Phonics means sounds. Phonics is the method of teaching kids to read by showing them how to associate sounds with letters.
Alphabetic letters are symbols for sounds. That’s all they are. Each letter (or combination of letters) represents a sound. We use only 44 sounds in English to create all the words we say. Those 44 fundamental sounds are called phonemes. Each letter or letter combination is simply a symbol for a specific sound in the English language. Letters are only symbols to represent the sounds we make. They allow us to write down sounds. Phonics teaches kids how to associate letters with sounds because that’s what letters represent.
The alphabet is simply a code of 26 letters. These letters represent all the sounds we use to make all of our words. When we say a word, we combine sounds in a sequence that makes sense to our ears. Alphabetic letters enable us to match each sound to a specific letter that represents that sound.
To read the symbols for those sounds, students must learn the sound that each letter stands for, so when they see words, they can translate them back into sounds. Writing is the art of using symbols called letters to turn sounds into printed words by combining them logically. Words are sequences of sounds connected logically from left to right. Reading is the art of translating written words back into sounds. Writing is, therefore, the art of encoding sounds into symbols called letters and into words, which are sequences of sounds. Reading is the art of decoding those symbols back into sounds.
Consequently, the only way to teach children to read, write, and spell correctly is to teach them how to associate the letter-symbols with the sounds they represent. When kids see letters as sounds and words as sequences of those sounds, they can begin to read and learn independently. This way of teaching children to read is known as phonics because phonics means sounds. The only way to teach kids to read is to teach the phonetic (or sound-symbol) method because our alphabetic system is a code of symbols that stands for sounds.
Phonics is the only way to teach children how to read because it enables them to use the alphabet according to its design. Phonics helps kids to develop a reflexive way of seeing letters and words. Kids learn to automatically see letters as sounds and words as series of sounds. The only way that kids can develop this phonetic reflex is by learning to consistently associate symbols with sounds. Children will only master the alphabetic code and translate words fluently into sounds through the automatic habit or reflex of identifying letters as sounds and words as sequences of sounds. But habits can be good or bad. Children learn bad habits the way they learn good habits—by repeating the same actions every day. When we don’t teach kids to read by sound, we teach them how to read whole words by sight and guessing. Sight-reading is the worst way to teach children to read because it damages or destroys their ability to read by sound and creates cognitive confusion, which often leads to severe reading problems such as dyslexia.
I'm a former principal, classroom, and homeschool teacher and currently the president of ScholarSkills Learning Center. As an educator with nearly 35 years of experience, I have a burning passion to teach children how to read fluently and with understanding.