Principles for Phonics Instruction

I often describe phonics and phonemic awareness as two sides of the same coin. These two reading components require similar mental processes, although phonics includes the additional element of letter–sound associations. As evidence of the close ties between phonics and phonemic awareness, reading research and success with our reading programs indicate that both reading components rely on the same instructional principles.

Because your brain does similar things with phonics as it does with phonemic awareness, and because a student’s brain grasps concepts of phonics and phonemic awareness through similar processes, the same principles will guide effective instruction in both components.

We will look at instructional strategies next, but all effective strategies and instructional activities are based on the same four principles, as follows.

  1. Instruction needs to be explicit and systematic.
  2. Instruction should focus on only one or two letter–sound associations at a time.
  3. Instruction follows a “continuum of complexity.”
  4. Instruction needs to combine practice with application.

For a more comprehensive explanation of the first three principles, go back and read the principles of instruction for phonemic awareness again. I will discuss them briefly here as a reminder.

Explicit and Systematic Instruction

“Explicit”means you determine particular letter–sound associations to study. Rather than simply wrestling with decoding troublesome words when students stumble across them and then moving on, you plan instructional activities to target specific relationships.

“Systematic” means you have a plan. Once students master the letter–sound associations you are teaching them now, you already know what you will teach them next. To guide your “system,” refer to the continuum of complexity.

One or Two Letter–sound Associations at a Time

This principle is fairly self-explanatory: determine what letter–sound associations students need to learn, and then focus instruction on the next one or two only. Use the continuum of complexity to determine next steps in learning, select one or two relationships to study within the current level of complexity or the next level, and then design instructional activities to teach them explicitly.

If you try to teach more than a few at a time, students will struggle to learn them. However, when you focus on one or two, and when you let students practice them repeatedly, their brains will develop strong neurological pathways, a form of “mental muscle memory.” They will be able to use those skills naturally and without conscious effort. This is how students develop automaticity, i.e., mastery.

Combine Practice with Application

The various instructional strategies described below will help you design effective instructional opportunities for students to master the letter–sound associations. They will help students learn to recognize letter and letter combinations and turn them into sounds. But that is not enough.

Students need to put their fledgling skills into practice…immediately.

This means applying the instruction to real, meaningful text. No reading skill is useful until it is applied to meaningful text. Similarly, students strengthen their new skills by using them with text. In this way, students have both a purpose for learning phonics skills and an opportunity to practice those skills.

Does this mean that students will be able to “read” everything that is appropriate for their grade level or age? Of course not. But neither should they wait to read real text until they have mastered all of the phonics skills. As students begin to learn phonics skills, at any level, they need to see how they can apply those skills and how those letter–sound associations are used in text—whether or not they can read the entire text independently.

Following this instructional principle, you will engage students in activities that focus on phonics skills, followed by activities using meaningful text, followed by phonics skills again, followed by text again, followed by…. Back and forth, higher and higher.

Continuum of Complexity

Some phonics skills are easier for students to grasp than others, and some letter combinations are easier to decode than others.

In general, single-letter sounds are less complex than sounds made from multiple letters. Blends are less complex than digraphs, and digraphs are generally less complex than trigraphs.

Do not assume that students at a certain age or grade already understand simple skills or that they are ready for more complex skills. Start with the easy skills and move up the continuum until you reach skills that challenge students. In this way, you help students develop the foundational skills they need to understand more complex letter–sound associations.

The list below demonstrates the typical continuum of skills, from simple to complex. This is a general guide that reflects phonics skills from most simple to most complex.

Students may be at different places on the continuum, and they may find higher skills (though not much higher) easier to grasp than lower skills depending on their level of exposure to text and prior instruction. Because of these issues, students may progress through these skills differently than they are represented here. Regardless, this is a good general continuum.

Most Simple to Most Complex

  • Naming the letters of the alphabet
  • Producing the most common sounds for each letter beginning with the short sounds of vowels and consonants
  • Recognizing and writing single letter–single sound associations
  • Producing less common sounds and long sounds for vowels
  • Recognizing and writing common V-C and C-V words (example: “to,” “at”)
  • Recognizing and writing common C-V-C words (example: “bug”)
  • Recognizing and writing common consonant digraphs (example: “sh,” “th”)
  • Recognizing and writing common C-V-C-C words (example: “lamp”)
  • Changing letters in simple words to produce new words (example: “car” to “far”)
  • Recognizing and writing common digraphs that produce the same sound (example: the “sh” sound in “motion” and “shop”)
  • Using known letter combinations to blend sounds into new words through word clusters (example: “BL-ank,” “BL-ow,” “BL-ack”)
  • Recognizing and writing vowel digraphs with repeated vowels that produce single sounds (example: “ee,” “oo”)
  • Recognizing and writing vowel digraphs of different vowels that produce single sound (example: “bean,” “hair”)
  • Recognizing and writing less common multi-letter letter combinations that produce single sounds (example: “ough”)
  • Recognizing and writing less common digraphs that do not produce the sounds of the letters (example: “knife”)
  • Breaking multi-syllabic words into syllables and sounding out, then blending the syllables
  • Recognizing and writing various ways that phonemes can be written (example: “door,” “four,” “more”)
  • Recognizing patterns for when vowels are produced by long or short vowel sounds (example: “ape” vs. “always”)
  • Recognizing the sounds of Greek and Latin roots in words
  • Producing the sounds of non-English letter–sound associations (example: “foyer,” “ciao”)

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