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Phonics Method for Reading and it's Essential Aspects

  Subash, Stella & Vasantha Rani, Isaiambalam School
November 2010
Phonics Method has proven to be useful in teaching reading skills to students from preschool through early elementary school or as a practical way to introduce English to foreign speakers. Phonics works by breaking English words in smaller components and basic sounds. These letters and letter groupings are then applied to make words until the student can comprehend phrases, sentences and longer works. 

What Is Learnt by Using Phonics Method for Reading

There are 26 alphabets or letters in English, 21 of them consonants and the remaining 5 vowels. These alphabets are taught by their names like A, Bee, See, Dee etc. But in the words containing these alphabets they don’t sound as their names. The learners are often getting confused. To avert the difficulties that accumulate due to such confusions, teachers had started using phonic sounds to introduce the English letters.

The Phonics method involves the relation between the speech sound and its written form. There are 43 or 44 distinct speech sounds, called phonemes, in English. Out of them 25 or 26 are consonant sounds and 18 are vowel sounds. The confusions and complications arise in reading because 5 vowel alphabets are to be used for 18 vowel sounds, and 21 consonant alphabets are to be used for 25 consonant sounds. (To under-stand the nature of this confusion, some examples of the same letter being used for differ-rent sounds and of the different spellings for the same sound are given in the appendix.)

In the Phonics Method for Reading these 43+ phonemes or sounds and the letters or letters-combinations used for them are taught.There are about 300 spellings used for writing these 43+ phonemes or sounds; 140 of them are very frequently used and the remaining 160 are less frequently used.  In this method the learner learns the former 140 spellings, and then to use that knowledge to read English.

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Sequence of learning

Listening to the sounds and seeing the corresponding letters are given more importance than just seeing and writing them. Thus listening to the sounds, at the same time seeing or reading the letters used for them and then writing them down are the learning sequence mainly followed by the learners and a major portion of the learning activities consist of listening activities.


There are 5 stages in this learning.

In the first stage, each of the 43+ sounds and the letter or letters-combination mostly used for that sound is introduced to the learners.
In the next stage the learners are taught to blend these sounds to form words and to read such words.

Only about 35% of the English words can be formed or read through such blending. These words are called Regular Words.  Remaining 65% of the words cannot be read through such blending. In those words alternate English letters are used to represent these sounds, and these words are called Irregular Words.  Hence, in the third stage the learners are made aware of such words through a listening and reading practice.  Then they learn some 50 of the most frequently used Irregular Words as sight word.

In about 80% of the Irregular Words, specific combinations of English alphabets are used for these sounds, and they are taught as spellings.  But in the fourth stage of this method these are learnt as alternate letters for these sounds.
In the fifth and last stage the names and sequence of the 26 English alphabets are taught. Then the learners learn to use Children’s English Dictionary.  At the same time they learn 150 more Irregular Words which are very frequently used.


Process of Learning

In the first stage each of the 43 phonemes or distinctly separate sounds in the English language is introduced to the learner through an action.  At the same time the letter or letters-combination mostly used for that sound is also shown.  The action, the sound and the letter or the letters-combination for that sound are imprinted in the learner’s mind.

In the second stage the learners learn to add these sounds and form words by playing a variety of games.  In the same way they learn to recognize all the sounds in such words.  In this stage the learner learns to clearly distinguish between all the speech sounds.

In the third stage the learners learn to recognize and read 50 most frequently used Irregular Words through a story consisting of all these 50 words.  The learners listen to the story, and at the same time read it on the card in their hands.  The learners read aloud all these words printed bold, and then write them down.  Through playing a game they learn to recognize and read all these 50 words at one glance.

In the fourth stage the learners listen to several short English stories.  They hear them both in English and their mother tongue.  Between each listening they learn the alternate letters used for one or other of the phonic sounds.  For many of the sounds some 2 to 5 kinds of alternate letters are used.  For each sound a small passage consisting of a story or a narration is created and used.  Those passages contain about 10 to 15 lines which contain many words with that particular sound but with different kinds of alternate letters.  This passage is recorded on the audio tape.  The learners close their eyes, listen to the passage and count the number of times this sound comes in the passage.  The learners repeat the listening till they find out the right number.  Then they open the eyes, listen to the tape and read the passage even while the tape is played.  Last, without using the tape, they read the passage aloud by themselves, and write down all the words containing this sound.  Thus all the alternate letters which are most frequently used for all the phonic sounds are learnt.

In the last stage the learners learn the names of the English alphabet and their sequence through listening to and singing several songs set in different tunes.  Through Look-Cover-Write-Check practice the learners learn to recognise 150 more frequently used Irregular Words.  Through several games, they learn to use Children’s English Language Dictionary.

Throughout the period of learning, listening to the English language sounds and seeing the corresponding letters at the same time continue.  This is possible only with good attention and careful listening.  Since the learners continuously do it, listening to the sound with attention and writing down the letters or alternate letters for the sound with care become natural to them.  Through all these practices, which connect the sounds, letters and words, it becomes easier for various spellings for the sound to be imprinted in the mind.  It then becomes easier to read any English text.

Appendix I :  Organisation of All The Learning Activities

The teaching/learning materials used for this learning consist of study cards, story books and audio tapes which together constitute about 300 learning activities.  Learners do these activities, learn all the speech sounds and their letters or letters-combinations, and use that knowledge to read English books.

These learning activities are organised under 19 milestones.  Each milestone is a learning unit with a specific objective.  This objective is attained by the learner by doing several learning activities given for that milestone.  In the first 7 milestones the learners learn all the 43+ sounds and then blend those to form words.  In the next 9 milestones they learn the irregular words and the alternate ways with which the 43+ sounds are written.  In the last 3 milestones they learn the names of the English alphabets and their sequence, and then the use of a dictionary.

The specific objectives for all the milestones and their sequence are given below :

Stage One and Stage Two ( 7 Milestones )

Milestone One:  Learning the sounds and sound letters of   s,  a,  t,  p,  i,  n

Milestone Two: Learning the sounds and sound letters of   c/k,  e,  r,  h,  m,  d

Milestone Three:  Learning the sounds and sound letters of   g,  o,  u,  l,  f,  b

Milestone Four:  Learning the sounds and sound letters of   ai,  j,  oa,  ie,  ee,  or, and then to blend all the sounds learnt so far.

Milestone Five:  Learning the sounds and sound letters of    z,   w,   ng,   v,   short-oo,   long-oo, and then to blend all the sounds learnt so far.

Milestone Six: Learning the sounds and sound letters of    y,  ch,  sh,  zh,  voiced ‘th’,   unvoiced ‘th’, and then to blend all the sounds learnt so far.

Milestone Seven:  Learning the sounds and sound letters of    ou,   oi,   ue,   er,   ar,   schwa,   air (r-controlled),  and then to blend all the sounds learnt so far.

Stage Three and Stage Four ( 9 Milestones )

Milestone Eight:  Introduction of Irregular Words and Learning to read and write 50 Frequently Used Irregular Words

Milestone Nine: Introduction of More Irregular Words and Learning of Alternate Sound Letters for      b,  d,  f,  ee,  u,  ai

Milestone Ten:  Introduction of More Irregular Words and Learning of Alternate Sound Letters for      g,  h,  j,  ue,  ar,  i

Milestone Eleven:  Introduction of More Irregular Words and Learning of Alternate Sound Letters for      k,  l,  m,  or,  ie (long  i ), w

Milestone Twelve:  Introduction of More Irregular Words and Learning of Alternate Sound Letters for      n,  p,  r,  oi,  oo (long),  oo (short)

Milestone Thirteen:  Introduction of More Irregular Words and Learning of Alternate Sound Letters for      s,  t,  v,  ou,  er,  a

Milestone Fourteen:  Introduction of More Irregular Words and Learning of Alternate Sound Letters for     z,  th (voiced),  th (unvoiced),  oa (long ‘o’),  e,  o

Milestone Fifteen:  Introduction of More Irregular Words and Learning of Alternate Sound Letters for     ng,  ch,  sh,  y,  zh, air (r-controlled), c (schwa sound).

Milestone Sixteen:  Introduction of More Irregular Words and Teaching the Use of Letters ‘c’, ‘x’ and ‘qu’.

Stage Five ( 3 Milestones )

Milestone Seventeen:  Introduction of the Names of the Alphabet and Learning of their Sequence and the use of Capital Letters.

Milestone Eighteen:  Learning to read and write 150 more Frequently Used Irregular Words

Milestone Nineteen:  Learning To Use Children’s English Dictionary


Appendix II :  Reference List of 43 Phonemes or Speech Sounds, and of the mostly used letters and most frequently used alternate letters for them. (Here are given about 140 out of the total 300 spellings.)



Phonemes & Their Sound Letters

Phoneme or



Mainly Used Letters

Most Frequently Used Alternate Letters







ss – lesson, missing ;

c – cell, peace, mercy














tt – attitude ;

ed – talked







i-e – give ;

y – gym, fancy







pp – approach







nn – cunning;  kn – knife;

gn – gnat, sign







ck – lock ;  c – cup ;

cc – account ; lk – talk ;

qu – liquor







ea – head, wealth, sweater

e_e – sense







wh – whose, who, whole







rr – cherry ;

wr – write







mm – common







dd – ladder ;

ed – called







gg – begger ;

gh – ghost, spaghetti



not, lock











o – son, control, some ;

ou –  double







ll – roll, bullet







ff – puffing;

ph – phone







bb – robber






a_e – gate ;  ai – main ;

ay – say ;  ea – bear








g (66%) – page,

Germany ;  dg – judge







o – go, old; oa – goat ;

o_e – cone, ore ;

ow – snow ;  oe – toe







i  – child ; i_e – like, size;

y  – my ;  ie – die;

igh – night, high







ee (10%) – feel

ea (10%) – dream

ie – field ; y – baby ;

ey – key ;  ei – receive






al – chalk ; all – tall ;

au – sauce ;  aw – draw







s (64%) – easy, close ;

zz – puzzles ;

ss – scissors







wh – where







‘n’ (when followed by ‘k’) – pink, think, trinket









short ‘oo’


/ů/  /ŏŏ/



u (54%) – pull, put


long ‘oo’


/ü/  /ōō/



u (21%) – ruby

ou – soup,  u_e – flute,

ew – chew,  ue – true














t (31%) – nature







ti (53%) – station ;

si – mansion ;

ssi – mission ;

sci – conscious


voiced ‘th’





gather, whether, then, there


unvoiced ‘th’





thief, thought, throw







s (33%) –  pleasure







ow (29%) – cow, gown,







oy (32%) – boy, voice








u_e (22%) – community,

tube ; ew – few, view ;

ue – value







(40 %)

ir (13%) – bird, firm ;

ur (26%) – turn







arch, card, jar, garden


schwa sound

above, alone




e – happen ; i  – direct ;

o  – occur ;  u – circus


air (r- controlled)

chair, bare




air (21%) – pair, stair ;

are (23%) – care


Appendix III : Brief Notes on Some Similar Sounds and on Some of the Same Consonant Letters Used for Different Consonant Sounds



The /â/ sound is a long vowel sound like Tamil V and its representation is associated always with the letter ‘r’ as in rare, pair, there.

The /ā/ sound is also a long vowel sound but a slight shortening of the sound with slight consonant sound /y/ associated with it, somewhat similar to the sound in Tamil as va;. Its main representation is by the letters ‘ai’ as in rain, pail, wait.





The /a/ sound is a short vowel sound and referred to as short-a as in cat, flap, glass, stamp, Jack

The /o/ sound is a short vowel sound as in lock, not.

The /ô/ sound is made by making the lips round and uttering the sound ‘ah’.  Most of the time the sound comes combined with the letter ‘r’ as in cork, torch.  Its other spellings are ‘au’ as in Paul, ‘aw’ as in ‘law’ and ‘al’ as in ball.

The  /ä/ sound is always ‘r’-controlled as in arch, card, charm etc.



The /u/ sound is a short vowel sound as in hut, umbrella, thunder and is equivalent to m in Tamil.

The /c/ sound is referred to as the schwa sound or murmur sound.  This sound is represented by all the vowel letters as in above, happen, direct, gallop, circus.  Generally multisyllabic words beginning with ‘a’ as the first syllable has this sound for ‘a’, as in ashamed, America, again.


This letter is generally used either for the /k/ sound (‘case’, ‘cold’ etc.) or for the /s/ sound (‘cease’, ‘proceed’, ‘process’ etc.)  With certain combinations of vowel sound, this is occasionally used for /sh/ sound (‘ocean’, ‘crucial’, ‘capacious’ etc.).


This letter generally consists of ½ of /k/ sound and ½ of /s/ sound as in box, tax, mix, text.  Occasionally its half part is used for /g/ sound also and the other half for /z/ sound as in example, exact.  Sometime this is used for the /z/ sound as in xerox.


This letter is generally combined with the letter ‘u’ like ‘qu’ and this combination is mainly used for /k/ sound.  Occasionally the second letter is used to sound as /w/ sounds as in ‘quick’, ‘queen’ etc.


Appendix IV :  Causes of Confusion and Complication I  —  Examples of the Use of the Same Vowel Alphabets for Different Vowel Sounds






1. a – hat

2. a – ball

3. a – above

4. a – take

5. a – author

6. a – chair

7. a – car

1. e – hen

2. e – she

3. e – meter

4. e – there

5. e – term

6. e – lithe

7. e – mince

8. e – feel

1.  i – pin

2.  i – mild, ice

3.  i – field

4.  i – bird


1. o – lock

2. o – cold

3. o – torch

4. o – gone

5. o – cook

6. o – loot

7. oi – voice

8. oy – joy

9. o – force

1. u – under

2. u – put

3. u – burn

4. u – tube

5. u – rude

6. u – busy

7. u – build

8. u – queen

9. u – guide

Appendix V :  Causes of Confusion and Complication II — Examples of Several Spellings Used for Same Vowel Sound.



Vowel Sounds

Several Spellings Used for Them

i  /i/  (,)


i – fish;  e – she;  u – busy;  o – women;  i_e – give

e  /e/  (v)


e – end; ea – bread;  e_e – tense;  ai – said;  ie – friend; a – many


/u/  under

u – pump;  o – control;  o_e – come;  ou – double;  oe – does

ai  /ā/  (va;)


ai – pail;  ay – say;  a_e  [a (consonant)e] – came;  aigh – straight; ey – they

oa  /ō/  (X)


o  –  cold;  o_e  – vote;  oa – toast;  ow – snow;  oe – goes;  ou – course

ie  /ī/  (I)


ie – die;  i_e  –  bike;  y  –  cry;  i  – child;  igh  – right;

ee   /ē/  (<)


ee – free;  ea – beach;  y –  baby;   ie –  field;  e_e – meter;  ei – receive;

or  /ô/


or – north; al – call;  au – sauce;  aw –  jaw; augh – daughter; ough – fought

short ‘oo’  (c)

/ů/  /ŏŏ/  took

oo – good;  u – push;  oul – would

long ‘oo’  (C)

/ü/  /ōō/  tool

oo – balloon;  ue – true;  ew – flew;  u_e – June;  u – truth

ou  /ou/  (xs)


ou – mouse;  ow – down

oi  /oi/


oi – noise;  oy – toy;  eu – Freud

ue   /ū/  /yōō/  (a{) Tuesday

u_e – fuse;  u – music;  ew – news;  ue – continue;  eau – beauty;  eu – feud

er  /û/  /ėr/


ur  –  nurse;  er – serve;  ir – birth;  ear – learn;  or – work


Appendix VI :  Story used for Stage Three learning of 50 freqently used irregular words as sight words.  (These 50 words are printed bold.)

Briliant Bubble's Hen 

Brilliant Bubble was living with his mother and brother. He had a little hen.  Her name was Henny.  They were all living very happily.  Some days passed. The little hen grew up and she laid an egg.  The egg rolled through a hole in the floor to a room down below.  “Oh, no, I hope I haven’t lost it !  I should go down and pick up my egg” she said.  The little hen rushed down the stairs to the room belowThere were two goats.  “Have you seen my egg?” asked the little hen, “Where is it?”  They nodded their heads.  “Here went your egg” said one of the goats, “It fell on my food, then rolled along the table and went into the other room.” The little hen rushed into the next room.  There was a little bird.  “Do you know who has taken my egg?” Henny asked the little bird. “What ?  Your egg ?  Yes, yes, I have seen it” said the little bird, “It rolled along the rain gutter and went down the hole.”  The little hen ran outside where the cow was sitting.  “Oh, oh, I am afraid I have lost my egg,” said Henny.  “It just hit me on the head” said the cow, “It rolled down my head and across the barnyard.  I saw the egg just before it rolled on and into a hole in the ground.”  Just then a tiny mouse appeared from out of the hole.  “Henny,” he shouted, “Come here at once. You would be happy.  We have found your egg !”  Henny came and sawThe egg was broken and there were a lot of pieces from it.  She asked, “What happened ?  How could it be broken ?  Why is it broken ? Broken by whom?”  The mouse said, “Hey, look closely.  Your egg was broken by nobody.  Something very special has happened ! Don’t you see a new baby chick ?  It has come from your egg !”  Henny saw there one small beautiful baby chick !!  She said, “Oh, Mousy, you have made me so happy.”  Henny hugged the mouse and kissed it.  Yes, it was really a great joy for her. Henny, Mousy, the goats – all were happy. The goats started singing, “Oh, Henny, our Henny, always happy, happy Henny !!”  Now happy Henny and Mousy are dancing merrily !!


Appendix VII :  Two sample passages used for Stage Four learning

Sample 1:    Sound Letter /f/

Letter mainly used for this sound is ‘f’.  Next the spellings ‘ff’ and ‘ph’ are frequently used.  Less frequently used spellings are ‘gh’ (rough), ‘lf’ (calf), ‘ft’ (soften) and ‘pph’ (sapphire).


Kamala is my wife.  Today she is looking fine.  My son comes inside puffing and laughing, at the same time eating a muffin. He looks funny! My wife asks him, “Have you finished your homework on alphabets and phonics lessons ?”  He says, “Oh, mummy, I had a fight with my friend yesterday and he hit me on my ears.  My ears are deaf now.  I don’t hear you!”  Folding her fist and with a frightening face, she gives him a friendly punch on his ear.  She tells him, “You often fight and now you are deaf !  It’s a pity that I cannot take you to the famous film Flying Foes’ today because you cannot hear.  Oh, my !!”.  My son faints and falls down on the floor. I laugh.

Sample 2:  Sound Letter /ie/

Letters mainly used for this sound are ‘ie’ (cries) and ‘i_e’ (time).  Next frequently used letters are ‘i’ (child), ‘y’ (my), ‘igh’ (high, sight).    Less frequently used letters are ‘eigh’ (height).

My Kind Father Is Liked By All

My father is of medium height.  He is always kind.  He can never lie. In spite of these qualities, I can’t say he is mild because his sharp eyesight had enabled him to hunt wild animals in the forest.  He would drive a sturdy motor bike on the mountain and would often give rides to people needing them.  When I was nine years old and made mistakes, he would try to shed light on their underlying causes and make me understand them.  When I tell him with excitement that I would become a pilot and fly my planes very high, he would encourage me.  His many life experiences had made him wise.  In the light of that wisdom he would give right guidance to anyone asking him for it.  He has saved quite a few lives with his good advice.  Hence there is no doubt he is liked by all.


Appendix VIII :  For whom this method can be used and how long it may take.

English teachers who use Phonics Method for teaching children whose mother tongue is English take normally 6 weeks to introduce all the 43 sounds and their letters, and then to teach blending, and then take about 18 months to complete the entire learning involving all the other spellings and acquiring normal reading competency.  Some of them feel that it is better the Phonics Method for Reading be applied only to those learners who have difficulties in reading, and not to all.

Originally we started the use of this method in Isai Ambalam School for those children who had learnt to recognise and read more than 600 English words without learning any English alphabet.   This method was used for them to learn the English alphabets.  Later, when we started the primary section we decided to use it for children learning English afresh.  We got the idea of 5 stages from PHONICS HANDBOOK by Sue Lloyd and the detailed information about all the sounds and spellings from Scholastic Publishers’ PHONICS A TO Z by Wiley Blevins.  We designed appropriate learning activities in 5 stages with 19 learning units, and organised all of them in a sequence.

But using selected activities, the difficulties in reading English, felt by the Tamil village students at the primary and middle levels, can be removed.  Our suggestion in this regard is that it be applied to all the students, up to the 8th standard level, who are having difficulties in reading English.  It can be done in such a way that such students do the learning activities and remove their difficulty within a stipulated time frame determined by themselves and their teachers.




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