The role of phonics varies greatly from language to language. This milestone will not even exist in some languages and, at the other extreme, it will lead to reading at a relatively high level once mastered in languages that strictly follow the alphabetic principle (where there is a one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds). I’d like to share two methods for teaching very young children phonics. In this section, I explain why there may be a more appropriate approach that allows very young children to learn phonics without using the traditional approach for children who are learning to read at traditional ages. I also offer some tips for parents to help teach their children phonics when using our multisensory, interactive approach.
The Role of Phonics Varies from Language to Language.
The idea of children naturally learning written language at the same time they are learning to say and understand words is much larger than simply teaching children to read in English. Billions of people on our planet will learn to read in languages that don’t have alphabets, so this phonics milestone will vary in importance based on the language the child is learning.
Phonics-based alphabetic languages have a wide range in how phonemic they are. English is considered to be one of the least phonemic out of widely-spoken phonetic languages because about half of the words used in children’s literature books in English don’t follow the decoding rules. Spanish, Italian, and Vietnamese are much more consistent phonemically than most alphabetic languages. In other words, in those languages words are almost always pronounced the way they are spelled instead of having a lot of exceptions to the phonetic rules.
If the ten most widely-spoken languages were placed on a continuum based on how much they follow a perfect alphabetic principle (where each letter of the alphabet makes one distinct sound), English would be near the center between logographic-based writing systems (where the smallest written units represent words) and languages that very closely follow the alphabetic principle (where letters or combinations of letters represent specific sounds).
Different languages on this continuum would generally use dramatically different approaches when teaching reading, from memorizing every symbol at one end to a phonics-based approach at the other end. It may be partly because of where English is on this continuum that there are often intense disputes between those who advocate primarily phonics approaches to teach reading and those who advocate primarily whole-language approaches. Since English has so many exceptions to the phonics rules, a combination of approaches is probably better for children learning at traditional ages.
Which approach is more optimal for teaching written language in English for very young children – a traditional approach that is designed for older children or an approach that is similar to how infants and toddlers acquire spoken languages?
Just like diverse approaches are used to teach reading in different languages, there are different approaches based on whether the child is learning written language during the child’s window of opportunity for learning language skills or if the child is learning to read in English at an older, more traditional age. It is possible that an approach that may work later in childhood doesn’t work well earlier, or that an approach that works well in early childhood may not work so well in later childhood.
Note: There are no studies as of July 2017 comparing and contrasting various approaches to teaching written language during very early childhood, so I am hypothesizing based on logic, case studies, and my experiences with this approach over the past 26 years. If a traditional phonics-based approach were used with infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, it would look something like the method below.
NOTE: I do NOT want parents to do the following, but this is an example of what it may look like to use a traditional approach with very young children. This is only to show how complicated learning to read can be while using a traditional approach.
- Teach the names of letters. Teaching the names of the letters of the alphabet to a child who doesn’t know how to read—especially a very young child—is abstract. The child doesn’t know the purpose of the individual letters because he can’t read any words. It generally takes babies and toddlers a long time to learn abstract things (such as words). Even if the child memorizes all of the names of the letters, that does not ensure that he will be able to read any words and he may not even know that the letters can be grouped together to form words.
- Teach the sounds of the letters and groups of letters. In a traditional approach, it may take until age 3 years or so before the child can correctly identify the letters. The next step would be to teach the typical sounds that letters and groups of letters make (for instance, ‘th’ or ‘kn’). This process takes a long time with most children.
- Teach children to read three-letter words following a vowel-consonant-vowel pattern. Children would sound out mostly three-letter words. For example, instead of saying “cat” automatically and quickly, the child would say: ‘c’ ‘a’ ‘t’. Some traditional reading specialists must see signs of decoding for each word or they are not sure if the child is really reading. You would need to find books that have mostly three-letter words. The meaning of the words and the enjoyment of reading a story are considered secondary to learning to decode by some traditional reading specialists.
- Teach children sight words that don’t follow phonics. With Your Baby Can Learn, we intentionally use a wide variety of words—but the key words in our program follow phonetic patterns which would allow the child the opportunity to learn some phonics from those words. Learning to recognize sight words generally means memorizing words that don’t follow the phonetic patterns, so they are learned by sight instead of sounding them out. Teaching only sight words that don’t follow phonics patterns is not a good idea with infants and toddlers because they are such great language learners in part because they are so good at figuring out patterns1,2,3.
- Teaching exceptions to the phonics rules. English has so many exceptions. For instance, “ai” usually makes a long ‘a’ sound, ‘ay.’ In “said” it makes the short ‘e’ sound of ‘eh.’ Learning rules, followed by learning their many exceptions, is complicated. According to Masha Bell, author of Understanding English Spelling, out of the 7000 most commonly used English words, 4,219 have unpredictable spellings and 2,828 have irregular spellings. This makes learning to read more complicated, especially if the focus is in on following rules that are frequently not followed.
Using the above approach in the US, approximately 60% of 4th graders, 67% of 8th graders, and 75% of 12th graders are not proficient in reading according to the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results. Using the above approach, only 7% of 4th graders and 8% of 8th graders are in the “advanced” level in reading on the same PISA test.
The above traditional approach to learning how to read focuses on learning through rules. This approach may be needed when teaching older children or when teaching adults to read in English. However, even if this traditional approach is somewhat effective for teaching reading at traditional ages, there may be far better ways of teaching babies and toddlers written language.
I do not recommend using the above approach with babies or toddlers. Instead, I recommend that we use the approach suggested and outlined in these Early Literacy Milestones. This approach is similar to how babies and toddlers naturally learn spoken languages, since babies and toddlers may be better off focusing on comprehension and enjoying books. I believe our multisensory interactive approach is a more natural way of acquiring written language rather than using the complicated traditional method of learning through rules.
Infants are able to naturally acquire language patterns without specifically being taught. For example, your baby will learn some syntax with no formal instruction in the first year of life4. Your baby can learn patterns of language without being told the rules for her native language.
If your child sees and hears enough words together, then it may also be possible to learn some phonics as well2,3. In other words, just like babies learn somewhat complicated grammar by listening to language(s), it is possible for them to learn phonics by seeing and hearing language simultaneously. Some children have been able to figure out phonics without specific instruction in the rules of phonics5,6.
A phonics-based approach becomes more important as the child gets older, just like an older child may need to learn grammar in a second language through rules instead of naturally acquiring grammar during infancy. Our follow-up program to Your Baby Can Learn is Your Child Can Read, which is for slightly older children and is much more phonics-based.
Tips for Teaching Phonics with Comprehension:
So what are the top criticisms of phonics-based programs?
- It slows down reading when the child is sounding out each individual phoneme.
- It lacks a focus on comprehension.
- It is initially abstract and not as fun as reading with meaning.
To help your child learn phonics skills without the above problems:
- Teach your child to read numerous individual words that follow regular phonetic patterns. Do NOT only use three letter words in a consonant-vowel-consonant pattern. Children should not only learn one phonetic pattern before going to the next pattern in the same way that you would not talk to young children only using words with three letters. Children who receive a wide variety of words should be better at figuring out a new pattern compared to children who are only exposed to one pattern of words. In the videos, we have a wide variety of long and short words that include many different patterns. Teaching your child to read many words could help your child learn phonics because she will have more individual words with more opportunities to figure out the patterns, so please do not skip the milestone about learning 200 individual words if your child is age 3 or younger. Please do not focus on this Phonics Milestone until your child has achieved the previous milestones. If your child is around age 6 or older, you may want to focus more on teaching phonics and less on teaching individual words.
- Use many of the ideas from the previous milestones to teach your child new words.
- Write out rhyming words frequently – say the first few, then ask your child to say the others. For example, read “hat”, “cat”, “sat”, and “bat”, then ask your child to read “mat” and “pat”.
- Focus on two types of phonics learning with very young children: implicit or analytical phonics and embedded phonics. For preschoolers, add some explicit phonics.
Implicit or analytical phonics – This type of phonics involves the child analyzing whole words to detect patterns in spelling or sounds. To use analytical phonics do activities similar to #3 above and #8 below where you show your child many words that start or end with the same letter(s), or that rhyme and are spelled the same in the middle. For children who have learned to read many individual words and some phonics, you could write out ‘bat’, ‘bubble’, ‘bear’, ‘bottle’, ‘baby’, and ‘book’, then show your child two words ‘tennis’ and ‘bag’ and ask your child to find the word ‘bag.’ Note: The word ‘bag’ is not in the Your Baby Can Learn series and it may be a novel word for your child. If it is a novel word and if your child can correctly identify it, then your child has at least learned some pattern or patterns of the written language. For more advanced readers, you may ask the child to say the words.
Do the same with words that end with ‘ing’ by writing out ‘smiling’, ‘going’, ‘sharing’, ‘ring’, ‘bring’, ‘jumping’, and ‘wing’, then see if your child recognizes ‘stopping’ or ‘ding.’ Neither of these words (‘stopping’ or ‘ding’) is a Your Baby Can Learn (YBCL) word. You could also write out ‘seen’ and ‘green’, then see if your child can read ‘teen’.
Note: This example illustrates why learning to read and spell in English using phonics can be complicated because if you select the word ‘been’ it is pronounced with a short ‘e’ sound instead of a long ‘e’ sound and if you write out words that rhyme with ‘seen’ and ‘green’, many are spelled with an ‘ea’ in the middle (e.g., ‘clean’, ‘mean’, or ‘bean’).
Embedded phonics means teaching the letter-sound relationships when you are reading with your child and you notice that she needs help with a particular part of phonics. In other words, if you are reading a book with your child and the word ‘bed’ is not pronounced properly, then teach the ‘b’ sound, the ‘e’ sound and the ‘d’ sound in the word ‘bed.’ You could primarily use analytical phonics while doing the teaching, but you only do embedded phonics as necessary based on your child’s abilities and needs. This one-on-one teaching is great because your main focus is on enjoying the books with your child, but you teach phonics as needed.
If your child is age 4 or older, you may need to introduce some explicit phonics where you write and sound out all of the phonemes.
I recommend not focusing on explicit phonics with very young children for the following reasons. It may slow the speed of initial reading (instead of immediately recognizing the word and understanding what it means to sound out individual letter sounds), and it doesn’t work precisely for about half of the words in children’s literature. Learning explicit phonics is likely not as interesting because the sounds of the phonemes are the focus instead of the words’ meanings. Developing a love of reading is one of the most important goals, and that is hard to achieve without focusing on what the words mean. Learning the sounds of letters if you don’t know how to read is abstract. Explicit phonics is complicated as there are so many exceptions to the rules. Finally, explicit phonics may not be necessary for very young children as they may be able to learn using implicit or analytical phonics.
- Once your child can consistently read at least 50 words, you may use Your Child Can Read. The videos are designed to teach phonics primarily by using analytical phonics as well as by focusing on more than a thousand new individual written words. We have many phonics sections in the videos. Ideally, parents would frequently watch the videos with their children, then do some of the same activities that are in the videos.
- Use the Your Child Can Read Sliding Phonics Cards that have two sliding tabs. We designed the cards to use analytical phonics. The child can form rhyming words, then match a photo that goes with each word. The background images on the cards match those in the videos.
- Write out nonsense words and read them with your child. Encourage your child to make up a word, then you can write it out. Have this gradually lead to you writing two nonsense words and see if your child can point to the correct one. For example, you could write out “naba nabi” and “soopy” and see if your child knows which one says “naba nabi.” These nonsense word games can be lots of fun and help your child learn phonics. Try to do some familiar letter combinations and some where your child may need help. Make up variations on this game and try it when you are in a car or in other locations.
- Look for books at the library that have many rhyming words in them. “Hop on Pop” and other Dr. Seuss books are good examples. Check out many new library books every week, if possible.
- Use whiteboards, chalkboards, sidewalks, laptops, sand, and many other surfaces to write words that start with the same letters, end with the same letters, or have the same letters or sounds in the middle.
- Make up phonics games to play while riding in the car, on walks, or wherever you are spending time with your child. Again, read complete words without breaking them into individual parts and sounds for most of these games or activities.
1 Saffran, J. R., Aslin, R. N., & Newport, E. L. (1996). Statistical learning by 8-month-old infants. Science, 274(5294),1926-8.
2 Massaro, D.W. (2012). Acquiring Literacy Naturally. American Scientist, 100, 324-333.
3 Söderbergh, R. (1986). Acquisition of Spoken and Written Language in Early Childhood. Advances in Psychology, 39, 629-666.
4 Saffran, J. R. & Wilson, D. P. (2003). From Syllables to Syntax: Multilevel Statistical Learning by 12-Month-Old Infants. Infancy, 4(2), 273–284.
5 Cohen, R. & Söderbergh, R. (1999). Apprendre a lire avant de savoir parler, Albin Michel Éducation. Paris, France.
6 Titzer, R. (1998, April). Infants’ and Toddlers’ Abilities to Visually Discriminate Written Words. Presented at the International Conference on Infant Studies, Atlanta, Georgia.