Phonics: Research Adapted from National Reading Panel Report, 2000
Phonics instruction teaches children the relationship between the letters(graphemes) of written language and the individual sounds(phonemes) of spoken language. It teaches children how to use these relationships to use and write words. Phonics instruction teaches students how to use the relationships between sounds(phonemes) and letters to decode unfamiliar words in text. It involves teaching students the basic correspondences between letters and sounds, how to blend sounds together to produce words, and how to use these phonemic decoding skills while reading text. Phonics instruction that is systematic, explicit, and incorporates appropriate guided and independent practice activities typically leads to higher achievement in word recognition and spelling. Phonics instruction and skills become more complex as students progress from learning simple blends and various vowel combinations, and finally to larger “chunks” of letters in words. Good readers will be able to fluently apply phonemic decoding skills to help them identify unfamiliar words they encounter in text.
Research on phonics and phonics instruction is long and robust. Despite the pendulum swings that the U. S. educational system has taken regarding the teaching of phonics, the research on phonics consistently points to its critical importance in learning how to read. For example, after an extended and detailed analysis of phonics studies, Chall(1967) concluded over thirty years ago that children should learn phonics in order to learn how to read. Chall concluded that early and systematic phonics instruction produced better readers than later and less systematic phonics instruction. After their review of the research on phonics, Anderson, Hiebert, Scott, and Wilkinson(1985) concluded the same thing. Adams(1990), in her extensive analysis of beginning reading research, concluded the same thing.
If researchers clearly agree that phonics instruction is better than no phonics instruction, then, what does the best phonics instruction look like? Three key words frequently associated with phonics instruction are explicit, synthetic, and systematic (Chard, Simmons, & Kameenui, 1998; NRP, 2000). Explicit phonics instruction means that instruction should include naming the individual sounds in letters, even though the sounds sometimes vary depending on their position in the word, the dialect of the user, etc. Teachers should teach that the “m” in the word man names a short /a/ sound. Teachers should assist students in isolating the individual sounds in words – e.g. “Do you hear the /aaaaa/ Sound in man? Say all the sounds with me as I point to them on the chalkboard, “/mmmmmmmm/ /aaaaaaa/ /nnnnnnn/. Now let’s blend the sounds together.”
Blending the sounds in words together refers to synthetic phonics, another important component of instruction in phonics. Thus, for example, when children come to the word sit, they should have the knowledge of each of the letters and each of the sounds those letters make, and they should be able to blend the letters together to come up with the word sit. This synthetic method of instruction is different from decoding by analogy, for example, where children learn to pronounce the word “sit” by matching the “it” to the end sound in “fit” and then substituting the /s/ sound for the /f/ sound at the beginning of the word. It is also significantly different from “embedded” phonics or a whole language approach(Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998).
Phonics instruction should also be systematic. Systematic instruction is not random and does not occur on an “as needed” basis. Systematic phonics instruction does not stop after teaching children to identify the beginnings and ends of words. Effective phonics instruction teaches children the whole array of letter-sound relationships.(Adams, 1990; NRP, 2000). For example, a systematic phonics program teaches students the different grapheme patterns representing the sound of long /e/, including ea, ee, ei, ie, and CVCe. Further, systematic phonics instruction is planned and includes a sequential set of phonics elements taught explicitly. For example, all the blends are covered; all the consonant digraphs are covered – not simply “as needed,” but in sequence, with forethought and with explicit instruction.
Key findings from evidence-based research: