What is Phonics? - Definition & Overview

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore phonics and the phonics-based system of teaching students to read and spell, as well as note the major difficulty with such a system.


For most children, before they learn how to walk, they must learn how to crawl. It's an important developmental step which few children skip. The same adage is true for many other things in life, especially in the education of a young child. Though there are several different theories on and methods for learning how to speak and understand the English language, phonics-based systems perhaps best embrace this one-step-at-a-time methodology.


The word phonics, traditionally, refers to anything related to sound. In education, however, it has a much more functional meaning. Phonics refers to a specific type of literacy education based on teaching how particular letters, groups of letters, and syllables sound rather than on individual letters or words. For example, rather than teaching that 'a' is the first letter of the alphabet and 'r' is the 18th letter of the alphabet, and teaching each one separately, a phonics-based education system might start by grouping the two letters together, and teaching the student the phonetic value of the 'ar' group by showing how it sounds in words like 'yard' or 'carp.'

Phonics-based literacy programs are generally viewed favorably and, in Great Britain, they have been the standard for literacy education since 2010. Some have noted they are particularly helpful in teaching English to underprivileged students or to those who do not have English as their first language.

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