Two older established models of reading have emerged during this national examination of our early reading curriculum: the Simple View of Reading and Scarborough’s Reading Rope. The Simple View of Reading (Gough and Tunmer, 1986) states that reading comprehension is a product of decoding (e.g., phonics) and language comprehension (e.g., vocabulary and content knowledge).
Scarborough’s Reading Rope (2001) fine-tuned this model to specify aspects of each area of reading instruction and how they intersect. As a student’s decoding skills become more automatic and they become more strategic in using their growing language comprehension skills, these skills intertwine. The result: students develop into skilled, fluent readers.
In these models, the decoding piece includes foundational skills like phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, concepts of print, and phonics. So how do we align our phonics instruction to the Science of Reading? There are four important guideposts to consider.
Guidepost 1: Scope and Sequence
In order to effectively teach phonics, we need a clearly defined scope and sequence. This is a scope and sequence that goes from easier to more complex skills. Confusing letters and sounds are separated, and so on. This scope and sequence provides the spine on which all of the instruction rests. It is a roadmap for teachers. What to teach. When to teach. And how much focus to give each of these skills.
But having a scope and sequence isn't enough. A scope and sequence must be more than a list of skills that you march through in an exposure-focused way. In order for a scope and sequence to be impactful, it must also have a built-in review and repetition cycle. Once we introduce a new skill, for most of our students, it takes a significant amount of time to get to mastery. Students have to get to mastery so that they can transfer those skills to all reading and writing situations. So, after a skill is introduced, it should be reviewed, applied, and assessed for at least the next 4–6 weeks. Check out this Scope and Sequence example from From Phonics to Reading.
Guidepost 2: Systematic and Explicit Instruction
Phonics instruction needs to be systematic and explicit. Systematic is related to having a scope and sequence and teaching those skills as a system. But teaching phonics as a system means that we go beyond skill-and-drill practice. We must also have robust conversations with our students about how that system works. So great phonics instruction is active, engaging, and thought provoking, whereby children are observing and talking about how words work. Activities such as word building and word sorts (with follow-up question prompts like “what did you learn about these spelling patterns?”) aid in these conversations.
Explicit refers to the initial introduction of a phonics skill. Teachers need to explicitly state the sound-spelling connection (e.g., the /s/ sound is represented by the letter s). In an explicit introduction to the skill, the teacher models how to sound out words with the new skill and then gives children guided practice opportunities to apply the skill in isolated words and in connected text. This avoids the pitfalls of discovery learning, which require students to possess prerequisite skills that some may not have.
Great phonics instruction is active, engaging, and thought provoking, whereby children are observing and talking about how words work.
Guidepost 3: Daily Application to Reading and Writing
Daily application to reading and writing during the phonics lesson is critical. It is in the application where the learning sticks. This requires students to read, reread, talk about, and write about decodable (accountable) texts in which they can apply their newly acquired phonics skills to get to mastery faster. These texts have a high percentage of words that can be sounded out based on the phonics skills children have learned, as well as some irregular high-frequency words and the occasional story word to make more engaging reads.
The most impactful instruction has students not only read and discuss these stories but write about them as follow up. If it’s a fiction story, students can write a retelling. If it’s an informational piece, students can create a list of facts learned. This requires students to apply their growing reading skills to writing immediately. The book can serve as a useful and supportive scaffold. It is in the application where the learning "sticks." Hear about the importance of reading connected text.
Guidepost 4: Assessment
Assessment needs to inform instruction. When it comes to phonics, assessments must be viewed through two lenses: accuracy and automaticity. This tells us if students have knowledge about what has been taught (accuracy) and if they have acquired fluency with those skills (automaticity).
Phonics instruction requires two critical types of assessments: comprehensive and cumulative. A comprehensive phonics assessment is a survey of all the skills a student would learn in a phonics continuum (from identifying letter-sounds to reading words with short vowels, long vowels, complex vowels, and finally multisyllabic words). This assessment is essential at the beginning of a school year to identify which students have not mastered previous grade-level skills, which are meeting grade-level expectations, and which are beyond the scope of skills covered in a grade.
Assessment needs to inform instruction... Phonics instruction requires two critical types of assessments: comprehensive and cumulative.
A cumulative assessment is what’s missing from most instruction and is critical for phonics success. A cumulative assessment assesses the new target skill and previously taught skills (generally looking back 4–6 weeks). This assessment monitors skill growth over time—a more accurate assessment since it takes weeks for most students to get to mastery on a taught skill. It can also alert a teacher to decayed learning (skills in which not enough review and application has been provided and the skill has “slipped away”) so that course corrections can be made to avoid potential and serious learning issues as students move from grade to grade. In addition to these assessments, teachers need to regularly listen to students read aloud and evaluate their writing for evidence of transfer.
These four guideposts alert us to key aspects of phonics instruction that need to be in place, how to teach them, and how to assess them. Evaluating our phonics curriculum against these guideposts can strengthen our instruction and maximize student learning. Here is a checklist to use when evaluating phonics instructional routines.
From Phonics to Reading has received the highest rating: ALL GREEN, “Meets Expectations,” from EdReports, an independent, nonprofit, educator-led, curriculum reviewer of K–12 instructional materials, reviewed From Phonics to Reading for the Foundational Skills Instruction Alignment to Gateways 1 and 2 which focus on Standards and Research-Based Practices and Implementation, Support Materials & Assessment.
“My goal in creating this program with the Sadlier team was to provide a compact, efficient, affordable phonics resource that reflected the most current research on phonics but addressed issues not commonly covered in available resources—including addressing the top ten reasons why phonics instruction sometimes fails (Ten Common Causes of Phonics Instruction Failure), reflecting some of my most important work with school districts across the United States, South America, and Asia.”
Blevins, W. (2021). Choosing and using decodable texts. New York, NY: Scholastic.
Blevins, W. (2020). Meaningful phonics and word study: Lesson fix ups for impactful teaching. New Rochelle, NY: Benchmark Education.
Blevins, W. (2019). Meeting the challenges of early literacy phonics instruction. Literacy Leadership Brief No. 9452. International Literacy Association.
Blevins, W. (2016). A fresh look at phonics: Common causes of failure and 7 ingredients for success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Blevins, W. (2017). Phonics from A to Z: A practical guide. 3rd Edition. New York, NY: Scholastic.