George Lucas Educational Foundation

Why We Should Teach Phonology First

Why We Should Teach Phonology First

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It is my opinion that we should start teaching students phonology (the sounds of the letters)first. Then when the students have learned the sounds of the letters, introduce the grapheme along with the phoneme. Then of course morphology, semantics, and syntax. All of which are the basic components of language. After all according to the article titled Addressing Literacy Through Neuroscience, "It is important to recognize that children are born with the ability to process the phonemes of all languages". Furthermore, if you think about it, teaching children the "ABC song" in my opinion is not the best way to begin. Am I wrong in saying this? If so why?

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Taba's picture

I agree with you Darlene, that a child must have phonological awareness before making connections to letters. Phonological awareness is all about HEARING sounds in words. Whether it is a sound at the beginning, middle, or end, or if they are rhyming words, they must first be able to hear those specific sounds. Afterwards, you can then bring in phonics, which is HEARING and SEEING letters. If a child cannot hear the sounds, then they will be lost when trying to understand what letter to associate with a sound. Clearly, students need both in order to be successful readers and writers. The ABC song is helpful when teaching younger students. But you have to ask yourself what your purpose is. If it is for helping them learn the letters in the alphabet or for learning how to alphabetize, then certainly it can be useful. But it doesn't help students with raising their level of phonological awareness.

Martha Elliot-Sansavior's picture

Although it is true phonics are important and needed to read, the students also need to know basic sight words like is, we, if, tree. After all, eventually all words become sight words.

Taba's picture

Yes, sight words are another factor to consider when teaching students how to read. This is where, as someone else mentioned earlier, rote memorization would be useful. In my opinion, teaching phonemic awareness and phonics is different from teaching sight words. However, both are equally important and should be taught simultaneously. Phonics has a set of rules to teach students, but with most sight words, there are no rules they follow. What are your opinions about the best way to teach sight words? I've learned that for most struggling readers, they lack the automaticity of recognizing sight words.

Linda Blum's picture
Linda Blum
1st grade teacher

As a first grade teacher, I've enjoyed the commentary on teaching phonemic awareness, phonics and sight words. I agree with Taba that the children need to have phonemic awareness before learning phonics. In our school our kindergarten children went through a Fundations program where they learn letter/keyword/sounds, such as a/apple//a/. This helped tremendously in my first graders being ready for reading at the beginning of first grade. I also implemented for the first half of the year a phonemic awareness listening center (Lakeforest), which also helped the children develop their phonemic awareness while having fun. By January, all the children met the benchmark in phonemic awareness. The Fundations also provided a strong foundation for phonics for all of my children. In first grade and second grade we do continue to use Fundations as an Intervention for struggling readers. I also agree with Taba that struggling readers, lack the automaticity of recognizing sight words. For sight words, I introduce the words to the students and then they are responsible for taking the words home in an envelope and studying the words at home. They can also get together with a partner as part of morning work or when finished seatwork to quiz each other on the words. Additionally, I have a Greedy Grinch game made up of the sight words, sight word fish games, and sight word bingo games for the children to play when they finish their work or as an assignment. For those children who need more direct instruction, I have a volunteer go over the sight words with the student. After we have collected about 100 words, I have the students rubberband the known words together and concentrate on learning the unknown words. The students should review all of the words every other week. The students are given an individual cumulative test after each unit, so that I can monitor students who need additional support. There is also a really nice sound supported powerpoint available through that addresses preprimer through second grade sight words. For ELL students, it is helpful to have an interpreter discuss the words with the students in their native language.

I also stress the importance of learning sight words by memory to my parents, so that they will support me and their child in learning the words. Generally, the parents are more than willing to help their children learn the words when the words are sent home. Sometimes when talking with the parents, I find that they have been trying to get their children to sound out the words only to be frustrated that the words don't sound out. I tell them that's why the children need to memorize them, because they are trick...they try to trick you into saying the wrong word. Then the parents feel relief and buy into helping their child memorize the words.

Kimberly Pruskiewicz's picture

As a preschool teacher of ELL students I use different approaches on teaching phonology. I do agree with having children learn the letter sounds are important, however I like my students to be able to recognize some letters before I starts with the sounds. I feel it gives the children a concrete understand of the letters and their sounds. I like to teach phonology through meaningful experiences. My students get very excited when we do our mystery letter. Two weeks ago our mystery letter was W. We went for a walk around the neighborhood to see if we could find things that starts with W. After our walk we made up a rebus story where all of the children helped. It is hanging out in out classroom the children are still talking about. It was a fun, exciting, and educational way to learn phonology. As for the ABC song I use for children to know the order of the alphabet.

Kimberly Pruskiewicz's picture

As a preschool teacher of ELL students I use different approaches on teaching phonology. I do agree with having children learn the letter sounds are important, however I like my students to be able to recognize some letters before I starts with the sounds. I feel it gives the children a concrete understand of the letters and their sounds. According to the article Addressing Literacy through Neuroscience, "Phonemes are the building blocks we use to construct words." I teach phonology through meaningful experiences, throughout the day the children are called to identify letters in an open setting such as our circle time, story time, during transitions, and most importantly during their choice time. As the children feel more comfortable identify the letters, they were capable of identifying the letter sounds.

Trisha grant's picture

Darlene, I have also read the article you mentioned and fully agree with you that neuroscience supports the brain-based approach to helping students that are struggling in literacy. I am a kindergarten teacher and use phonemic awareness in my classroom and believe it is a very useful tool in teaching the fundamentals in reading and language. You mentioned that the article states, "all children are born with the ability to process phonemes." I also believe the "language to literacy" argument. The more infants are spoken to, read to, sung to, in those first few years, the more prepared they are going to be to tackle literacy skills in school. As important is it is to begin by teaching phonology in the classroom, it is just as important for parents to utilize this critical time to expose their infants to as many forms of their native language as possible.

Jennifer Olthoff's picture

I also am a Kindergarten teacher and teach the letters and their sounds together through songs. I teach Tucker Signing and they say the letter and sound with "Who Let the Letters Out" and do the hand motion all at once. They get to know the letter associated with it's sound very quickly. I also teach the letters with environmental print so the students can see the letters around town and remember them. E.G. we say a,a (letter name) A&w a,a (sound of letter) applebees. They come up with them at the beginning of the year so the Alphabet chart is their own and they love it and can think of their letters all the time when they are out. It's also a good way to involve parents, as they can play the game with their students when out and about.

Jennifer Olthoff's picture

Stephanie, We also used that reading series with the AlphaFriends and I found the students loved the music and really took to the Friends and could remember them when reading. I think if students can find something meaningful to them, they will much easier remember the letter and sound. I hate how some alphabet charts have things on them that kindergarteners don't even know what are, let alone are going to remember them. For example, a yak for the Y sound. Not many kidergarteners know what a yak is, but if you give it a silly name and song, they are more likely to remember it.

Tiffany Johnson's picture


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