What Works for Phonics Instruction

As just described under instructional principles, you want students to go back and forth between direct instruction and application. The first four strategies listed below focus on direct instruction of phonics skills.

Six Sample Strategies for Teaching Phonics

  • Word clusters
  • Sight words and phonics
  • Matching words with meanings
  • Word analysis
  • Guided oral reading
  • Writing

Word clusters: As with word clusters for phonemic awareness, students study, compare, contrast, sound out, blend, etc. words with similar letter–sound associations. Because children generally begin learning to identify rhymes long before they begin decoding, you will likely begin with simple words that rhyme, such as “car,” “jar,” and “far.” Many words in these simple sets are known as C-V-C words, meaning Consonant-Vowel-Consonant.

As students begin to grasp those simple words, you may begin to work with clusters of words that have similar starting sounds, then middle sounds. Following the continuum of complexity, you will eventually introduce clusters of words with similar sounding digraphs and trigraphs, and with silent letters. Then, you and the students will move to clusters of words that have same sounds but very different letter combinations to produce those sounds, such as “laid,” “played,” and “grade.”

Sight words and phonics: Sight words and phonics are related, but they are not the same.

With sight words, students are taught to automatically recognize whole words, meaning they memorize and can recall that a certain set of letters makes the sound of a particular word. Instruction in sight words, typically some type of recall drill, does help students develop automaticity in word recognition, and it can contribute to reading text. But it still isn’t phonics.

Rather, with phonics, students are learning to decode—to sound out words. This is different than whole word recognition.

The point, however, is that although sight words and phonics are different, students will benefit from both and instruction should include both.

Matching words with meanings: Many students can sound out words in text but have no idea what the text passage is about. I call these students “word callers.” They can perform decoding and call out the words, but they do not have any idea what those words mean. This is frustrating for students and does not lead to reading comprehension. The missing pieces are vocabulary knowledge and, to some degree, comprehension (but mainly vocabulary). Decoding is only useful if children know the meanings of words they are decoding!

With this strategy, students study the meanings of words that they are decoding. Obviously, most simple words do not need any vocabulary instruction. However, as students begin to encounter more advanced words or words that are related to various topics or school subjects, they will need vocabulary instruction to help them understand what they are reading when they find those words in text.

Word analysis: Some words are long and complicated, but if we study them, we see that they have parts we already know. Rather than being intimidated by those long words, we often find we need only to figure out the unfamiliar parts. Strong readers do this automatically, but younger or weak readers need help separating the known and unknown parts.

Many children look over a piece of text and say, “This is too hard!” We cannot let children say—or think—that. When children feel intimidated by text they have been asked to read, they will have an emotional reaction that will limit their ability to learn. (See chapter 1, section 6: “Create a safe environment” for more about emotions and learning.)

As the teacher, your job is to help students learn the habit of finding the parts they already know. Then, you help them sound out the new parts. Sometimes, the familiar parts are one- or two-letter combinations, but very often they are recognizable patterns, such as “tion” or “ough.” For example, the word “thoroughness” is a tough word, but when we analyze the word, we see that it has a couple of common patterns “ough” and “ness.” The new part is “thor.” Once students sound out that part, they can blend all three parts together to say the entire word. They may surprise themselves by being able to read such big words.

Guided oral reading: Guided oral reading is one of those across-the-board great instructional strategies. It is useful for oral language, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary. Although there are several ways to do guided oral reading, it generally looks like this for phonics.

  1. The student reads aloud to the teacher (or another student), who is listening and reading along silently.
  2. The teacher makes note of any words on which the student stumbles or demonstrates difficulty with decoding.
  3. Once the student finishes reading the passage, the teacher helps the student sound out the troublesome words, and together they study those words through decoding and blending.
  4. The teacher and student may read the passage aloud together a few times.
  5. Once the student can correctly decode those words, the student attempts to read the passage aloud again.

By carefully selecting text passages that use the various letter–sound associations being studied, the teacher helps students apply the direct instruction to meaningful text.

Students enjoy this strategy because it gives them an opportunity to keep trying until they get it right. If you provide sufficient time to activities that use this strategy, students will succeed.

Writing: Writing is not reading, but writing can help students develop their phonics skills. If you recall from the continuum of phonics skills, most of the skills include “recognizing and writing.” These two skills are closely related. With recognizing, students turn text into spoken words; with writing they turn spoken words into text. In both cases, students are using and practicing letter–sound associations.

Writing activities do not automatically help students improve their phonics skill. On the other hand, they give students opportunities to practice and refine their skills. They also give you the opportunity to identify letter combinations that may be difficult for the student and to provide instruction. When a student asks, “How do you spell [some word]?” your first response can be “What sounds do you hear?” followed by “And what letters can spell those sounds?” Keep track of those letter–sound associations that cause difficulties. You can use them for further instruction.

Sample Activities for Phonics


Sample Activity Types

Phonics Sub-skills

Word Clusters

Finding rhymes / Rhyming poetry


Quick erase / swap

Odd word out

Word searches in text



Sight Words and Phonics

Sound timelines

Flash cards

Identifying site words in text (circle, clap on words, etc.)

Sound timelines

Call-and-response blending

All sub-skills

Matching Words with Meanings

Word analysis for roots

Graphic organizers

Vocabulary substitution

Vocabulary study prior to reading



Guided Oral Reading

Guided oral reading

Choral reading

All sub-skills

Word Analysis


Sound searching

Word grouping by letter combinations

Call-and-response blending

Quick erase/swap




Rhyming Poetry



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