Decoding the world of words

Phonics provides structured literacy to young readers

Phonics — understanding that letters and groups of letters make the sounds in language — is still the best approach to teaching children how to read, says Diane Duff, director of The Reading School. “And we know it works. There is no guessing here. That’s the sound a letter makes, and one sound comes after another to make a word. There is logic.”

Diane Duff. Photo Courtesy Diane Duff

Yet children still struggle with reading across the English-language world. “Right now, it’s about both curriculum and training,” says Duff. “Yes, phonics works for a six-year-old to get words off a page, but there is more to it than that. You want to get thought and reasoning going into reading as well.”

A child with phonological processing disorder (dyslexia) has a great deal of difficulty making the connection between letters and sounds. At The Reading School, Duff gets back to basics with a structured literacy curriculum based in phonological sensitivity and phonics. Her approach is direct and responsive instruction. “We know phonics works,” says Duff. “Even a study commissioned by Harvard University in the 1960s to find the best way to teach reading came away endorsing phonics.”

Unfortunately, the whole learning approach went on to combine speech development with learning how to read, Duff says, “predicated on the assumption that children would learn to read as naturally as they learn to speak. That didn’t work very well.”  

Cathy Jackson, the author and creator of Best Reading Phonics has been teaching children to read for almost 30 years. At her first teaching job in Little Italy in Toronto, “I had a class of four- and five-year-olds,” says Jackson. “And most of them had little knowledge of English, so I used phonics all the time to teach them. I used short words and vowels and taught my students to ‘say it like you see it’.” Eventually, Jackson put together books and games that the children could take home with them. “What I sent home with my students was exactly what we were doing in class,” says Jackson. “I designed it so the parents could replicate the classroom work at home, as often times there were no books at home.”

Cathy Jackson. Photo Credit Mei Dang

She made it easy and fun. “These are things that any parent can do to help their child,” says Jackson. “And sometimes the sillier, the better.” Suggestions include playing ‘I Spy’ — but using the letter sound; using alliteration for silly phrases — like ‘tiny tigers’ — and then adding a word: ‘ten tiny tigers’; and putting a ‘magic’ word on a door that must be read to get into the room.

The best thing a parent can do is to read to their child every day. “It creates a positive feeling for reading but also cuddling up together,” says Jackson. “Reading to children also helps them hear the rhythm and inflection used for words.” She recalls one young student who after learning — and then understanding — phonics told her, “’thank you for making me smart.’ I just opened the door,” she says. She does lament the fact that children have been out of the classroom because of the pandemic. “In the classroom, children see what other children are doing,” says Jackson, “and having an adult (teacher) reading out loud to a small group and being able to help each other can really be a huge confidence booster. And I’d always ask at the end of class, ‘are you proud of yourself today?’ – there’s nothing better than self-motivation to encourage a child.”

“Reading is so fundamental to learning any subject,” says Mei Dang, publishing director of DC Canada Education Publishing. When Jackson sent Dang the materials she was using to teach phonics, Dang thought they’d be good for non-native language learners too.

Mei Dang. Photo Courtesy DC Educational

When Dang was in school in China, there was no phonics approach. “You just learned the alphabet,” says Dang. “Teachers now do use phonics, but it’s only one tool.” Jackson’s reading program helps children build a solid foundation in language learning and reading, and her program and books make for meaningful learning, Dang adds. “The games are engaging, and the little magic box is fun for children to use.”



Did you know?

DC Canada’s website offers free access to online reading programs. Check it out at


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