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First Year Teacher Self-Study Course

First Year Teacher is a self-paced professional development course for novice K-3 teachers, developed by Reading Rockets. The program provides teachers with an in-depth knowledge of reading so they are prepared to guide their students into becoming skilled and enthusiastic readers.

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Phonics: In Depth

The goal of phonics instruction is to help children learn and use the alphabetic principle — the alphabetic principle is the understanding that there are clear, logical and predictable relationships between written letters and spoken sounds. Knowing these relationships will help children recognize familiar words accurately and automatically, and "decode" new words. In short, knowledge of the alphabetic principle contributes greatly to children's ability to read words both in isolation and in connected text.

Phonics instruction teaches children the relationships between letters and sounds. Sometimes different terms are used to describe the relationship between letters and sounds. Most educators use the term "letter-sound relationship" or they say "the relationship between letters and sounds" — however, you may see one of the terms in the box to the left used to refer to the relationship between letters and sounds.

A sound is a unit of speech called a phoneme. The letters that correspond to those sounds are called graphemes. To be able to read you need to be look at a grapheme (letter) and connect it to its phoneme (sound). To sound out the spelling of a word you need to go back. Break a word into it's set of phonemes(sounds) and connect to the appropriate graphemes (letters).

Critics of phonics instruction argue that English spellings are too irregular for phonics instruction to really help children learn to read words. The point is, however, that phonics instruction teaches children a system for remembering how to read words. Once children learn, for example, that phone is spelled this way rather than foan, their memory helps them to read, spell, and recognize the word instantly and more accurately than they could read foan. The same process is true for all irregularly spelled words. Most of these words contain some regular letter-sound relationships that can help children remember how to read them. In summary, the alphabetic system is a mnemonic device that supports our memory for specific words.

Let's look at the definitions of "systematic" and "explicit" again

  • Systematic: the letter-sound relationship is taught in an organized and logical sequence.
  • Explicit: the instruction provides teachers with precise directions for teaching letter-sound relationships.

Systematic and explicit phonics instruction

  • teaches letter-sound relationships in a clearly defined sequence.
  • teaches the major sound/spelling relationships of both consonants and vowels.
  • provides materials that give children substantial practice in applying knowledge of letter-sound relationships as they learn to read and write.
  • uses books or stories that contain a large number of words that children can decode by using the letter-sound relationships they have learned and are learning.
  • provides students with opportunities to spell words and to write their own stories with the letter-sound relationships they are learning.
  • produces the greatest impact on children's reading achievement when it begins in kindergarten or first grade (however, phonics should be included in the instruction of any student who has not yet mastered the letter-sound relationship).
  • results in kindergarten and first-grade students being better readers and spellers than their peers who are not taught phonics in a way that is systematic and explicit.
  • significantly improves children's reading comprehension.
  • is beneficial to children regardless of their socioeconomic status; it helps children from various backgrounds make greater gains in reading than non-systematic instruction or no phonics instruction.
  • helps to prevent reading difficulties among at risk students.
  • helps struggling readers overcome reading difficulties.

Approaches to phonics instruction

Most teachers are acquainted with several approaches to phonics instruction or a combination of phonics approaches. The distinctions between approaches are not absolute, as some instructional programs combine approaches.

Why should phonics instruction begin in kindergarten or first grade? What's the rush?

Phonics instruction is most effective when it begins in kindergarten or first grade. To be effective with young learners, instruction must be designed appropriately and taught carefully. It should include teaching letter shapes and names, phonemic awareness, and all major letter–sound relationships. It should ensure that all children learn these skills. As instruction proceeds, children should be taught to use this knowledge to read and write words.

Phonics should also be used with struggling readers across grade levels. Phonics can be used with upper grades through activities such as word origins, prefixes and suffixes.

Is it true that a reading program can consist entirely of phonics instruction?

No. Phonics instruction that teaches letter-sound relationships in a clearly defined sequence (systematically) and in a manner that is clear and unambiguous, (explicit), should be PART of a comprehensive reading program. Along with phonics instruction, young children should be solidifying their knowledge of the alphabet, engaging in phonemic awareness activities, and listening to stories and informational texts read aloud to them. They also should be reading texts (both out loud and silently), and writing letters, words, messages, and stories.

Teaching Tip

There are many ways phonics can be taught. Here are some examples:

  • Synthetic phonics
    Children learn how to convert letters or letter combinations into sounds, and then how to blend the sounds together to form recognizable words.
  • Analytic phonics
    Children learn to analyze letter-sound relationships in previously learned words. They do not pronounce sounds in isolation.
  • Analogy-based phonics
    Children learn to use parts of word families they know to identify words they don't know that have similar parts.
  • Phonics through spelling
    Children learn to segment words into phonemes and to make words by writing letters for phonemes.
  • Embedded phonics
    Children are taught letter-sound relationships during the reading of connected text. (Since children encounter different letter-sound relationships as they read, this approach is not systematic or explicit.)
  • Onset-rime phonics
    instruction Children learn to identify the sound of the letter or letters before the first vowel (the onset) in a one-syllable word and the sound of the remaining part of the word (the rime).

Adapted from: Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read Kindergarten Through Grade 3, a publication of The Partnership for Reading.

Phonemic Segmentation

At J.C. Nalle Elementary School in Washington, DC, a kindergarten teacher learns a technique for teaching students how to identify the individual sounds within a word.

Phonics: In Depth

Phonics Terms

  • graphophonemic relationships
  • letter–sound associations
  • letter–sound correspondences
  • sound–symbol correspondences
  • sound-spellings

Learn More!

Diary of a First Year Teacher

Diary of a First Year Teacher

Join Barbara Zielinski, a first grade teacher at River Plaza Elementary School in Middletown, NJ, during her first year teaching.

"Today a reader, tomorrow a leader." — Margaret Fuller