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.
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.
In an analytic approach to phonics instruction, students are taught to break down a known word into the smaller units of sound.
Linguistic phonics is a subset of analytic phonics. In linguistic approaches to phonics instruction, children decode and learn unknown words from known patterns.
In an analogy approach to phonics instruction, students learn to decode unknown words by using known words or word parts.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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). In addition, a multi-tiered approach to phonics instruction, where whole-group and small-group lessons work in concert to meet learning needs, benefits all students.
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.
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. Strong scope and sequences include 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.
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 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.
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 controlled, 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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