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Phonics involves the instruction in the relationship between letters and the sounds they represent. Whereas phonemic awareness involves just sounds phonics combines decoding, converting words to speech and the alphabetic principle, understanding letters make sounds and we can put these together to make words.


The English language has 44 phonemes, smallest units of sound in language, and 26 letters in the alphabet but these graphemes, sound expressed as letters and letter combinations, combine to make up 500 different spellings

This massive number of morphemes, the smallest unit of spelling containing meaning, reflects centuries of conquered and conquest through European history. Most indigenous languages on the British Isles have gone extinct. As power got conciliated into a British monarchy much effort went into eradicating native tongue. Meanwhile Aglo-Saxon, Germanic, French, and Latin language roots took hold through this constant war and after the rise of the British Empire the amalgamation spread through Colonialism and English now dominates as the “Lingua Franca,” or bridge language everyone speaks (Lingua Franca).

The dominance of English grew as the United States of America spread English across the globe. English now inherited many new phonics patterns from the conquered First Nations of North America. Then following the technological era after World War II English continued to spread through globalization and marketing of culture and military dominance.

The creation of the Internet, and it's English first design has only precipitated the speed of English dominance. Efforts around the world continue to try and record and build a web in any users preferred tongue.

Writing systems influence how we read. Three major writing systems exist: alphabetic- symbols represent sounds or phonemes such as English, syllabic-n symbols represent whole syllables like Japanese and morphophonetic or logographic- symbols represent elements of both meaning and sound as in Chinese.

In alphabetic language you must learn to map sounds to symbols and then pull apart and put those symbols and sounds together in words


Jean Chall began a push to formalize phonics instruction, a pedagogical practice as old as written a Latin alphabets, in the 1960s and published a review of research in 1965 that then got updated in 1983 stressing the experimental success of phonics instruction. Meanwhile laboratory studies conducted by Bond and Dysktra (1967) also found phonics instruction to have higher efficacy than having students rely on semantic and sight clues about meaning.

Through the 1980s other pedagogical techniques, loosely labeled “whole language” encouraged a more holistic approach to reading instruction that also included an understanding of cultural and knowledge banks, clues from the pictures, as well as meaning.

Today we see a concept of “embedded phonics” often in balanced literacy programs as students get taught “word-solving” strategies(Fountas & Pinell, 1996) that may include decoding skills. Teachers get taught to examine a variety of miscues, mistakes students make to inform pedagogical choices.

Listening students read and analyzing mistakes and spellings does provide teachers with good phonics assessment data. If educators then want to analyze and categorize those mistakes into categories of meaning versus visual or syntax mistakes they should use a dartboard instead.

In 1999 the National Reading Panel published a meta-analysis of effective reading approaches. Research results suggest that systematic and explicit phonics instruction:

  • improves reading and spelling in Kindergarten and Grade One
  • correlates with later comprehension measures
  • is statistically significant when controlling for economic status
  • has large effect sizes with at-risk readers
  • improves reading scores of struggling readers

The National Reading Panel resulted in efforts to teach phonics as part of the big five: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary.

Advocates of a phonics heavy program armed with NRP results push federal and state policy. However, they neglect to mention the authors of the NRP noted they had to ignore qualitative research involving thousands of hours in what makes good literacy instruction, and research on the connections between reading and writing. Finally they noted that research on motivation remains such a strong predictor of reading success but it is impossible to quantify and teach as a measure. How can you test, “Do you love books?”

In our department we use the word balanced. Not in the “Balanced Literacy” marketing mumbo jumbo of Publishers but in the common sense. Yes systematic phonic instructions works. Knowing parts makes knowing the whole easier. Yes background knowledge matters. Knowing less is never better. Yes we need to model a reading and writing life for students for literacy acquisition can never be separated from cultural acquisition.

New advances in technology have pushed the boundaries of possibilities. Learning to read apps dominate app marketplaces on Apple and Android. Computers may have ability to predict how a learner should move through a scope and sequence of systematic instruction better than their human teachers. Thus freeing up educators to focus on the harder to reach fruit such as building background knowledge and reading motivation.

Teaching Systematic and Explicit Phonics

We teach phonics through an explicit, or using a direct instruction and concrete manipulatives, and systematic, a logical instructional sequence of lessons, approach. This reduces the number of inferences for the reader to make (Chall & Popp, 1996).

A systematic approach takes both a scope, what we teach, and a sequence, the order in which we teach it. In terms of scope we focus on onsets and rimes, common phonics patterns, irregular and sight words, and common spelling. English has hundreds of spellings. Almost all fall outside the scope of phonics.

In terms of sequence most programs focus on:

(Chall & Popp, 1996)

Once you move into derivational spelling, meaning parts of the word, like roots and suffixes influence meaning phonics gets fully replaced by morphology, or spelling lessons rather than working in conjunction to teach both decoding, reading and encoding, writing skills.

Effective Phonics Instruction

In a review of research Stahl et al.,1996 found beyond explicit and systematic instruction good phonics teaching involves:

In the Classroom

Elonkin Boxes-We use Elonkin Boxes in phonemic awareness to count sounds but we can also use them to make letter sound connections by having students put a letter in the box instead of a sound.

Manipulative Letters-You can use magnets, whiteboards, or tablets for this activity. Have a predictable text. You can differentiate by using books that highlight a specific phonogram or a common phonics pattern. Students then manipulate the letters to do “word work.Have students segment the sounds in the words and blend sounds. Your goal is to make the abstract concepts of bending and segmenting concrete (Pullen et al., 2005).

Word sorts teach students to recognize patterns and anti-patterns in words and phonics patterns while also drawing on the connection between spelling and phonics (Bear et al, 2000). You give students lists of words and they move them into categories based on common characteristics. You can differentiate by giving students predefined categories, timing sorts, or having students write the words from dictation,

phonics.txt · Last modified: 2022/03/14 16:45 by