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Understanding Phonics

Basic information you need to know before teaching phonics

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5

As an educator, you have probably already heard of phonics. But chances are that no one has ever sat down with you to explain exactly what phonics instruction is. That's where we come in — with the help of phonics expert Wiley Blevins, we have compiled the basic information that you need to know before teaching phonics.

What is phonics?

Phonics involves the relationship between sounds and their spellings. The goal of phonics instruction is to teach students the most common sound-spelling relationships so that they can decode, or sound out, words. This decoding ability is a crucial element in reading success.

Why is phonics instruction important?

Most poor readers tend to rely so heavily on one reading strategy, such as the use of context and picture clues, that they exclude other strategies that might be more appropriate. To become skilled, fluent readers, children need to have a repertoire of strategies to draw on. These strategies include using a knowledge of sound-spelling relationships — in other words, an understanding of phonics. In addition, research has shown that skilled readers attend to almost every word in a sentence and process the letters that compose each of these words.

Therefore, phonics instruction plays a key role in helping students comprehend text. It helps the student map sounds onto spellings, thus enabling them to decode words. Decoding words aids in the development of word recognition, which in turn increases reading fluency. Reading fluency improves reading comprehension because as students are no longer struggling with decoding words, they can concentrate on making meaning from the text.

In addition, phonics instruction improves spelling ability because it emphasizes spelling patterns that become familiar from reading. Studies show that half of all English words can be spelled with phonics rules that relate to one letter to one sound.

How should you structure phonics instruction?

Phonics instruction should be explicit rather than implicit. Implicit instruction relies on readers "discovering" clues about sound-spelling relationships; good readers can do this, but poor readers are not likely to do so. Explicit instruction is the most effective type of phonics instruction, especially for children at risk for reading difficulties.

A good phonics lesson begins with an explicit explanation of the sound-spelling being taught along with guided opportunities for students to blend, or sound out, words using the new sound-spelling. These exercises should be followed by guided and independent reading practice in text that contains words with the new sound-spelling. This portion of phonics instruction is key. Therefore, phonics instruction should focus on applying learned sound-spelling relationships to actual reading, with smaller amounts of time spent on the initial task of learning phonics rules. That way, you can plan phonics lessons that are appropriate for all students, even if some have higher levels of phonics mastery than others.

How is phonics different from phonemic awareness?

Phonics involves the relationship between sounds and written symbols, whereas phonemic awareness involves sounds in spoken words. Therefore, phonics instruction focuses on teaching sound-spelling relationships and is associated with print. Most phonemic awareness tasks are oral.

Despite these different focuses, phonics instruction and phonemic awareness instruction are connected. In fact, phonemic awareness is necessary for phonics instruction to be effective. Before students can use a knowledge of sound-spelling relationships to decode written words, they must understand that words (whether written or spoken) are made up of sounds. Phonemic awareness is the understanding that a word is made up of a series of discrete sounds. Without this insight, phonics instruction will not make sense to students.

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  • Subjects:
    Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Early Reading
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