle

The alphabetic principle is the understanding that individual sounds are paired with visual symbols (letters). Students start to learn the alphabetic principle by:

  • Acquiring and remembering letter names.
  • Acquiring and remembering letter shapes.
  • Matching letter sounds with their written form (shape).

Best Practices for Teaching Phonics

  • Teach the letter-sound relationship in a clear and detailed way and in isolation.
    • Start with teaching the beginning sound and letter for your kids’ names.
    • Teach your kids name written out, you can do this by putting their name at their place where they sit at the dinner table.
  • Then start with these letters: f, m, n, r, and s as they can be pronounced easily in isolation.
    • Teach five additional sounds: a, i, e, m, t.
    • Then you can make words with them: at, it, fat, mat, sat, rat, fan, tan, man, ten, set, sit, met, and Mitt.
    • Next, make sentences with them: I see MatMat sits.
  • Next, give multiple opportunities each day to practice the sound-symbol relationships.
    • Label objects in their rooms and around the house. Ask them what other objects they would like to label i.e.: dresser, bed, tub, door, etc.
    • On the way to school, practice the names of the letters with their sound and even a word that begins with that sound.
    • Think of rhyming words with /at/. This is a great way to introduce additional letter-sound relationships (at, cat, fat, hat, etc.)
  • Review daily previously taught sounds-symbols and gradually add new sound-symbols (letters).
  • Practice and apply these sound-symbol relationships with phonetically spelled words that are familiar to them.

For more direct instruction on improving reading skills with phonemic awareness and the alphabetic principle, learn more about our Reading Program. The program integrates both phonemic awareness and phonics seamlessly with step-by-step activities and video lessons.

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How does phonics fit into the other principles of reading?

“Mark Seidenberg, a cognitive neuroscientist and author of the book “Language at the Speed of Sight,” states, “Phonics is crucial when it comes to learning how to read. Surrounding kids with good books is a great idea, but it’s not the same as teaching children to read.”

Kids struggle to read when schools leave phonics out.

Phonics is the second principle of reading instruction. As you read the list of the Five Principles, you will see how one principle builds upon the next. You can’t learn phonics without the ability to discern individual sounds. And, you can’t become fluent without the foundation of phonemic awareness and phonics.

The Five Principles of Reading

  1. Phonemic Awareness
  2. Phonics
  3. Fluency
  4. Vocabulary
  5. Comprehension

When you bridge phonemic awareness with phonics, you create a strong foundation of the building blocks of language, reading, and spelling. By taking this a step further and learning the spelling patterns, you can learn to spell thousands of words by following the patterns.

Who is Scholar Within?

Scholar Within was founded by learning expert Bonnie Terry, M. Ed., BCET. Bonnie began designing and developing her own custom educational tools when she started her private learning center in the 1990s. Teachers kept asking what she was using with the kids who saw her because of the dramatic improvements that the kids made in school. From there, Bonnie decided to make her materials available to teachers and families worldwide.

Now, Bonnie Terry has turned her materials into a full-service online program that you can follow step-by-step at home, on your schedule. School alone is not enough anymore. Bonnie’s programs boost your kid’s overall learning skills by focusing on improving the auditory, visual, and tactile processing areas of your brain to make it work more efficiently.

Learn more about Scholar Within.

The Visual Processing System: How Does it Impact Learning?

Visual processing often means how well you discriminate between one letter and another or one word and another. This is prominent with kids who confuse letters, also known as letter reversals. Below are some examples of letters and words that kids mix up:

  • b and d
  • p and q
  • was and saw
  • felt and fell
  • bad and dab

Just scanning the letters and words above, it is understandable how it can be easy for kids to mix the letters and words up. The shapes are not that different from each other. When we work on our brain’s visual discrimination abilities, we fine-tune our ability to see the differences in shapes of letters and words.

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More Than Just Seeing Differences

There is more to visual processing than just seeing the differences in shapes of words and letters. Visual processing directly impacts your ability to learn, read, and retain information. Learning in school is typically directed at visual processing 75% of the time. So, to do well in school and in life, developing your visual system is critical. One of the great things about visual processing and its 9 sub-categories is that the skills involved with visual processing are learned skills and they can and do improve when you do specific visual activities.

Visual processing is the process of how your eyes receive information and the steps involved to process and understand that information. This involves eye-hand coordination, discrimination, your ability to combine shapes and letters to form objects or words. This also involves your ability to visually remember seeing something, move your eyes from left to right efficiently, and more.

The Visual Processing System Explained

Visual Processing

Let’s take a step back to understand this a bit more. One thing is very clear. We all receive information through our five senses: smell, taste, hearing, seeing, and doing. Within each of those senses, there are subcategories. The sense of smell can sense sweet, pungent, savory, floral, etc. The sense of taste can break down foods into salty, sweet, bitter, or sour. Within hearing (auditory processing), seeing (visual processing), and doing (tactile/kinesthetic processing), there are 9 sub-categories each. And, when you want to optimize learning, pay attention to what you are doing signals to address each of these auditory, visual, and tactile/kinesthetic systems.

Visual Processing and Brain-Based Learning

There is a compelling argument to include a variety of visual activities to improve reading and overall learning skills. According to the research from Early Choice Pediatric Therapy, once a child enters school, about 75% of the classroom activities are directed through visual processing pathways. Additionally, when we think about the human brain, about 40% of the brain is involved in one form or another with visual processing. (National Vision Research Institute of Australia)

Let me explain… Upon visual input, visual signals leave the eye and follow a path into the superior colliculus in the brainstem. This is where the electrical impulses react and control all eye movements. These eye movements include blinking, dilating pupils, and tracking objects that are moving or tracking a line of words. The optic nerve then forms synapses and sends neurons to the occipital lobe of the cerebral cortex. This pathway is responsible for experiencing and controlling visual perception. The input comes from both eyes. The right cortex receives impulses from the left orbit. The left cortex receives input from the right orbit. Once these visual signals are sent to the cerebral cortex, the cortex processes them and makes sense of them.

Research Behind Visual Processing

Research on eye movements has been going on for many years. The 2009 eye movement study by Levy, Bickness, Slattery, and Raynor shows that eye movements are based on the visual perceptual input. This input is combined with grammatical language input (the word order within a sentence). Every reader combines the perceptual input with sentence structure to guide the saccadic movement of their eyes.  Saccades are the rapid movements of the eyes.

For example, the word flour is reread more often in sentence 1a than in sentence 1b or than the word wheat in sentence 1c):

1a. He swept the flour that he spilled.

1b. The baker needed more flour for the special bread.

1c. He swept the wheat that he spilled.

Reading involves saccades, rapid eye movements.

These rapid eye movements and tracking movements are separated by fixations when the eyes are relatively still. Saccade movements typically travel about 6 to 9 letter spaces. They are not impacted by the size of print. The complete perceptual span typically extends to 14 or 15 letter spaces to the right and 3 to 4 spaces to the left. It is the saccade movement to the left combined with the perceptual span length that assures that every letter of every word enters the visual field.

Can you read this whole sentence quickly?

About 10-15% of the time, readers also shift back (known as regression) to look back at the material that has already been read. And as the text becomes more difficult, saccade length tends to decrease and regression frequency increases. It is important to note that the space between words does facilitate fluent reading. When the spacing between words varies or is not available, reading is slowed by as much as 50%. The research further notes that efficient eye movement is more critical than generating predictions of upcoming words. Readers systematically move their eyes from left to right across the text. Then, they fixate on most of the content words. The processing associated with each word is very rapid, and the link between the eyes and the mind is very tight. Rayner, K. (1997) Scientific Studies of Reading, 1(4) pages 317-339.

After-School Reading Program with Spelling and Phonics

After-School Reading Program incorporates the 9 Areas of Visual Processing

Scholar Within’s Summer Reading Program uses proven methods that improve your visual processing system:

  1. Reading fluency training
  2. Rapid naming activities
  3. Visual memory activities
  4. Visual discrimination activities
  5. Eye-aiming activities

Learn More about After-School Reading Program

Who is Bonnie Terry?

Bonnie Terry, M.Ed., BCET is the author of Five Minutes To Better Reading Skills, Ten Minutes To Better Study Skills, and numerous other books, reading games, and guides. She is a Board Certified Educational Therapist and internationally recognized as America’s Leading Learning Specialist and the founder of Scholar Within, Inc. Terry is an expert in identifying students’ learning disabilities. Ms. Terry coaches teachers and parents so they can give their child a 2 to 4-year learning advantage in just 45-60 minutes a day. She is a frequent media guest and speaker.

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