Phonics teaching involves teaching children the relationship between the written letters of the alphabet (the graphemes, to use their technical name) and the individual sounds of spoken language – i.e. the phonemes.
The phonemes are the smallest parts of spoken language that combine to make up words. They are the speech sounds, not the actual letters, in a word. For example, the word look has four letters but only three phonemes (l, oo and k).
The English alphabet has 26 letters but around 43 phonemes (it’s hard to specify the exact number as there are variations due to accent and dialect).
The aim of phonics teaching is to help learners understand that there are systematic relationships between written letters and spoken sounds (even though the vagaries of the English language mean that these relationships are not always entirely predictable). Knowledge of phonics helps children recognize familiar words and also decode new words. It means they are better equipped to enter into (and also enjoy) the world of reading and pronouncing English words.
It’s generally found that learners who struggle with reading have one of two main difficulties – either comprehension problems, or trouble identifying, using and/or learning the sounds of speech that correspond to the letters. Phonics teaching addresses the latter area of difficulty extremely efficiently.
So, to answer the opening question, phonics teaching prepares our children for language learning and that fact alone makes it worth the effort. And, no, it is not simply enough to teach the alphabet in isolation. Key research findings on phonics teaching indicate that systematic phonics instruction is more effective than no phonics instruction at all and makes a significant difference to the pace at which a child’s word recognition, spelling and reading progresses.
Phonemic awareness is a valuable tool for all language learners.