Article Phonics

If you’re wanting to choose a tutor in your area (or someone who will teach remotely online), this article contains the information that the tutor needs to understand about learning to read English, and the information on which the course the tutor will teach must be based.


What is meant by the word phonics?

Phonics is the link between the sound we speak and the letter (or letters) used to represent that sound. When we teach Phonics, we help students link their knowledge of the sounds in English speech to the letters that represent those sounds.

All my courses are full phonics courses – by that I mean that my courses teach the common sound/letter combinations, the rules or patterns of when a particular letter combination is used, and how we write words we have borrowed from other languages.

Most phonics courses are not full phonics courses because in most courses only some of the common sound/letter combinations are taught, few (if any) of the rules or patterns are taught, the way we write foreign words is not taught, and the body of knowledge required for literacy is taught in a haphazard way that doesn’t make sense to students..


What I mean by the sound/letter combinations

When my course teaches the sound/letter combinations, it starts by teaching the sounds we speak in English and the most common way each sound is written, then moves on to less common ways of writing this sound. For example, the course teaches the sound /ae/ in ice cream sundae plate, and shows that this sound is written in the following sound/letter combinations: taken, sundae, plate, mermaid, display, cafe, matinee, steak, reindeer, and survey..


What I mean by Rules and Patterns

Sometimes, we write some sounds differently at the beginning of a word than we do in the middle or the end of a word e.g.

  • at the beginning of a word, sound /z/ is written with letter z – zip;
  • in the middle of a word, sound /z/ is nearly always written with letter s – visit; and
  • at the end of a word, sound /z/ is usually written with letter s – eggs, but
  • at the end of a few words, sound /z/ is written with double letter z – buzz.

These different ways of writing the sounds means that more than one way of reading a sound needs to be learned.

The main reason for these different ways of writing the same sound is that there are 3 ‘layers’ of English..


The 3 layers of English

My courses teach the 3 layers of English. It’s important to teach students of all ages these 3 layers because all real books, even those written for small children, include words from each layer.

These 3 layers are:
1. the Foundational layer – one sound is shown by one letter e.g. sound /d/ = d;
2. the Intermediate layer – one sound is shown by two (or more) letters e.g. sound /sh/ = sh, and sound /or/ = or; and
3. the Advanced (or Foreign) layer – how we write sounds in words we’ve taken from foreign languages e.g. /f/ = ph, and /g/ = gh.



As students learn the sound/letter combinations and the rules or patterns, they must automate this knowledge so they can use it quickly and easily. The main reason I concentrate on teaching the reading of single words in the Reading Course is so students become confident at sounding out and blending all the common sound/letter combinations found in English, without having to work on comprehension.


What about the words that break the phonics rules?

A Phonics-trained reader is sufficiently knowledgeable to be able to tackle all words, except those that break the rules particularly badly e.g. one, or yacht.

Most words that break the rules, only break the rules for one letter in the word e.g. women. In women, only letter o is representing a weird sound, so if students sound out the word, it’s quite likely they’ll be able to work it out for themselves.

You might be wondering whether it’s worthwhile to learn rules, when we’re constantly told that lots of English words break the rules. In spite of what we’re told, most words obey the rules – over 85% of words, in fact. And that’s a VERY conservative estimate. There’s a great deal of disagreement about just how many words obey the rules, with some estimates going as high as 95%. I suspect that some of these disagreements are because of regional pronunciation differences.

As only up to 15% of words break the rules, your students are still way ahead by learning them. They will still have to do some memory work to learn the really Weird Words – but only a fraction of the memory work required of Whole Word students!


Why don’t we just spell phonetically?

I used to think that it would be best if English was spelled as we speak, that we should spell totally phonetically. But that was before I realised just how much variation there was between native-English speakers’ pronunciations! There’s a lot more English dialects than just those between the standard British pronunciation and the standard American pronunciation.

If I spelled phonetically, I’d spell some words in such a different way that you might not be able to read them! At the moment, all over the world, we spell English words almost identically. A few words are spelt one way in British English, and a slightly different way in American English – but English speakers everywhere can read both versions.

If phonetic spelling becomes the norm, different versions of English will gradually separate into different languages – just as over time Latin was pronounced increasingly differently, until it separated into different languages such as French and Italian.

Or maybe things will go the other way and we will all start pronouncing words the way they’re written – then, increasingly, we will all sound more and more alike!


What about the rule-breaking really weird words?

One of the most difficult things about written English is the way some of the most common words are Weird Words – words that break the rules, such as you. The most common reason why some common words are so weird is because they were originally pronounced the way they are still written, and they’re such common words that no-one has been brave or powerful enough to insist that everyone changes the spelling.

In my reading course, I show students how to pronounce Weird Words, by placing special markings above the letters. In the Reader, the marked text is shown in one column and the unmarked text is shown on the facing page – so students who no longer need the markings can read the unmarked text, but if they get stuck on a word, they can sneak a peek at the marked version.


Will phonics help your student become literate?

The only way your student will become truly literate is by learning how written English works. He or she needs to learn the sound/letter combinations, the rules or patterns, and how we write foreign words in English.

Once students know these things and learn to apply this knowledge automatically – their reading skills will grow exponentially. This is the only path I have found for students to become competent, independent readers.

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