Teaching Phonics – Your Questions Answered

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Reading is such a complex process that an estimated 10 million children struggle with learning to read. The good news is that most of these children, given the proper instruction under the five components of reading, will progress out and become strong and avid readers. One component, proven to have a positive impact on reading success, is explicit phonics instruction. I’m here today to answer some important questions when it comes to teaching phonics.

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Teaching phonics is proven to have an important impact on reading success and is one of the five components of reading instruction!

Teaching Phonics – Your Questions Answered

Teaching reading is a big task. Big enough that a comprehensive approach needs to be taken, which is why research identifies that reading instruction should include five components:

  • phonemic awareness – the ability to hear and identify phonemes, the smallest units of sound
  • phonics – the sound/grapheme relationship of letters and combinations make words and meaning
  • fluency – the ability to read with ease, to read accurately, quickly, and expressively
  • vocabulary – the knowledge of word meaning
  • comprehension – using the four other components to conjure meaning in a written passage

Exclude one of those components and children may suffer in their reading skills and experience unnecessary difficulty in learning to read.

Phonemic awareness is the first step to effective reading instruction. You can read all about phonemic awareness in our first post of this series. Today I will answer your questions about phonics. Following this, in the next few months, will be more posts about the five components of reading and how teachers can be sure to include each within their reading instruction.

What is Phonics?

Phonics is the relationship between sounds (phonemes) and the letter combinations (graphemes) that represent those sounds. In phonics-based instruction, the goal is to teach children to read and write the most common sound-spelling relationships so that they can easily blend and segment words until those words become part of their sight vocabulary. This is a crucial step in the reading process.

Phonics is NOT phonemic awareness.

Why is Phonics Instruction Important?

To become skilled readers, children need to have a strong base in phonics. Research shows that good readers do not skim and sample text, but rather attend to every letter. They process the letters in detail, although doing so very rapidly. This ability to rapidly sound out words leads to rapid recognition of words, allowing the brain more freedom to focus on constructing meaning from the text.

This makes sense. The less the brain has to work on decoding words, on sounding them out, the more mental energy it can devote to making meaning from the text, which is the overall purpose of reading.

Studies of phonics and spelling development show that high school students who excel at reading have a strong foundation in phonics and were taught to effectively sound out words at the beginning of their reading instruction in elementary school. This tells us that early phonics exposure and instruction in the primary grades have a longitudinal impact on reading success.

But… Phonics is Difficult

Take a look at some numbers and facts:

  • There are 44 phonemes (sounds) in the English language.
  • But, there are only 26 letters (there are 250 graphemes, which are letters or groups of letters that correspond to a single sound). That’s only half as many letters in the English language as there are sounds.
  • And, those 44 sounds are represented by over 250 spellings!

That’s a lot of pressure when learning to read.

So, How are Phonics Skills Developed?

There are two approaches to teaching phonics. Systematic, explicit instruction or incidental, implicit phonics instruction.

There are two approaches to teaching phonics. Systematic, explicit instruction or incidental, implicit phonics instruction.

What are Phonics Skills?

  • letter identification – to recognize letters, name them, and distinguish letters from others
  • letter sounds – to connect the letter with its corresponding sound
  • blending – to read individual sounds within a word and blend them together to read fluidly

Are There Some Tips for Teaching Phonics?

  • Teach phonics daily, whether the approach is explicit or implicit.
  • Build on a foundation of phonemic awareness.
  • Instruction should be focused and intentional.
  • Provide practice and exposure to various kinds of text.
  • Assess, whether formal or informal, regularly so as to progress monitor.
  • Provide intervention at first signs of struggle.

What Else Does Research Say About Phonics?

  • “That direct instruction in alphabet coding facilitates early reading acquisition is one of the most well-established conclusions of behavioral science.” (Stanvich, 1994 in “Are discrepancy-based Definitions of Dyslexia Empirically Defensible?”)
  • “Good readers rely primarily on the letters in a word rather than context or pictures to identify familiar and unfamiliar words.” (Ehri, 1994 in “Development of the Ability to Read Words: Update”)
  • “Such results suggest that direct instruction in sound-spelling patterns in first and second grade classrooms can prevent reading difficulties in a population of children at-risk of reading failure.”… “Once decoding skills are automatized, growth in text comprehension follows.” (Foorman, Francis, Shaywitz, et al., 1997 in “Early Interventions for Children with Reading Problems”)

What About Preschool Literacy Instruction?

Just like teaching reading in kindergarten and above consists of five important pillars of instruction, preschool literacy is also guided by its own four components. Check out these articles for more information about how to teach literacy in an early childhood classroom:

***As we continue to learn about the Science of Reading, we want to be up-to-date so that our articles are research-based. This post has recently been updated to be Science of Reading aligned.***

Guest post by Sarah from Stay at Home Educator

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Teaching Phonics - Your Questions Answered


  1. Hi Sarah,

    Sorry for the late response. Only saw yr reply a year late!! Thanks for the clarification! I have another question. The name Esther is spelt phonetically in British dictionaries as \ˈɛstə\ and American dictionaries as \ˈe-stər\ . What is the difference between both sounds (ɛ and e)? Can I use the name Esther to represent the short e vowel? Thank you. Will be watching out for yr reply this time!

  2. Hi Sarah,
    I have a question to ask you. It is often mentioned that the consonants l, f, z, and s are often doubled at the end of 1 syllable words. Does this rule apply to the letter “t” too? I find it doubled in words like mitt, butt, putt, and watt. My reasoning is that this rule applies to the letter t but happens more often in words ending with f, l, s, and z. Am I right in saying that?

    1. Hi Petra!

      Rules of spelling are so tricky, aren’t they? I feel like they are super hard to teach because in English we just simply don’t follow the rules we make all the time it seems! : ) As for the letter t being doubled in 1 syllable words, that may occur sometimes, but many times not, like with cat, hit, pot, net, etc. Whereas with l, f, z, and s, it is far more the norm. Hope that helps!

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