Research is conclusive. Explicit phonics instruction is the most effective, reliable way to teach a child to read. Explicit means the instruction is direct. The child does not have to “guess” at words or try to learn phonics sounds on his own. Instead, the teacher explicitly tells the child the phonics sounds.
For example, in one lesson, she might introduce the spelling unit “ai” by saying, “ai says /ai/ as in sail, mail and tail.” Then, the teacher will hold up a sound card with ai and have the kids look at the unit while repeating the /ai/ sound. In this way, the teacher explicitly tells the children the sound of “ai.” The kids do not have to guess. Nor do the kids have to extract the unit on their own. They do not have to identify “ai” indirectly through reading. Explicit phonics lessons help kids learn the phonics sounds so they can crack the code while reading.
With explicit phonics, k-2 kids need decodable books.
Check out our printable decodable books in our shop.
Decodable books (or step-by-step phonics books) are an important part of explicit phonics instruction. Decodable books help kids practice sound-by-sound reading skills. They allow the child to put their newly learned phonics sound into practice. This is similar to learning a musical chord. A music student can learn a chord in a lesson and play the chord in a song to practice. In explicit reading lessons, a child should learn a phonics sound in a lesson and practice the phonics sound with a decodable book. For example, a child can learn the short e sound and, with decodable readers, practice reading short e words (ex. wet, Ken, met…etc.).
Reading Elephant has 100+ printable decodable books.
Implicit vs Explicit Phonics instruction
Explicit phonics is part of the structured literacy approach or the systematic phonics method. Kids learn as a direct result of teacher instruction. The teacher gives a clear phonics lesson saying something like, “ee says /ee/ as in tree and bee.” Then she’ll write ee on a sound card and make sure students review that sound in future lessons. Explicit phonics takes out the guesswork. Kids learn each phonics sound incrementally, allowing them to gradually expand their decoding abilities.
Implicit phonics is the opposite of explicit phonics. In implicit phonics, kids do not receive direct instruction; they are expected to figure out the phonics sounds on their own. The teacher has them read by looking at pictures or guessing, and from there, the educator hopes the child will learn to read on his own. Implicit phonics has been a disaster in classrooms, and results in high rates of reading failure. Implicit phonics is also called whole language, and when implemented, many children struggle with reading or simply don’t learn to read at all.
Reading Elephant printable decodable books are designed to align with explicit phonics instruction, from short vowels to r-controlled sounds.
What does the research say about explicit phonics vs implicit phonics?
The reading research is conclusive. Explicit phonics instruction is the most effective method. The National Reading Council and the National Reading Panel found, after analyzing all the reading studies (a meta-analysis), that explicit phonics instruction allows children to reach their reading potential.
Kids that learn with implicit phonics, in contrast, struggle to decode words, read slowly and thus, ultimately struggle with reading comprehension. To understand what we read, we actually need to decode the words. Thus, decoding is the most important, foundational reading skill. Explicit phonics gives kids a strong decoding foundation, allowing them to develop fluency, vocabulary and reading comprehension.
Teaching with explicit phonics is much more effective than implicit or embedded phonics.
In 1987, the debate between explicit and implicit phonics reached a political turning point. The state of California decided to favor whole-language, implicit, learn as you go sort of phonics. As a result, reading scores in California plummeted. Eventually, their scores were so low, among they had to abandon the practice of requiring implicit phonics.
With implicit phonics instruction in place, “in a matter of a few years… three out of four children in the state [of California] were below the average for their grade” (Taken from Reading in the Brain, Dehaene, p. 220).
Explicit phonics instruction prevents reading failure.
At that time, Congress grew tired of the reading wars. They wanted to see which method really worked best, implicit or explicit phonics? As a result, they hired a panel of independent researchers to sift through the mountains of reading research. In 2000, they published a report explaining that explicit, systematic phonics worked best. They found that phonemic awareness and phonics were crucial skills and educators needed to teach them explicitly.
“The evidence for these casual claims is so clear cut that the Panel concluded that systematic and explicit instruction in phonemic awareness should be an important component of classroom reading instruction” (Langenberg, taken from Reading Rockets, https://www.readingrockets.org/article/findings-national-reading-panel).
I hope the conclusive reading research inspires you to use explicit phonics instruction.