Phonics is a method of teaching reading that focuses on sound/symbol correlations. Phonics advocates acknowledge that learning to read is not an “innate” skill that children acquire spontaneously. Instead, kids benefit tremendously from learning the code a bit at a time.
Phonics instruction begins with a lesson that explicitly teaches the student a sound like “short a” says /a/ as in the word apple. Then, kids get the opportunity, throughout the lesson, to implement their new skill by reading “short a” words like cat, ran, fan, cap… etc. As kids learn more of the code, they are able to decode many words, not just in books designed for beginners, but also in the real world.
What is systematic phonics instruction?
Systematic phonics instruction teaches kids the code explicitly and a bit at a time, allowing kids to gain mastery of each phonics sound before learning another.
Whole language and balanced literacy advocates expect kids to just know the code naturally.
In contrast to phonics, whole language and balanced literacy methods expect kids to implicitly know the code. Whole language and balanced literacy, methods that have been debunked by the NRP 2000 meta-analysis of the reading research, argue that reading is natural. Whole language advocates believe that kids spontaneously “pick up” on reading with enough exposure to text. The whole language method does not teach kids phonics sounds, as the disproven method advocates that kids should “just know” the code.
Unlike phonics, whole language curricula does not teach the code.
Whole language instruction assumes children learn to read by guessing at the words, repeating the same sentences over and over, and gaining exposure to “good literature.” Whole language does not teach phonics sounds.
Whole language fails approximately 30% of children, leaving many kids unable to read anything at all. Once whole language was implemented in California in 1991 at a state-wide level, California reading scores dropped, making the state the lowest performing in the union. California has since repealed their devotion to whole language, given the catastrophic reading scores. But the legacy of whole language lives on, not only in California, but throughout the world.
Balanced literacy also fails about 30% of kids.
To maintain some whole language instruction, advocates came up with “balanced literacy,” a method that teaches kids phonics “as needed” or “as the opportunity presents itself.” Another term for balanced literacy is incidental phonics. In this method, kids learn bits and pieces of phonics here and there. Children may not be able to practice phonics in any meaningful way. There is no systematic instruction or serious effort to get phonics sounds into kids’ long-term memories. Thus, many kids fail with this method as well.
Balanced literacy encourages kids to guess at words, memorize books, and teaches phonics as the “opportunity presents itself.” Balanced literacy or incidental phonics does NOT teach phonics sounds in a way that ensures children can remember and use the code.
Systematic phonics instruction ensures that all children learn to read and spell.
Randomized controlled trials of real classrooms prove that systematic phonics instruction works (NRP, 2000). Systematic phonics instruction teaches kids the code explicitly and a bit at a time. This evidence-based method gives children ample opportunities to practice the part of the code they know. For example, if a child knows short a sounds and letter sounds, she can read short a books with sentences like, “Sam sat on the mat. The cat had a nap.”
Order of phonics sounds
Later, when the child learns long a (ai/_ay), she can practice reading sentences like, “On a hot day, Gail set sail on the sea.” In 2nd grade, kids learn inflectional endings and other vowel digraphs sounds, allowing them to read more complex sentences like, “The wind was howling. The moon was bright. Sam sat on the couch to read a book.” By 3rd grade, kids learn prefixes and suffixes that allow them to read words like “promotion,” and “demonstrate.”
The order of phonics sounds varies depending on the state, district and school. However, the following is a rough approximation of when kids should know certain sounds and know them well:
Kindergarten-letter sounds, short vowels, consonant digraphs, consonant blends
1st grade– silent e, long vowels, r-controlled vowels
2nd grade– inflectional endings, other vowel digraphs, some prefixes/suffixes
3rd grade– more complex prefixes/suffixes
4th grade– child shifts from learning to read to reading to learn
Phonics instruction is sequential. Kids have daily lessons wherein they practice phonics sounds in decontextualized lists of words. For example, a child that has learned short a, will read a list of short a words during the lesson: cat, fan, tan, cap, jam, bag, Dan, tag. The sequential aspect of systematic phonics helps kids master the code.
During phonics lessons, the child does phonemic awareness activities, which help her blend the code for reading and segment the code for spelling.
Kids do not “guess” or “read by context.” Instead, phonics instruction teaches kids to read sound-by-sound. In this way, kids can decode words in the real world, NOT just books they’ve memorized.
Since phonics is an effective method, kids do not re-read books 3x in a row. Since they know the code well, they do not need to memorize books at all. Instead, kids who learn phonics can access a steady stream of new books and read with high accuracy.
Explicit Phonics versus Balanced Literacy (or Incidental Phonics)
Many kids learn phonics in school. This can lead parents to think that evidence-based instruction won’t help their struggling reader. While most schools do expose kids to some phonics, many children do not receive systematic phonics instruction.
Parents struggle to decipher between systematic phonics and incidental phonics.
To complicate things further, many balanced literacy books (that repeat the same phrase over and over again ex. Bill took a trip to the beach. Bill took a trip to the forest…etc.) claim to be phonics books. They are not.
Phonics books do not require repeat readings, nor do they repeat the same phrase again and again.
In sum, systematic phonics instruction:
- teaches phonics sounds explicitly
- is sequential
- gives the child daily opportunities for review
- emphasizes phonemic awareness
- teaches kids to decode words sound-by-sound
- teaches kids to spell words sound-by-sound
If you’re looking for a phonics book series designed for beginners, check out our shop.