By Dr. Bob Titzer
The role of phonics varies greatly from language to language. The “phonics milestone” will not even exist in some languages and, at the other extreme, it will lead to reading at a relatively high level once mastered in languages that strictly follow the alphabetic principle (where there is a one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds). I’d like to share two methods for teaching babies and toddlers phonics. In this article, I explain why a traditional approach of teaching phonics to children ages 6 years and up may not be necessary when teaching babies and toddlers to read. I also offer some tips for parents to help teach their babies, toddlers, preschoolers, or older children phonics when using our multi-sensory, interactive approach.
1. The Role of Phonics Varies from Language to Language.
The idea of babies naturally learning written language at the same time they are learning to say and understand words is much larger than simply teaching babies to read in English. Billions of people on our planet will learn to read in languages that don’t have alphabets, so this phonics milestone will vary in importance based on the language the baby is learning.
Phonics-based alphabetic languages have a wide range in how phonemic they are. English is considered to be one of the least phonemic out of widely-spoken phonetic languages because about half of the words used in children’s literature books in English don’t follow the decoding rules. Spanish, Italian, and Vietnamese are much more consistent phonemically than most alphabetic languages. In other words, in those languages words are almost always pronounced the way they are spelled instead of having a lot of exceptions to the phonetic rules.
If the ten most widely-spoken languages were placed on a continuum based on how much they follow a perfect alphabetic principle (where each letter of the alphabet makes one distinct sound), English would be near the center between logographic-based writing systems (where the smallest written units represent words) and languages that very closely follow the alphabetic principle (where letters or combinations of letters represent specific sounds).
Different languages on this continuum would generally use dramatically different approaches when teaching reading – from memorizing every symbol at one end to a phonics-based approach at the other end. It may be partly because of where English is on this continuum that there are often “reading wars,” or intense disputes, between those who advocate primarily phonics approaches to teach reading and those who advocate primarily whole-language approaches. Since English has so many exceptions to the phonics rules, a combination of approaches is probably better for children learning at traditional ages.
2. Which approach would seem optimal for teaching babies to read in English?
Just like diverse approaches are used to teaching reading in different languages, teaching reading in English during the first several years of life – compared to age 6 or later – also calls for a method that matches the baby’s developmental state. It is possible that an approach that may work well later in childhood doesn’t work well earlier. Or that an approach that works well in infancy may not work so well in later childhood.
Note: There are no studies as of February, 2014, comparing and contrasting various approaches to teaching reading during infancy, so I am hypothesizing based on logic that I will explain and based on children successfully learning phonics with this approach.
If a traditional phonics-based approach were used with babies it would look something like this:
- Teach babies the names of letters Teaching the names of the letters of the alphabet to a child who doesn’t know how to read – especially a baby or toddler – is abstract. The child doesn’t know “the meaning” of the letter ‘a’ because he can’t read any words. It takes babies and toddlers a long time to learn abstract words. Even if the baby memorizes all of the names of the letters, he won’t be able to read any words and he may not even know that the letters can be grouped together to form words.
- Teach babies the sounds of the letters and groups of letters. In a traditional approach, it may take until age 3 years or so before the child can correctly identify the letters. The next step would be to teach the typical sounds that letters and groups of letters make (for instance, ‘th’ or ‘kn’). This process takes a long time with most children.
- Teach babies to read three-letter words following a vowel-consonant-vowel pattern. Babies would sound out mostly three-letter words. For example, instead of saying “cat” automatically and quickly the child would say: ‘c’ ‘a’ ‘t’. Some traditional reading specialists must see signs of decoding for each word or they are not sure if the child is really reading. You would need to find books that have mostly three-letter words. The meaning of the words and the enjoyment of reading a story are considered secondary to learning to decode by some traditional reading specialists.
- Teach babies sight words that don’t follow phonics. While babies and toddlers will learn sight words that don’t follow regular phonics patterns – they will naturally try to figure out patterns while learning those words. With Your Baby Can Read!, we intentionally use a wide variety of words – but they follow the phonetic patterns so the child is able to learn phonics from those words. Teaching only sight words that don’t follow phonics patterns is not a good idea because babies are such great language learners in part because they are so good at figuring out patterns1,2,,3.
- Teach babies all of the exceptions to the phonics rules. English has so many exceptions. For instance, “ai” usually makes a long ‘a’ sound, ‘ay.’ In “said” it makes the short ‘e’ sound of ‘eh.’ Learning rules, followed by learning their many exceptions, is complicated.
With the above approach reading is about learning phonics. Obviously, this is only a small part of reading – especially for babies. Babies need to enjoy reading and they need it to be more concrete – which means learning with comprehension.
I do not recommend using the above approach to teaching babies or toddlers to read. Instead, I recommend that we use the same approach that we use to teach babies to understand language. I believe this is a more natural way of acquiring written language than learning through rules.
Infants are able to naturally acquire language patterns without specifically being taught. For example, your baby will learn some syntax with no formal instruction in the first year of life4. Your baby can learn patterns of language without being told the rules for their native language, second languages, and sign language.
If your baby sees and hears enough words together, then it is also possible to learn phonics as well2,3. In other words, just like babies learn grammar by listening to language, it is possible for them to learn phonics by seeing and hearing language simultaneously. Many infants have already been able to figure out phonics during infancy without being told any rules of phonics5,6.
A phonics-based approach becomes more important as the child gets older, just like an older child may need to learn grammar in a second language through rules instead of naturally acquiring grammar during infancy. Our follow-up program to Your Baby Can Read! is Your CHILD Can Read!, which is for slightly older children, is much more phonics-based.
3. Tips for Teaching Phonics with Comprehension:
So what are the top criticisms of phonics-based programs?
- It slows down reading when the child is sounding out each individual phoneme.
- It lacks a focus on comprehension.
- It is initially abstract and not as fun as reading with meaning.
To help your baby learn phonics skills without the above problems:
- Teach your baby to read numerous individual words that follow regular phonetic patterns. Do NOT only use three letter words in a consonant-vowel-consonant pattern. Babies should not overlearn one pattern before going to the next pattern. Babies who receive a wide variety of words would be better at figuring out a new pattern than babies who are only exposed to one pattern of words. In the DVDs, we have a wide variety of long and short words that include many different patterns. Teaching your baby or toddler to read many words could help your baby learn phonics because your child will have more individual words with more opportunities to figure out the patterns.
- Use many of the ideas from the previous milestones to teach your child new words. Remember, not only is it theoretically possible that babies could learn written language similar to how they learn spoken language2 – research supports it3,,5,6. Please read many of the posts on this website, YouTube, or other infant reading websites where parents talk about their babies learning phonics without being explicitly taught.
- Write out rhyming words frequently – say the first few, then ask your baby or toddler to say the others. For example, write out “hat”, “cat”, “sat”, and “bat”, then ask your child to say “mat” and “pat”.
- Focus on two types of phonics learning with babies and toddlers: implicit or analytical phonics and embedded phonics. For preschoolers, add some explicit phonics.
Implicit or analytical phonics – This type of phonics involves the child analyzing whole words to detect patterns in spelling or sounds. To use analytical phonics do activities similar to #3 above and #8 below where you show your child many words that start or end with the same letter(s), or that rhyme and are spelled the same in the middle. Write out ‘bat’, ‘bubble’, ‘bear’, ‘bottle’, ‘baby’, and ‘book’, then ask your child to read ‘bib’ and ‘bag’. Note: ‘bib’ is in the YBCR program, but ‘bag’ is not.
Do the same with words that end with ‘ing’ by writing out ‘smiling’, ‘going’, ‘sharing’, ‘ring’, ‘bring’, ‘jumping’, and ‘wing’, then see if your child recognizes ‘stopping’ or ‘ding’ Neither of these words (‘stopping’ or ‘ding’) is a YBCR word. You could also write out ‘seen’ and ‘green’, then see if your child can read ‘teen’.
Note: This example illustrates why learning to read and spell in English using phonics can be complicated because if you select the word ‘been’ it is pronounced with a short ‘e’ sound instead of a long ‘e’ sound and if you write out words that rhyme with ‘seen’ and ‘green’, many are spelled with an ‘ea’ in the middle (e.g., ‘clean’, ‘mean’, or ‘bean’).
Embedded phonics means teaching the letter-sound relationships when you are reading with your child and you notice that she needs help with a particular part of phonics. In other words, if you are reading a book with your child and the word ‘bed’ is not pronounced properly, then teach the ‘b’ sound, the ‘e’ sound and the ‘d’ sound in the word ‘bed.’ You could primarily use analytical phonics while doing the teaching, but you only do it as it is needed based on your child’s abilities and needs. This one-on-one teaching is great because your main focus is on enjoying the books with your child, but you teach phonics as needed.
If your child is age 3 or older, you may need to introduce some explicit phonics where you write and sound out all of phonemes. Why should you NOT focus on explicit phonics with babies and toddlers?
It may slow the speed of initial reading (instead of immediately recognizing the word and understanding what it means, the child sounds out individual letter sounds), [I will talk more about this on the “fast reading” milestone.]
It doesn’t work for about half of the words in children’s literature.
It is likely not as interesting because the sounds of the phonemes are the focus instead of the word’s meaning. Developing a love of reading is one of the most important goals, and that is hard to achieve without focusing on what the words mean.
It is abstract.
It is complicated.
It is not necessary for many babies and toddlers.
- Use Your CHILD Can Read!. The DVDs are designed to teach phonics by using primarily analytical phonics as well as by teaching more than a thousand new words. We have many phonics sections in the DVDs. Ideally, parents would frequently watch the DVDs with their children, then do some of the same activities that are in the DVDs.
- Use Your Child Can Read! Sliding Phonics Cards that have two sliding tabs. We designed the cards to use analytical phonics. The child can form words from rhyming words, then match a photo that goes with the words. The background images on the cards match those in the DVDs. We now offer the Sliding Phonics Cards to be purchased separately since many people have the DVDs, but not the cards.
- Write out nonsense words and read them with your child. Encourage your child to make up a word, then you can write it out. Have this gradually lead to you writing two nonsense words and see if your child can point to the correct one. For example, you could write out “nana nana” and “goo” and see if your baby or toddler knows which one says “nana nana.” These nonsense word games can be lots of fun and help your child learn phonics. Try to do some familiar letter combinations and some where your child may need help.
- Look for books at the library that have many rhyming words in them. “Hop on Pop” and other Dr. Seuss books are good examples.
- Use whiteboards, chalkboards, sidewalks, laptops, sand, and many other surfaces to write words that start with the same letters, end with the same letters, or have the same letters or sounds in the middle.
- Make up phonics games to play while riding in the car, on walks, or wherever you are spending time with your child. Again, read complete words and not breaking them into individual parts and sounds for most of these games.
The next written language milestone is Reading a Book from Cover-to-Cover.
Thank you very much for your time and commitment to teaching your baby to read. Please continue to let us know how your babies, toddlers, and preschoolers are doing with these milestones. Share your child’s story on our Facebook page or submit your testimonial for publication here on our Early Learning Website.
Dr. Bob Titzer
1 Saffran , J. R., Aslin, R. N., & Newport, E. L. (1996). Statistical learning by 8-month-old infants. Science, 274(5294),1926-8.
2 Massaro, D.W. (2012). Acquiring Literacy Naturally. American Scientist, 100, 324-333.
3 Söderbergh, R. (1986). Acquisition of Spoken and Written Language in Early Childhood. Advances in Psychology, 39, 629-666.
4 Saffran, J. R. & Wilson, D. P. (2003). From Syllables to Syntax: Multilevel Statistical Learning by 12-Month-Old Infants. Infancy, 4(2), 273–284.
5 Cohen, R. & Söderbergh, R. (1999). Apprendre a lire avant de savoir parler, Albin Michel Éducation. Paris, France.
6 Titzer, R. (1998, April). Infants’ and Toddlers’ Abilities to Visually Discriminate Written Words. Presented at the International Conference on Infant Studies, Atlanta, Georgia.