Wiley Blevins has taught elementary school in both the United States and South America and is currently Editorial Specialist for Early Reading at Scholastic, Inc. The author of several books on phonics instruction, Wiley has used his expertise to answer teacher's most frequently asked questions about phonics.
Question 1: 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.
Question 2: 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 purely oral.
Question 3: 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.
Question 4: 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.
Question 5: 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' reading level.
Question 6: What about my students who struggle with reading? What can I do?
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 be helpful.