PHONICS: the practice of “sounding out” syllables in unfamiliar words

Even though I bristle at the sexism of the cartoon I’ve chosen, I have to admit that it’s correct.  Girls tend to do better with such things as phonics than boys.   I’m told it has to do with the way the brain works.  That’s not to say that boys can’t learn phonics, but just that it comes easier to girls.   Then there are exceptions!  (That, you will see, is part of the story of phonics!)

I’m reacting today to a really good article I read in Throw Grammar From the Train, a blog I appreciate.  Jan Freeman, the author of the blog, raised the topic in her most recent posting which was about a word which has to be “sounded out” in order to pronounce it.

That post created a sizable number of comments, two of which caught my attention.  The first noted that some people have trouble with the pronunciation of words because they were educated in the recent era in which the teaching of phonics is eliminated.  The second commentator felt that it was an appropriate elimination, in that there is no “exact” science to phonics; it is forever having to cite exceptions.

I am a phonics lover.

Evidently I am the product of a previous era (obviously) in which a high priority was given to phonics. We were taught to sound out syllables of a word, then string them together to get the proper pronunciation.  It was a real chore for some people who found it to be a stumbling practice.  I happened to enjoy it, and I have benefited from it ever since.

(Some people who read this blog have indicated that it would be helpful to put a pronunciation guide next to difficult words, and I have decided to do that.  It won’t happen with every word, as I assume that some, like phonics,  are familiar enough not to warrant the pronunciation guide.)

Phonics doesn’t work all the time.  There are exceptions to the pronunciation rules in English.   That is a piece of what is so much fun about the English language.  The exceptions are memorable, and help to cement them in one’s memory.  For instance, the word weigh doesn’t follow the aural rules of phonics.  You have to know that it is an exception, and learn it as such.  But, once recognized, the word is firmly planted in your mind.

But for the most part a word can be sounded out.  Photosynthesis is a word a person  may find to be difficult.  But when sounded out (“foto-sin-the-sis”) it becomes an easy word to pronounce.  On October 11 I featured the word “Prosopography” in this blog.  I’ll bet it was a stumble for some people.  But when you apply phonics you discover that it is a very easy word to pronounce: pro-so-pog-ra-fee).  That wasn’t hard was it?  But when you first encounter the word it looks like an overwhelming challenge.

I am of the school of thought that the elimination of phonics from the public school curriculum is a tragic decision.  In this age where spelling is out the window, given the use of personal media devices, it is all the more important to begin a child’s education with the basics.

Strangely, the use of the new electronic language is a spin-off of the practice of phonics. What the user of Twitter does in order to limit themselves to the 140 characters allowed, is to reduce the word to a phonetic similarity.  When a tweeter says “U need 2 retrn my msg imdtly!“  (she) has practiced a form of phonics. The words have been sounded out, in a sense, to be recognizable.  It sounds okay.  The written sentence has been transformed into an aural sentence.  Syllables have been deleted, but the reader can sound out what the writer is saying.  That takes place in the head, where the sentence is “heard.”  I’m not overwhelmingly fond of the new language patterns, but I have to admit that they have some practical application.  My greater concern is that this is becoming the standard language form for those who live by electronic media.  The written form of our language is being lost.   But that is for another posting at another time.

Cartoon Credit: phonicsphail

Next Post » »


  1. Thanks, JHughes. As to your question, do you think that maybe, just maybe, the changing trends in popular music might have something to do with it? I’m not an expert on Hip Hop or Rap, but it seems to me that it has to do with sounds, rhythm, and accentuation. Might be one of the answers.

  2. I presume David Winfrey is talking about the placing of the stress on the words in question. This seems to have become a big stumbling block for young readers, who don’t seem to observe and absorb the complex but reasonably consistent patterns governing English polysyllables. I understood the problem better when I discovered in my attempts to teach college students about poetic metre that many people simply can’t hear or recognise stress — even when it’s exaggerated grossly and accompanied by percussion on the desk-top. I wonder has anything caused a changing trend in this respect, or whether this has always been so.

  3. Good point. That’s why I depend upon people like you to steer me along this course. Thank you.

  4. David Winfrey says:

    You’re right (in general) about phonics, but the “-graph” words are not the best examples. If a new reader tries to sound out “photograph,” “photography,” “photographic,” and “photographer,” using the same rules every time, she’s bound to get at least two wrong.

Speak Your Mind