Explicit, systematic phonics instruction is an essential part of a successful reading program. The primary focus of phonics instruction is to help beginning readers understand how letters are linked to sounds (phonemes) to form letter-sound correspondences and spelling patterns and to help them learn how to apply this knowledge in their reading and writing.
Needless to say, effective phonics instruction builds the foundation for effective reading.
Specific skills such as learning letters and segmenting words are important contributors in helping children learn to read words during kindergarten and first grade. Good, structured phonics instruction will include the concept of “phonemic awareness”, helping children to recognize that words are made up of a series of sounds.
This knowledge sets the stage for learning spelling/sound patterns of the language and how they combine to make words. To become skilled, fluent readers, students need to learn letters and combinations of letters that represent the 44 different sounds of the English Language in written words. Phonics instruction teaches the spelling “rules”, patterns, letter-order constraints, and conventions to promote effective decoding.
Why is Phonics Important
The findings of meta-analyses clearly demonstrate the benefits of phonics instruction for students in kindergarten through 6th grade and for children having difficulty learning to read. Children who are taught phonics systematically are better able to decode and spell and exhibit improvement in their ability to comprehend text.
Phonics programs that implement an explicit, systematic approach to instruction are most effective and have a far-reaching impact. Skills build over time and enable the child to apply linguistic knowledge to analyze and identify nearly every word that he encounters. According to Sally Shaywitz (Overcoming Dyslexia), “No other method of teaching can make this claim”.
Of course, systematic phonics instruction is not the sole component of a comprehensive reading program. Teachers will want to integrate this necessary component with instruction in phonological and phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension to address all essential areas of reading.
What Students Gain From Phonics
Phonics instruction teaches children the alphabetic principle-the understanding that letters and letter patterns represent the 44 sounds in English. Through explicit instruction, children learn that there are predictable relationships between sounds and letters.
As students learn an increasing number of spelling-sound patterns, they not only increase their ability to recognize novel words containing these known patterns, but they are also better prepared to recognize irregular words and add them to their sight word memory.
Many problems in comprehension are caused by ineffective word identification processes. When children learn to recognize a word’s phonology (how to pronounce it), its orthography (how to spell it), and its morphology (what roots and affixes make up the word), they are well equipped for reading and spelling.
A focus on phonics must be in place during kindergarten and first grade to promote orthographic mapping. Orthographic mapping is a mental process used to store and remember words. According to David Kilpatrick, it is not a skill, teaching technique, or activity you can do with students but rather a process that is enabled when phonemic awareness and phonics skills are taught.
Kilpatrick identifies three overlapping skills that must be in place to enable orthographic mapping including
- Highly skilled phonological and phonemic awareness,
- Automatic grapheme-phoneme correspondence knowledge, and
- Apply decoding strategies to accurately and automatically read unfamiliar words.
What Children Need To Master Phonics
More emphasis on spelling
Phonics instruction may be more effective when we teach students to spell words before or while they are reading them. It is important to give students plenty of opportunities to activate decoding skills (move from print to speech) and to activate encoding skills (move from speech to print).
Louisa Moates has noted that traditional phonics instruction that moves from letter to sound instead of sound to letter may be “teaching the code backward” and that children may be better served with a stronger focus on spelling. Her thinking emphasizes the premise that the foundation of reading is speech and that articulating sounds promotes speech memory, which invokes the student’s knowledge about the alphabetic code.
Encoding practice allows for the child to access the word’s meaning first, (which activates speech and comprehension), pronounce the word, and then apply the process to analyze articulation and segment the sounds. After spelling the word, the student then reads what is written to practice fluency.
Incorporating encoding practice as a component of phonics instruction empowers the student to build words using the 44 graphemes and integrates reading and writing skills. With a solid foundation, the student is able to sound out and spell thousands of words-even larger words like bombastic.
Application of knowledge and skill
Children need to be provided with frequent opportunities to apply what they have learned to the reading of words, sentences, passages, and stories through decodable text. Decodable text includes a high percentage of words with spelling patterns or letter-sound correspondences that are familiar to the child and makes independent reading possible for the beginning reader.
These texts provide exposure to the letter-sound or phonetic patterns that have been taught and allow for phonetically controlled reading and improved confidence. In turn, children are afforded opportunities to build their confidence and skill for reading.
The use of nonsense words during assessment and for fluency practice allows the teacher to determine whether the child is decoding effectively by attending to all features of a word. Often, poor readers who have weak decoding skills tend to rely on context clues and sight memory to make meaning of the text. Given that nonword reading fluency is predictive of reading performance, frequent opportunities for practice with pseudoword decoding will promote the application of skills and knowledge.
Follow assessment, teachers will want to provide differentiated, structured phonics instruction to children to ensure learning and mastery of decoding and encoding skills, while incorporating extension activities to promote skill application. Activities that are promoted with enthusiasm and joy can elevate the child’s desire to read and create a culture of literacy learning in the classroom.
Phonics Activity Ideas
I Spy Sounds
Show students a letter and say, “I spy with my little eye something that begins with /s/.” Students take turns guessing what the item is and identify various items with the beginning sound. Continue to play for other sounds.
The teacher will review all known sounds on the vowel valley chart. Have students select a word from a box. Students will read the word and sort the vowel sound by placing it on the Vowel Valley chart.
Write a variety of nonsense and real words on the board and have students take turns identifying which nonwords are “breaking the rules” and explain what is wrong. Examples of words to identify:
Kash shreege steack brik spleadge troed
Playn qick jaz saime dich juge
Create a chart with a label for each known syllable type (open, closed, Magic -e, vowel team). Have students choose a syllable card from a deck, identify the syllable type, and write it on the chart. Continue until all cards have been played.
Provide students with syllables and have them build as many words as possible by adding two ending syllables to them (+ped, +ding). For an added challenge, have them sort the words by identifying the first syllable as a short or long vowel sound. Examples of syllables include:
gli tap sli slip stri
bid ri rip hop ho
Guide students to use letters (tiles, magnets, blocks, cards) to create words and manipulate one sound each time to form a new word. Example: cap > map > mop > top > tot > pot > pit
Option: Teacher can dictate: “Spell cap. Now change the /k/ to /m/. What is the new word?”
Create a hopscotch grid with chalk and place sounds in each square (vowels, consonants, digraphs, etc). Students will hop on the grid while reciting the sounds.
Create a BINGO card grid and place sounds, syllables, or morphemes in the spaces. The teacher will dictate a concept and students will cover the concepts with a token until someone has BINGO.
Provide the student with three sounds on a blending board. Have the student practice continuous blending, while running his finger across the sounds to provide a fluid movement that represents the blending process. To promote connected phonation, select continuant sounds. The student can transfer the skill to syllables with stop consonants after some success. This activity is helpful for students who isolate sounds well but struggle with achieving blending fluency.
Who Lives Here?
Make houses from paper or cardboard. Have students take turns reading words and sorting them into the correct house. Teaching word families or phonograms can enhance blending fluency. Repetitive practice with units of orthography (-ill, -ack, -ost, etc.) reduces memory load and promotes the child’s ability to store sight words in memory.
Provide the student with a mirror and lead the dictation of various sounds. The student will practice articulating the phonemes while observing his tongue placement and feeling his throat. This activity assists the child to eliminate the schwa from sound pronunciation, prevents confusion for consonant pairs like /p/-/b/, /f/-/v/, and /ch/-/j/, and establishes speech for spelling.
See, Circle, Read
Provide students with a variety of word strips or a list of words. Students will decompose the words with a see, circle, read strategy. This activity is helpful for identifying prefixes and suffixes when the student is learning to decode with affixes. After students circle the parts, have them read all words for fluency, and weave questions to assess knowledge (“What is the suffix in repacking?”).
Break It Down, Build It Up
Knowledge of the sound-symbol associations and extensive application and practice contribute to overall fluency in word recognition, allowing the child to read more efficiently and accurately. Make learning fun and engaging-competence builds confidence. When children have the tools necessary to read, they are more likely to read. It is our responsibility as teachers to guide the knowledge, skill, and opportunity to make reading possible for all.
About the Author
Dr. Kirstina Ordetx is a Level 4 Master Instructor with The Institute for Multi-Sensory Education (IMSE). She holds a doctorate in Counseling Psychology with a concentration in pediatric neurology. Dr. Ordetx is an educational specialist with over 25 years of clinical experience, research, and consultation. She is a certified Structured Literacy Dyslexia Interventionist through the Center for Effective Reading Instruction, a Certified Nutrition and Wellness Consultant, Executive Functions Coach, and a registered Licensed Mental Health Intern. Dr. Ordetx has published two books that compile her research and practice in Theory of Mind. She has served on accreditation committees for the Florida Council of Independent Schools, is a university adjunct professor in developmental and child psychology, and presents at various national and international conferences. Dr. Ordetx is head of school for a private academy in Lakewood Ranch, Florida specializing in the multi-sensory education of students who have language and learning-based differences. She is the Executive Director of the Pinnacle Pediatric Therapy Group, a multi-disciplinary, pediatric therapy clinic.
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The IMSE approach allows teachers to incorporate the five components essential to an effective reading program into their daily lessons: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.
The approach is based on the Orton-Gillingham methodology and focuses on explicit, direct instruction that is sequential, structured, and multi-sensory.
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