The phonetic approach is a method of teaching and learning reading based on the letters of the alphabet and their associated sounds. Children learn the shapes of the letters and the sounds they make to decode words that appear in text. Blending sounds together in an unknown word is a strategy often referred to as "sounding out." The phonetic approach to reading has advantages and disadvantages but still plays a key role in early literacy training in most classrooms.
In phonics instruction, children study the shapes and sounds of alphabet letters so they can identify them on the page when reading. This skill helps children decode, or break down, new words into shorter sounds, which can be blended together to form words. The phonetic strategy gives beginning readers a tool to use when facing difficult and unfamiliar words, therefore building their confidence. Before they learn to recognize words instantaneously, they can use this approach to slowly sound out words. The phonetic approach is especially helpful when a child faces a text that is slightly more advanced than his actual reading level. Longer, more complicated words do not seem as scary when they can be methodically separated into individual letters or letter clusters.
Helps With Spelling
Phonics instruction can help children spell new words when writing. Just as they would use the phonetic approach to break down a word while reading, they can use the approach to break down a word in their minds as they prepare to write it. They can say the word aloud or silently, break it into smaller parts, listen for the sounds and then visualize the associated letters. This method is often referred to as "invented spelling." While it may not lead students to the correct spelling of a word, it provides a starting point. Students have a strong chance of spelling the word accurately -- or at least close enough that a teacher could understand the intended word. A phonetic approach to spelling helps children perform writing tasks that may otherwise feel too challenging.
Fails With Nonphonetic Words
Not all words are spelled phonetically. Many English words are not spelled the way they sound, which can be frustrating for new readers who depend on the phonetic approach while reading. Using the phonetic approach can lead students in the wrong direction when faced with words such as "said," "ocean," "sugar" or "Wednesday." Using the phonetic approach, "said" would be read as "sayed." Instead of reading letter by letter, children must learn to memorize these types of words so they can immediately recognize them. Children who depend solely on the phonetic approach would fail to read such words correctly.
Fails to Promote Comprehension
The phonetic approach may help children read words on a page, but the method does not focus on comprehension of those words. Using only the phonetic approach, a student may read an entire sentence without understanding it. The whole-language approach to reading is an example of a different method that emphasizes meaning in language rather than just decoding skills. If students learn that words ending in "ing" show action, for example, they have a better chance of understanding "ing" words while reading them. They may even have a better chance of decoding quickly if they understand the context in which they appear.
Rachel Pancare taught elementary school for seven years before moving into the K-12 publishing industry. Pancare holds a Master of Science in childhood education from Bank Street College and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Skidmore College.