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 they 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.

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Phonics instruction can be defined as direct, explicit and systematic instruction in the letter- sound relationships that govern the English language. Phonics, along with book and print awareness, phonological and phonemic awareness and word structure make up the scope of skills necessary to decode. Here we will look closely at why phonics instruction is critical for teaching children to read, what phonics instruction encompasses and how to approach phonics instruction in the classroom.

WHY Phonics is Critical to Reading Development

Phonics is important because it underlies children’s ability to read and spell words. They must understand that oral language is written as print and how the spelling of words is related to speech sounds, so that they can decode (break apart and blend) words to read and encode (segment) words to spell. A lack of phonics skills in the early years can lead to children relying primarily on other 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. As phonics increases, so too does the reader’s ability to comprehend what they are reading. Once children can spell words, they can write with more fluency and meaning.

WHAT is Phonics

Phonics is defined as the relationship between the sounds of oral language and the letters or spellings that represent those sounds when written.

Foundational Skills that Underlie Phonics

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

Print concepts is 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 is the ability to identify each specific letter, know the difference between them, and begin to write them.

Phonics is a firm understanding of the first two of three layers of our English language:

  1. The alphabetic layer, in which basic letter-sound correspondences are learned
  2. The pattern layer, where students examine consonant-vowel patterns
  3. The meaning and morphological layer, where students learn new vocabulary and make generalizations about the meaning structures of affixes, which are beginnings, prefixes, and endings, suffixes, on words

There are areas of phonics learning that include Early Literacy Knowledge, Phonological Awareness, Letter Knowledge, Letter Sound Relationships, Spelling Patterns, High Frequency Words, Word Meaning/Vocabulary, Word Structures, Word Solving Actions.

HOW Do We Teach Phonics

Guiding Principles for How to Teach Phonics

  1. Explicit, Systematic instruction in phonics, as defined below 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.”

  2. Phonics should be taught IN SERVICE of reading and writing, not in place of other instruction needed to learn and 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 is it helps you to decode and encode). Spelling and Writing are critical components to 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).

  3. Both Approaches to Phonics instruction: 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 utilized 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”—which is an instructional methodology to teach the alphabetic and pattern layers of the writing system.

  4. A Scope and Sequence with differentiation:

    A scope and sequence for phonics instruction is important so that teachers understand a basic continuum of skills across stages and grades- however the exact scope/sequence used is not as important as there are only slight variances in different experts/programs scopes.

    While a teachers 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 it.

  5. 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- and then instruction within balanced literacy practices will help show children HOW to use the skills in reading and writing. Pointing out how we use skills- 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- which begin with modeling concepts of print.

    Adding in word study to guided reading is particularly beneficial because instruction can be differentiated for the small group, and, practiced in the context of instructional level text (which provides the appropriate amount of challenge).

  6. Direct AND Discovery:

    Children need to be directly told about the features and differences between letters, patterns, and words AND have time to analyze and discover these on their own.

    Children need to be taught letters and sounds at the same time, and know the difference between high frequency words that are decodable, and those that are not.For information on how to teach high frequency words, and how to display these words in the classroom, click here.

    All practice with letters and words needs to be engaging, hands on, and fun (moving letter tiles, sorting words, singing and discovering patterns in words in nursery rhymes, etc.)

  7. A range of texts:

    Children should have access to a diverse set of texts to practice phonics skills in. 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/depth).

The guiding principles above support the research that explicitly teaching sound-letter relationships and their application to reading and writing is critical to reading development. We know what does work, and research also tells us what doesn’t:

  • 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

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