Reading 101 is a collaboration with the Center for Effective Reading Instruction and The International Dyslexia Association.

Phonics: In Depth

Phonics 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 phonics 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.

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Phonics instruction teaches children the relationships between letters and sounds.

The English language has 42–46 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).

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Phonics instruction: explicit and systematic

Phonics is best taught explicitly and systematically and then practiced extensively until automatic. When phonics skills become automatic, children can shift their attention to comprehending what they read. When phonics skills are 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.
  • Explicit: Important concepts and skills are taught very clearly and directly by the teacher. Children are not expected to infer these concepts and skills merely from exposure.

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 or first grade (However, phonics should be included in the instruction of any student who has not yet mastered phonics skills, 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

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.

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    When should phonics instruction start?

    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.

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    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.

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    Kinds of phonics instruction

    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. 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.

    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.

    Onset-rime phonics

    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); for instance, they decode shark by blending the sound of the onset, sh, and the rime, ark,.

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    Reading 101 is a collaboration with the Center for Effective Reading Instruction and The International Dyslexia Association.

    "To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark." — Victor Hugo, Les Miserables