What is Phonics? - Definition & Overview

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  • 0:04 Phonics
  • 1:30 Basics of Phonics
  • 2:48 Irregular Words
  • 3:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

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

In this lesson, we'll 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 that they're particularly helpful in teaching English to underprivileged students or to those who do not have English as their first language.

Basics of Phonics

Phonics programs range in terms of what they teach and how they teach it. However, the basis of all phonics programs is that sound is taught first. This means phonics does not focus strictly on the 26 letters of the alphabet. Instead, the focus is on teaching phonemes, the basic sounds that letters or small groups of letters make. Phonics systems differ in how many phonemes they teach, but most consider there to be somewhere between 40 and 50 phonemes in the English language. Phonemes include some standalone letters like 'z' or 'w,' but also include the sounds made in English by letter groups like 'ch' and 'ng.'

Students are taught to associate the sounds these letters make with the letters or groups of letters by which they are represented. This associative style improves knowledge retention in students.

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