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About Phonics

National Institute for Literacy

  • What is a systematic, explicit phonics program?
Systematic and explicit phonics programs teach children letter-sound relationships directly in a well-defined sequence. Most systematic phonics programs carefully sequence phonics generalizations from least difficult to more difficult, including all major generalizations for consonants, vowels, consonant or vowel blends, and digraphs. It is important to provide instruction in the application of letter-sound knowledge to reading and writing activities along the way as letter-sounds are acquired. In systematic phonics instruction, the teacher typically models or demonstrates how to blend letter-sounds to pronounce known words and how to segment sounds in known words to write letters representing those sounds. Children then practice blending and segmenting based on the teacher’s example. Children generally begin by blending letter-sounds in simple one-syllable words such as at and in. Later they advance to more complex syllable patterns. They learn to decode letter patterns that occur in several words as units, for example, -ing and -ock. Also, they learn to apply their knowledge of known words to decode unknown words, for example, reading screen by analogy to green. Students also practice their knowledge of letter-sound relationships by reading decodable text that includes those letter-sound relationships that have been taught systematically and explicitly. In addition, students learn to spell the words they have learned to decode by using these words as part of stories they write.
  • What is the difference between explicit phonics and embedded phonics?
Explicit phonics approaches teach letter-sound correspondences in a well-defined sequence, providing reading practice with the correspondences that students are learning during instruction. Examples of explicit phonics approaches include blending individual letters and sounds to decode words and blending larger subunits or words such as onsets and rimes (e.g., j-ump, st-art) to decode words. In contrast, in embedded phonics, the teacher teaches letter-sound correspondences as students need them during reading activities. Additionally, students may initially learn to read and write a small number of sight words by word level drill as well as by analyzing letter-sound correspondences in those words. Examples of embedded phonics approaches include literature-based and some basal reading programs that emphasize sight word reading rather than phonetic decoding. Embedded phonics programs may or may not be systematic and explicit. It is important to examine carefully the approaches used in reading programs to determine whether the materials and strategies represent a systematic and explicit approach to phonics instruction, while providing opportunities for students to practice using their phonics and other word recognition skills when reading decodable text and grade-appropriate children’s literature.
  • Do all children need to be taught phonics? Why or why not?
All children need to acquire knowledge of the alphabetic system to become skilled readers. The most direct way for teachers to accomplish this is by providing explicit, systematic phonics instruction as one part of a comprehensive early reading program. Systematic and explicit phonics instruction is effective for all students in kindergarten and grade 1, regardless of socioeconomic status or the ease with which children learn to read. The amount of explicit phonics instruction appropriate for individual students depends on the student’s needs and abilities. Some students learn phonics generalizations easily and move quickly to practicing phonics and other word recognition skills as they read decodable text and grade-appropriate literature. Children who are struggling to learn to read, or who may be at risk for reading difficulties in later years, need more intensive systematic and explicit phonics instruction. Repeated exposure to phonics generalizations and practice applying this knowledge in reading and writing tasks may be necessary to enhance the likelihood that these students will learn to read.
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