What is phonics?
Phonics involves the relationship between sounds and their spellings.
There are 26 letters in English and approximately 44 sounds. However,
most sounds have more than one spelling. For example, the long a
sound can be spelled by the letter combinations like ai as in rain
and ay as in play. The goal of all phonics instruction is teaching
our students the most common sound-spelling relationships so that
they can decode, or sound out, words.
How is phonics different from phonemic awareness?
Phonemic awareness is the understanding that words are made up
of sounds. Phonemic awareness is not the same thing as phonics.
Phonemic awareness deals with sounds in spoken words, whereas phonics
involves the relationship between sounds and written symbols. Therefore,
phonics deals with learning sound-spelling relationships and is
associated with print. Most phonemic awareness tasks, however, are
The goal of reading is making meaning from text. So, how is
phonics related to comprehension?
Phonics instruction plays a key role in helping children comprehend
text. You see, phonics instruction helps the child to map sounds
onto spellings. This ability enables children to decode words. Decoding
words aids in the development and improvement in word recognition.
The more words a reader recognizes, the easier the reading task.
Therefore, phonics instruction aids in the development of word recognition
by providing children with an important and useful way to figure
out unfamiliar words while reading.
When children begin to be able to recognize a large number of words
quickly and accurately, reading fluency improves. Reading fluency
refers to the ease with which children can read a text. As more
and more words become firmly stored in a child's memory (that is,
the child recognizes more and more words on sight), he or she gains
fluency and automaticity in word recognition. To learn words by
sight, it's critical that students have many opportunities to decode
words in text. The more times a reader encounters a word in text,
the more likely he or she is to recognize it by sight and to avoid
making a reading error.
Reading fluency improves reading comprehension. Since children
are no longer struggling with decoding words, they can devote their
full attention (their mental energies) to making meaning from text.
As the vocabulary and concept demands increase in text, children
need to be able to devote more and more attention to making meaning
from text, and increasingly less attention to decoding. If children
have to devote too much time to decoding words, their reading will
be slow and labored. This will result in comprehension difficulties.
What should students be taught at each grade level?
The expectations keep rising for our students. In many states now,
kindergarteners are expected to be reading simple CVC words, such
as cat and ran, by the end of the year. I recommend that kindergarten
teachers focus on teaching their students the alphabet and the most
common sound-spelling for each letter. Students need to master this
by the end of the year. In addition, I recommend teaching at least
20 sight words and how to blend simple CVC words. In grade 1, the
majority of the phonics skills should be formally taught. This includes
short vowels, consonant blends, consonant digraphs, final e, long
vowels, r-controlled vowels, and diphthongs. The focus of instruction
in grades 2 and 3 is to consolidate students' phonics skills. That
includes attention to fluency with basic sound-spellings taught
in grade 1, formal lessons on decoding two- and three-syllable words,
and work with larger word chunks such as phonograms. Above grade
3, the focus of instruction should be on multisyllabic words. It's
essential for children to have formal instruction on the 6-syllable
types, prefixes, suffixes, and Greek and Latin roots.
What does a good phonics lesson look like?
A good phonics lesson begins with an explicit explanation of the
sound-spelling being taught. For example, when teaching the letter
s you would say "The letter s stands for the /s/ sound as in sad."
Be sure to clearly pronounce the sound. Then write the spelling
on the board. Have students chorally say the sound as you point
to the spelling. This choral response is also a hallmark of a good
phonics lesson. We want all students active and engaged throughout
the lesson. Other characteristics of good phonics lessons include
guided opportunities for students to blend, or sound out, words
using the new sound-spelling. Therefore, I advise writing a series
of words containing the new sound-spelling on the board, then modeling
how to blend the sounds together to read the words. Follow this
up with guided and independent reading practice in text that contains
words with the new sound-spelling. This text should be at the students'
What about my students who struggle with reading? What can I
For students who struggle with decoding, often too much is taught
too fast. It is important to find out what phonics skills the student
possesses. Then begin instruction at a comfortable starting point.
Using a phonics survey, such as the one included on this Web site.
Then re-teach those skills that students struggle with. Work at
a pace that allows students to achieve mastery. Remember, the goal
is teaching to mastery rather than just exposure. And provide loads
of decodable text reading practice. Students can never get enough
opportunities reading easy texts that contain many words with newly
taught sound-spellings. Repeated readings of these texts will also