The phonics structure of English is significantly more complicated than that of many other languages. In those languages phonics is taught because to do otherwise would seem ridiculous. Why wouldn't you explain the relatively straightforward code that was, after all, specifically designed to represent the spoken sounds in words?
If the letter a in cat was always the /a/ sound, and the /oe/ sound in grow was always spelled with the digraph ow, and so on, then English phonics would be easy to learn and to teach. Nearly every adult would become intimately familiar with the phonics code and could share that knowledge with children as young as three or four.
Languages with a Simple Phonics Structure
Here is the situation in countries with a relatively easy-to-understand phonics structure:
- Because print is obviously just a straightforward code for the sounds in the language, no one ever contemplates not teaching that code to the children.
- Because parents therefore learned the phonics code in school, they are quite capable of sharing what they know with their children.
- If children are taught the underlying phonics code when they begin to show an interest in reading, they quickly learn how to read.
- And finally, because it is easy to learn to read in those languages, there is little pressure to begin formal schooling at younger and younger ages, something now common in English-speaking countries because of the growing pressure to avoid reading failure.
English Has a Complicated Phonics Structure
But, we're talking English phonics here, not Spanish or Italian. The English phonics structure is messy because English words have been drawn from many other countries over the years. And combining several simple phonics codes results in a messy code because each is somewhat different from the other.
So the letter a in cat isn't just the /a/ sound. It's also the /ae/ sound in table and the /o/ sound in father. And that /oe/ sound in grow, spelled ow? Well, first of all it's also the /ow/ sound in now, but worse, it's not the only way to spell the /oe/ sound. We also have o (go), oe (toe), oa (boat), o-e (bone), ou (soul), and ough (dough). Messy, messy, messy.
But it's not so messy that it can't be analyzed properly and presented in a way that any adult can understand. Why adults, and not kids? Because it's the adults that do the teaching, of course. And if we can't agree on what to teach, on what needs to be learned, then we won't learn it ourselves and we won't be comfortable teaching it to our children.
Instead, most of us will hunker down, trust the schools and hope for the best, fearing that anything we say might contradict what our child's teacher is saying about the phonics code and reading instruction generally.
What To Do? A Recommendation
So, here is the short answer to the question at the top of this article: Settle on a standard English phonics code. Then teach it, and not only to first graders, but to every student, and willing adult, in the country.
But it's a messy code, right? Yes, but not so messy that it can't be described relatively easily. After all, young children do learn it, even when it's often presented in the haphazard way we see in many schools today.
And here's the long answer to the question: Designate nationally a standard set of phonograms (letters and letter combinations that represent sounds) with specific sounds to them . Then teach that set along with their associated sounds. Curriculum designers could still decide how and when to present the phonograms, but each and every one of those nationally-designated phonograms would be required to be taught in any phonics curriculum used.
A Good Starting Point
As a starting point in this discussion, I propose the OnTrack Reading Free Phonogram Flash Card Set, a set of 84 phonograms along with the sounds that are best-associated with them. You can download it below and examine it yourself. It might not be perfect, but it's a good starting point for the discussion that we should all be having if our goal is to empower parents and grandparents to help kids learn to read when they express an interest in doing so.
The flash cards are double-sided and, with some care and effort, can be printed with the information for each phonogram on the back of the card, but if you just want to see the 84 phonograms and their associated sounds you can examine the back side alone by looking at the last fourteen pages of the set. The sound of the phonogram is within slashes, so this is the sound /sh/, and the phonogram itself is underlined in the example words, as with shop.
More Remains to be Done
There are more than 84 phonograms, for starters, probably on the order of 110 or so, and a few of those should be added to the set. (Ten or so are just doubled consonants like bb and mm that represent the same sound as the single letters b and m.) In addition, a way needs to be devised to explain the occasional odd spelling, like the ai in plaid, for example or the missing /w/ sound in the words one and once or the extra letter w in two. But these are issues easily addressed. The real challenge is the standardization of the phonics code itself. Until that is done, English phonics instruction will be haphazard and parents and grandparents will remain uncertain as to how to help kids read.