Hameray Classroom Literacy Blog

5 Key Characteristics of Effective Phonics Instruction

By Paula Dugger, M. Ed., Guest Blogger

As parents and teachers, we are always looking for the best ways to teach our children how to read. In today's blog post, I'll explain the importance of phonics in helping kids become successful readers and five characteristics of effective phonics instruction that you should keep in mind.

A report in 2000 from the National Reading Panel concluded that the best approach to teaching children how to read consists of explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and systematic phonics along with vocabulary, reading fluency, and comprehension. The report also indicated that systematic phonics instruction enhances the ability to learn to read and is significantly more effective than instruction that teaches little or no phonics.

Phonics instruction teaches students the relationships between letters (or letter combinations) in written language and the sounds in spoken language. This knowledge is then used to recognize words when reading, and spelling words when writing. Children who are given early, explicit and systematic phonics instruction have a distinct learning advantage in learning to read.

The following five characteristics are important in effective phonics instruction. Effective phonics instruction should:

1. Link phonemic awareness to phonics

Phonemic awareness and phonics often appear similar, but they are not the same. However, they are co-dependent skills and their instruction often overlaps. Phonemic awareness is auditory, focused on sounds and does not involve print.

Phonics, on the other hand, focuses on the relationship between sounds and letters and involves print. Children learn to recognize and differentiate sounds heard in phonemic awareness. Phonics allows children to take that phonemic awareness knowledge and link it to print in written language. As an example, phonemic awareness allows a child to hear three distinct sounds in cat (/c/ /a/ /t/).

2. Be explicitly and systematically taught

By explicitly and systematically teaching children phonics, you are helping them to understand that there are systematic and predictable relationships between written letters (graphemes) and spoken sounds (phonemes). Understanding the relationships between letters and sounds allows children to pronounce, comprehend, and decode, new words as they encounter them in print.

It is important to explicitly teach phonics skills through modeled, guided, and independent teaching strategies. This allows the teacher to provide a scaffold and gradually release support to the child. Daily phonics instruction should not exceed fifteen to twenty minutes.

As an example, phonics teaches a child that three distinct sounds heard in cat (/c/ /a/ /t/) are represented by the written symbols or letters c-a-t. In addition, phonics instruction teaches that letter names are often different from the letter sounds (“cee” “a” “tee”).

If you are looking for specific activities to teach phonics, check out some of my previously written blog posts about using magnetic letters.

3. Provide opportunities for practice in reading and writing

Students need frequent opportunities to practice and apply developing phonetic knowledge using authentic and fun reading and writing activities. Both reading and writing draw upon the same sources of knowledge (letters, sounds, words, and syntax).

In writing, we construct words to provide meaning and in reading, we decode or take words apart to gain meaning. Thus, the two processes are reciprocal and dependent upon the knowledge gained from phonics instruction. Applying the knowledge and skills gained from phonics instruction in reading and writing can also help teachers gauge whether or not students have mastered or gained an understanding of the instruction.

4. Include flexible instruction

Because each child comes with a wide variety of experiences, teachers must be flexible in their phonics instruction so that that individual student needs can be met. It is important to establish what each child already knows about phonics. By continually assessing the needs of the individual students, a teacher can tailor instruction to meet specific needs.

5. Be taught in an integrated literacy program

Phonics instruction is not a complete stand-alone reading program, nor can it assure success in reading for all students by itself. As a critical component in beginning reading, it is only one piece of a larger puzzle. Phonics needs to be taught as a part of a total literacy program as outlined by the National Reading Panel’s report (2000). Combining phonics instruction, along with phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and reading comprehension strategies, provides the best approach to teaching children how to be successful, lifelong readers.

Be sure to visit our blog soon for more ideas to meet the needs of early learners and striving readers!

Paula is an educational consultant who has previously served as a Reading Recovery Teacher/Teacher Leader, first-grade teacher, Title I and high school reading teacher, and a Reading Coordinator. If you like what you read here, you can enjoy  more from Paula on our blog .