Phonics - An Overview

Phonics instruction is central to kindergarten and first grade instruction - beginning by learning the letters of the alphabet, their shape, and then the sounds of the letters.

Next, children learn additional sounds and the letters that represent them. In 2nd and 3rd grades, children review learned sound-symbol correspondences and learn multi-syllabic decoding. Future elementary phonics instruction will focus on word analysis and strengthening and securing all prior phonics learning.

Before jumping in to learning about Phonics, test your knowledge by taking this pre-test.

Phonics is defined as the relationship between the sounds of oral language and the letters or spellings that represent those sounds when written. Children use phonics skills when they apply their knowledge of sounds and spelling patterns to their reading and writing of words. This overview of the what, how, and why of phonics instruction:

  • Values phonics as a foundational skill for learning to read that must be taught systematically and explicitly
  • Takes a culturally relevant-sustaining approach to the teaching of phonics, which considers how the languages, cultures, identities, and interests of children are relevant to and integrated into our teaching of phonics
  • Recognizes that the teaching of phonics skills is one aspect of literacy that must be taught alongside of other areas such as comprehension, vocabulary, knowledge development, and criticality

WHY Phonics is Critical to Reading Development

Phonics underlies children’s ability to read and spell words. When children understand that oral language is written as print and how the spelling of words is related to speech sounds, they can decode (break apart and blend) words to read, and they can encode (segment) words to spell. A lack of phonics skills in the early years can lead to children relying primarily on other, less reliable strategies like meaning to figure out words. It can also lead to an inability to decode/chunk longer multisyllabic words that children encounter later on in reading.

Phonics is connected to the other areas of literacy instruction. Phonemic awareness is the process by which readers start understanding how sounds make up words, and phonics is the understanding of how letters and sounds are connected. Early literacy skills like these lead directly into the process of decoding. The more skilled a reader is with decoding, the more fluent they become. The impact of phonics learning is far-reaching. As phonics increases, so too does the reader’s ability to comprehend what they are reading. And, once children can spell words, they can write with more fluency and meaning. The big idea is that phonics instruction, the knowledge of letter-sound patterns applied to reading and writing, is a means to becoming a reader and writer. It is only one part of the journey. Becoming the readers and writers our children are capable of becoming requires not just acquiring the skills, but participating in instruction that is meaningful to them, and aligned to their identities, languages, cultures, and interests.

WHAT is Phonics

Foundational Skills that Underlie Phonics

Phonemic awareness: the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate individual sounds—called phonemes—in spoken words

Print concepts: the understanding that what we say can be represented in print. And that in print, letters make up words and words make up phrases and sentences that collectively represent meaning

Alphabetic knowledge: the ability to identify each specific letter, know the difference between them, and begin to write them

If we consider our English language to have three layers, phonics represents a firm understanding of the first two layers and it significantly influences the third:

  1. The alphabetic layer, in which basic letter-sound correspondences are learned

  2. The pattern layer, where children examine consonant-vowel patterns

  3. The meaning and morphological layer, where children learn new vocabulary and make generalizations about the meaning structures of affixes, prefixes, and suffixes on words

HOW Do We Teach Phonics

Explicitly and Systematically

Explicit and systematic instruction, as defined by the ILA, is critical to teaching phonics effectively:

Explicit means that the initial introduction of a letter–sound relationship, or phonics skill, is directly stated to students. For example, we tell students that the /s/ sound is represented by the letter s. This is more effective than the discovery method because it does not rely on prerequisite skills that some students might not have. Being explicit, however, does not mean that students cannot play with letters and sounds during the instructional cycle. In fact, word awareness activities like word building and word sorts allow students to become flexible in their knowledge of sound-spellings and solidifies that learning.

“Being systematic means that we follow a continuum from easy to more complex skills, slowly introducing each new skill. Systematic instruction includes a review and repetition cycle to achieve mastery and goes from the known to the new in a way that makes the new learning more obvious and easier for students to grasp. For example, after students learn to read simple short-vowel CVC words like run, cat, and hop, they are often introduced to the skill final-e as in the words hate and hope.”

While a teacher’s knowledge of how phonics typically develops will help them to fill gaps in children’s development, we need to recognize that all children develop differently and will need different intensities of phonics instruction. Instruction should start with an assessment to determine what skills children need, and how often they need them

In Service of Reading and Writing

Phonics should be taught in service of reading and writing, not in place of other instruction needed to learn, read, and write well. The goal of phonics instruction is to decode and encode words to read, write, and spell (as opposed to the goal being to learn a set of skills in isolation. Knowing what “r-controlled vowel” means, for example, is only useful as it helps you to decode and encode). Spelling and writing are critical components of phonics instruction. Learning to decode and encode are connected, simultaneous processes that require the same set of skills (phonics knowledge: the knowledge of letters and sounds and how words work).

With Multiple Approaches

Traditionally, there have been two basic approaches for teaching phonics:

  • Analytic instruction, where we compare words to identify patterns or examine similarities in word families, like the –at word family, and then apply this knowledge to new words.
  • Synthetic phonics, which focuses on individual sounds and teaches children to blend individual letter sounds together to form words (e.g., c-a-t/cat).

Both approaches to phonics, analytic and synthetic, should be used when teaching phonics, and can be done explicitly and systematically. A contemporary, holistic approach to phonics instruction that takes both approaches into account is “word study.” Word study is an instructional methodology to teach the alphabetic and pattern layers of the writing system.

By Utilizing a Child’s Home Language

A child who is already decoding in their home language can capitalize on that strength by understanding the similarities and differences inherent in decoding in their home language and English (Genesee, 2012). An educators’ awareness of the sound spellings in English that do and do not occur in a child’s home language (for example, sounds like d, p, t are the same in English and Spanish) will help them devote more instructional time to the sound spellings that are not as likely to transfer between the child’s home language and English (such as short vowels or the sound of j). Instruction of these sounds to English learners is best aided by visual clues and by clear demonstrations of the articulation of sounds.

Because children learning English may develop an understanding of the alphabet and letter-sound correspondence in English before fully developing phonemic awareness in English, educators can regard phonics as a pathway to phonemic awareness, and be willing to work on phonemic awareness as they work on phonics (Barone and Xu, 2008), as opposed to waiting to teach phonics until phonological awareness is mastered.

When assessing English learners on their knowledge of sounds in English (school English is white mainstream English, which is the language of instruction), educators must keep in mind that children with different home languages may be aware of sound-symbol connections and are just pronouncing them differently. It is particularly important to be aware of these aspects of pronunciation when assessing letter sounds, so that the assessment provides accurate depiction of what children know (Barone and Xu, 2008).

In addition to utilizing knowledge of a child’s home language in the instruction and assessment of school English, multilanguage learners also benefit from the integration of vocabulary and phonics instruction. A first grade emergent English learner working to decode the short vowel patterns in bag, rag, wag, nag, tag, and sag, must also understand the meaning of these words.

With a Gradual Release Approach

An approach to teaching phonics that includes a brief whole class mini-lesson that names the concept or skill of focus is important. Instruction within balanced literacy practices will then help show children HOW to use the skills in reading and writing. Pointing out how we use skills and using clear, consistent language related to what skills are and how to use them—through modeling, guiding, and independent practice—will help children to transfer skills.

It is especially critical that in the early years (K/1) we are modeling, getting children to watch us read and write, while explicitly naming behaviors we are using to read and write. This begins with modeling concepts of print. Adding in word study to small group reading instruction is particularly beneficial because instruction can be differentiated for the small group and practiced in the context of instructional level text, providing the appropriate amount of challenge.

Across a Range of Texts

Children should have access to a diverse set of texts in which to practice phonics skills. Practice in decodable texts early on can be useful, but not sufficient. In other words, these texts should not be the only type of text they have access to. Quality texts (that are not considered “decodable”) will give children a chance to apply their knowledge of phonics skills to decode words while also comprehending; decodable texts often lack story line and depth.

We know what does work, and research tells us what does not work:

  • Phonics worksheets
  • Spelling lists to memorize
  • Teaching only phonics “rules”
  • “Drill and kill” type teaching of phonics through only flash cards and memorization
  • Inappropriate alphabet key words
  • Focus on phonics above all other areas of reading development
  • Focus on the teaching of reading skills, including phonics

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