What is phonics? Rules and definitions

By Heidi Kroner

Heidi Kroner is a Wilson Certified dyslexia tutor and Executive Director of Aspire Academy in Urbandale, Iowa

Phonics is a method of teaching people to read by correlating sounds with letters or groups of letters in an alphabetic writing system.  

It is the second component necessary in learning to read fluently with comprehension. The first component is phonemic awareness –  the ability to hear the individual sounds in words, and to break them apart…to hear that the word cat is made up of the sounds /c/a/t/.  Or to recognize that cat, bat, hat and sat all rhyme. That the word “bat” has one syllable, and “silly” has two syllables. A child must have good phonemic awareness before he can learn phonics.

Phonics is taking the individual sounds of language and assigning them to individual symbols and groups of symbols.  In English the letter w and the letter combination wh represent the same sound (wind and when). In English, the word “coin” has three sound /c/oi/n/, and the two letters, oi, represent the same specific sound in every word in which they appear: coin, loin, and toil for example.


How do children become fluent readers?  

Once children can decode using phonics, the world of reading opens up, and they can expand their vocabularies, become fluent readers, and comprehend greater amounts and complexities of texts with practice.

Why do some children struggle?  

For many readers, phonemic awareness and phonics comes easy, and without a lot of repetition. It can easily be learned from between the ages of 3 and 7, from preschool to second grade. But for readers with dyslexia, phonemic awareness and phonics is very difficult. That is, because at its core, dyslexia is difficulty learning to read, write and spell because the brain does not innately go to the area responsible for breaking apart language into individuals sounds. Dyslexic brains often have problems assigning the sounds of language to symbolic letters. Many students with dyslexia cannot “sound words out” and literally don’t know what a parent or teacher means when they ask them to sound out a word. Most people with dyslexia have a phonological processing disorder that interferes with reading, writing and spelling development.

Does phonics work for kids who have dyslexia?

So, can children with dyslexia learn to read using phonics?  The research conclusively proves that children with dyslexia must have an intensive phonics program that focuses on phonemic awareness and phonics.  An intensive phonics program is essential for them to achieve grade level reading, and it must be systematic, cumulative, multi-sensory and taught to mastery. The Orton-Gillingham method is a systematic phonics program that teaches the five building blocks of reading in just such a manner. It has over 60 years of research proving that it works, and research today is still showing the importance of teaching a phonics-based program not to just children with dyslexia, but to all children.

Phonics and phonemic awareness instruction activates the word-form center and sounding out centers on the left side of the brain.


It improves the reading in all children. Whole word methods activate the right side of the brain, where words are saved and stored in a less productive reading portion of the brain (Source: Stanford University News)



All children should be taught phonics between the ages of pre-school and second grade, and those who still struggle with reading due to decoding issues, should continue this method.  

If your child is struggling with reading, work through this free dyslexia symptom checklist. If your child is showing more than 10 symptoms, the International Dyslexia Association recommends that they be evaluated for dyslexia.  And, then begin looking for an Orton-Gillingham tutor in your area, as well as begin requesting that such a program be taught in your child’s school. After 200 hours of an Orton-Gillingham program, most children will begin reading with the efficient left-side area of their reading brain, and real progress and improvement can be observed by both parent, student and teacher.

Heidi Kroner is a Wilson Dyslexia Practitioner, founding member of Decoding Dyslexia Iowa, and Executive Director of Aspire Academy. She was a former partner at True Potential Education.  Heidi has tutored over 100 students in the Orton-Gillingham method. She is certified in the Wilson Reading System.


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