Research offers a strong case for intentionally and comprehensively incorporating explicit phonics instruction regularly over the school year

A recipe for using explicit phonics instruction in reading lessons

Research offers a strong case for intentionally and comprehensively incorporating explicit phonics instruction regularly over the school year

Key points:

Evidence-based reading research, or what many refer to as the Science of Reading, has been a much-discussed topic within the literacy landscape for the past few years. While it may seem like the “next new thing” in reading instruction, the theory, research, and instructional best practices are based on historical, neurological, and scientific understanding of how the human brain works, as well as the relationship to language and literacy development. At the root of evidence-based reading research and reading instruction is the goal of heightening the reader’s experience with text by providing them with strategies to engage with that text for deep understanding and the synthesis of content to build knowledge. 

One aspect of evidence-based reading research is the need for explicit phonics instruction versus implicit instruction.  While comprehension of text is the goal, the foundational skills of early literacy, such as phonological awareness, decoding, encoding, and fluency are essential. 

According to researcher, practitioner, and educator Dr. Anita Archer, “There is no comprehension strategy powerful enough to compensate for the fact you can’t read the words.” Reading research corroborates this idea from Dr. Archer with evidence that illustrates how implicit instruction can stunt the forward trajectory of emerging readers’ reading development and abilities. 

What is explicit, systematic phonics instruction?

There is strong research-backed evidence that students will develop the necessary literacy skills to become proficient readers by third grade when they are taught alphabetic principles and to use these principles to decode, encode, and analyze word parts. Teaching explicitly and systematically means just that: teachers expressly stating and explaining each phonics skill. This also includes the teacher modeling and guiding practice with students and then finally allowing students to independently practice applying the skill through word-level reading and reading decodable text.  This instruction should also follow a scope and a sequence that maps out when skills are covered and reviewed so students learn the principles according to a research-driven hierarchy across the kindergarten through second grade span.  

Three ingredients to include in your explicit, systematic phonics instructional recipe

If we look at explicit phonics instruction as a recipe, the main ingredient is teaching students to deploy the phonics skills they are learning to decode and encode the entire word. Below are three simple strategies –or additional ingredients in our “recipe” – to incorporate throughout the year:

1: Follow a research-driven scope and sequence.

A systematic phonics instructional program is guided by a clearly structured action plan that details the sequence in which phonics skills will be taught, and the scope of those skills across grades K-2.  Relying on a research-driven phonics scope and sequence has two main benefits:

  • A good research-driven scope and sequence incorporates lessons learned, or rationales, from research such as teaching easier skills first (such as short vowels before long vowels) and reserving more complex spellings of long vowels, such as long ‘i’ spelled ‘igh’ for later in the sequence, once students have more skill gained through practice.
  • A good scope and sequence will incorporate both new skills and practicing previously taught skills.  This means that the spiral review is embedded in instruction intentionally and consistently.

2: Start each phonics lesson with phonological awareness.

  • Each phonics lesson segment should be preceded by a phonological awareness skill lesson and should stress learning letter-sound connections. This is valuable because students should first be able to discern sounds orally and aurally before they attach them to their letter representation. This supports students’ ability to map the sound and letter in the future. There are two key considerations about phonological awareness instruction. First, follow the 5-minutes or less rule.  These lessons are explicit, quick and short.  It is the verbal-visual appetizer to the phonics entrée.  Second, they require no equipment other than ears, mouths, and eyes. This portion of the lesson is all about what students hear and can make their mouths produce.
  • While there are several phonological awareness skills recommended by research, many researchers such as Dr. Ray Reutzel of Utah State University says that we get enormous bang for our buck if we consistently include phoneme blending and phoneme segmenting in daily lessons.

Because the goals of phonological awareness instruction are to help children hear and articulate sounds, infusing simple digital supports such as Google to let the computer play or articulate a sound can be helpful, especially when English is the second language for students. Some instructional programs also offer support in this manner by including videos which visually show students how to position their mouths to articulate sounds.

3: Immediately follow up the phonological awareness lesson with the connected phonics lesson.

This recommendation is more about practicality for lesson flow and capitalizing on the attention span of young children. After a phonological awareness segment on blending, the ‘bl blend’ for example, immediately follow up with the phonics lesson that shows the letters b and l, blended together and practice words that ask students to use this skill to read and write these words. Within the phonics lessons, try to include lists of words to practice the new blending skill. These types of decoding activities also lend themselves nicely to using software such as PowerPoint, Google Slides or Keynote. These tools can be used to animate the letter-sound blending for students so they can see letters coming together while they are hearing the teacher orally blending letters to build words and sentences.  This improves word-level fluency and sentence-level fluency.  Sentence-level fluency support is best achieved through connected text that makes sense and also builds knowledge. This is where a well-crafted decodable text that follows your scope and sequence is a delicious addition to the recipe.  A well-crafted decodable text will not be patterned, will not be predicable, will not expect students to rely on picture cues, but will incorporate the phonic elements that students have learned.

This look at explicit phonics instruction is not intended to suggest that all we need is phonics for all students to be successful readers.  Learning to read is a complex process but research provides us with a strong case for intentionally and comprehensively incorporating explicit phonics instruction regularly over the school year.  These three recommendations offer food for thought as we begin another successful school year creating successful readers. 

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