We encounter language in four basic ways: hearing, speaking, reading and writing. The first form by which language comes to us is hearing—before we are able to express language, we hear it used by those around us. Eventually children learn to speak themselves, and by the time they learn to read the average child has a spoken or oral vocabulary of 400-500 words. The larger the child's oral vocabulary, the easier it will be for him to learn to read.
The transition between spoken and read language comes when a child begins to realize the symbols he sees all around him—on road signs, in the hymnal, on the cereal box—represent the words he hears and speaks. Learning to read is simply learning to decipher these symbols in context.
Phonics is the study of the relationship between letters and the sounds they make. A child who learns to read phonetically learns to understand written language based not on the mere appearance of words on the page, but based on the sounds and oral vocabulary he already knows. Phonetic instruction provides the most thorough foundation for understanding written language because it builds upon prior naturally acquired knowledge, rather than setting up a brand-new learning paradigm that can ultimately confuse and frustrate students.
Of course, there is good and bad phonics instruction. Good phonics instruction is the result of pairing an understanding of Phonics Facts with a good Phonics Habit. Phonics facts are the sounds letters make alone or in combination, also called phonograms. A good Phonics Habit entails the ability to read and pronounce phonograms correctly by recalling them from oral memory.
Without a firm grasp of Phonics Facts and a solid Phonics Habit, a person is limited to reading only words he can memorize. No one can memorize every word in the English language, but with phonics a student can read virtually any word he encounters, whether he has seen or heard the word before or not.
Teaching a child to read well takes time; the purpose is not simply to be able to let the child loose as soon as possible, but to provide him the proper tools for unlocking language on his own. The rewards of teaching your child to read are some of the greatest you'll ever have academically—you can almost see his mind waking up as the whole realm of learning opens before him. Basically all knowledge is made available by the ability to read, not just of science and history, but knowledge of God and His people, and the offer of this to your child is one of the greatest gifts you'll ever provide.