Best Practices in Phonics Instruction

Phonics instruction has become the most controversial of all areas of reading education over the last ten years. Once the only aspect of reading instruction, it has now become one of five important components of reading education (with phonemic awareness, reading comprehension, vocabulary instruction and fluency building making up the other four areas). As such, there are several best practices in phonics instruction recommended for educators and parents working with young readers.

Timing and Grouping

Phonics instruction provides the most benefit for young readers. The critical period for learning phonics extends from the time that the child begins to read (usually kindergarten) to approximately three years after. In studies, children receiving phonics instruction starting in kindergarten and continuing for two to three years after saw the greatest gains in learning and applying phonics to reading tasks.

Phonic instruction for young readers can be offered in any grouping configuration. There was no notable difference in children receiving instruction one-on-one, in small groups or as a whole class. The most influential components were the age of the students and the instructional format.

Systematic Instruction

By far, the best way to teach phonics is systematically. This means moving children through a planned sequence of skills rather than teaching particular aspects of phonics as they are encountered in texts. Systematic instruction can focus on synthetic phonics (decoding words by translating letters into sounds and then blending them), analytic phonics (identifying whole words then parsing out letter-sound connections), analogy phonics (using familiar parts of words to discover new words), phonics through spelling (using sound-letter connections to write words) and/or phonics in context (combining sound-letter connections with context clues to decode new words). Regardless of the specific method used what is most important in systematic instruction is that there is a deliberate and sequential focus on building and using the relationship between sounds and letter symbols to help readers decode new words.

Modeling Followed by Independent Practice

Because the connection between letters and sounds is not readily apparent to new readers, modeling is an important aspect of phonics instruction. Both teachers and parents should model ways that a reader uses the sound-symbol relationship to decode unfamiliar words by reading and thinking aloud. The best texts for modeling are high interest or informational. These include (but are not limited to) nursery rhymes, songs, non-fiction books and poems with repetitive language.

Once children have been exposed to adult modeling several times, they should be encouraged to practice applying phonics to their own reading. This independent practice helps young readers truly build the connection between symbols and sounds. Adults should guide children in strategically applying phonics to authentic reading and writing experiences to help them develop good decoding skills.

Literature-Based Instruction

For many years phonics was taught in isolation. Children were given worksheets or textbook that asked them to decode and write lists of words. Researchers discovered that young readers could not apply the decoding skills “learned” in isolation to real reading tasks such as reading a story or a book. Therefore, it is now recommended that phonics be taught through literature. While this may seem contrary to the systematic approach to instruction, it is not. Teachers and parents should select pieces of age and developmentally appropriate literature that highlight the phonics skills focused on at particular points in the sequence of instruction. For example, if children are learning to identify the sound-letter connection in /b/ an appropriate piece of literature to teach and reinforce this skill would be one that uses alliteration (repetition of beginning sounds) of the /b/ sound.

Individualized Approach

Because children come to kindergarten at a variety of different reading readiness levels, it is important that teachers assess where students are at and individualize their phonics instruction. One child may begin the year already knowing single letter sound-letter connections making her ready to work on blends. Another child may have very little phonemic awareness and exposure to print texts. Therefore teachers must tailor instruction to meet each child’s needs. This ensures that s/he will continue to develop appropriate phonics skills.

Home-School Connections

As with every academic area, parental involvement is one of the keys to success. This is especially true for reading development. The more a parent can read with a child at home, the better chance she has of developing a strong interest in and ability to read. Parents should reinforce phonics as they read at home with their children. Modeling phonics use to decode unfamiliar words and guiding children as they attempt to apply these strategies to their independent reading helps them develop as readers. Teachers can help parents by providing information on phonics and how to use the sound-letter connection to decode words.