Research provides extensive evidence that systematic and explicit phonics instruction is a critical piece of a strong literacy block, and phonics instruction is most effective when educators have an accurate understanding of it.

Phonics misconceptions, such as the perception that phonics instruction is the be-all and end-all component of literacy development, can hinder effective reading instruction and ultimately impact how students learn — or don’t learn — to read proficiently.

In this blog series, we’re diving into a variety of misconceptions about the Science of Reading in the critical areas of instruction — phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension — debunking common myths and shedding light on why understanding these components is essential to evidence-based reading instruction.

In this second post of the series, we’ll explore misconceptions about phonics.

Misconception #1: Phonics Is All of the Science of Reading

A relatively broad misunderstanding about the Science of Reading is that it only addresses or promotes foundational phonics instruction. While systematic phonics is a critical component addressed by the Science of Reading, it represents just one area included in the vast body of research.

Science of Reading research encompasses evidence-based practices for many other interconnected components in the reading process, such as phonological awareness, fluency, vocabulary development, comprehension strategies, writing, and oral language.

The Science of Reading supports comprehensive explicit and systematic instruction to facilitate proficient reading; therefore, while phonics instruction is an essential part, it is only one piece of literacy instruction that needs to be included to address the complex nature of reading development effectively.

Scarborough’s Rope shows the complexity of reading development.

Misconception #2: Phonics Will Solve All Reading Achievement Issues

While phonics instruction is crucial for developing foundational reading skills, it may not address all challenges faced by developing readers. Some students may experience difficulties with language comprehension, fluency, or underlying cognitive processes that require targeted intervention.

For instance, a student with poor phonological processing skills may struggle to segment and blend sounds, impacting their ability to decode words accurately. Students who have acquired the necessary phonics skills and appropriate reading fluency may still struggle with reading comprehension. A student, for example, may be able to accurately decode a word like “botanical”, but that does not guarantee they will understand the word's meaning. In such cases, specific skills assessments, additional support, and differentiated instruction may be necessary to address individual needs comprehensively.

Even when students are being provided with high-quality phonics instruction in the early grades, it is essential that other elements, such as knowledge building, also be part of instruction in order to impact long-term, overall literacy achievement.

While phonics instruction is a vital piece of the puzzle, it should be combined with other evidence-based practices to support all readers in becoming proficient.

Confident students reading proficiently.

Misconception #3: English Is Too Irregular for Phonics to Be Effective

The English language can have a varying degree of phoneme-grapheme regularity. Approximately 50 percent of all English words are decodable based strictly on phoneme-grapheme correspondences, with another 37 percent being partially decodable except for one sound (often the sound is a vowel).

That means 87 percent of words are mostly decodable! Students can benefit from explicit instruction in foundational phonics patterns for the majority of words.

By teaching phonics patterns explicitly, as well as including instruction in pronunciation flexibility for unexpected sounds, and providing ample reading practice opportunities, students can develop the skills needed to effectively navigate the complexities of the English language.

Decodable readers are used in phonics instruction to help students practice decoding words.

Misconception #4: Phonics Is Boring

Effective phonics instruction doesn’t have to be boring! It can be engaging and interactive, capturing students' interest and fostering enthusiasm for learning. By incorporating multisensory techniques, hands-on activities, and games into phonics lessons, educators can create dynamic and enjoyable learning experiences for students.

For example, students may engage in phonics games, such as sound chaining with word ladders, or a phonics scavenger hunt to reinforce letter-sound correspondences and decoding skills. Even existing board games like Candyland can be retrofitted to reinforce phonics skills.

Including multisensory opportunities during phonics instruction can also make learning fun. Manipulatives such as letter tiles, tactile letter cards, sound chips, sound boxes, magnetic wands, pop-its, and whiteboards are all examples of tools that can be used to make decoding and encoding practice more engaging.

Another example of a way to make phonics instruction more interactive is to use technology in a targeted and thoughtful way. Phonics games and practice platforms can be a great way to engage students in learning, as well as provide a way to collect formative data to inform instruction.

By making phonics instruction fun and engaging, educators can cultivate a positive learning environment and promote active participation in literacy development.

Savvas Literacy Solutions

50 Fun Phonics Activities


Misconception #5: Explicit Phonics Instruction Means Only Using Decodable Readers

Decodable readers are texts containing primarily phonetically regular words that align with the phonics skills students are learning. For example, a decodable text may feature a high percentage of words with short vowel sounds.

Incorporating reading practice using high-quality decodable readers as connected text can allow students to apply explicitly taught phonics skills in meaningful ways and build reading confidence. However, decodable readers are not the only texts students should be exposed to in the classroom.

Authentic texts, such as storybooks, poems, or informational texts, offer rich, meaningful reading experiences that expose students to diverse language structures, vocabulary, and literary elements. For example, more authentic texts can be utilized during teacher read-alouds for students still learning to decode.

When choosing instructional materials, teachers must use their professional judgment to evaluate the purpose of the selected text and students' needs. Incorporating both decodable and authentic texts into instruction and classroom reading allows educators to provide an approach that supports students' development of decoding skills while also supporting comprehension, fluency, and a love of reading.

Students read a variety of text types to support reading instruction.

Misconception #6: There Is No Such Thing as Too Much Phonics Instruction

While explicit phonics instruction is essential, excessive focus on phonics alone can detract from and impede students' overall reading development.

The overemphasis on phonics at the expense of other literacy components, such as comprehension, vocabulary, and writing, may limit students' reading motivation and/or ability to engage with and understand text meaningfully.

Unfortunately, the Science of Reading does not currently provide a specific "magic" number for the most effective number of minutes to spend on phonics instruction. However, based on effective instructional models, such as the gradual release method, a list of recommended components of phonics instruction (phonemic awareness, explicit review and new skill instruction, blending practice, word and text reading fluency, and spelling), student and attention span, a good rule of thumb is between 30 to 60 minutes per day — an average taken from 18 studies of effective phonics instruction, which were included in the National Reading Panel Report.

This amount of time allows for important instructional models such as the gradual release method (I do, you do, we do) and explicit instruction in the critical phonics components (phonemic awareness, explicit review and new skill instruction, blending practice, word and text reading fluency, and spelling).

To avoid an overfocus on phonics instruction alone, educators should ensure that it is integrated within a comprehensive literacy framework that addresses all aspects of reading development.

Educator teaching reading within a comprehensive literacy framework.

Misconception #7: There Is One “Best” Scope and Sequence for Phonics Instruction

While there is plenty of research supporting the importance of systematic phonics instruction (organized according to a logical sequence from least to most complex), there is not a singular, universally agreed-upon scope and sequence that is definitively the “best.”

Phonics scope and sequences can vary from one reading program to the next. However, if a program is aligned with evidence-based practices, it should be sequential and cumulative, with adequate pacing to allow for student review and mastery.

Additionally, it is important for teachers to know their students’ needs. Effective educators will adapt their phonics instruction based on screening and ongoing assessment of student progress in order to facilitate responsive instruction. This may involve adjusting the scope and sequence of phonics instruction, or establishing small groups, in order to meet the needs of their students.

For example, a school’s phonics program includes a first-grade scope and sequence that calls for vowel digraphs toward the end of the instructional year; however, if assessment data shows that a large percentage of students in one of the first-grade classes have not mastered CVC words, adjustments to instruction might be necessary.

Students having fun with reading instruction.

Dispelling Misconceptions Can Improve Instruction

It’s critical to address misconceptions surrounding phonics to ensure effective foundational literacy instruction. By clarifying these misunderstandings we can advance the broader conversation about evidence-based literacy practices and contribute to the effort to improve reading proficiency for all students.

If you missed it, check out our last blog on Debunking Phonological Awareness Myths. Keep an eye out for the next entry in this blog series, where we'll be debunking misconceptions about fluency. To make sure you don't miss out on the latest from Savvas, sign up for our Science of Reading newsletter.