Mystery solved: How to help your child crack the phonics code

I loved the TV show The Electric Company as a kid. One of my favorite segments was when they showed two shadowed heads in profile. Each would take turns reading the beginning and ending of words, slowly blending them together. I’d go around the house putting on my own show of sorts. Sh-oe, shoe! Sp-oon, spoon! Once I could read, I also loved mysteries. I wasn’t always good at figuring out whodunit, but I sure loved the build-up and seeing how all the pieces of the puzzle came together in the end.

It’s a good thing I liked mysteries, because the very first one I ever solved was reading. Learning to read is a lot like solving a mystery, with its complicated code to crack. Phonics is an important tool we use to crack the code.

What is phonics?

Imagine coming across a word you’ve never seen before. How do you know what to do to read it? Whether you are aware of it or not, you use your phonics knowledge and decoding every time you encounter a word that’s new to you. Let’s take a crack at it. Try reading this made-up word: “jime.”

If what you read rhymes with the word “dime,” you read it correctly. But if I asked you how you read it, you probably couldn’t tell me. I’m guessing you either noticed that it looks like “dime” or you unconsciously used the knowledge that when words in English have one vowel followed by a consonant and then an e (ime, in this example), the e is silent and the vowel has a long sound (it says its name). In other words, you used phonics and decoding knowledge to read the word without even realizing you were doing it.

The more practice children have decoding words, the easier it is for them to recognize words without having to re-decode them each time.

Phonics is about the relationship between written letters and sounds. The basic concept underlying phonics is the alphabetic principle, the idea that the sounds of spoken language are represented by specific letters or letter patterns (spellings).

Phonics is also a method of instruction that teaches those letter-sound correspondences, that is, the connection between the written letter and the sound or sounds it makes. For example, teaching that the letter M says “mmm” or the letter X says “ks” is an example of how phonics is a method of instruction.

What is decoding?

In our first blog post in this series, my colleague Shiji Mathew explained the simple view of reading. Essentially, reading comprehension (understanding what you read) is supported by two main building blocks: language comprehension and decoding. In the graphic below, reading comprehension is the topmost block, language comprehension is on the bottom left, and decoding is on the bottom right. Decoding is made up of phonemic awareness (see “To support reading at home, turn up the sound” by my colleague Lauren Bardwell for more on phonemic awareness) and phonics.

The simple view of reading

If you read that first blog, you may recall that Shiji defined decoding as “the ability to turn sets of letters you see into the sounds they represent and to then blend them together to form words.” In Speech to Print, literacy expert Louisa Moats explains that decoding is also the process we use to sound out a new word.

Clear as mud? An example might help. Knowing the sounds the letters C, A, and T make individually is phonics; putting them all together and reading the word “cat” is decoding.

Why are phonics and decoding important for reading?

Once a reader learns how to crack the code, it empowers them to read new words for the rest of their life, which is a hallmark of independent reading. This is a complicated code to crack, however. To connect sounds with printed letters, children must be taught the code through systematic, explicit phonics instruction. This is where the teacher follows a program and directly teaches letter-sound correspondences and introduces them in a specific order.

The more practice children have decoding words, the easier it is for them to recognize words without having to re-decode them each time. Some words in English are not decodable, though. Because why should it be easy, right? Some words don’t follow predictable spelling patterns and we just need to memorize them. Words such as “have,” “said,” and “two” are examples. Children are often assigned memorizing words like these as part of reading and spelling homework.

Phonics is about the relationship between written letters and sounds. Phonics is also a method of instruction that teaches those letter-sound correspondences.

If children need to spend a lot of time sounding out every word they come to, they don’t have enough brain space to make meaning of what they read. We want children to be able to focus on meaning when they read. This is the reason phonics instruction and learning how to decode are so important. If the goal of reading is making meaning (reading comprehension), the less a reader has to focus on sounding out new words, the better. Their attention isn’t split between decoding and making meaning.

How to help younger readers

Two of the important types of texts that young children, in grades K–3, encounter are decodable texts and complex, grade-level texts. Decodable texts have sentences that tend to stick to letter patterns students are learning or have already learned. These kinds of texts help children practice applying the phonics rules they are learning. Complex, grade-level texts are key for building knowledge and comprehension skills. These texts have vocabulary, sentence structures, and subject matter that are appropriate for a child’s grade level but may be beyond their independent decoding abilities. A teacher or family member might read this type of text aloud and have a discussion about it with the child. My colleague Cindy Jiban talks more about these two types of texts in her post “‘Grade-level’ text for kindergarten and first grade: More on how reading is a team sport.”

If your child is learning to read and is in third grade or below, here are some things you can do at home to support their phonics development.

  • Have your child read decodable books so they can practice the phonics they are learning in school. You can access decodable texts for free in a Bublup roll created by educator Lisa Meechan.
  • If your child can decode, have them read grade-level texts to build knowledge, comprehension, and vocabulary. If those grade-level texts are too difficult, read the books with your child, taking turns or even reading the entire story aloud to your child. The Mississippi Department of Education has a terrific website that can help you find books by grade level.
  • When your child comes across a word they don’t know, resist the temptation to jump in and pronounce it for them. Encourage them to use what they’ve learned in school and phonics instruction to sound out the word. In the article “When young readers get stuck,” Nell Duke, a professor at the University of Michigan, offers a few suggestions of what you can say to encourage your child when they are held up by a word: “Look at the word.” “Slide through each sound.” “Try a different sound.” “Break the word into parts.”

For general information about phonics and decoding, I recommend Reading Rockets and “15 phonics rules for reading and spelling.” For more ideas on activities for younger children, visit the website for the Regional Educational Laboratory at Florida State University.

How to help older readers

If your child is in grade 4 or above, two areas of phonics instruction that may help the most are multisyllabic word reading and structural analysis. Understanding syllabication rules and word structures can help students break words into more manageable parts, which will help them decode. Christine Pitts, former research scientist and policy advisor at NWEA, explains both in “How to reach older struggling readers.”

  • When reading multisyllabic words, break words into syllables. A syllable is a word or part of a word that has a vowel. For example, the word “bark” has one syllable, and the word “table” has two syllables, ta- and -ble. Understanding the six syllable types can help older kids learn how to do this.
  • When doing structural analysis, the focus is on understanding word parts, like prefixes and suffixes. “Root words, roots, and affixes,” by Reading Rockets, lists some of the most common Latin and Greek roots. As with “15 phonics rules for reading and spelling,” you can use these to give your child clues for figuring out new words if they get stuck.

If you need some help finding books for your child, The Literacy Nest, Reading Rockets, and the Mississippi Department of Education website I mentioned earlier have texts for readers of all ages. You can also speak to your child’s teacher or a school or local librarian to find books that are right for them.

Learn more

Cracking the code is key to solving the reading mystery and becoming a fluent reader. (We’ll explore fluency in our next post in this series.) For most adults, reading is an automatic process. To become automatic readers, kids must first be taught the phonics code and practice applying it over and over again—just like those shadowed heads on The Electric Company.

To understand more about how literacy skills develop and how to support your child, read the previous posts in this series: “What families need to know to support their child’s reading,” “All about language comprehension: What it is and how it can help your child,” and “To support reading at home, turn up the sound.”

Many thanks to my NWEA colleagues Shiji Mathew and Toni Gibbs, ELA senior content specialists, and Lauren Bardwell, senior manager of Content Advocacy and Design, for their contributions to this blog post.

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