The Difference Between “Phonics” and “Phonetics”

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Reader Ali Abuzar wonders about the difference between phonics and phonetics.

In popular usage the words are often used interchangeably, although phonics [fŏn’ĭks] is the term usually employed when speaking of a method of beginning reading instruction. In this use, phonics is regarded as a simplified form of phonetics [fə-nĕt’ĭks], which is the scientific study of speech sounds.

NOTE: Although phonics and phonetics end with s, they take singular verbs: Phonics is the most effective way to teach reading.

Here are definitions from the OED:

The branch of linguistics concerned with spoken sounds; phonetics

The correlations between sound and symbol in an alphabetic writing system; the phonic method of teaching reading.

The study and classification of speech sounds, esp. with regard to the physical aspects of their production; the branch of linguistics that deals with this.

Using phonics to teach reading involves teaching the beginner the sounds associated with the letters of the alphabet before introducing written words. The beginner learns to analyze words by comparing the letters in them to the sounds they represent.

NOTE: Early practice is confined to words in which the letter/sound correspondence is regular. Once the beginner has established the habit of expecting letters to represent spoken sounds, words containing one or more non-phonetic elements are introduced.

Another term, phonology [fə-nŏl’ə-jē, fō-], refers to the study of speech sounds. Phonology encompasses rules governing pronunciation in a given language.

phonology n. Originally: the science of speech sounds and pronunciation, esp. as they occur in a particular language. Now: the branch of linguistics concerned with the study of phonological relationships within a language or between different languages; the system of contrastive and phonotactic* relations among the speech sounds of a particular language. –OED

*phonotactics – The branch of linguistics concerned with the rules governing the possible phoneme** sequences in a language or languages; these rules as they occur in a particular language.

**phoneme – A unit of sound in a language that cannot be analysed into smaller linear units and that can distinguish one word from another (e.g. /p/ and /b/ in English pat, bat).

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6 thoughts on “The Difference Between “Phonics” and “Phonetics””

  1. Learn to Spell also, before you try and teach Phonics in your blog, whats” reading insstruction”

    English is NOT a phonic language!!

  2. English Speaker,
    No need to be narky. Couldn’t you have simply assumed it was a typo and pointed it out to me so that I could correct it?

    Thanks anyway.

  3. Phonetics: the study of speech sounds

    Phonics: the relationship between the sounds of a language and the letters used to represent those sounds

    Phoneme: basic sound unit of speech

    Phonemic Awareness: the understanding that words are made up of individual sounds.It includes the ability to distinguish rhyme, blend sounds, isolate sounds, segment sounds, and manipulate sounds in words.

  4. I always thought that phonics was just a dumbed-down version of phonetics for children and linguistically-ignorant adults.

    Elementary school phonics lessons are so inaccurate that they cause physical pain in people who are linguistically-aware. It’s scary that people who don’t know what short and long vowels really are (what schoolteachers call “long vowels” are actually diphthongs) are teaching kids how to use English.

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