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Word recognition skills involve knowing letter-sound relationships, such as the sound made by the letter m or by common letter patterns such as sh, as well as being able to apply that knowledge to decode unfamiliar words.

To apply their word recognition skills successfully, children also need to grasp the alphabetic principle, the understanding that written language involves a code, with clear, logical, and predictable relationships between written letters and spoken sounds. Knowing these relationships will help children read familiar words accurately and automatically and “decode” words that they don’t know already.

In short, knowledge of phonics and of the alphabetic principle contributes greatly to children’s ability to read words both in isolation and in connected text.

Is English spelling too irregular?

Critics of phonics instruction sometimes say that English spelling is too irregular for phonics instruction to really help children learn to read or spell words. It is true that letter-sound relationships in English are complex when compared to some other languages, such as Spanish. Many English words cannot be decoded letter by letter, and some letters, especially vowels, have multiple sounds. However, most English words are quite decodable if children learn to pay attention to common letter patterns within words.

For instance, although the word light cannot be decoded letter by letter, it is easily decodable if the reader recognizes the igh as a pattern that says long i. Even words typically taught as irregular, such as pretty or what, often are mostly decodable except for a single irregular sound, usually the vowel.

Although mastering these complex letter-sound relationships can be challenging for some children, the alternative — memorizing “by sight” the many thousands of words needed to read proficiently in English — is simply not possible. No one can become a good reader in English by just memorizing all the words necessary to read at advanced levels of literacy. To learn more, read these articles:

Phonics instruction teaches children the relationships between letters and sounds

The English language has 44 speech sounds but only 26 letters. A sound is a unit of speech called a phoneme. The letters that correspond to those sounds are called graphemes. 

In order to read an unknown word, a child needs to be able to look at the graphemes (letter or letter pattern) and connect each one to its phoneme (sound).

To spell, children need to do the opposite process: break a word into its sequence of phonemes (sounds) and connect to the appropriate graphemes (letters).

Phonics instruction: explicit and systematic

Phonics is best taught explicitly and systematically and then practiced extensively until automatic. When word recogition becomes automatic, children can shift their attention to comprehending what they read. When word recognition is not automatic and children must laboriously decode words sound by sound, fluency and comprehension falter.

Let’s look at the definitions of “systematic” and “explicit” again

Systematic: Letter-sound relationships are taught in an organized and logical sequence, with many opportunities for cumulative practice. Regular progress monitoring helps ensure that skills are taught to mastery.

Explicit: Important concepts and skills are taught very clearly and directly by the teacher. Children are not expected to infer these concepts and skills just from exposure alone.

Teaching to mastery

What does it mean to “teach to mastery” and why is it important? Instruction that focuses on mastery looks like this:

  • New material is introduced is small units that students are able to absorb; the new information builds directly on a previous lesson
  • Students are given lots of opportunities to apply material taught in a previous lesson and show what they’ve learned, with the goal of being correct at least 90% of the time

Why is teaching to mastery so effective? Students who have truly mastered the material in a lesson can more easily learn new material. They are learning incrementally and solidifying their knowledge each step of the way. Together with our students, we’ve built a strong foundation for learning new skills and concepts. Mastering new material is also highly motivating and boosts kids’ self-esteem and confidence because they see that they can be successful.

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
  • gives 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 (However, phonics should be included in the instruction of any student who has not yet mastered word recognition, including adolescents.)
  • 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

Scope and sequence for phonics instruction

A scope and sequence is our roadmap for instruction. It guides our lessons based on a logical sequence of skills, builds on previously learned skills, and allows you to identify gaps in instruction. Your school or district may have a defined scope and sequence for phonics instruction in the early grades that has been developed internally or defined by the research-based reading program you’re using.

Here are some examples of a scope and sequence for phonics instruction, some more detailed than others:

Approaches to phonics instruction

Most of us are familiar 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.

When should phonics instruction start?

Phonics instruction is most effective when it begins in kindergarten. 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 good 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 (explicitly), should be PART of a comprehensive reading program.

Along with phonics instruction, young children and struggling readers should be solidifying their knowledge of the letter names, 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.

Kinds of phonics instruction

There are a number of different approaches to phonics instruction, described below. Synthetic and analytic are the most well-known.

Which approach to phonics instruction is the most effective? There is some debate around that (See: Which is best? Analytic or synthetic phonics?).

However, in this widely cited report, Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading (opens in a new window) (2006), education expert Sir Jim Rose says:

“Despite uncertainties in research findings, the practice seen by the review shows that the systematic approach, which is generally understood as ‘synthetic’ phonics, offers the vast majority of young children the best and most direct route to becoming skilled readers and writers.”

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. For example, an unfamiliar word like shark is decoded by blending the sounds for sh, ar, and k. This is the most effective method of instruction for the largest number of children.

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 — for instance, reading the unknown word shark by comparison to the known word bark.

Onset-rime phonics

In this subtype of analogy phonics, instruction focuses on high-utility phonogram or ‘rime’ families such as -at (bat, cat, fat, sat, etc.) and -an (can, man, fan, tan, plan, etc.).

Phonics through spelling

Children learn to segment words into phonemes and to make words by writing letters for each phoneme.

Embedded phonics

Children are taught letter-sound relationships during the reading of connected text. For example, a child might learn to decode shark in the context of a short story about sharks and other ocean life. Since children encounter many different letter-sound relationships as they read stories, this approach is not systematic or explicit.