Choosing a Phonics Curriculum: Not all methods are created equal


Do you think like I did that all phonics curriculum use the same methods? I found that in teaching phonics all curriculum are not created equal so now I have to decide which is best for my kids.

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.

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  1. says

    @Jackie, I guess I should have added that, huh! For my 10yo, we actually didn't use any phonics curriculum. I just read with her, pointing out the various vowel sounds. She caught on quickly and is not an extremely avid reader.

    But for my last child, Joely, I used the Explode the Code curriculum (along with reading together). We didn't start with the very first book of Explode the Code since she already knew here alphabet and letter sounds, and we didn't go through the end of the curriculum either, since she caught on after book 5 or so and started reading on her own completely.

    But we did go through about 4 books with Explode the Code, and I really liked it. It didn't require any teacher prep (which is a big plus!), but it was VERY effective. I found it was also excellent for her spelling skills.


  2. says

    I used Alpha Phonics with my oldest, which is a word family type of program. Then, with my daughter I bought Phonics Pathways, which is a c-v program. One of my biggest problems with Phonics Pathways was the reading of sounds at the beginning. There were "sounds" that were learned that were actually words, but not pronounced the way you were reading them. Like ma, me, mi, mo, mu. Me is a word with a long e, not a short. So I wound up basically skipping that part. What I did like about Phonics Pathways was it provided more variety in reading practice. It seemed that it was a lot easier for my kids to read hat, mat, bat, rat, than it was for them to read man, mat, math, mad. My daughter was better able to read from a book after Phonics Pathways than from Alpha Phonics, because PP gave her more practice in reading word lists that weren't quite as predictable. Third child, I probably shouldn't mention unless you give awards for longest comments. LOL I think he's dyslexic. I'm not sure yet what to do. I'm hoping that my little one teaches herself to read :)
    .-= Kristen´s last blog ..Weekly Wrap Up (11/20/09) =-.


  3. says

    I'd like to throw another approach to teaching reading into the mix: the Orton-Gillingham approach. It is the way I've taught my dyslexic son how to read, but it is so effective and makes SO much sense out of our crazy language that I used it for my younger son (without dyslexia) and he caught on like a charm. Essentially, there are only 6 different syllable types in the entire English language: closed syllables, open syllables, silent e syllables, r-controlled vowel syllables, vowel team syllables and consonant-le syllables. The sound the vowel makes depends on the syllable type. For example, in a closed syllable, the vowel makes it's short sound while in an open syllable, the vowel makes its long sound. Students are taught each syllable type and learn to identify the types of syllables in words. (In longer multisyllable words, they are taught rules on how to divide words into syllables). Vowel sounds can be so tricky for kids learning to read. My son always wondered why "a" said one sound in "cat", another in "cane" and another in "China". Now that he understands the different syllable types, he has no problem. Kids taught this way won't be intimidated by long, mulitsyllable words found in text without context clues or pictures. They just look for syllable types and sound it out.
    .-= Science Geek (aka Kristin)´s last blog ..New tradition in the making: Jesse Tree =-.


  4. says


    If you think your child is dyslexic, I urge you to check out
    On the website is a list of symptoms of dyslexia that can be identified as early as toddlerhood. I have a 10 year old dyslexic, but didn't realize that was what we were dealing with until 2 years ago. Oh, how I regret the time we lost struggling with the wrong programs! There is a way that dyslexics learn to read that makes sense to them but the earlier you get started the better! My son is now reading and SPELLING so well and is writing his own compositions. He seems like a different child than the one who struggled with simple words 2 years ago. Feel free to contact me if you want more information!
    .-= Science Geek (aka Kristin)´s last blog ..New tradition in the making: Jesse Tree =-.


  5. Jackie says

    @Joy, Thanks so much. I already have the ETC books A-C I think we will start with those. Even though he knows all his letters, and most of the sounds he is only 3 so I think the practice will do him good. He loves to be read to and is always asking "what does this say" when he sees a sign or something on TV. Although his fine motor skills are probably right for his age, he definitely has an interest in reading and I don't want to waste that. Thanks again.


  6. says

    @Science Geek (aka Kristin), I think Explode the Code might use that approach somewhat. I'd never heard about open and closed syllable before going through ETC with my daughter. If I remember right, open and closed syllable is something that they teach in ETC.

    One thing I really appreciated about ETC was that it didn't seem to go through 4 billion different rules and sounds. There were a chosen few that were introduced, and in the process several site words were taught as well. Yet even with so few 'rules', the program was highly effective for my daughter.

    I haven't heard of the Orton-Gillingham approach though. Sounds like a great method! And it's so true that one method does not fit all. The wonderful thing about homeschooling is that we can tailor the curriculum to the needs of our students, something that's usually not as easy to do in a public school setting.


  7. says

    You're right. I think ETC does teach in an Orton-Gillingham-like approach. The program teaches open and closed syllables, and rules for how to divide multisyllable words. In fact, we use the workbooks to practice the rules we learn in our reading program. ETC is really all that my younger son would need to learn to read on his own. But it isn't enough (on its own) to teach my older son to read.

    That is one of the biggest blessings of homeschooling- that we can tailor make a program for each of our children that is best suited for their strengths and weaknesses. And there is no need to hold a child back a grade because they aren't where they "should be" in one subject. Our children can be on grade level in one subject, below grade level in another, and above grade level in another, and self esteem is left intact.

    Very thankful for the right to homeschool!
    .-= Science Geek (aka Kristin)´s last blog ..New tradition in the making: Jesse Tree =-.


  8. says

    We are using Saxon Phonics because that is what my boys used in their classical Christian school last year, and I decided to stick to the classical curriculum with homeschool. My second son likes it a lot more than my oldest son ever did. However, I'm thinking of switching to Explode the Code. I'm using the kindergrten book for my daughter and it requires much less parental involvement, is a lot simpler and easier to understand, in my opinion.


  9. says

    @everydayMOM, I've never used Saxon Phonics. What phonics method do they employ?

    And I totally hear you on the parental involvement. Whenever I can find a GREAT curriculum that doesn't require parental preparation, I snag it!


  10. Karen says

    What about the romalda spalding/ orthon/ Spell to write and read/cursive first/ writing and spelling road to reading and thinking / Logic of english versions?, all design for dislexia and other issues, where children learn the sounds of the letters then the sounds of the phonemes. For instance they learn all 3(4 with the shwa that some teach) sounds of the letter "A" the same for the letter combinations. like the impresive: ough phoneme has the sounds of though through rough cough thought bough.


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