Johnny Key

Commissioner of Education

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All About Phonics  

What is phonics?
Why is teaching phonics important?
Misconceptions about phonics
How to teach phonics
K-1 decoding skills that should be mastered by year's end
2-4 decoding skills that should be mastered by year's end

What is phonics?

A system for approaching reading that focuses on the relationship between letters and sounds.  
Decoding involves more than just knowing the letter/sound correspondences.  To be a proficient decoder, instruction must also include syllables, syllabication and morphemes.

Why is teaching phonics important?

The combination of explicit phonics and phonological training for all students in kindergarten and first grade provides far greater results in word-level reading skills than any other teaching practice that has been studied.
“By the end of first grade, students taught by a code-based approach perform, on average, the equivalent of 7 to 8 standard score points higher on tests of reading comprehension than students taught with meaning-based approaches.” (Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, Kilpatrick)

Misconceptions about phonics

Misconceptions about reading instruction/phonics:
If research guides their profession, teachers will be in a better position to countermand the proliferation of appealing but unsupported ideas that have been harmful influences for more than a decade.
Examples of popular misconceptions include:
  • reading instruction is only needed until third grade; 
  • teaching phonics, word attack, and spelling skills directly to children is harmful; 
  • those who favor good code instruction are opposed to literature and comprehension instruction; 
  • reading a lot is the best way to overcome a reading problem; 
  • children should be taught to guess words on the basis of meaning and syntax; 
  • skills must always be taught in the context of literature

How to teach phonics

How do we teach phonics in the most effective way?
Explicit - the teacher provides clear and precise instruction regarding the letter-sound relationships and directly teaches phonic blending.
Systematic - teacher has a specific plan or sequence for introducing letter-sound relationships.
  • Teach letter-sound knowledge with blending.
  • Teach basic phonics rules.
  • Teach some advanced phonics rules, being careful not to overwhelm the reader with too much too soon.
  • Be careful to enunciate consonants without an extra vowel sound after them (/t/, not /tuh/).
  • Teach letter names before teaching the sounds of the letters.  It is easier for students to learn the sounds for those letters that contain their sound in the initial position in their names (b,d,j,k,p,t,v,z), followed by those letters whose sounds are embedded within the letter’s name (f,l,m,n,r,s,x), leaving for last those letters whose sounds are not found in the letter’s name (h, w, y).
  • Letter-sound knowledge is based on visual-phonological paired-associate learning which means that students require dozens or even hundreds of exposures to letters and their corresponding names and sounds before they become permanently stored and automatically accessible.
  • Students need multiple practice opportunities.
  • Students need multi-sensory input.
  • Teachers need to use distributed practice (information that is presented at multiple points of the day in small chunks becomes more well established in memory compared to a singular, more lengthy learning experience).  Five minute practice sessions four times a day produces better results than one twenty minute session.
  • Teachers should use picture mnemonics (Drawings of letters that are embedded in a picture with the items in each picture beginning with the sound of the letter embedded within in. Example: Itchy’s Alphabet)  Students are trained to notice the initial sounds in words along with the embedded picture mnemonics. Using pictures in which the letter can be logically or meaningfully embedded appears to be more effective than learning letters by themselves or with non-embedded keyword pictures.
  • Spelling, including invented spelling, is an excellent way to instruct and reinforce letter-sound knowledge and phoneme awareness and to establish secure orthographic representations (sight words).  Teachers must provide corrective feedback to ensure the learning of accurate spelling in order to help establish those words in long-term memory for reading.
  • Students must also become familiar with digraphs, blends and diphthongs.  Digraphs are two-letter combinations that represent a single phoneme.  Blends are common consonant patterns of two and sometimes three letters that preserve the typical letter-sound relationships. Diphthongs are vowel combinations that when pronounced, produce a continuous vocal output in which the mouth, lips, and/or tongue position change midway through the pronunciation.

Decoding Skills that Should be Mastered by Year's End (printer-friendly version)

Kindergarten 1st Grade
Syllable Types Decoding Skills Syllable Types Decoding Skills

Closed (RF.K.3.B,E,F)

• VC (at)
• CVC (cat)

Letter/Sound Correspondences (RF.K.3.A)

• Initial
• Final
• Medial

Closed (RF.1.3.E)

• back, mess

Open (RF.1.3)

• go, by

Silent e (RF.1.3)

• eve/cake

Letter/Sound Correspondences

• Blending
• Consonant digraphs (th, sh, ch, ck) (RF.1.3.A)
• Silent e (RF.1.3.B)
• Vowel teams (RF.1.3.B)
  - Digraphs (predictable long sound - ee, oo, ai, ay, oa, ow, oe, trigraph igh)
  - Diphthongs (oi, oy, ou, ow)

Open (RF.K.3.B,F)

• go
• by

Common High Frequency Words (RF.K.3.C)

• Limited number

Vowel Teams (RF.1.3.E)

• rain, beam

Morphemic Units

• Inflectional endings (suffixes) (s, es, ing, ed, er) (RF.1.3.D)

R-controlled (RF.1.3.E)

• Sort, star, dirt, fern

Syllable Division (2 syllable words) (RF.1.3.F)

• Compound words
• Cle (candle)
• VC/CV (napkin)
• V/CV (bonus)

Cle (RF.1.3.E)

• Apple, battle, turtle, middle

Common irregular words (RF.1.3.C)

Decoding Skills that Should be Mastered by Year's End (printer-friendly version)

2nd Grade 3rd Grade 4th Grade
Syllable Types Decoding Skills Decoding Skills Decoding Skills

Vowel Teams
• Digraphs ie, ei, ey, ea, eu, ew, au, aw, ue
• Diphthongs oi, oy, ou, ow

R-Controlled Vowels
• er, ir, ur, ar, or

Closed Syllables
• Cap, mop, hit, bed

Open Syllables
• he, go

• hate, kite

• sprinkle, little

(RF.2.3.B, RF.2.3.E)

Letter/Sound Correspondences
• Regularly spelled one-syllable words (RF.2.3.B)
• Trigraphs (dge, tch)
• Quadrigraphs (eigh)
• Words with inconsistent but common letter-sound correspondences (doll/roll; though/cough/rough; love/rove; have/save; some/dome; near/bear; soot/loot; were/here; shall/tall; own/town; hour/tour; want/plant) (RF.2.3.A)
• Regularly spelled two-syllable words with long vowels (RF.2.3.F)

Morphemic Units (RF.3.3.A)

Prefixes (top 15)
Suffixes (top 25)
• Common Latin Suffixes (RF.3.3.B)

Morphemic Units (RF.4.3.A)

Prefixes (top 25)
Suffixes (top 40)
• Greek/Latin Roots

Morphemic Units (RF.2.3.D)

• Prefixes (un, re, pre, dis, mis)
• Suffixes (ly, y, ness, less, est, or, ful, en)

Syllable Division

• V/CV (banana, soda, cigar, depend)
• Multi-syllable words (RF.3.3.C)
Grade-appropriate irregular words

Syllable Division (multi-syllable words, accent, schwa) (RF.2.3.F)

• VC/CV (canteen)
• V/CCV (apron)
• V/CV (humid)
• VC/V (rapid)
• V/V (create)

Grade-appropriate irregular words (RF.3.3.D)

Read grade level text with sufficient accuracy and fluency to support comprehension. (RF.3.4)

Read grade level text with sufficient accuracy and fluency to support comprehension. (RF.4.4)
Grade-appropriate irregular words (RF.2.3.C)


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