Written language is a code, and learning to read involves breaking the code. In some languages, the code is made up of symbols that present stylized pictures for each word. In other languages, like English, the symbols represent the sounds that comprise each word. Learning to decode in a letter-by-letter fashion involves awareness of the sound-symbol connection, a set of skills called “phonemic awareness.” Explicit teaching of these skills through phonics instruction can be helpful; but it’s not the only decoding approach that provides support to the early-reading process. Recognizing the parts of words can be helpful too. And using the words surrounding an unfamiliar word—what some call “context clues”—to support an educated guess about each unfamiliar word is also a useful strategy.
Simplified approaches to phonics—such as teaching children to focus on beginning and ending sounds or to check to see if a word belongs to a word family—make it easier for some students to use their emerging phonemic awareness to decode words. Because the whole point of decoding is to help children learn to read, obsessive concern with accuracy in linking sounds to symbols can sometimes add unnecessary stress to the learning process. Experienced readers hardly ever need to use phonics. Comprehension is the goal: phonemic awareness, structural analysis of words, and the use of context clues are the strategies for helping students achieve the goal. This relationship is depicted in the illustration to the right.