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Phonics: The Key Ingredients for Success

April 8, 2019 valormedia Blog

By Wiley Blevins

Active. Engaging. Thought-Provoking. What do these words describe? The type of phonics instruction that maximizes the instructional impact of our teaching and increases student learning.

Phonics involves learning the relationship between sounds and letters. Approximately 84, of the words in English, can be sounded out using the basic phonics skills commonly taught in grades K-2.

While phonics can be taught different ways, research supports instruction that is explicit and systematic. 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 doesn’t rely on prerequisite skills that some students might not have.

Being explicit, however, does not mean that students can’t play with letter and sounds during the instructional cycle. In fact, word awareness activities like word building and word sorts allow students to become very flexible in their knowledge of letter-sounds and solidifies that learning. 

Being systematic means that we follow a continuum from easy to more complex skills, slowly introducing each 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 a student 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 or silent-e as in the words hate and hope. This is a conceptual leap for young learners where, for the first time, they learn that two letters can work together to make a sound and these letters aren’t even beside each other in the word. Not easy!

In systematic instruction, the teacher displays a known word and compares it to the new to highlight this new concept, as in hop-hope or hat-hate. This side-by-side minimal contrast makes the learning of the new concept more obvious and easier to grasp. The discussion that teachers can have with students about the two words increases their word awareness and understanding of how words work.

In addition to being explicit and systematic, there are seven characteristics of strong phonics instruction that should be evident during the phonics instructional cycle for a new skill.

These include:

1. Readiness Skills

The two best predictors of early reading success are phonemic awareness and alphabet recognition. These skills open the gate for reading. Phonemic awareness is the understanding that words are made up of a series of discrete sounds, called phonemes. A range of subskills is taught to develop phonemic awareness with oral blending and oral segmentation having the most positive impact on reading and writing development. Alphabet recognition involves learning the names, shapes, and sounds of the letters of the alphabet with fluency.

2. Scope and Sequence

A strong scope and sequence builds from the simple to the complex in a way that takes advantage of previous learning. The sequence allows for many words to be formed as early as possible and focuses on teaching high-utility skills before less useful sound-spellings. While there is no “right” scope and sequence, programs that strive to connect concepts and move through a series of skills in a stair-step way offer the best chance at student success.

3. Blending

This is the main strategy for teaching students how to sound out words and must be frequently modeled and applied. It is simply the stringing together of letter sounds to read a word. It is the focus of early phonics instruction, but still plays a role when transitioning students from reading one-syllable words to multisyllabic words.

4. Dictation

To best transfer students’ growing phonics skills to writing, dictation (which is guided spelling with teacher think-alouds) is critical and begins in kindergarten. While not a spelling test, this activity can accelerate students’ spelling abilities and understanding of common English spelling patterns and assist them in using these phonics skills in writing. Used in combination with word building and structured and unstructured writing experiences in phonics instruction, students have increased opportunities to “try out” their developing skills to express ideas in written form.

5. Word Awareness

Word sorts and word building are key activities to increase students’ word awareness. In word building, students are given a set of letter cards and asked to create a series of words in a specific sequence. This increases their ability to work with letter-sounds flexibly and fully analyze words for their component sounds and spellings. In word sorts, students look for common spelling patterns, engage in discussions about what they learn about words from this examination, and increase their ability to notice larger chunks in words (an important skill as they transition from one-syllabic to multisyllabic words).

6. High-Frequency Words

High-frequency words are the most common words in English. Some are irregular; that is, they do not follow common English sound-spellings. Others are regular and needed by students during reading before they have the phonics skills to sound them out. The top 250-300 words are generally taught in Grades K–2. Past Grade 2, when the majority of the key high-frequency words have been introduced, students need to be continually assessed on their mastery of these words, as a lack of fluency can impede comprehension. Some words are more difficult to master (e.g., reversals like no/on and was/saw, of/for/from, and words that begin with wh or th). These words need to receive more instructional time and assessment.

7. Reading Connected Text

The goal of phonics instruction is to develop students’ ability to read connected text independently. Controlled, decodable text (also known as accountable text) at the beginning level of reading instruction helps students develop a sense of comfort in and control over their reading growth and should be a key learning tool in early phonics instruction.

The tight connection between what students learn in phonics and what they read is essential for building a faster foundation in early reading. This is especially critical when students encounter less-controlled leveled readers during small group lessons. These accountable (phonics-based) texts need to be reread to build fluency, discussed to develop comprehension, and written about to provide opportunities for students to apply their growing phonics skills in writing.

Once these seven characteristics are in place, it is important to objectively evaluate the effectiveness of phonics teaching, routing out common obstacles in instruction and instructional materials, such as a lack of review and repetition cycle, not enough focus on the application of skills to authentic reading and writing during the phonics lessons, and a lack of cumulative assessments that can identify when skills are mastered and if the learning of any skill has decayed (a common issue with phonics instruction).

The goal of phonics instruction should be the effective and efficient teaching of the basic letters, spellings, and sounds in English to free students’ mental energies while reading to focus on understanding. 

Wiley Blevins, MEd, is a world-renowned expert on early reading and an author of many professional development books on teaching young children to read.

For over 185 years, William H. Sadlier, Inc. has been dedicated to preparing K–12 students for success in academics with rigorous English Language Arts and Mathematics programs. Sadlier offers a variety of educational solutions from print to technology,