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The critical role of phonics assessment in the Science of Reading

By Michelle Hosp, Ph.D., Director of Foundational Literacy, Renaissance — April 01, 2023 6 min read
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Phonics is a cornerstone skill, both in the context of the Science of Reading as well as across curricula. If students do not have the basic ability to read words on a page, any other instruction a teacher delivers will have less staying power. Students who struggle with phonics will become lost, frustrated, and confused by other instruction, from science and social studies to math—much of their mental energy consumed by the task of decoding.

In my work as a school psychologist, teachers often came to me with the same question: “I know my student is struggling to read words; can you tell me which phonics skills I should teach them?” This question came up so frequently that it led me to get my Ph.D., with a focus on assessing and teaching foundational reading skills. In order to help teachers, I built a better phonics assessment: Star Phonics.

Phonics is not the only skill required to read, and it should not be taught in isolation. But its importance within the Science of Reading means that phonics must be taught explicitly, systematically, and cumulatively. We want students to be able to look at words and read them quickly and efficiently. That requires teachers to focus on each specific phonics skill to ensure students have mastered it before moving ahead.

Universal screeners can reveal there’s a problem, but don’t pinpoint a solution

Universal screeners reveal students’ abilities with an array of reading skills, and identify which students are at-risk for future problems. They provide useful insights, but were not designed to inform instruction. Rather, their purpose is to identify which students need additional support. To guide instruction, we need a valid, reliable phonics assessment. With the detailed data it provides, teachers don’t have to guess about which phonics patterns are causing roadblocks to reading proficiency, or waste time teaching skills a student already knows. They can jump right to teaching the exact skills that their students need.

When learning to read, time is of the essence. Without quick intervention, a student may begin to embed an error—and the more times they repeat it, the more it becomes “stuck” in their brain’s neural pathways. The earlier we can correct mistakes and guide students in the proper direction, the more they will build sound neurological connections.

Phonics assessment supports instructional best practices

A phonics assessment is useful at all tiers of instruction within a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS). At Tier 1, a phonics skill screener that measures many phonics patterns and categories can pinpoint gaps in a whole class’s mastery of a skill so that a teacher can revisit it before moving on—and potentially causing a large number of students to fall behind.

For example, a teacher administered the Star Phonics assessment in her classroom at 9:00 a.m. She quickly discovered that about half of the class hadn’t mastered silent /e/. She pivoted her 9:30 a.m. lesson to re-teach this skill. Only with data from a reliable phonics skills screener, such as Star Phonics, can a teacher respond that quickly to their students’ exact needs.

Beyond a phonics skill screener, a phonics diagnostic assessment can reveal how to help those students who are the furthest behind. In the above example, the teacher noticed that four students in the classroom had not mastered short vowel sounds in simple consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words (e.g., cat). These students needed a different approach from the majority of the class, so the teacher administered a phonics diagnostic assessment on CVC to identify the short vowels that the students had mastered and those in which they needed more instruction.

These four students needed additional Tier 2 support before they could move on to the next series of skills. By pulling them into small-group settings and providing explicit and systematic instruction in real time with a lot of corrective feedback, the teacher was able to quickly shore up this skill. In most cases, the same curriculum materials that are used for the whole class can be applied to provide additional instruction and practice, but this time in a smaller group with more individualized attention.

Research on teaching practices shows that this is an incredibly effective approach. In a small-group setting, we can provide targeted instruction and closely monitor students. When they make an error, a teacher or reading specialist can jump in to correct it right away. This reduces the chances of the student continuing to practice the skill incorrectly.

Orange Tier 3 Grey Tier 2 and Blue Tier 1 Pyramid

Let’s suppose that after small-group instruction three of these four remaining students have mastered the short vowel sounds in CVC words. Those students can now proceed on to the next skill that needs to be taught.

But one student is still struggling with short vowels and needs Tier 3 support. This may include even more targeted one-on-one instruction, testing them on letter sounds in isolation, and perhaps phonemic awareness skills such as saying aloud all the sounds they hear in the word “cat.”

Taking a wider view with phonics assessment data

District and school leaders can also use data from phonics assessments to spot patterns across schools, grades, and classrooms and take action to support effective reading instruction system-wide. If almost every student entering the second grade has no understanding of digraphs (e.g., ph in phone), for example, then this should be investigated. We can review the curriculum to see how it is being taught and determine if any changes should be made or if professional development, specific to phonics, needs to be implemented. We can also look at when this skill was taught; maybe it was included in the last six lessons of the year, and teachers simply ran out of time. If the issue is wide-ranging, then the solution should also be wide: Something needs to be changed. However, if the issue is more isolated (e.g., it affects only one classroom within a grade), then an individual teacher may need support on teaching phonics or on using the curriculum materials as they were designed to be used.

There is no getting around the need for explicit phonics instruction for all students. Without it, many students will not develop the foundational skills needed to read, making it more and more difficult for them to learn across curricula and harder and harder for them to catch up.

With a brief and efficient phonics assessment, teachers can receive actionable data to quickly redirect and fine-tune instruction. A phonics assessment is an essential and powerful tool that takes the guesswork out of phonics instruction—so that teachers can focus on what their students need most to become strong, confident readers.

Michelle Hosp Photo

Michelle Hosp, Ph.D., Star Phonics Founder & Director of Foundational Literacy, Renaissance

Dr. Hosp has over 25 years of experience working directly with students, educators, families, and researchers as a school psychologist, professor, and Director of the Iowa Reading Research Center. In addition to her work at Renaissance, she is an Associate Professor of Special Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, with a focus on reading, assessment, and data-based decision making. Prior to joining Renaissance, she developed Star Phonics, and is the lead author of the best-selling book The ABCs of CBM: A Practical Guide to Curriculum-Based Measurement (2nd Ed).