The Use of Phonograms in Reading Instruction

In my opinion, the use of phonograms makes the difference between a fun and fast-moving phonics program and one that is slow and tedious.

As we know, large pieces of toys are easier for young children to manipulate than smaller pieces. The same holds true for language–large chunks are easier to work with than single letters. And activities within our instructional level are more likely to promote learning than activities beyond our ability.

Onsets (the letters in a word before the phonogram) and rimes (phonograms) are natural components of our spoken language–they are easier to segment and blend than are individual phonemes. Phonograms are fun to manipulate and easy to remember. They require no explicit rules to memorize. Within a particular rime, the vowel/sound relationships are quite predictable, allowing students to generalize to other words with the same rimes.

It’s also easier to work with letters within the context of a word than in isolation. If we see a vowel in isolation, how should we pronounce it? (Or should it be articulated at all?) We really need the vowel’s accompanying consonants to decide.

Phonograms are not just easier and more fun to deal with than individual phonemes. They are used intuitively by skilled readers who decode by analogy. When encountering a new word, readers look for letter patterns that they have seen before, and try to correlate the sound of that particular pattern from familiar words with the new one. Effective readers will try out a pronunciation, checking to see if that particular word will make sense in the context they are reading.

All of the reading "processors" described by Marilyn Adams are actively engaged in this sequence. The orthographic processor searches for familiar word patterns. The phonological processor checks the pronunciation of the spelling pattern, first in isolation and then within the new word encountered. The meaning and context processors confirm that the newly articulated word makes sense.

Let’s compare the use of phonograms to synthetic phonics: When using synthetic phonics, the phonemes are pronounced in isolation. This prevents the child from devoting enough attention to the word as a whole. This would appear to bypass the phonological processing of words, thereby preventing access to important auditory cues. The meaning and context processors would be similarly bypassed. Limiting the child’s vocalizing and comprehension in this way will not (in my opinion) help a child learn how to read.

Onsets and rimes are also an economical use of students’ attention and capacity for learning. Wylie and Durrell found that only 37 rimes are needed to generate 500 words used frequently by children in grades 1 through 3. When teaching the use of phonograms, we get a lot of bang for the buck!

Adams, M.J.
(1994) Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print.
Cambridge: MIT Press.

Wylie, R.E., & Durrell, D.D.
(1970). Teaching vowels through phonograms. Elementary English, 47, 787-79