Phonics: associative learning for speech sounds & letter symbols


Phonics is the method of teaching beginners to read and pronounce words by learning the phonetic value of letters, letter groups, and especially syllables

Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary. Retrieved November 16, 2011, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/phonics



Phonics gets a lot of attention these days.  A Google search turns up almost 19 million hits for the word “phonics”!  

When it was first used (1683) the term phonics was used to denote “the science of sound.” It was not until the early 20th-century that phonics was used as a label for an approach to teaching reading that links speech sounds with letter symbols.  The term phonics was not used in connection with reading instruction until the early 1900s, but phonics-based methods of teaching reading to native English speakers were first described in the mid-1800s.  By the mid 20th-century there was lively controversy among educators about the effectiveness of using phonics as part of reading instruction and the argument polarized in to two camps, those who advocated instruction that included practice with associating speech sounds and letter symbols (phonics proponents) and those who claimed this type of practice was unnecessary and even harmful (whole language proponents).  This controversy raged until 2000 when the report of a research panel mandated by the US Congress was published: Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and its Implications for Reading Instruction, The National Reading Panel, 2000.  

The Panel’s research pinpointed five reading skills critical to reading skill development:  speech sound awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and text comprehension.  This meta-analysis of hundreds of studies confirmed that, for students from kindergarten through 6th grade and for all children who are having difficulty learning to read, the explicit and systematic teaching of phonics (and related phonics skills, such as phonemic awareness) is more effective than are methods that do not include explicit and systematic teaching of phonics. Further, the Panel found that phonics instruction benefits all ages in learning to spell.  The Panel found that both pre-service and experienced teachers typically lacked knowledge about effective reading instruction methods.

It helps to understand that phonics is an associative learning task (i.e., separate elements are taught through association with one another).  Associate learning requires that both elements of the associative pair (e.g., the phoneme,/b/ with the grapheme <b>) be sensed, perceived, discriminated and remembered.  As essential as it has been shown to be for skilled reading and spelling, this kind of associative learning is not be an easy matter for some people with processing difficulties. 

For example, a person with an auditory processing problem might find the distinction between the speech sounds  /b/ and /d/ difficult to perceive and/or remember.  A person may have difficulty retaining the visual image of <b> so that it is difficult to distinguish its mental  (i.e., remembered) representation from the similar appearing image, <d>.  People with processing problems that disrupt their associative and/or working memory often benefit from meaning-based perception and memory cues or “hooks," sometimes called picture mnemonics.¹  These “hooks” attach a meaning to the elements to be associated so that the person can more accurately perceive and remember them in connection to one another. 



A deck of cards with one grapheme (written in lower case font) written on each card. The size of the deck usually beginning with 5-8 graphemes and graphemes are slowly added as the student masters his/her current deck.


Show a card to the student and say, "What sound does this letter represent?" (Or, just "What sound?") 

If the student responds correctly on the first try within ~2 sec. he/she wins the card. Otherwise, you keep the card. The student can try to win it by trying again later.  Discourage guessing.

If the student has repeated difficulty recalling the speech speech sound association for a grapheme, turn the card over and re-write the grapheme but this time sketch a picture cue superimposed on the grapheme. The cue needs to be a word that starts with the target sound (e.g., <b> = bat; <d> = door knob). A picture need to be a well-known object that the child easily associates with the letter(s) since he/she will need to recall and use the (mental) picture cue independently (i.e., without the clinician cuing or looking at the back of the card).

To use this 1st sound, picture cue approach the learner must have some level of understanding of phonemes and be able to isolate phonemes in words (e.g., /b/ in “bat” and /d/ in door).  Children are normally able to do this beginning around age 5.  A child who tends to say the word cue instead of just the first phoneme is very likely having trouble with this phonological awareness skill and possibly with the concept of speech sounds in general, as well as with the concept that letters can be used to represent speech sounds.

Below are some example of mental cues for associative learning of  <b> = /b/ and <d> = /d/.







 Ehri, Deffner & Wilce (1984) showed that only mnemonics with these two specific characteristics to worked:

  1. The picture had to be integrated into the letter shape.
  2.  The picture had to link the shape of the letter to its associated phoneme (e.g., <s> =  snake says "ssss")

 See this article for ideas for good picture cues for letter-sound associations.




An article in your Clinician Manual describes and illustrates  10 Instructional Procedures in 7 Stations.  This article includes brief videos (designed for parents) covering the basic intervention procedures, including the Station 1, Sounds & Letters procedures:

  • Isolator (speech sound isolation and sequencing)
  • Letter-Sound Association

Here is how to access it:


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