Systematic and explicit phonics instruction is the most effective method for teaching children how to read. The reading and cognitive science research prove that systematic, explicit phonics is essential for kids’ reading success. Systematic means kids learn one phonics sound at a time, and gradually progress through all the phonics sounds over time. Explicit means the teacher directly tells the student the sound-spelling correlations.
To be effective, the NRP found that phonics programs need a scope and sequence. In other words, the teacher cannot teach sounds as they come up in books or as she feels necessary. Instead, he must follow a mapped out list of phonics sounds, and teach all of them in order. For example, Reading Elephant (printable books) has its own sequence of phonics sounds you can preview.
Many kids will not learn how to read with a non-systematic or non-explicit approach. Some scholars estimate that about 30% of kids will struggle in reading with a non-systematic, non-explicit (implicit) approach.
In contrast, all kids can learn to read with systematic and explicit phonics instruction.
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What is systematic and explicit phonics instruction? How does it differ from other methods?
With systematic phonics, the teacher introduces sounds sequentially. Kids learn sound-spelling correlations one at a time. The teacher gives kids ample time to practice their new sound, and she reviews the new sound across several lessons. In sum, the educator makes sure the children master one sound-spelling correlation before learning another.
This step-by-step approach is very similar to the Suzuki method in music, wherein students learn one music note at a time and practice that note in a song. This gradual progression in knowledge allows kids to sequentially and incrementally become better readers. The teacher does not expect the kids to know everything at once.
The instruction is also explicit. The teacher directly tells the students the sound-spelling correlations. He might show “ee” on the board and say, “ee says /ee/ as in tree, bee and see. Let’s say /ee/ together while looking at the “ee” letters.” In chorus, the class looks at the spelling unit “ee” and says the /ee/ sound. This is explicit instruction.
The teacher does not expect the kids to “pick up” the sound through repetitive books. He doesn’t expect the kids to extract the sound on their own. Instead, he guides them to the correct sound-spelling correlation. Ultimately, the teacher will write the spelling unit “ee” on a sound card and the kids will review this sound card every day.
Kids read decodable books in systematic, explicit phonics instruction. They do NOT read repetitive books.
With decodable books, kids can practice sound-by-sound reading skills. They can put what they’ve learned to the test. For example, a child might learn short a and read a short a book, learn “sh” and read a sh book, learn “ee/ea” and read an “ee/ea” book and so on.
If the child learns short a as in hat, Sam, and ran, he might read a short a decodable book that has sentences like: Sam cat ran to the mat. Sam Sat.
If the child learns sh in a teacher-directed lesson, he might read a sh decodable book with sentences like: Shell will sell fish at her shop.
The teacher might introduce ee/ea in a phonics lesson, and a give the kids a decodable ee/ea book with sentences like: The little tree had big dreams.
Our printable decodable books allow kids to practice the phonics sounds they’ve learned.
Types of phonics instruction.
There are so many names for various types of phonics instruction. The terms can leave an educator or parent confused. Plus, these terms can change over time and new ones get added (even though the research findings have not changed at all). Here’s a quick description of each method.
Systematic and explicit– This is the type of method described above. The teacher explicitly introduces the sounds, and she follows a thorough scope and sequence. Kids learn sound-spelling correlations one at a time.
Structured literacy– This is the newest term. Kids learn with systematic and explicit phonics instruction. Structured literacy always comes with a scope and sequence. It is systematic and explicit phonics instruction repackaged. Structured literacy specifically adheres to a systematized approach in every activity from phonemic awareness to spelling.
Synthetic phonics– Children learn individual phonics sounds and then blend those sounds into words. For example, the child might learn /sh/ and then blend that sound in “ship.” This type of teaching method, like all reading programs, needs a scope and sequence to be effective. In sum, if the program is systematic and explicit, synthetic phonics does follow the research.
Analytic phonics– Kids learn larger chunks of sounds. For example, a child might learn “ack” instead of “a” and “ck” separately. Then, he’ll practice “ack” words like, “pack, back, snack…etc.” This type of teaching method, like all reading programs, also needs a scope and sequence to be effective. There’s some confusion on the effectiveness of analytic phonics. Timothy Shanahan published an article to clear up some of the confusion on analytic phonics. He argues that analytic phonics can be effective as long as the teacher follows a scope and sequence and uses an explicit, systematic approach. However, he also notes that in his personal experience, some dyslexic children benefit more from synthetic phonics (not analytic phonics).
Embedded phonics– Teachers only introduce spelling-sound correlations as kids come across them in reading. Since this method is not systematic or explicit, it does not follow the reading research. Currently, many schools follow this method. Unfortunately, this approach can deceive parents, because kids bring home phonics work, and the parent may believe their child is receiving research-based instruction. However, the child is only getting a sloppy, haphazard, partial introduction to the phonics sounds.
Explicit, systematic phonics instruction is most effective if kids begin to learn sound-spelling correlations in kindergarten.
Kindergartners need to learn letter sounds, short vowels and consonant digraphs. First graders typically learn silent e, long vowels and r-controlled sounds. In second grade, kids learn inflectional endings and begin work on polysyllabic word decoding (words with more than one syllable). This polysyllabic decoding work often extends into third grade.
Lessons should include phonemic awareness, a sound chart, an explicit introduction of new sounds, sound card review, spelling, and mixed list reading (where the child reads a list of decontextualized words that contain the sound patterns he knows/is working on.) The educator should teach all of the most common phonics sounds.
Check out our 100+ printable decodable books in our shop.
Our printable books are easy-to-use, and systematically guide students through the most common phonics sounds.