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Phonics


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What Is It?

Phonics teaches students the systematic and predictable relationships between the letters (graphemes) of written language and the individual sounds (phonemes) of spoken language. Students learn how to apply these relationships to read and write words.

Systematic, explicit phonics instruction includes the direct teaching of a set of letter-sound relationships, which include both consonants and vowels, in a clearly defined sequence (Reading First, 2001).

According to Reading First legislation, effective phonics instruction...

  • Explicitly and systematically instructs students in how to relate letters and sounds, how to break spoken words into sounds, and how to blend sounds to form words

  • Helps students understand why they are learning the relationships between letters and sounds

  • Helps students apply their knowledge of phonics as they read words, sentences, and text

  • Helps students apply what they learn about sounds and letters to their own writing

  • Can be adapted to the needs of individual students, based on assessment

  • Includes alphabetic knowledge, phonemic awareness, vocabulary development, and the reading of text, as well as systematic phonics instruction

Why Is It important?

"That direct instruction in alphabet coding facilitates early reading acquisition is one of the most well-established conclusions in all of behavioral science" (Stanovich, 1993). Phonics is a key that opens the door to reading success. Virtually all students will benefit from explicit phonics instruction, assuming it is done well.

Phonics affects reading comprehension through its influence on word reading. When students are able to read words rapidly and accurately, their cognitive resources are freed to focus on the meaning of the text. For this reason, the ability to decode nonsense words in the first grade is a good predictor of future reading comprehension. According to the Connecticut Longitudinal Study (Foorman et al., 1997), the ability to decode words in first grade shows a high correlation with reading comprehension.

Systematic, explicit phonics instruction teaches students a carefully sequenced set of sound spellings, progressing from easier to more complex phonics skills in a direct manner. Through explanation, modeling, guided practice, and ample opportunities to apply developing skills to reading and writing, a strong foundation for successful reading is built.

Incidental, implicit phonics is characterized by inferring sound spellings from reading whole words, then breaking down the words into phonic elements. Sound spellings are taught as they are encountered in text as opposed to in a specific sequence.

Research has shown that systematic, explicit phonics instruction results in better growth in children's ability to comprehend what they read than non-systematic or no phonics instruction (Report of the National Reading Panel, 2000). Although many students (approximately 50%) will learn to read despite the instructional method employed, the other half who struggle will require systematic, explicit phonics instruction if they are to become successful readers.

"Programs including systematic instruction on letter-to-sound correspondences lead to higher achievement in both word recognition and spelling, at least in the early grades and especially for slower or economically disadvantaged students" (Adams, 1990).

How Can You Make It Happen?

Effective phonics instruction includes teaching a clear progression of skills to mastery before moving on to more complex skills. Most core reading programs have their own scope and sequence of phonics skills, based on general guidelines. F

If you are searching for a scope and sequence of phonics skills, the guidelines below will help you determine the best approach and sequence for introducing phonics skills to students.

  1. Introduce high-frequency-sound spellings first. It makes sense to teach the sound spellings frequently found in text first, so students will have ample opportunity to practice using this information to read. Save lower utility sound spellings for later in the sequence.

  2. Introduce a few short vowels early in sequence. By introducing a few short vowels early on, students will be able to apply their newly learned sound spellings right away to read simple, vowel-consonant or consonant-vowel-consonant words.

  3. Introduce letter sounds that relate to letter names first. For example, the letter name "t" begins with the /t/ sound, so it will be easier for students to learn this sound spelling. Letters sounds that do not relate to letter names should be taught later in the sequence. For example, the /h/ sound is not in the letter name "h."

  4. Separate letters and sounds that look or sound similar. Letters that cause visual confusion, such as b-d, c-o, n-u, v-w, should be taught separately. Separate easily confusable sounds, such as /p/ and /b/, /f/ and /v/, /d/ and /t/. For some sounds, the shape of the mouth and the placement of the tongue, cheeks and teeth may be exactly the same. The only difference may be that the sound is voiced or unvoiced. It is important to introduce these sound spellings separately and explicitly discuss these similarities and differences with students.

  5. Provide ample practice time and explicit instruction for blending sounds. For early readers, blending sounds together to form words can be a challenge. Students may not understand what an adult means when he or she says, ̉sound it out." Provide modeling and guided practice until students become proficient at blending. Different blending techniques include sound-by-sound blending (/f/, /a/, /fa/, /n/, /fan/), vowel first blending (/a/, /f/, /fa/, /n/, /fan/), and whole word blending (/ffff/aaaa/nnnn/, /fan/).

  6. Follow a logical scope and sequence of skills that progress from easier to more complex sound spellings. Teach easier sound spellings to mastery before moving on to more difficult sound spellings. Start with words that have two or three phonemes and have sound/symbol relationships are common, and move to words with four or five phonemes. Some sounds are continuous, such as /s/, /m/, /f/, /a/, while others stop after one puff of air, such as /b/, /k/, /t/, /p/. It is easier for students to blend words when they begin with a continuous sound. For example, mat, fat, and sat are easier to blend than bat, cat, and pat.

  7. Progression of Word Difficulty (Carnine et al., 1997)

    • VC and CVC words beginning with a continuous sound and ending with either a stop or a continuous sound
    • VCC and CVCC words beginning with a continuous sound and ending with either a stop or a continuous sound
    • CVC words beginning with a stop sound and ending with either a stop or a continuous sound
    • CVCC words beginning with a stop sound and ending with a consonant blend
    • CCVC words beginning with a consonant blend in which both consonants are continuous sounds
    • CCVC words beginning with a consonant blend in which one consonant is a stop sound
    • CCVCC, CCCVC, and CCCVCC words beginning with a two- or three-letter consonant blend

    As students are prepared for more complex sound-spelling patterns, instruction should advance to include digraphs, vowel-consonant-e words, vowel digraphs, inflected endings, r-influenced vowels, varient vowels, vowel dipthongs, and multisyllabic words.

  8. Develop a clear and systematic approach to assessing each student's phonics skills.
    Effective teachers administer pre- and post-assessments regularly and make instructional and grouping decisions based on students' mastery of key phonics skills. Creative staffing may be used to maximize the amount of individual and small group phonics instruction that students receive.

  9. Make the connection between phonics and reading/writing explicit. Students need ample opportunities to practice applying newly learned sound-spelling relationships to reading and writing. Effective teachers coach students as they read decodable text. Dictation is an effective method for applying phonics skills to writing. Early on, students may need sound-by-sound dictation. As students progress, whole word dictation may be more appropriate.

Identifying Students' Instructional Needs

Students enter first grade with varying amounts of skills and knowledge of sound/symbol relationships. Along the continuum of phonics skills, students may fall anywhere from mastering none of the sound/symbol relationships to mastering most of them. There may even be some students who have already learned to decode texts and do not require phonics instruction. How do you identify students' instructional needs?

  1. Assessment The first step is gathering data by administering a screening or benchmark assessment. For example, DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Early Literacy Skills) assessments are standardized, individually administered, reliable, and valid measures of early literacy development. DIBELS recommends all kindergarten through second-grade students be assessed three times a year in phonics skills. Students not making adequate progress toward phonics benchmarks should be assessed at more frequent intervals and provided with appropriate intervention.

    • Letter Naming assessments in which students name the letters of the alphabet should be given at the beginning, middle, and end of kindergarten and at the beginning of first grade. According to the National Research Council (Snow et al., 1998) ... "measuring how many letters a kindergartner is able to name when shown letters in a random order appears to be nearly as successful at predicting future reading, as is an entire readiness test."

    • Nonsense Word Fluency is assessed to ensure that students are actually decoding the letter-sound relationships and not using their sight-word memory to read the words. When assessing students on nonsense word fluency, be sure to tell the students that they are reading "make believe" words as opposed to real words to eliminate confusion. Assessing the speed and accuracy with which students read nonsense words demonstrates their automaticity with phonics; when students can read words rapidly and accurately, cognitive resources are freed to focus on the meaning of the text.

      Nonsense Word Fluency assessments should be given in the middle and end of kindergarten; at the beginning, middle, and end of first grade; and at the beginning of second grade. The DIBELS benchmarks indicate that by the middle of first grade, established readers should be correctly reading more than 50 letter sounds per minute.

  2. Analysis and Intervention After you administer the assessments, you can analyze the results to determine how to differentiate instruction based on students' needs. Below are some examples of assessment results and analysis for instruction.

    • If a student reads the word "faj" as "/fa/, /j/" or "/f/, /aj/" and also demonstrates this pattern of incomplete blending with other words, then instruction in phonemic awareness skills such as blending phonemes would be appropriate.

    • If a student reads the word "pib" as "pob," and also demonstrates this pattern with other words during reading instruction, it would be appropriate to work on individual short vowel sounds and CVC words until mastery, and then begin instruction in CVCC words beginning with a continuous sound.

    • If a student can decode the nonsense word "pib" but cannot decode the word "shop," instruction should focus on CVCC words beginning with a stop sound and ending with a consonant blend, and then move to CCVC words with continuous sounds as consonant blends.



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