Carol Ngozi Anyagwa

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Phonics, Phonetics and Phonology are three seemingly-related terms often connected to the teaching and/or study of pronunciation. Phonics is a method of teaching learners, particularly children, to read by correlating sounds with symbols in an alphabetic writing system. It therefore merges three language skills – reading, writing and speaking. Phonetics and Phonology on the other hand are branches of Linguistics concerned with the scientific study of speech sounds. This implies that they focus on the speaking aspect of communication skills with little or no attention to writing and reading. Phonics is relevant at the beginners’ level as it teaches them to decode new written words by blending the sound-spelling patterns. Instructions in phonetics and phonology, on the other hand, are applicable at the higher levels of language teaching. In this study, reviewing the works of experts in these fields, we investigate the three phenomena. The question of studying speaking/pronunciation, a primary language skill, through writing and reading, which are secondary, is addressed. The study establishes that while phonics may suffice as an effective approach to teaching reading, spelling and pronunciation at the early stage of language learning, there is a likelihood of a reverse effect later when the learner is confronted with the inconsistencies in English grapho-phonic relations.

Keywords: Phonics, phonogram, Phonetics, phone, Phonology, phoneme


Verbal communication is one important skill without which an individual cannot be considered complete. It involves the ability to produce linguistically-relevant sounds which together make meaning. Naturally, speaking involves the brain and certain organs in the body e.g. the tongue, teeth, palate, lips and velar. The result of the interaction between these organs could be the articulation of sound segments (consonants and vowels) or other elements whose domains are larger than a single segment – suprasegmentals (e.g. stress, tone, intonation and rhythm). In Linguistics, these sounds are studied in a distinct field of their own where Phonetics is concerned with their physical production, acoustic transmission and perception, while phonology describes how they are patterned to encode meaning. Over the years, however, English pronunciation has been taught to beginners, particularly children, by associating the letters of the alphabet with sounds of the language under the approach known as Phonics. Phonics therefore explores the relationship between the sounds and the letters used to represent them. Obviously, these three dimensions to the learning of pronunciation of English – Phonics, Phonology and Phonetics – have one thing in common: the fact that they are derived from one root ‘phone’ which means ‘sound’ or ‘voice’. This notwithstanding, a number of arguments has been raised about the effectiveness of the phonic approach to pronunciation teaching in an opaque orthography system like that of English. Our aim in this study is therefore to extensively review the focus of the three phenomena with a view to establishing their mode of interaction in pronunciation teaching and learning.


Phonics is a method of teaching reading and writing using sounds.  According to Ehri (2003), it is a method of instruction that teaches students correspondences between graphemes in written language and phonemes in spoken language and how to use these correspondences to read and spell words.  The emphasis is therefore on the systematic and predictable relationship between written letters (graphemes) and spoken sounds (phonemes). Adams (1994) asserts that existing scientific research supports that phonics is an effective method for teaching students to read at the word level. One good reason for this position is that it teaches reading and writing by developing learners’ phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds in spoken words and the understanding that spoken words and syllables are made up of sequences of speech sounds (Yopp, 1992). According to Shaywitz (2003), “Reading and phonemic awareness are mutually reinforcing: Phonemic awareness is necessary for reading, and reading, in turn, improves phonemic awareness still further.”

Developing phonemic awareness in learners usually involves a number of skills which include blending and segmenting. Blending is the process of pronouncing the individual sounds in a word and running them together to make the word. For instance, it is the skill displayed when a learner combines /t/ /o/ /p/ to make the word top. Blending the sound-spelling pattern of a word is essential to reading. Segmenting, on the other hand, is the process of breaking a word into its constituent sounds in order to write it. This will enable a learner to separate pin, for instance,into /p/ /i/ /n/. It is essential to spelling. Other skills include Isolation (which enables a learner to identify the sound in a particular position in a word) and Identity (by which a learner is able to recognize the common sound in different words) (Ehri et al. 2001). To develop phonemic awareness in phonics instruction, learners are taught letter sounds and not letter names (e.g. f is ffff and not /ef/, n is nnnn not /en/) since, according to Dehaene (2009), letter names cannot be assembled during reading, rather, it is the sounds of the phonograms that are blended together into words.

The phonics approach is enhanced by the position that English spelling is based on the alphabetic principle. The alphabetic principle is simply the concept that each letter of the alphabet has one or two sounds associated with it and that these letter-sound relationships are stable. Adams (1994) emphasizes that phonics instructions should provide explicit lessons in the Alphabetic Principle. Due to the emphasis on this principle, it is assumed in phonics that every sound has a corresponding letter or letter group which represents it. The forty four phonemes of English are thus represented with the English 26-letter alphabet (without diacritics). Garcia & Cain (2013: 49) commenting on the opacity of the language lament, “there are not enough letters of the alphabet to represent all the sounds of our speech”. Summarising the graphophonic system of English, Mesmer & Griffith (2006: 367) identify three layers. These are:

… a straight sound layer (e.g., bit, got); a pattern layer that varies in complexity (e.g. chick, lake, straight); and a meaning layer, which maintains unusual and irregular sound-symbol spellings due to morphemes (e.g., hymn, hymnal).

Thus, phonics instructions recognise that English spellings do not always clearly relate to pronunciation, and that learning the spelling system involves the ability to recognise how the individual phonemes pronounced in words correspond to conventional spellings.

Units of Phonic Analysis

A number of terms are employed in Phonics to represent certain units or elements relevant to the approach. They include phonogram, digraph and trigraph.

                   Phonogram: A phonogram is a written symbol (a grapheme) that stands for or represents a sound (a phoneme) or a combination of phonemes. For instance, c is a phonogram of /k/, a is a phonogram of /æ/ and t is a phonogram of /t/. So, cat contains three phonograms. sh is a phonogram of /ʃ/ and oe is a phonogram of /u:/.  Thus, Shoe contains two phonograms.

                   Diagraph: A digraph is a sequence of two letters used to represent a distinct sound. Common diagraphs in English include gh in ghost – which is a digraph of the sound /g/; kn in knight – a diagraph of /n/; sh in ship – a digraph of /ʃ/; ch in chief – a digraph of /tʃ/; ur in hurt – a digraph of /ɜ:/; ea in teach – a digraph of /i:/ and ph in Physics – a digraph of /f/.

                   Trigraph:  A trigraph is a group of three letters used to represent a single sound or a combination of sounds that does not correspond to the written letters combined. They include igh in high – a trigraph of the sound /aɪ/; ear in heard – a trigraph of the sound  /ɜ:/; tch in batch – a trigraph of the sound /tʃ/; air in chair – a trigraph of the sound /ɛə/; oor in poor – a trigraph of the sound /ʊə/ and ear in near – a trigraph of the sound /ɪə/.

Trigraphs and digraphs make up for the disparity between the number of sounds and the number of letters in the English alphabet. Table i below shows the disparity in English sounds and letters.

Approaches and Controversies

Thevarious approaches towards Phonics instruction are broadly classified into systematic and unsystematic (also whole word or whole language) approaches. This study will, however, be restricted to the systematic approach, an approach empirically proved to help children learn to read better than all other approaches (Ehri et al. 2001).  In the systematic phonics approach, all the major grapheme-phoneme correspondences are taught and covered in a clearly defined sequence.  According to Ehri (2003), this approach includes synthetic phonics, analytic phonics, embedded phonics, analogy phonics, onset-rime phonics, and phonics through spelling, all of which differ in several respects. Synthetic Phonics, for instance, emphasizes blending and is the accepted method of teaching reading in the education systems in the UK and Australia. Analytic phonics focuses on teaching sounds and letters in meaningful contexts. Embedded phonics is interested in letter-sound relationships in connected text, while analogy phonics deals with inferring sound-symbol relationships from words which have a similar letter-sound combination.

 Giventhe idiosyncrasies of English spelling conventions, the phonics approach has generally come under serious criticism. A number of sound-letter correspondences are generally accepted in phonics instructions but questions have been raised on how the following can be addressed:

  • the same  spelling representing more than one  phoneme (e.g. gh = /g/ in ghost, /f/ in tough, silent in caught; ch = /k/ in choral, /tʃ/ in chair, /ʃ/ in champagne; c is /s/ in cent but /k/ in cat; each of the three central vowels/ʌ, ɜ:, ə/ can be represented by not less than three phonograms);
  • the same phoneme being represented with more than one spelling (e.g. /s/ in sent, cent, and scent); /f/ in cough, Physics and fan;
  • letters spelt but not pronounced (e.g. the “silent k” in knife; gh in though, ‘l’ in calm, half; ‘p’ in Psychology, pneumonia; ‘h’ in hour, honest; ‘n’ in hymn, autumn; ‘b’ in comb, ‘d’ in sandwich, ‘t’ in whistle, castle; ‘s’ in island, ‘g’ in foreign, sign; ‘c’ in muscle;
  • phonemes pronounced but not represented in spelling (e.g. the /j/ in duke /djuk/ and news /nju:z);
  • related words with the same spellings for syllables but pronounced differently (e.g. major /meɪʤə/ and majority /məʤɒrəti/);
  • words borrowed from other languages and spelled with the spelling of the original language, which may not reflect the English pronunciation (e.g. bouquet /bəʊkei/);
  • words spelled alike but pronounced differently (route /rut/ or /raut/); and
  • transparent and opaque letters (consider phonograms of /k/ in Kite and school; pronunciation of the trigraph ‘sch’ in school and schedule).

One begins to wonder if even the idea of digraphs and trigraphs does not further complicate issues. Another source of anxiety is in the nature of rules, if any, which guide these alternative pronunciation patterns. Generally speaking, however, a good number of English words cannot be pronounced ‘phonically’. Based on the above considerations, more than a century of debate has occurred over whether English phonics should or should not be used in teaching beginning reading. In its position statement about the place of phonics, however, the International Reading Association (1997) observes that “rather than engage in debates about whether phonics should or should not be taught, effective teachers of reading and writing ask when, how, how much, and under what circumstances phonics should be taught.” In what follows, we briefly look at the fields of phonetics and phonology with a view to comparing same to phonics.


Phonetics, according to Crystal (2008:363) is the science which studies the characteristics of human sound-making, especially those sounds used in speech, and provides methods for their description, classification and transcription. It is therefore concerned with the physical properties of speech sounds (phones): their physiological production, acoustic properties and auditory perception (Lass, 1998:1). Each of these fields is addressed by a particular branch of phonetics. For instance, the physiological production of speech sounds is the concern of Articulatory Phonetics; the study of their acoustic properties is within the purview of Acoustic Phonetics while the aspect of auditory perception is under Auditory Phonetics. 

Over the years, various phonetic alphabets have been developed to represent speech sounds in writing through the use of symbols. O’Grady (2005:17) notes that the International Phonetic alphabet (IPA), provides a standardized set of symbols for oral phones. Since phonetics is basically universal in the sense that it studies all possible speech sounds, the standardized nature of the IPA enables its users to transcribe accurately and consistently the phones of different languages. This it does with the aid of diacritics which capture even phonetic differences between variants (allophones) of a particular sound. For example, while an aspirated /p/ will be represented as [ph], the unreleased variant will be represented as [p̚] differentiating them from the parent phoneme /p/. Thus, phonetics provides insight into the outward aspect of language as opposed to the inner or psychological side. The examples above already demonstrated that phonetic transcriptions are enclosed in square brackets as a way of clearly distinguishing them from their phonemic counterparts (enclosed in slant brackets).


Lass (1998) states that phonology refers broadly to the sub-discipline of linguistics concerned with the sounds of language, while in more narrow terms, “phonology proper is concerned with the function, behavior and organization of sounds as linguistic items.” Phonology, like phonetics, therefore, is the scientific study of speech sounds but, unlike phonetics, it focuses on the significant sounds of individual languages – phonemes – paying attention to how they function to encode meaning. Phonemes are characteristically contrastive, being capable of keeping meaning apart. The scope of phonology however extends beyond the segmental level of phonemes to the suprasegmental levels of onset-rhyme, syllable, foot etc. A major contribution of structural linguists to the field of phonology is the concept of minimal pairing by which the phonemic status of a sound segment can be determined based on the principle of contrastiveness.

Beyond the formalisms of the Structural linguists, the field of phonology and phonological analysis has had a number of contributions from other phonological traditions over the years. While the Prague School, for instance, were interested in the concept of Archiphoneme, the Generative phonologists talked about the distinctive features of sound and differentiated between the phonological and phonetic levels of representation. Non-Linear theorists focused on the hierarchical ordering of phonological representations; and others (e.g. proponents of the Optimality theory) were concerned with the recognition and appropriate satisfaction of conflicting constraints. The apparent divergence in the approaches of these schools of thought notwithstanding, it is clear, as observed in Clark et al. (2007:4), that phonology is the systematic use of sound to encode meaning in any spoken human language.

Comparing Phonics, Phonetics and Phonology

Table ii below presents, in form of a comparison, a summary of our discussion so far on the three subject areas of our focus in this study. The table establishes that while the phonogram (a grapheme that stands for or represents a phoneme) is the unit of analysis of Phonics, the phone (any distinct speech sound) is for phonetics and the phoneme (a speech sound that is capable of keeping meaning apart) is that of phonology. Looking at the domain within which these fields are relevant,  it shows that while phonics covers three communication skills (writing, reading and speaking), phonetics and phonology are strictly speaking-based. Based on typology, two branches (systematic and unsystematic) are indicated for phonics, four (Articulatory, Auditory, Acoustic and Forensic) for phonetics and two (segmental and suprasegmental) for phonology. The functionality criterion highlights the disparity in these fields. While phonics seeks to associate letters with sounds, phonetics studies the physiological and physical attributes of speech sounds, and phonology focuses on how they function to encode meaning. While letters form the basis of phonics instruction, IPA symbols form the basis of both phonetic and phonemic representations.

Our consideration of the stages at which knowledge based on these fields are imparted to learners shows that phonics instruction is relevant at the early learning stage, mainly primary and pre-primary levels of education. Aspects of Phonology are studied at the secondary level while the intricacies of phonetics are often introduced at the tertiary level. Looking at the level of consistency in the links established between the units and sounds, it was observed that the letter-sound link explored in phonics is anything but consistent while symbol-sound relationships explored in phonetics and phonology consistently stand. Finally, our attempt to link these fields to higher subject areas showed that while phonics is simply an instructional approach, phonetics and phonology are branches of the linguistic science. So far, we have established a close affinity between phonetics and phonology without any such corresponding meeting point between phonics and any of them.

Discussion and Conclusion

Of all the communication skills, speaking is second only to listening, going by the Behaviourists’ position that language acquisition is mainly based on imitation. Speaking can therefore be classified as a primary language skill and should naturally be acquired before writing and reading. Studying spelling through reading and/or writing has a number of implications. For instance, some words begin with a vowel letter but actually contain an initial consonant element when pronounced. A strictly phonics-based language instruction is not likely to be able to provide a convincing explanation to that particularly where there is no identifiable rule guiding such realisations. Examples are ‘u’ in university, union, unity and united; ‘eu’ in Europe, European and eureka. As an escape root, some Phonics texts in Nigeria adopt rather misleading approaches. For instance, a certain Phonics text categorically states that ‘y’ is a semi vowel, for want of a way of explaining its realization as /i/ in happy and /j/ in youth.

Furthermore, children who are just taught to blend and segment sounds as a means of learning English pronunciation in a country like Nigeria, where conflicting packages of Phonics are adopted and taught simultaneously by authors, do not stand a good chance of doing well in English spelling later in life. The initial element in a word like character will most likely be perceived as /k/ and consequently spelt ‘k’ as against ‘ch’ which is naturally associated with /ʧ/. Thus, phonics could have a reverse effect later when the learner is confronted with the inconsistencies in English graphophonic relations. The position adopted in this paper is that unless Phonics instruction is approached professionally in Nigeria, by adopting particular packages and grooming the pupils along same, chances are that it will do more harm than good to their acquisition of language skills.

Effective use of the dictionary, for instance, always depends on the reader’s ability to decode orthographic and phonemic symbols used to supply meaning and pronunciation respectively. Since phonics instructions do not include aspects of transcription, the learner will certainly have problems interpreting such symbols in the dictionary. It is therefore suggested that while phonics suffices for pupils up to Basic 3, the other higher classes should be exposed to phonology-based instruction for ease of access to the wealth of information of ten contained in dictionaries. More importantly, pronunciation teachers should be conscious of their pronunciation and practise what they teach.

Finally, it is necessary to reiterate that Phonics, Phonetics and Phonology are all a means to an end. While they differ in the areas mentioned earlier, they are all processes to learning the pronunciation of English.

Table i: The disparity in English sounds and letters

Segments Sounds Letters
Consonants 24 21
Vowels 20 5
Total 44 26

Table ii: A Comparison of Phonics, Phonetics and Phonology.

Criteria Phonics Phonetics Phonology
Unit of Analysis Phonogram Phones Phoneme
Domain Reading, writing and speaking Speaking Speaking
Typology Systematic and Unsystematic Articulatory, Auditory, Acoustic and Forensic Segmental and Suprasegmental
Functionality Provides a systematic and predictable association between letter and sound Studies the production, transmission and reception of speech sounds Studies the distribution, patterning and relationship between sounds
Basis Letters IPA phonetic symbols IPA phonemic symbols
Stage of Impartation Early learning stage More advanced learning stage Advanced learning stage
Consistency Low letter-sound consistency High symbol-sound Consistency High symbol-sound consistency
Affiliation An instructional approach A branch of Linguistics A branch of Linguistics


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