Reading & Literacy

Influential Reading Group Makes It Clear: Students Need Systematic, Explicit Phonics

By Stephen Sawchuk & Sarah Schwartz — July 18, 2019 7 min read
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The International Literacy Association has put out a new brief endorsing “systematic and explicit” phonics in all early reading instruction.

“English is an alphabetic language. We have 26 letters. These letters, in various combinations, represent the 44 sounds in our language,” the ILA brief released last week reads. “Teaching students the basic letter-sound combinations gives them access to sounding out approximately 84% of the words in English print.”

It’s a strong statement from an influential, big-tent organization whose members, which include teachers, researchers, and parents, have traditionally held a wide range of views on reading approaches.

“It’s kind of a refreshing piece,” said Timothy Shanahan, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “A lot of people think ILA is an anti-phonics group, but it’s a large group.”

The ILA’s word choices in this brief are important. Systematic phonics means that students are exposed to each sound-letter pattern in the English language in turn. Explicit means that those patterns are directly taught by teachers, not “discovered” via indirect prompting or inquiry activities.

This may seem like common sense: Of course students need to be taught letters and sounds. But for any of you who have spent any time in the early-reading space, it gets right to the heart of the decades-old reading wars.

Almost all reading researchers agree that factors like motivation, access to a print-rich environment, and good books matter in a reading program. The reading wars are really a debate on a small—but critical—piece: The relative importance of phonics, sometimes called “decoding.”

The pro-phonics folks tend to view phonics as a bridge to meaning, reasoning that they’re a necessary step toward being able to read any word. Proponents of whole language or its successor “balanced literacy,” which is a common approach used in U.S. schools today, generally emphasize meaning first, mixing small-group reading of literature with lots of student choice of reading materials. Those approaches tend to subordinate phonics, emphasizing learning words through memorization, context clues, and pictures.

A number of research syntheses link explicit phonics instruction to improvements in early reading outcomes, though there is less clarity about the amount or type of phonics that matters.

This is why the ILA’s word choice “systematic and explicit” matters so much. In balanced literacy, while there can be a phonics component, it’s often limited or incomplete, such as focusing on initial letter sounds (“b” as in baseball, bat, brick). But students may not get exposed to each of the sound-letter patterns in turn, or get enough practice to master them.

The distinction was one deeply explored by APM Reports’ Emily Hanford in an hourlong radio documentary, which has been credited for putting early reading back on the national policy agenda.

Phonics instruction is a topic that “really needed our voice,” said Marcie Post, the executive director of the ILA, noting the growing interest in the subject from educators and the public alike.

The brief represents the association’s official position on the issue, said Post, though she noted that there are a range of opinions represented among ILA members. “We have lots of educators who will support this paper, and I guarantee we will have others out there who will not support this stance,” she said.

A Shift in Stance?

The organization’s prior history with respect to the reading wars is not clear cut. It was one of the first organizations to endorse the findings of the 2000 National Reading Panel report—a federally commissioned look at rigorous research on reading—and helped distribute thousands of copies to its members.

That report cites phonics—alongside phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension—as a key research-based element in any reading program. (The report itself has proved to be controversial, mainly among whole-language advocates who dispute a flawed summary document distributed with the report, or believe the panel should have incorporated more qualitative research.)

On the other hand, some of the ILA’s most well-known members, including past presidents, have tended to fall more into the whole-language camp. And some of its previous briefs and position statements are philosophically closer to balanced literacy. The organization has, for example, endorsed the practice of school-based independent reading. Researchers remain divided about whether, and under what conditions, teachers should use school-based free reading.

And in 2016, the organization’s statement on dyslexia, which appeared to underplay the importance of decoding, drew a rebuke from the International Dyslexia Organization. Dyslexia advocates have emerged as one of the strongest and most vocal supporters of systematic, explicit teaching of phonics. Fueled by the organizing tools of social media, they have also been successful over the past decade supporting state legislation on early screening for dyslexia and specific instructional remedies.

But Post said that the organization has always endorsed systematic phonics instruction, and that this paper doesn’t represent a shift in the ILA’s stance.

“We’re talking about an integrated approach between the teaching of phonics and literature. There is a need for explicit instruction,” but you can’t teach children meaning-making on a phonics curriculum alone, she said. She called for more teacher training, and said that ILA will be putting forth an “action plan” within the next year, that will help teachers work with struggling readers. Phonics is a part of that equation, she said.

“The big problem, as we see it, is that teachers need to have a bevy of tools in the toolbox,” said Post. She has seen teachers talking on social media, asking why they weren’t taught how to teach phonics in their preparation programs. “That’s a really legitimate question,” she said. “What ed program didn’t prepare you to teach this?”

The new brief also endorses having students use “decodable texts,” or stories featuring words that help students practice and reinforce the sound-letter patterns they’ve recently learned. (Read this Education Week story for more on decodable texts.) But students must also be helped to read materials with a less tightly controlled vocabulary—and those should be differentiated for each child’s level by well-trained teachers, the brief says.

To be sure, the brief also notes that phonics should not be done in an isolated way that neglects a focus on knowledge building or vocabulary. Nor does it endorse a particular type of phonics instruction—only that it should be systematic and explicit.

(Phonics approaches can be further subdivided into “synthetic” phonics, in which children sound out and blend word parts together, or “analytic” phonics, which looks at sound patterns typically within word groups. Disagreement continues to rage among pro-phonics advocates about which of these is most effective.)

“I also think that we never need to lose sight of individualized instruction,” said Diane Lapp, the chair of the ILA’s Literacy Research Panel, a professor of education at San Diego State University. Students who come into school not knowing the letters of the alphabet need a lot of phonics instruction, while students who already know how to read don’t need the same program, she noted.

Overcoming ‘Obstacles’

It may come as the kicker that the brief’s author, Wiley Blevins, isn’t a major figure in the reading wars. In fact, he hates engaging in such debates.

Instead, he said in an interview, he wants the new brief to help teachers who have struggled to teach phonics well.

Blevins, who has written a number of books on phonics and currently works as a consultant training teachers to improve their reading foundations teaching, points to sections in the brief that outline common pitfalls for teachers. On that list? Not enough review and repetition of skills so they “stick,” and not enough application of skills to real texts.

“What I notice is that it takes four to six weeks for most of the students I work with to get to mastery [on each phonics skill], and it takes mastery to get the point where students can transfer them to all reading materials,” he said. “And if you aren’t giving children enough application, the skills start mentally dissolving. ... A lot of people have great phonics resources, but there is a lack of sufficient application to reading and writing, and without that the learning doesn’t stick; at last half of phonics should be applying the skills to authentic reading and writing.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.