Phonics: A Word-Family Affair

Teaching phonics can be a family affair--a word-family affair, that is. A word family is a group of words that have the same endings. Cat, hat, bat, and sat, for example, are members of the _at word family. Using word families is a tried-and-true method of teaching reading.

As soon as children have learned even two sounds (/t/ and /short i/), they can read the word it; so the _it word family is a good place to start. After they have learned /s/, they can read sit; after /w/, they can read wit; after /h/, they can read hit. By the end of the first week of school, they are reading it, sit, wit, and hit. Most of the drill in learning phonics happens here. Repeated practice reading these word families is phonics drill. This drill is important!

Comprehension is also important. It is best to give an oral-context sentence and let the class or a child read the word into that sentence. For instance, the teacher says, "Look at this word [it] and read it to yourself. I'm going to say a sentence and when I stop, you read the word into my sentence. Dad threw the ball and you caught ___." The child responds with "it."

When a sound is practiced alone, it has no meaning and no message for the new reader. But when a sound is put into a word that means something, the child's thinking is involved and, therefore, learning--permanent learning--takes place. To get permanent learning into a child, his brain must be involved.

When children look at a new word, they need a clue as to what vowel sound to say. That clue must come from whatever follows the first vowel. For instance, it is the t after the i that tells the child that the vowel is short. This approach teaches the common letter patterns.

It helps if these patterns can be taught in an engaging way. BJU Press has memorable characters to do that. Take Mr. and Mrs. Short, for instance. Mrs. Short is dependent upon her husband; she never goes anywhere without him. Mrs. Short is the short vowel in a word, and Mr. Short is the consonant that always follows a short vowel. These two characters make the rule "a short vowel is always followed by a consonant or consonants" easier to remember. And then there is Uncle Short, who represents a second consonant, as in mitt.

Once the short-vowel words are mastered, the new reader can move to the consonant blends (two consonants together that make two sounds, as in grand) and the consonant digraphs (two consonants that make one sound, as in wish). Mr. and Mrs. Short and Uncle Short will work with these sounds too.

When children are familiar with all of these sounds, they can begin on the long vowels. Here again, the characters work well. In this case Miss Long wants to be alone. Miss Long is at the end of a syllable in words like go, me, and Bible. Marker e is a dog; he is not Miss Long's dog, but he likes to follow Miss Long around. He does not say anything; he just gives signals. So when the children see an e at the end of a one-syllable word, such as hike, dime, and hide, they know the vowel is Miss Long.

Next, the new readers learn that when a vowel in a word is followed by an r, the r often influences the sound in words like shark, stork, and fur. The character in this rule is Bossy R. (Bossy R is the foreman on a ranch, and all his workers have to do what he says.)

After the r-influenced vowels, it is time to go on to the special vowels: /oo/ in spoon, /oo in cook/ in cook, /ou/ in cloud, /oi/ in noise, and /ô/ as in loss, ball, and jaw. Silent letters end the phonics year.

Sounds can be practiced in several ways: with drill on the word families, with giving context sentences, and with short, simple stories that include the skill the children have just learned. The teacher writes these stories on the chalkboard and then leads the class in reading them, first silently and then orally. For struggling readers, these stories should be repeated on several occasions. Typed, the stories can go home with the students. Having read them in school, children can read them to their parents. Because context is involved, these stories have meaning.

One of the great benefits of teaching phonics this way is that it not only emphasizes phonics but also encourages comprehension through silent reading. Children gain the life skill of reading silently to get the author's message.

Phonics is important and necessary. But phonics is a tool for teaching the most important life skill: reading.


Reprinted from Teacher to Teacher, October 1997.

 by Jo Hall. Updated October 21, 2015.

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