Teaching methods: Phonics FAQs

Earlier this month Teacher brought you news of a large-scale study into the benefits of a synthetic phonics program. Here, Dr Jennifer Buckingham addresses seven frequently asked questions about the teaching method.

Why phonics?

Three major reviews of the research on effective literacy teaching methods found there are five essential elements to high quality, comprehensive initial reading instruction. They are phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

The most contested of these is phonics – the relationship between sounds in speech and letters in writing. There is ongoing debate about the need for explicit phonics instruction, with arguments against phonics often based on misinformation and misconceptions. Many teachers say they teach phonics, but reading specialists argue it is often not taught in the most effective way – with dire consequences for later reading development.

Why is explicit phonics instruction so important?

Phonics instruction is one of the most researched aspects of education, in terms of both the volume of studies over the last few decades and the consistency of the evidence. Numerous studies show that reading programs with a well-developed systematic and explicit phonics component routinely and consistently have greater effectiveness for children learning to read than programs without a good phonics component.

Some children need more instruction in phonics than others, but all students benefit to some extent – whether it's for learning to read or learning to spell. Sometimes when people dismiss phonics and say phonics programs are unnecessary or don't work, it's because they haven't used a good phonics program.

Is English a phonetic language?

English is less phonetically regular than other languages; it is more accurately described as a morphophonemic language. This is arguably why a good phonics program is so important for teaching reading – if the relationship between written and spoken words is complex, it requires more explicit and careful teaching.

Research cited by Louisa Cook Moats in Speech to Print says approximately 50 per cent of English words are easily decodable, another 34 per cent have one exception to the rules of simple letter sound correspondences, and another 10 per cent or so can be read accurately if morphology is taken into account. That leaves only a small proportion of words that have to be learned as whole words.

Although the rules required in order to decode English words are more numerous than in other more ‘transparent' languages like Finnish, it's certainly much easier to remember the rules than it is to memorise what every single word in the English language looks like.

Another reason we know English is a phonetically decodable language is because good readers can read words they have never seen before. For example, when science fiction and fantasy authors make up names of characters and places, they usually make them phonetically decodable. If you are reading Game of Thrones for the first time and you come across the name Targaryen, you can decode it. You don't need to have watched the show, you don't need someone to tell you­ – you can work it out using the basic rules of written language.

How do parents know whether their child's school is providing good phonics instruction?

Parents will know if their child is getting good phonics instruction if, at the end of their first ‘foundation' year of school, they know all the single letter sounds. They will know how to put them together to make simple words that use regular straightforward letter-sound correspondences, and they will be starting to be able to read bigger unknown words using digraphs (combinations of two letters that makes a single sound). If their children can't do these things after a year of good initial reading instruction, they may need some extra support with a reading intervention.

Is phonics all there is to reading?

While decoding is important, so is comprehension. The ‘simple view' of reading is that it is made up of two elements – decoding/word recognition and comprehension. Reading for meaning requires both those things. People who have difficulty with reading will have trouble in one or both those domains. Some people are good decoders but poor on comprehension, some vice versa, and some students who really struggle can have problems in both areas.

What is a good phonics program?

Programs developed by people with specialist knowledge of the way that the English language is constructed are likely to be more effective than others. It is also important that phonics programs be evidence-based; that is: to have been proven to be effective using rigorous scientific research methods.

At present the model known as systematic synthetic phonics has the strongest research support. In synthetic phonics, teachers build up phonic skills from their smallest unit (graphemes). The processes of blending and segmenting are also taught.

Three of the key elements of a good phonics program are: the sequence in which letters and sounds are taught; early introduction of blending and segmenting; and use of decodable text.

For children who are learning the alphabet for the first time, the method and order of introducing letters and letter combinations (graphemes) and sounds (phonemes) need to be carefully planned. In explicit and systematic phonics programs, a small number of letters and sounds are introduced at a time and children learn those before moving on to the next ones. Letters that look similar are not introduced at the same time, for example, 'b' and 'd'. The aim is to minimise confusion and maximise success for children.

In a good phonics program, blending is taught shortly after sounds are introduced. Students do not learn all the letter sounds and then learn how to put them together into words; each group of letters selected can be made into simple words. If the letters 's', 'm', 'a', 't', and 'i' are taught as a group, children can learn to blend them into words like 'sit' and 'am'. Children learn that if they take the ‘i' out of the middle of ‘sit' and put an ‘a' in its place, it makes the word ‘sat'.

By this process, children begin to understand that written words are a code, and it's a code they can break. And when they do understand that – some children will pick this up much more quickly than others, of course – the rest comes much more easily. After a period of time, once they've learned grapheme-phoneme correspondences and are able to blend them, they can read almost any word they come across.

The third element is practising reading using decodable text. As children learn how to put letters and sounds into blends, and start to be able to read whole words, they should also be taught some common sight words that don't follow the simple rules – like ‘was' and ‘of', for example. Sentences or short stories composed of decodable words and common simple sight words give students the opportunity to use the phonics skills they have acquired and learn about print conventions and punctuation.

Of course, a comprehensive reading program will also use real children's books to develop vocabulary and comprehension, but novice readers benefit from reading material that allows them to successfully read independently as early as possible.

I wasn't taught phonics but I learned to read – doesn't that show it's not needed?

Skilled reading is unconscious and automatic­ – most people are not aware of the complex cognitive processes taking place. Few people remember how they learned to read. That's why research and evidence are so important: so assumptions are not made that what might have worked for one person will probably work for everyone else.

The question research seeks to answer is ‘what is the most effective strategy for the largest number of students'? There is a lot of research showing what that strategy is – a well-developed, comprehensive reading instruction program that includes an evidence-based, explicit phonics component.

References and further reading

Davis, M. (2006). The simple view of reading, Common Knowledge, 19(2). (http://www.coreknowledge.org/mimik/mimik_uploads/documents/434/The%20Simple%20View%20of%20Reading.pdf)

Hempenstall, K. (2016). Read About It: Scientific evidence on effective teaching of reading, Research Report 11. The Centre for Independent Studies: Sydney (https://www.cis.org.au/publications/research-reports/read-about-it-scientific-evidence-for-effective-teaching-of-reading)

Moats, L. C. (2010). Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers (2nd edition). Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co: Baltimore.

Rose, J. (2006). Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading, Final Report. UK Department for Education and Skills. (http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/5551/2/report.pdf)

Walker, M. et al. (2015). Phonics Screening Check Evaluation: Final Report. UK Department of Education. (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/phonics-screening-check-evaluation-final-report)

Does your school have a specific reading program in place? Is explicit phonics instruction a part of this program?

What strategies do you have in place to support struggling readers?