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Why do some students forget phonics?

Phonics Frustration: Why do some students forget or fail to apply the letter-sound relationships we have taught them?


Have you ever asked a student to blend a sequence of letters and sounds that you recently "taught" only to encounter a blank stare or an unfortunate "I don't know"?


After encountering several situations in my teaching career where students had forgotten the sound-symbol relationships I thought I had taught them, I almost fled from phonics. But I've realized (and scientific research confirms) that the problem is not phonics. Instead, the problem is using phonics alone. We must integrate phonics with spelling from the beginning of the literacy journey. Why? Analytical spelling (or systematic spelling from dictation) requires students to think about sounds, label them, and reproduce them orally or in writing. Because analytical spelling simultaneously strengthens phonemic awareness and the alphabetic principle, it sets solid foundations for blending and decoding through segmentation and encoding.


As students learn to spell sounds as letters, syllables, and words, they construct robust orthographic representations in their minds. These representations serve as a bridge, helping them connect sounds to their corresponding symbols. In simpler terms, spelling necessitates students to dissect or segment words or syllables, identify their sounds, and reproduce those sounds as a written or oral blend. This process of spelling aids beginning readers in forming durable, resilient memories of sounds and their corresponding symbol or symbols. Spelling imprints an orthographic (or letter-sound sequence) on children's minds like no other discipline can, as it compels students to visualize letters when they hear sounds.


When students develop a strong orthographic representation of letters and symbols, they find it easier to transition to decoding. Decoding necessitates activating sounds from symbols and blending the sounds into a single word. As a result, the process of "sounding out" and blending becomes simpler for students who already have a dictionary of matching sounds and symbols imprinted on the blackboards of their minds through spelling.



When we teach phonics alone—without integrating analytical spelling--students don't develop strong representations of letter-sound connections in their minds to anchor the correspondences we are trying to teach them from print. Think of it this way: whenever we learn something well, we associate that new element with something we have learned. When we ask students to blend words or letters into words, we must be confident that they have strong orthographic images of that letter or word to associate what they see in print with what they already have in their heads.


Spelling produces a dictionary of segmented and labeled words in students' minds that they can instantly download onto paper or map to text. Students struggling with our alphabetic system's abstractions can only blend or create words from sounds once they have a strong association between letters and sounds. Retrieving sequences of sounds and letters for fluency is easier once we inscribe the alphabetic principle in their minds through analytical spelling and writing.


Therefore, there are better ways for students at risk of developing severe reading difficulties to gain confidence and competence than phonetic blending alone. Integrating spelling instruction with phonics promotes segmentation for encoding, which lays a sturdy foundation for blending and decoding.


We should refrain from requiring beginning readers to spell tricky words. We should teach them how to spell and write sounds by mapping letters to individual phonemes and simple syllabic sounds.  Simple syllables are basic combinations of consonants and vowels (ab, eb, ib, ob) that allow kids to rhyme, spell, and practice phonemic analysis and decoding within the natural syllabic speech stream while having fun.


Kids who have a dictionary of phonemic and syllabic spellings in their minds will find it much easier to recognize, reproduce, and blend those sounds when they see them in print. Kids who spell well read well.

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