Several years ago when I started looking for a phonics curriculum to help me teach my kids how to read, I thought all the phonics programs were basically the same. But boy, was I wrong!
There are several different schools of thought when it comes to teaching phonics. Here are two major methods that are used by some of the major homeschool curriculum publishers.
1. Beginning Consonant/Vowel Approach
With this method, children are taught to blend consonants with the vowel following it. They practice saying all the short vowels sounds with one consonant at a time. For example, ba- be- bi- bo- bu-. After that is mastered, they add consonants at the end of the consonant/vowel blends. Other combinations are added toward the latter part of the curriculum, such as double vowels and r-controlled vowels.
2. Word Family Approach
Children are taught ending sounds, and words are presented and grouped accordingly. For example, the children will learn the sound of -ad and then they will practice several -ad words such as bad, dad, pad, and sad.
On the surface, both of these methods look like they'd be effective, and for many children they are. But in my experience with my own children, I found the word family approach to be the better approach.
The reason for this is that the sound a vowel makes is most often influenced by the letter that follows the vowel, not by the letter that precedes it. The consonant/vowel approach (c/v approach) ignores this fact when it drills ba- be- bi- bo- bu-. As a result, with the c/v approach, countless hours are spent drilling and memorizing letter combinations that really aren't all that applicable in real life.
Why I Think the Word Family Approach is Better
Consider the words bird or hold. In both words, the vowels do not make their short sounds as a child might assume if they were learning the beginning c/v approach. With the word family approach, the child would have practiced the ending sounds of -ird and -old, and would recognize that the i and o do not say their short sounds in these words. On the other hand, a child learing the consonant/vowel approach may focus only on the first two letters when determining how to pronounce the vowel.
I realize that later in the c/v approach, r-controlled vowels and the -ild ending are introduced; but my contention is that such a large portion of the curriculum is dedicated to the beginning consonant/vowel combinations that children may overlearn those concepts, subsequently viewing those combinations as the rule rather than the exception. That's a lot of learning time wasted in my opinion,
I know there are many children who have learned to read just fine with the c/v approach. I'm not here to bash the curriculum that uses that method. I only want to make a point that not all phonics curriculums are created equal. So when you're looking for a phonics curriculum, consider which method is used, and then decide from there which you are most comfortable using for your children.
ADDED: You might like to read through the comments below about Explode the Code and teaching children with dyslexia. ETC is actually the program I used for my youngest (who does not have dyslexia), and I wasn't aware of it at the time, but it uses a slightly different approach than either of the methods I mentioned above. I found ETC to be highly effective for my daughter.