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Teaching Opinion

Response: Phonics Instruction Doesn’t Have to Be ‘Boring & Dull’

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 30, 2019 16 min read
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The new question-of-the-week is:

What is the appropriate role of phonics in reading instruction?

The role of phonics in reading instruction is often debated: how big, how small, and how should it be taught?

We’ll explore this issue today with Casey Schultz, Mandy Ellis, Dr. Carolyn Brown, Dr. Jerry Zimmermann, Kelly Wickham Hurst, and the late Dr. Kay MacPhee, who contributed a response prior to her death—my condolences to her family. I have also included responses from readers. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Casey on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

I think phonics plays an important role in reading instruction, though it is often used in some of the most mind-numbingly ways possible. When I teach phonics to English-language learners, I share collections of words with similar sounds and accompanied by illustrations. I then ask students to identify the similarities and work together to create the “rules” that guide specific letter sounds. This kind of inductive teaching and learning promotes phonics and higher-order thinking skills of pattern-seeking and categorization.

You can learn more at The Best Articles & Sites For Teachers & Students To Learn About Phonics.

Response From Casey Schultz

Casey Schultz was the lead curriculum designer of the EL Education K-2 Reading Foundations Skills Block (http://curriculum.eleducation.org). She co-wrote Chapter 4 of Your Curriculum Companion: The Essential Guide to Teaching the EL Education K-5 Language Arts Curriculum and now works for LearnZillion (https://learnzillion.com/p/), where she is leading the transformation of the EL Education K-5 curriculum in the LearnZillion digital platform. She is also a mom, a former elementary teacher and school leader, and forever a kindergarten teacher at heart:

Let’s begin by talking about the elephant in the room—phonics instruction has a bad reputation for being boring, dull ... I could go on. But it doesn’t have to be! Many programs include sensory integration, songs, poems, and other engaging resources. This video, showing students segmenting and blending words orally and with their bodies, is one of many examples. And just like with any other type of instruction, you can always infuse your own style and flavor.

Caption: A teacher at Lead Academy in Greenville, S.C., created a fishing-pond game. Students “fish” for words as a fun way to practice reading and matching different rhyming words and spelling patterns.

Image by Casey Schultz

Most importantly, students need it. The research is overwhelming: Students require systematic instruction to crack the alphabetic code. If they aren’t reading fluently by 2nd grade, students have a tough road ahead, particularly when considering the complex text demands of new, more rigorous college- and career-ready standards like the Common Core State Standards.

Here’s a bit of the research: The National Reading Panel (NRP) report of 2001, a meta-analysis of thousands of studies about effective reading instruction concludes: " ... systematic phonics instruction enhances children’s success in learning to read and ... is significantly more effective than instruction that teaches little or no phonics.”

It’s important to note that the report emphasizes “systematic” instruction—teaching letters, sounds, and spelling patterns in a logical sequence. This is different from incidental phonics, which teaches spelling patterns as they happen to show up in a given text. For example, you might choose to focus on the “ea” long-vowel pattern during the word-work portion of a guided-reading lesson because the word “mean” showed up several times in the text. This approach doesn’t ensure that students are taught all of the most common spelling patterns or that they are taught in logical order.

The report also concludes that phonics instruction should be part of a comprehensive program, including phonological awareness, fluency, and comprehension instruction. As educators, we know “comprehensive” means we should also instill a love of reading through rich, beautiful texts and build world knowledge through interesting content. So, as the International Reading Association’s position paper (1998) put it: “Rather than engage in debates about whether phonics should or should not be taught, effective teachers of reading and writing ask when, how, how much, and under what circumstances phonics should be taught.”

But what’s the best way to decide when and how to include systematic phonics instruction in your reading block?

Grade-Level Considerations

Grade level should be one consideration. The NRP report indicates that all students in kindergarten-6th grades (and older students with reading disabilities) benefit from structured phonics instruction, but kindergarten and 1st graders showed the most significant gains in decoding and comprehension. Similarly, spelling improvement is most significant in kindergarten and slowly decreases in each grade level. These findings suggest that more intense and/or longer blocks of phonics instruction are best for all K-1 students and possibly 2nd graders (depending on assessment results; see next section), while older students might only need phonics on an as-needed basis.


Understanding your students’ needs is another key to determining the amount of instruction required and what spelling patterns (or letters/sounds) should be taught. In K-1, pre- and ongoing assessment will help monitor progress so you can reteach, possibly in small groups, as needed. For older students, these measurements will help determine if phonics instruction is necessary (for the whole group or individuals).

But don’t worry; there’s no need to pile on yet another test to your already overassessed students. Many foundational skills like letter recognition, phonological awareness, decoding, and spelling are probably baked into the primary-grade assessments you’re already doing. If not, you can find many free foundational assessments online like these (see Benchmark Assessments beginning on p. 59).

The role of phonics instruction in your classroom

The approach you choose will depend on your students’ age and needs, but you can use these points to guide your decisionmaking:

  • Every student, particularly those in early grades and with learning disabilities, needs systematic phonics instruction (incidental instruction is not enough).
  • Phonics instruction should be part of a comprehensive literacy program.
  • Not every student will need a lot of it, especially upper-elementary students (assessment will help determine).
  • Abandon preconceived notions and find a program or approach that works for you and your students.

Response From Mandy Ellis

Mandy is the principal and lead learner at Dunlap Grade School in Illinois and the author of Lead with Literacy:

The magic of a kindergarten or 1st grade classroom comes in literally watching children grow as readers. Diverse learners walk in with varied amounts of background knowledge and knowledge of the alphabet, letter sounds, and phonics. Within a year, teachers across the country wave a magic wand of instructional fairy dust over these students and curate readers. Although it appears as though this is done with magical powers; careful planning, rooted in best practices, ensure students learn these foundational skills to develop reading superpowers.

Balancing phonics instruction with cultivating a love of literature, books, and reading is essential. Teachers need an ample understanding of a systematic approach to phonics instruction while creating an environment that grows a love of reading through:

Student Choice

Students of all reading abilities, levels, and behavioral needs are capable of being readers when they are given a choice and allowed to discuss books that interest them. Students engage with books in different ways and are motivated through choice. They can perform at high levels when engaged in a story.

Ample Access to High-Quality Books

Student choice also means keeping current and relevant titles in classroom and school libraries and providing students with recommendations and choices that interest them as readers. Teachers and leaders must ensure that students have a balanced choice of texts that include classic literature as well as current books that are of high interest. We can do this by being active readers of children’s literature and young-adult titles. Our ultimate goal to create readers instead of students that simply comply with the task of reading.

Independent Reading Time

Opportunities for reading can occur at any point in the school day. Even more, creating a true culture of readers means that readers extend reading past their school day. Students need independent reading time, and they need to be explicitly taught and reminded how to seize time during the day to develop strong reading habits. Think of all the transition times during the day that could be an opportunity to read:

• Bathroom breaks

• Picture day

• Waiting to go into art or music class

• Finishing a test early

• End-of-day dismissal

• Bus rides to and from school

• Field-trip transportation

Reading independently develops phonics, comprehension, vocabulary, and stamina in our youngest readers. Readers will grow with increased independent time.

Literature-Rich Learning Environment That Promotes Reading

The physical learning environment has a lot to do with what and how we can communicate our vision and mission for reading. Word walls, word and picture labels, attention to word parts and patterns, and space that allows for communication and collaboration build reading skills.

Developing reading skills can be a complex process. Students emerge from prereading skills in phonics to developing fluency and comprehension skills. Learning to read—and teaching students to read—isn’t easy, which is why the more important tenet of developing a classroom culture of reading is to foster a love of reading. Phonics instruction, when part of a strong classroom culture focused on developing a love of reading, is essential in building reading skills and is best accomplished through direct instruction in mini-lessons, differentiated and individualized guided reading, and careful progress monitoring of student mastery.

As teachers magically weave the essential components of phonics instruction into their day, they can meet further success when it is done with books students choose and are of high interest. This can be amplified when the books selected are of high quality and part of a learning environment. Our jobs as teachers and leaders of reading in our schools is to vigilantly and relentlessly work to create environments that allow our students and staff to find the treasure in books and the wonder of reading.

Response From Dr. Carolyn Brown & Dr. Jerry Zimmermann

Dr. Carolyn Brown and Dr. Jerry Zimmermann are co-founders of Foundations in Learning, a company that provides school districts with research-based tools designed to assess struggling readers, address their foundational skill deficits, and empower them to achieve significant gains in reading fluency and comprehension:

The role of phonics in reading instruction is straightforward. The science of reading overwhelmingly supports the view that phonics—the knowledge and use of sound/symbol relationships—plays an essential and foundational role in learning to read and in the development of advanced reading skills.

The answer to the question, “What is the appropriate role of phonics in reading instruction?” is more complicated. Because each learner brings different language skills, readiness, and print experience to the school environment, one size truly does not fit all.

In an ideal world, each learner would be provided the conditions under which he or she can most effectively acquire, use, and generalize knowledge of the sound/symbol system to read for comprehension. The approach would consider his or her knowledge and skills and tailor instruction to maximize the most efficient and effective development of foundational skills.

Unfortunately, the science of linking individual reader characteristics to specific approaches to learning to read has yet to be fully developed—even though inroads are being made. Researchers are studying specific learning theoretic models from cognitive science that focus on “how” phonics skills can be most efficiently learned given specific learner characteristics. These learning frameworks have been used to study and improve skill development in other domains and are being translated to the science of reading. In the meantime, the clock is ticking for individual students. The data are clear that these foundational reading skills (including phonics) should be in place by 3rd grade for students to achieve academic and economic success.

From a very pragmatic standpoint, we should integrate the current science of reading into the practice of the classroom to maximize opportunities for all students to become successful readers and learners. The conditions for most learners to acquire and use basic reading skills are not the extremes (e.g., decodable text methods vs. whole-language approaches). Research shows that most learners live somewhere in the middle and appropriate instruction includes exposure to lots of print and oral language as well as well-targeted and timed explicit instruction in foundational reading skills. The all-too obvious role that phonics plays in the learning and developing of reading skills and comprehension should certainly not be displaced by a decades-old philosophical debate.

As we learn more from ongoing science about improving our instructional models, we can update our classroom practices. However, we should use current scientific findings, such as the need for systematic phonics instruction, to ensure we provide the most positive outcomes for each individual.

Response From Kelly Wickham Hurst

Kelly Wickham Hurst is a 23-year educator, classroom teacher, and administrator who founded Being Black at School in 2016. BBAS is an advocacy organization that uses frameworks and data to assist schools in being more equitable. She’s a mom of six and grandmother of twp and lives with her husband in Springfield, Ill.:

Phonics helped me, as well as my children, learn, and I can easily tell you the year I had students who didn’t have it. They did a lot of guessing at sight words (mixing up “the” for “and”), and I realized that a foundational key was missing. Students who struggled would also likely be very challenged in foreign-language classes later on.

Response From Dr. Kay MacPhee

Beginning as an educator, and inspired by her deaf son, the late Dr. Kay MacPhee devoted her life to developing evidence-based reading programs for all children. She spent 25 years as an accomplished researcher, and her concepts were ranked #1 by the What Works Clearinghouse:

Phonics has a critical role to play in reading instruction, but for this instruction to be effective, there must first be well-established phonemic awareness. A child must be able to hear, isolate, and manipulate the 44 speech sounds (phonemes) of the English language. This solid foundation allows for the connection of the sounds to the corresponding letter or letter combination in print, which is phonics. The immediate recall of the sounds of the letters, and the manipulation of those sounds—which includes segmenting words into sounds and blending sounds into words—is preparing a student to effortlessly decode when reading.

The hierarchy in which the 44 sounds is presented is also of primary importance. The earliest sounds taught must be the most easily heard and blended. Sounds such as /m/, /s/, /oo/ and /ee/, can be held (lengthened), making them easier to grasp for the young learner. Because they are so brief, vowels such as /_i_/ and /_e_/ are more difficult to hear in words and should be presented later, as should consonants such as /b/ and /d/, which are much harder to blend with other sounds. The careful ordering of the presentation of the phonemes, as well as the order in which particular skills are taught, e.g., consonant-vowel blending before vowel-consonant blending, means that phonemic/phonetic knowledge can be developed in the most efficient manner for both reading and spelling.

For example, one of the most efficient ways to teach a child to make the connection between a sound and a letter begins with phonemic awareness, asking a child to listen and identify when they hear a single sound (e.g., /s/). Then, immediately follow this activity with giving them the opportunity to connect the new sound to its printed form (phonics). When this type of activity is repeated for each sound, decoding a word such as “soon,” made up of two of the easier to blend sounds (/s/ and /oo/), is not a challenge for most young learners to do quite quickly.

The ability to use phonemic/phonetic knowledge automatically is primarily what separates fluent readers from striving readers. Without speedy access to this knowledge, reading becomes slow and inefficient and comprehension, weak. For reading to be fluent, decoding must be automatic and without thought, so that decoding becomes effortless—allowing students to focus their brain energy on comprehension.

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Casey, Mandy, Carolyn, Jerry, Kelly, and to the late Dr. Kay MacPhee for their contributions. Thank you also to readers.

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