Teach the World to Read

The Benefits of Phonics

Phonics is the most powerful method of learning to read English

There are two ways to learn to read: "sight reading" and "phonics".

Sight-Reading: This is not really a system. Words are learned, one by one, by some visual "cue" -the shape of the words, or the letters, or some variation that is meaningful to the reader. As you can imagine, it is quite arbitrary.

Sight-reading is the method you adopt when you don't have any other technique. You simply look at a word, over and over, until you can force it into your long term memory. Studies show that a word must be "seen" at least 10 times before long term acquisition occurs.

It is also extremely limited.

Studies over 30 years show that sight-reading results in a lifetime reading vocabulary between 3000 and 6000 words. Compare this to the average workplace speech vocabulary of 12,000 to 20,000 words, depending on job role.

To understand this, first we must understand the difference between "speech vocabulary" and "reading vocabulary". Speech vocabulary is the total number of words we use in our everyday speaking, but also, the words we understand when other people speak. We listen to radio, watch television, we talk to people and have conversations - at the shops, on the phone, all sorts of situations.

So, your "speech vocabulary" can be quite large, and this is an asset.

Reading Vocabulary is completely different - these are the words that you can correctly identify and understand when you read text.

Studies show that many people can have a good speaking vocabulary, but limited reading vocabulary. In fact, a person who can only use sight-reading learns all the high-recurrence, short words (3-4-5 letters) and they struggle to store more than 5000 words in the reading vocabulary.

There are three key problems with sight-reading;

There is no means of understanding a word you have not seen before. If you do not recognise the words, you must either ask someone "what does this mean" - or simply guess the meaning. This is called "contextual guessing" and is shown to be wrong 70% of the time, particularly if it is surrounded by other words that are not understood. This "habit" becomes a really problem if you guess the wrong meaning and assume it is "right". You can develop a reading vocabulary where many of the words a completely wrong.

Because a person is reliant on other people to explain the meaning, vocabulary development becomes extremely slow. This is because such a person typically works with other people who have the same problem. So none of the fellow workers can help.

The average memory can hold approximately 5000 unique visual 'memories' of word-shapes. The longer the word, the more difficult it becomes. Even words such as "horse" and "house" become extremely difficult, because their shape is so similar.

It is common that, even after working at a job for 10 years, a person will not develop any word-knowledge about the job. Without some form of external help, a sight-reader has no way of helping themselves.

Phonics - the alternative approach

Phonics works an entirely different way. Phonics studies the relationship between letters and the sounds they make.

The overall promise of phonics, is that there is a very consistent connection in the sound-letter relationships. This allows a strong predictive pattern - when you read the letters, you can "sound out" the word - either aloud or mentally - and match it to a word that you have heard before. So, you don't have to guess.

How hard is phonics? compared to sight reading, it is so simple. there are only 48 sound letter-letter relationships - look at the graphic below.

Phonics list

Our alphabet has 26 letters
- 5 'short' vowels
- 5 'long' vowels
- 21 consonants
- 17 vowel and consonant blends (vowel blends like 'ea' and 'ai', consonaant blends like 'th' and 'ck')

These sound-letter relationships are extremely easy to learn. You only need to learn 48 'relationships' (half of which you already know) rather than thousands and thousands of individual words.

Phonics - how does it work in practise?

When a person sees a word they don't know, phonics teaches them how to "sound out" the letters - then "blend" the letters together, so they sound like a word they have heard before.

For example, the word 'cat' is broken into 'c--a--t' - the person sounds 'c -a -t' and recognises the words

As the words get more complex, phonics helps even more. For example, the word 'quick' is broken into the phonics combinations of 'qu --i--ck'. Because the person knows the phonics sounds, they can sound it as 'kw-i-k'

When the words become double-syllable, phonics really gathers strength. Because the reader has learned how to 'sound out' the single syllables (there are actually a small number of single syllable words) they can 'sound' each syllable to create the word. This system words with even the longest words.

Phonics and comprehension

Becoming a competent reader requires two components working together.

+ decoding words and getting the correct meaning
+ reaching a reading speed of 45-50 words a minute (one word a second)

Until a person reaches 45-50 words a minute, studies show that a person is putting too much effort into 'decoding', leaving insufficient brainpower for 'understanding'. But the good news is, for an adult, decoding becomes very rapid - because of the previously mentioned "speech vocabulary'.

Adults rapidly learn how to decode, once they know 'the secret'.

Children and adults - is there a difference?

For children and adults, the process is exactly the same, except the children are developing their 'speech' vocabularies. Sometimes, even though they 'sound out' an unknown word, they cannot find a word in their 'speech' vocabulary to match it too.

Adults have much less problem. Over the years they have learned thousands and thousands of words, they can speak the words, and nearly always have the right meaning. Most important, they have heard the words in a variety of situations (context) so they are flexible in their meaning. They know that a word can have two meanings, depending on the sentence, and the situation (context), so they learn how to comprehend quite complex text very rapidly.

Phonics and the workplace

When we prepare a workplace project, there are usually three components

Face to face training to teach the basics of phonics. This is often short (2-3 full days). It provides an understanding of how to "sound out" and decode.

Video course of vocabulary. Studies show that the more relevant a training program is to aa peerson's immediate needs, the more successful it will be.To achieve relevance, we review ALL the language your employees are required to know for the job, and build a number of videos that demonstrate how each word is decoded, and the meaning for each word.For example, we review all your training manuals and business documents, all the signage and safety instructions, and identify the most often-occurring words. This forms the basis of our video program.

Designed for smartphones: The video program is designed to be convenient and effortless. We know (from research) that a) people like learning from video and b) video HALVES the number of times a person has to 'meet' a word to store it into long term memory. If employees have smartphones which have the vocabulary, they will more regularly access the videos after work.In this way, we focus on the immediate needs of your business, and equip your staff to become more immediately productive.

Expanding the reading vocabulary. Naturally, the video course does not cover every possible word used in your business. But that is not a problem. We cover the 'essential words' that your staff need to know, and use them to train how to decode other unknown words.The point is, your staff will now have a trained method of self-developing vocabulary.


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