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The purpose of phonics instruction is to help early readers to understand how sounds are linked to letters (phonemes). The idea is that students will begin to recognize the correspondence between the two and apply this to their knowledge of reading.

Phonics strategy can be implemented incidentally or systematically. Systematic phonics programs involve a sequential series of phonics strategies that are taught explicitly and in a linear nature. On the other hand, incidental phonics skills are taught without a planned sequence of events to guide instruction. Instead, a teacher will opportunistically highlight phonics elements as and when they appear in a text.

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What is phonics? Types of methods and approaches

A good reading program will use several different types of instructional approaches that vary depending on how letter-sound combinations are presented to students. For example, synthetic phonics approaches might require a student to link individual letters or combinations of letters with their appropriate sounds, before blending sounds to create words. Conversely, analytic phonics requires students to learn whole words followed by systematic instruction which breaks down and links specific letters and sounds.

Phonics instruction typically involves the following techniques:
  • Phonics definition: a basic introduction to how words and sounds correspond.
  • Analytic phonics: teaching students to use previously learned letter/sound combinations and apply this knowledge to pre-emptively attempt to pronounce new phrases, with teacher guidance to correct and encourage students.
  • Analogy phonics: teaching unfamiliar words by comparison to known words. This involves the student recognizing that a segment of an unknown word is identical to that of a familiar word. The student then blends the known section of the word with the new part of the word – for example, recognizing that “ump” from the word “jump” also appears in the word “lump”.
  • Phonics via spelling: teaching students to segment words into separate sounds before allowing them to choose the letters which form each sound.
  • Synthetic phonics: teaching students to convert letters phonetically, before blending these sounds to form words.
  • Embedded phonics: Allowing students to learn by embedding phonics instruction within text reading. This approach relies somewhat on incidental learning.

Understanding how children learn via phonics instruction

Systematic phonics instruction can significantly benefit students from kindergarten level right through to 6th grade. It is also useful for children who are struggling to learn to read. Studies have suggested that the ability to read and spell was enhanced in kindergarten students who received basic systematic phonics instruction. Older children who received phonics instruction also showed a significant improvement in how to read, spell and comprehend the meaning of a text.

Disabled readers can also benefit from phonics instruction (synthetic phonics in particular). Children with disabilities have shown significant gains in terms of processing text as a result of synthetic phonics instruction. This form of instruction is also beneficial to low-achieving students and low socio-economic status children.

Phonics works for all

According to the National Reading Panel, systematic phonics instruction has been demonstrated to improve the ability of children to spell, across all grade levels. Those with good-to-excellent reading skills benefit most when it comes to using phonics to improve spelling, while those with poor reading skills showed a marginal improvement in spelling.

While conventional wisdom may suggest that kindergarten students may not be quite ready for phonics instruction, these assumptions are not supported by studies that suggest that kindergarten students actually displayed a significant and substantial improvement. This indicates that phonics programs should be adopted and implemented by teachers, even at the earliest grade levels and opportunities.

What does this mean for educators?

There can be no denying that phonics instruction is an integral part of any successful reading program. However, teachers need to be cautious regarding the specific types of phonics instruction they endorse. It is imperative that educators recognize the key goals of phonics instruction are to equip children with the skills to ensure that they can recognize phonemes in their reading and writing. Put simply, successful phonics strategies are a means to an end.

To make use of letter/sound information, children must develop phonemic awareness, which requires them to blend sounds to help decode words. In terms of writing, they also need to be able to break words into their constituent parts in an attempt to spell them. Any program that focuses too much on the teaching of letter/sound relations without putting them into practical use is likely to be ineffective.

Successfully implementing phonics instruction

Educators must always keep their end goal in mind when using phonics strategies and ensure that their students understand the purpose of learning the sounds of letters. It is the understanding of this purpose that helps children to apply these skills with fluency and accuracy in their daily reading/writing activities.

Other concerns

Some programs involve intensive phonics instruction – without a clear emphasis on how much instruction is considered intensive. In addition to this, many educational professionals are uncertain as to how long a phonics program should be taught. If phonics has been taught in very early years (kindergarten and 1st grade), educators may want to consider whether it should continue to be emphasized in subsequent grades.

This raises the following questions:
  • How long should single-instruction phonics sessions last?
  • How much ground should a program cover?
  • How many letter/sound relations need to be taught?
  • How many ways should these relations be practiced?

While these are all pertinent queries, further research will need to be undertaken to ascertain the best ways to answer them.

The role of the teacher

Many phonics programs require teachers to follow standardized instructions that have been provided by a publisher. While this can be beneficial in terms of equalizing the curriculum, it could impact negatively teacher motivation and interest. It is therefore critical for educators and decision-makers to understand that phonics teaching can be delivered in a vibrant, creative, and above-all entertaining manner. The more entertaining the lesson, the more likely younger students are to take information on board.

Teachers also need to recognize that systematic phonics instruction is just one component – albeit a very necessary one – of any total reading program. Phonics instruction should be integrated with other reading education to increase overall fluency and comprehension of words and phrases. While most teachers understand this, there is a danger of phonics becoming a dominant component in the teaching of reading – particularly in the 1st grade.

Phonics strategy end goals

Systematic phonics instruction should help to improve decoding, which in turn helps to improve word recognition. However, it must be reiterated that fluent, automatic application of phonics to text is critical, and should be taught to help maximize oral reading/writing comprehension.

Ultimately, teachers need to recognize that while phonics is important when it comes to teaching children how to read, they are not necessarily sufficient in their own right. Instead, phonics skills should form a part of an overall reading strategy that encompasses fluency, phonemic awareness, and text comprehension.