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What is Phonics?

What Is Phonics?

Phonics is a foundational skill in reading, along with Print Concepts, Phonological Awareness, Phonics and Word Recognition, and Fluency. Phonics is an approach to teaching reading that focuses on the relationships of written letters and their corresponding sounds. Phonics instruction helps readers acquire letter-sound correspondences and apply this knowledge to decode (read) and encode (spell) words. While phonics can be taught in many ways, an explicit and systematic approach is most effective for student learning.

Research has shown the power of early instruction in phonics for young students’ reading and writing development. Read the International Literacy Association (ILA) Literacy Leadership Brief by Wiley Blevins.

Types of Phonics Instruction

What Is Synthetic Phonics?

In a synthetic approach to phonics instruction, students are taught the sounds that make up a word, and the letters that represent those sounds. Students are taught to blend these individual sounds to make and pronounce recognizable words. In this approach, students are explicitly taught.

What Is Analytic Phonics?

In an analytic approach to phonics instruction, students are taught to break down a known word into the smaller units of sound.

What Is Linguistic Phonics?

Linguistic phonics is a subset of analytic phonics. In linguistic approaches to phonics instruction, children decode and learn unknown words from known patterns.

What Is Analogy Phonics?

In an analogy approach to phonics instruction, students learn to decode unknown words by using known words or word parts.

What Is Embedded Phonics?

In embedded phonics approaches, phonics is taught in the context of authentic reading and writing experiences. Students are not taught to recognize or pronounce sounds in isolation. This approach is more often associated with whole language instruction, or unsystematic/incidental instruction and is neither systematic nor explicit.

Systematic and Explicit Phonics Instruction

What Is Systematic Phonics Instruction?

Systematic phonics instruction means that phonics concepts are introduced incrementally, increasing in complexity, beginning with easier skills and building to more complex skills. Opportunities for built-in review and repeated exposure to concepts previously learned are important aspects to systematic phonics instruction. Systematic instruction allows students to learn new concepts through comparison of what is already known and has been mastered, with a clearly defined scope and sequence of lessons. Systematic instruction also provides opportunities for students to not only access grade-level instruction through whole-class lessons, but also opportunities to benefit from targeted, small-group work tailored to specific student needs and gaps. Along with explicit instruction, systematic phonics instruction is a key component to a successful phonics program.

What Is Explicit Phonics Instruction?

Explicit phonics instruction means that the teacher directly teaches phonics concepts. Students are initially taught letter-sound correspondences, through statement and direct modeling by the teacher, instead of being left to discover these skills through a discovery approach. Students are directly taught, for example, that the /m/ sound is represented by the letter m. Through direct teaching and modeling, such as in the Gradual Release of Responsibility instructional model: guide instruction (I Do), guided practice (We Do), and independent practice (You Do), students acquire new phonics skills. Pearson, P.D.; Gallagher, M. (October 1983) Explicit, along with systematic, instruction is a key component to a successful phonics program.

Important Phonics Terms

There are many phonic terms that are important to define and understand. The following terms and definitions are just some of the important words to know when it comes to phonics.


A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in spoken language. The English language has 26 letters, but 44 phonemes.


Graphemes are the letters and clusters of letters used to represent phonemes. A grapheme can consist of multiple letters. An example of a 3 letter grapheme is the cluster of letters "igh" in the word "night."


A morpheme is the smallest meaningful linguistic unit that cannot be further divided. A morpheme may be an individual word or a part of a word, frequently an affix, like the affix "re-" in the word "repeat."


Two letters that combine together to correspond to one phoneme, or sound, is known as a digraph. Examples of common consonant digraphs include sh, ch, th, and wh.


Diphthongs are made up of two vowels that produce a unique sound when spoken, like /oi/ in the word foil.


A syllable is a unit of speech that may be either a word or a word part containing a vowel or vowel sound. The word phonics has two syllables.

Onset and Rime

In a syllable, the onset is the initial consonant or consonant cluster preceding the vowel. The rime is the remaining part of the syllable that includes the vowel and the sound that follows.

Vowel and Consonant

In English, the vowels are a, e, i, o, and u. The other letters of the alphabet are consonants. Vowels and consonants are articulated differently than the vowels in the human vocal tract.

Key Characteristics of Strong Phonics Instruction

In addition to being explicit and systematic, strong phonics instruction must include seven key characteristics that are critical for student success (Blevins, 2017, 2011, 2006, 2001). A multi-tiered approach to phonics instruction, where whole-group and small-group lessons work in concert to meet learning needs, benefits all students.

Readiness Skills

The two best predictors of early reading success are phonemic awareness and alphabet recognition. Phonemic awareness is the ability to detect and manipulate phonemes—the smallest units of spoken language. Alphabet recognition means knowing the letters of the alphabet by name, shape, and sound.

At the beginning of first grade, there is a lot of emphasis on oral blending and oral segmentation—the "power skills."

Scope and Sequence

In order to be systematic, phonics instruction needs a strong scope and sequence, which builds from the simple to the complex in a way that takes advantage of previous learning. A strong scope and sequence includes time for mastery via a review and repetition cycle and connect concepts in a way that supports student success.


Blending is a strategy that involves the stringing together of letter sounds to read a word. It is both the focus of early phonics instruction and important when transitioning students from reading one-syllable words to multisyllabic words. There are two types of blending: final and successive. Successful blending requires modeling and application. For example, this blending lesson from Wiley Blevins, author of the From Phonics to Reading foundational skills program, uses what the student already knows to teach the long a spelled /ai/ and /ay/.

Word Awareness

Students' awareness of words and how they work can be supported by activities including word building and word sorts. In word building, students create a sequence of words. In word sorts, students categorize words based on certain criteria.

High-Frequency Words

High-frequency words are the most common words in English. High-frequency words may be irregular in that they do not follow common sound-spellings, or regular in that they do. Examples of high-frequency words are of, like, he, she, and is.


Dictation is guided spelling with teacher think-alouds. This activity can support students in using phonics skills in their writing, accelerating students’ spelling abilities, and building understanding of common English spelling patterns. Accelerate students' use of phonics skills by providing dictation activities.

Reading Connected Text

Connected text is multiple sentences related to each other, and reading it requires more skill than simply reading words in isolation. There must be a link between what students are learning in phonics instruction and reading. Reading decodable text is a tool to support early phonics instruction. These accountable texts must be instructive, engaging, and comprehensible for students to be effective, using standard English language sentence patterns and high-utility words.

It's in the application where the learning "sticks." This is an incredibly important daily part of the phonics instruction. After reading the decodable text, teachers should ask comprehension questions to deepen meaning of the text. Here is a tip sheet for choosing decodable texts. 

Strong Instructors

Well-prepared and well-informed teachers are an essential component of effective phonics instruction. Teachers who know the research and who avoid the common pitfalls that impede students' success in phonics are more impactful. Teachers can reflect, evaluate, and improve phonics instruction based on the seven characteristics of strong phonics instruction.

It is critical to reflect on your phonics instruction and know what to look for in a strong phonics program. 

What Is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate sounds, called phonemes, in spoken words. There are many different types of skills that make up phonemic awareness, including phoneme isolation, phoneme blending, phoneme segmentation, phoneme deletion, phoneme addition, phoneme substitution and auditory discrimination. Students with phonemic awareness are able to pick out and play with individual sounds in spoken words. Phonemic awareness is different from phonics because it is associated with spoken words and oral tasks, while phonics is print-based.

Researchers agree that we need to get students to the phoneme level as quickly as possible in order to sound out words and spell words. According to most standards in the United States, this is to be done at the Kindergarten level.

Susan Brady, professor and researcher, came out with a paper recently addressing the questions around phonemic awareness expectations. "One of the compelling research findings is that phoneme awareness can be taught to children who lack phonological sensitivity. Commercial programs to build phoneme awareness, that begin at the phoneme level (not providing prior instruction in rhyme, syllable, and onset-rime), are very successful with Kindergarten students. Recent school-based research corroborates the strong benefits of instruction in the first year of school that focuses on phonemes and that links phonemes with letters, along with other literacy-related activities." Listen to Wiley Blevins address this research and the importance of phonemic awareness. Here is an example of a phonemic awareness activity for the initial /d/.

What Is Oral Blending?

Oral blending is blending, or putting together, sounds to make words. Provide a word, sound by sound for students to put together (blending the sounds) to form a whole word. For example, “Listen to the sounds I put together to make a word. /s/, /a/, /t/, /sssaaat/, sat. The word is sat.”

What Is Oral Segmentation?

Oral segmentation is the ability to break apart sounds in words. For example, a student can segment the word wish into three sounds: /w/ /i/ and /sh/. Segmentation is helpful in decoding when a student looks at a word, breaks it down letter by letter, and uses each letter’s corresponding sound to blend and ultimately read the word.

What Are Vowel Sounds?

In the English language, vowel sounds are the sounds associated with the letters a, e, i, o and u. Vowels are necessary within English syllables. Vowel sounds are variable; they can make different sounds depending on the other letters they are accompanied by and their placements within syllables. For example, the vowel e sounds like /e/ in the word egg, but also /ee/ in the word me. The /e/ sound in egg is an example of a short vowel sound. These games help students practice the short a and short o vowel sounds as part of a vowel pattern. 

Phonics and early literacy expert Wiley Blevins has stressed using “power words” to introduce a targeted skill such as short u. This printable activity includes a short, playful text with high-utility words that students will encounter often.

Articulation exercises can help children understand the differences in mouth formation when making sounds. From Phonics to Reading has two interactive sound walls, Vowel Valley and Consonants Wall, for use in modeling and practicing articulation. 

Use the vowel sound wall when introducing a new lesson or as part of the cumulative quick check of taught skills. Model with children contrasting vowel sounds. Say /ē/. Think about how your mouth feels. Then say /e/. Think about how your mouth feels when making this sound. Do you notice a difference? Now, use your mirror to look at your mouth when making these sounds.

What Are Consonant Sounds?

In the English language, consonant sounds are the sounds associated with the letters b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, y, and z. Unlike vowels, consonants tend to have regular pronunciation and their sounds are less variable. For example, the consonant b makes the consistent sound /b/ in the words best, rubber, and tub regardless of its placement within the words. There are some common two- and three-letter consonant patterns which can support students in phonics.

Use the consonants sounds wall when introducing a new lesson or as part of the cumulative quick check of taught skills. Model with children. Say /b/. Think about how your mouth feels. Place your hand in front of your mouth. Say /b/ again. Did you feel a puff of air? Now say /g/. Do you notice a difference? Use your mirror to look at your mouth when making these sounds.

How Do You Assess Phonics?

Assessment is critical for successful phonics instruction. In order to support instruction, assessment results must be timely, granular, and prescriptive. Evaluation of students’ foundational skills (including phonics) is essential through two critical lenses: accuracy and automaticity. Accuracy shows correctness in reading words with specific phonics skills. Automaticity shows mastery of these skills. For a complete assessment of students’ developing foundational skills (including phonics), multiple tools must be used.

  • Placement
    A comprehensive phonics survey includes a span of skills across multiple grades that range from simple to complex. This tool helps determine individual students’ foundational skill needs across grades. This type of assessment helps determine if there are any gaps in students' foundational skills so that targeted instruction can be provided to strengthen the students’ foundation for reading.
  • Mastery Check
    Cumulative phonics assessments are a critical phonics instructional tool that ensures teachers are assessing for mastery and not just movement toward learning. This type of assessment allows teachers to check for mastery and decayed learning. Cumulative assessment data empowers teachers to make course corrections when needed, and before more intensive interventions are required. A cumulative assessment should be given every 4 to 5 weeks to see if decayed learning is happening.
  • Observation of Student Reading
    Periodic observation allows teachers to assess a student’s growing mastery of phonics skills. Listening to a student reading while keeping track of and later examining errors can help teachers identify areas of struggle for individual readers. This type of assessment is also helpful to assess how students are processing text and their level of comprehension.
  • Analysis of Student Writing
    Examining students’ writing samples periodically allows teachers to assess consistent and accurate use of previously taught phonics skills and modify whole-group and small-group instruction and practice. Regular use of a phonics skill in writing indicates that students can apply this skill in reading a connected text.

Differentiated Phonics Instruction

Whole group and small group instruction are necessary for effective phonics instruction. All students need to be exposed to on-grade level content. If not, their progress will move very slowly and by the end of the year, they would have only covered a portion of the on-level skills. To illustrate the importance of differentiated phonics instruction this video by Wiley Blevins highlights whole instruction for on-grade level concepts and small group instruction for differentiating instruction.

Common challenges students face include remembering certain letters or words, sound-spelling relationships, and mastering high-frequency words. Here are five common difficulties and solutions common difficulties and solutions to help support student learning

How do you Align Phonics Instruction to the Science of Reading?

Phonics instruction must be aligned to the Science of Reading.

The Science of Reading (SOR) is a body of evolving information about how to best teach children to read based on the work of educational researchers, cognitive scientists who study the brain, linguists, and school practitioners. Two established models of reading have emerged as key in the Science of Reading conversation: 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.

  • Scope and Sequence
    Effective phonics instruction requires a clearly defined scope and sequence. A scope and sequence is the structure of a curriculum. It includes the skills that will be taught, and should build from simpler to more complex skills. It also includes the consent and strategies to be taught, in what sequence and for how long. To align to the science of reading and be impactful, an effective phonics scope and sequence must allow for an adequate review and repetition cycle.
  • Systematic and Explicit Instruction
    The Science of Reading tells us that phonics instruction must be systematic and explicit. Systematic phonics instruction means that phonics concepts are introduced incrementally, increasing in complexity, beginning with easier skills and building to more complex skills, evidenced by a strong scope and sequence. Explicit phonics instruction means that the teacher directly teaches students phonics concepts. Students are initially taught letter-sound correspondences, through statement and direct modeling by the teacher, instead of being left to discover these skills through an unsystematic discovery approach. Explicit and systematic phonics instruction must also be active and engaging.
  • Daily Application to Reading and Writing
    Daily application to reading and writing is essential for phonics instruction to be successful. Through this application, students read, reread, talk about, and write about decodable (accountable) texts. A lack of real application to reading and writing is a common cause of phonics instruction failure. Increase comprehension by using decodable texts as springboards to writing. Encourage students to write to deepen comprehension. That is, when writing, students must bring together all they know about how words work and combine that with their comprehension of the text to express their understanding.
  • Assessment
    To be effective, assessment must inform phonics instruction. 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 whereas a cumulative assessment assesses the new target skill and previously taught skills to measure growth over time. In phonics, assessments must be viewed through two lenses: accuracy and automaticity.

Who Is Wiley Blevins?

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 more than 30 years, he has studied and explored phonics, how it is taught, and the common obstacles that stand in the way of teachers delivering the most effective instruction to maximize student learning.

Wiley is the author of Sadlier’s From Phonics to Reading program for Grades K–3. Wiley has taught elementary school in both the United States and South America. A graduate of Harvard Graduate School of Education, he has written over 15 books for teachers, authored elementary reading programs, conducted research on topics ranging from fluency to using decodable text, and regularly trains teachers throughout the United States and Asia.


International Literacy Association. (2019). Meeting the challenges of early literacy phonics instruction [Literacy leadership brief]. Newark, DE: Author.

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.

What is Wiley Blevin's Saying?

"From Phonics to Reading takes the portion of the literacy block devoted to phonics and makes it as impactful as possible. The program helps teachers overcome common instructional obstacles so they can maximize their teaching time and increase student learning."

Wiley Blevins Author of From Phonics to Reading and early literacy research

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