A Primer on Phonics for Teachers
Phonics, in general, is instruction that helps children to learn the relationships between letters and sounds and to use that knowledge when sounding out or decoding words and in spelling words. First, children are taught to connect phonemes to consonants, then short vowels, digraphs and blends, and finally long vowels. Different phonics programs may teach the letter-sound correspondences in different orders. For example, some programs teach a few consonants and then introduce one or two short vowels so that children can begin blending and spelling words. Regardless of the order in which the letters are introduced, children are usually taught (at least in the beginning of phonics instruction) only one phoneme associated with one letter. This explains why consonants and short vowels are taught first—most consonants and short vowels are highly regular, with each letter generally representing one phoneme. Later, children are taught that some letters (a few consonants and many doublevowel spellings) are related to several different phonemes), and that one phoneme (such as the long a) can be related to several spellings (such as in the words wait, pay, weigh, cake, and break).
Effective teachers of phonics know what a phoneme is. Ehen asked what a phoneme is, teachers most often answer that a phoneme is a sound represented by a letter. However, phonemes have nothing to do with letters. Phonemes are actually the smallest units of sound that matter in a language. In other words, it is the combining and contrasting of phonemes that makes words possible. Consider, for example, the p-phoneme, the short-i phoneme, and the g phoneme. (We write about them this way to make clear we are discussing sounds and not letters). These three phonemes are combined to make the word pig, and the p-phoneme and the b-phoneme are contrasted when distinguishing the words pig and big. The difference in the pronunciations of the p sound and the b sound is slight. It is only that for the p sound we do not use our voice and for b sound we do; everything else—how we use our tongue and throat, how we shape our lips, how we part our teeth—is identical. Yet speakers and listeners rely on that very small difference, that contrast; it is all that signals two very different English meanings, an animal that says [oink] versus a dimension of size, the opposite of small.
Another linguistic fact about phonemes that teachers must know is that phonemes are not discrete entities, but rather are categories within which there is much variation. For example, even while it is important in spoken language to be able to perceive the slight difference between the p sound and the b sound in pig and big, it is equally important to ignore differences in pronunciations of the p sound, for example, in wrapped and rapid. We do ignore this difference when we teach children about the p phoneme as if there is only one,