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Phonics is the study of the sounds that make up words. In reading education, children are taught the sounds of letters and how those letters combine to form words.

The European languages share the Roman alphabet, while many of the Slavic languages used the Cyrillic alphabet. Some European languages have many irregularly pronounced words, which children must memorize. English has hundreds of "spelling words" for children to learn.

In the phonic method of teaching English, the schoolchildren are taught the following rules in English pronunciation:

  • Each letter is like an animal, which has a name and the sound(s) that it makes. e.g. A cat says "meow", a G has a name of "Gee" but it says "Gaa" (with the Aa sound suppressed.)
  • Each vowel has two sounds: one long and one short. The long sound is the same as its name, namely, Aye, Eat, Eye, Oh, and You. Their short equivalents are A (a as in at), E (e as in eggs, I (i as in it), O (o as in hop), and U (u as in up).
  • Each syllable is made by blending the sounds of each component. e.g. reading the word by adding one sound at a time, as in -e, -ed, bed.
  • When a vowel is in the middle of a word (or syllable), it usually says its short sound. e.g. "Got", "Bed". But there are many exceptions to this rule. See irregular vowels below.
  • When a vowel is in the end of a word (or syllable), it usually says its long sound (or its name.) e.g. "Go", "Be".
  • When two vowels go hand in hand in the same word (or syllable), the first vowel usually says its own name (long sound) and the second vowel stays silent. e.g. "Bake" (Ay sound + silent E), "Goal" (Oh sound + silent A) etc. But there are many exceptions to this rule. See irregular vowels below.
  • Irregular vowels: Many combinations of letters do not following the single or two vowel rules mentioned above. These special combinations and sounds must be memorized. e.g.
    • IGH as in "High" vs. "Sight"
    • ING as in "King"
    • OST as in "Most", use the long sound instead of the usual short sound.
    • OW as in "Low" vs. "Cow"
    • ED as in "Lifted", "Walked", "Played".
    • OI does not follow the two vowels rule, e.g. "Moist", "Boil".
    • Double O has two different sounds as in "Book" and "Loose".
    • OUS as in "Nervous".
    • AU as in "Fault", "Haul" etc.
    • SION and TION are pronounced as "shun".
    • OUGH has up to 6 different sounds, such as "Cough", "tough", "Thought", "Through", "Trough", "Bough" etc.
    • ... the list goes on.
  • Many words does not follow these rules, they are called sight words. Sight words must be memorized since the regular rules do not applied. e.g. "The", "Are", "You".

Some educators[?] who support the phonic method believe that when children master the pronunciation rules, they can read on their own. The children will be able to tie the written words with the verbal English they hear on TV and around the house. The educators who oppose this method believe knowing the sound without knowing the meaning of the word does not work. On the other extreme, some educators do not teach the pronunciation rules, words in books are read aloud in class. The children are supposed to remember how each word sounds one by one as they encounter them in the context of a story or other reading materials. Some smarter kids recognize certain pronunciation patterns on their own and they can extrapolate on how to read new words. Some unfortunate kids become illiterate if they fail to do enough reading exercise along with teachers or older kids. Kids who have parents who don't know English would have a hard time to learn reading this way.

Some school systems, such as California's, flip-flopped between the two controversial extremes over the years. Nowadays, some schools would do both Phonic and the whole language approach because most educators now recognize that the two systems complement each other and each alone has its drawbacks.

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