Phonics Instruction: A Student’s Key to Decoding Text

Part 3 of the Science of Reading Simplified Series

In part 3 of the Science of Reading Simplified blog series, we define phonics in simple terms and discuss why it is so important for young students to learn the rules of phonics in order to read well, even when our own language doesn’t follow the rules.

Savvas Insights Team

What is phonics? Discover phonics instruction tips.

What is Phonics? Help Students Learn to Read

Science of Reading research shows that teaching the rules of phonics is crucial to early reading instruction because it gives children the tools they need to be able to sound out, or decode, words, making them more confident, successful readers. The trouble is, the English language doesn't always play fair and tends to break those rules, which can make applying the rules of phonics challenging to learn.

“I think of phonics as being a tool that helps kids become detectives,” said Savvas author and literacy expert Sharon Vaughn. “And they can readily solve the mystery of what a word is with this tool. It’s a superpower.”

Since this foundational skill is so critical to the success of young readers, it’s important that teachers feel confident in their understanding of what phonics is and how to teach it. It’s not as simple as knowing the sounds that letters make and then sounding out those letters to read words. It’s about recognizing patterns. It’s about learning when words follow the rules, when they don’t follow the rules, and how to be “flexible decoders” when those rule-breaker words show up.

Decoding Text

As young readers become more and more skilled in phonemic awareness — the awareness of the individual sounds that make up words — they start being able to associate those sounds with written text. This is called phonics. To teach phonics is to show young learners how to read by explicitly demonstrating the relationship between letters, groups of letters, or syllables, and the sounds of spoken language, and to teach them the rules of the English language. An important element is knowing how to show students when to be flexible in decoding words that they encounter words that are inconsistent or unexpected, i.e. words that don’t follow the rules.

elementary students decoding text on floor of classroom

“Foundational skills, such as phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and phonics are important because they can become a barrier to word reading for many students if they’re not developed,” said Sharon. “And, at the same time, these are the skills that unlock access to word reading. They are the lynchpin for connecting how we use language to how we access print.”

Help students learn and apply the alphabetic principle — the idea that letters and groups of letters represent the sounds of spoken language — so they can use that knowledge as a skill to become better readers. Even though English words can be inconsistent in terms of their letter-sound relationships, learning the rules of phonics can be very useful to young learners when they encounter a word that is unfamiliar to them. If they understand the alphabetic principle, they have a better chance at decoding the unfamiliar word than if they don’t.

“The reason we teach phonics is because much of what students know about how sounds map to print can be applied even to irregular words,” said Sharon. “Students see these patterns over and over again in print and before they know it, they don’t even think about it. Before they know it, they’re an automatic reader. They know the rules, but they don’t even know they know the rules!”

What Phonics Instruction Looks Like in the Classroom

Classroom instruction starts by explicitly introducing students to common rules and patterns about how our language maps to print. These common rules and patterns usually begin with consonants because they’re easier to learn than vowels. As students start to learn the rules about consonants and vowels, they start putting simple consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words together, like bad or mit, and it gets more complex from there. But then students start to encounter words that break the rules they’ve just been taught, like in the word was (pronounced wuz) where the /a/ sound in this case is closer to a /u/ sound and the /s/ sound is closer to a /z/ sound. So, it’s important that students are also taught to be flexible and look for patterns that mark certain words as outliers.

two elementary students reading a book

“For phonics to have power, we have to provide students with deliberate practice with words that fit the rules and words that don’t fit the rules,” said Sharon. “We’re going to have to teach students that English is a very tricky language with a lot of ‘outlaw’ words. We have to teach them to be what we call ‘flexible decoders.’”

It can be difficult to grasp how we can teach students the rules of phonics, but then also expect them to understand that many words in the English language don’t follow the rules we just taught them. But by teaching them to be flexible in how they decode words by showing them how to recognize patterns, giving them lots of opportunities for practice and application, and blending in sight words, they will have the tools they need to be flexible decoders and then, ultimately, successful readers.

“I think of phonics as being a tool that helps kids become detectives. And they can readily solve the mystery of what a word is with this tool. It’s a superpower.”

For example, gh is a very tricky pattern in the English language. Sometimes it can make an /f/ sound, like in the word cough, and then sometimes it completely disappears, as in the word straight. But if students are taught these patterns through many examples, and that when they see a tricky pattern like that it’s going to take a little more practice, then the recognition of those patterns becomes automatic.

“We are pattern-recognizing machines,” said Sharon. “We look for patterns. So if we give students a chance to see many of these patterns through deliberate practice, and to see exceptions to these patterns, they will learn how to read those outlaw words. And it’s fun to teach that to students. It makes them into detectives.”

The Importance of Explicit, Systematic Phonics Instruction

Science of Reading research also shows that explicit, systematic instruction produces measurable gains in reading, especially when it comes to younger children at risk of being struggling readers. And when explicit, systematic phonics instruction is included as part of reading instruction, reading achievement is greater than if unsystematic or no instruction is provided. So, it’s critical to any reading curriculum that phonics instruction is included and delivered explicitly and systematically.

teacher teaching phonics to a group of elementary students

“Explicit means that someone makes this skill real to them in an organized way, with feedback so they have a fighting chance of acquiring it,” said Sharon. “As opposed to implicit instruction, which leaves students to figure it out for themselves. It’s not that you can’t teach phonics implicitly, but it takes longer and not everyone is successful. So why do it?”

While some early literacy teaching methods show students to use the context from a story, or rely on teacher cues to guess at an unfamiliar word, effective phonics instruction builds skills that can be applied often and that they can carry with them across the grades.

“It’s just a kind thing to do to tell people the rules,” said Sharon. “It’d be like if we gave everyone a car and told them to just drive around and figure it out. And they probably could eventually figure it out. But why not just say, ‘Hey, when the light turns red, stop.’ Just help them out a little. Teach the rules and the way in which our language works and they will be successful at reading.”

Put Phonics Into Practice!

Now that we’ve learned all about phonics and why it’s such an important part of learning to read, here are some activities, information, and suggestions for educators to consider while planning instruction.

  • For Teachers

    Fun Phonics Activities

    Help students practice phonics with these engaging activities from Savvas Essentials: Foundational Reading.

    • Go Fish!
      Create a set of flash cards with the uppercase and lowercase for 8 letters (16 cards total per set). Separate students into groups of two or three, with each child receiving three cards, with the remaining cards going into the pile. Have children play Go Fish. Each child should ask another member of their group for a letter to try to make a match. If there is no match, they draw a new card from the pile to add to their hand.
    • Human Spelling Bee
      Have a small group of students come up to the front, and give each one a letter-sound card. Challenge the remaining students to spell words by arranging students with the letter-sound card in the correct order. For example, use letter-sound cards for P, N, T, and I to have children spell words like PIN, PIT, TIP, TIN, NIP, and PINT.

    For more, download 50 Fun Phonics Activities.

  • For Sharing with Families

    What Does the Research Say About Phonics?

    When looking for a reading curriculum, it’s important to know that the teaching strategies used in the materials are backed by research that shows it works. If you’re looking at a resource that incorporates Science of Reading-based instruction, you can be sure that there’s plenty of research to support its effectiveness. Let’s take a look at what that research says about phonics.

    Findings cited in the National Reading Panel Report (NICHD, 2000) on the efficacy of systematic phonics instruction show that:

    • Systematic phonics instruction produces measurable gains in reading and spelling, especially when it comes to younger children at risk of being struggling readers.
    • When systematic phonics instruction is included as part of reading instruction, reading achievement is greater than if unsystematic or no phonics instruction is provided.
    • Younger students experience greater results than their older peers when receiving phonics instruction, making earlier phonics lessons key to future reading success.
    • Systematic phonics instruction produces gains regardless of whether it is used as a part of one-on-one, small-group, and/or whole-group instruction.
    • When phonics instruction is included in reading lessons, gains in reading are demonstrated by children from all socioeconomic backgrounds.
    • Systematic phonics instruction improves comprehension and word recognition.
  • For Administrators

    Engaging Phonics Activities

    Here are a few activities from Savvas Essentials: Foundational Reading that teachers can share with students’ families that will help extend learning beyond the classroom — in a fun way. Let them know that through phonics instruction, children learn that letters represent sounds and that some common words do not follow the phonics rules, so those words need to be practiced. By learning phonics rules and practicing high-frequency words, children can become independent readers.

    • Play "I am thinking of a letter..." Give clues such as "..that is at the beginning of apple" and "that is in the middle of nap."
    • When reading a book to your child, allow the child to point out words he or she knows.
    • Guess the word! Draw blanks on a sheet of paper, each representing a letter. Have children guess letters to find out the word.
    • Have your child practice writing high-frequency words using pens of different colors, or using sidewalk chalk outside.

About The Author

Sharon Vaughn, Ph.D.

Dr. Vaughn is the Manuel J. Justiz Endowed Chair in Education and executive director of The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at The University of Texas at Austin. She is currently the principal investigator or co-principal investigator on several research initiatives (Institute for Education Sciences, National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, and U.S. Department of Education) investigating effective interventions for students with reading difficulties and students who are English language learners.