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Handout: Phonics

Phonics—the system of relationships between the letters (graphemes) of written language and the individual sounds (phonemes) of spoken language—is also known as letter-sound associations. It teaches children to use these relationships to read and write words. Phonics instruction helps students learn the “alphabetic principle”—the notion that there are systematic and predictable relationships between written letters and spoken sounds. Research shows that knowing these relationships will help children recognize familiar words accurately and automatically, and “decode” new words (CIERA 2003, NRP 2000). In short, knowledge of the alphabetic principle contributes greatly to children’s ability to read words both in isolation and in connected text.

Phonemic awareness versus phonics: Phonemic awareness and phonics are easily confused. The distinction between the two has to do with the distinction between spoken and written language. Phonemic awareness is the understanding that the sounds of spoken language work together to make words. Phonics is the understanding that there is a predictable relationship between the sounds letters can make and the letters in written language. If children are to benefit from phonics instruction, they need phonemic awareness. (CIERA, 2003).

In the long-standing “reading wars,” some in the education community have argued that phonics instruction is the key element in reading instruction, while others contend that a “whole language” approach is necessary, with attention paid more to context than phonics. Recent research has emphasized the need for both approaches in a successful reading instruction program. In the preface to Preventing Reading Difficulties, researchers state that they “submit this report with high hopes that it may indeed mark the end of the reading wars.” The report goes on to urge that “reading instruction integrate attention to the alphabetic principle with attention to the construction of meaning and opportunities to develop fluency.”

Recommendations for effective instruction: CIERA (2003) notes that phonics instruction is most effective when it begins in kindergarten or first grade. Phonics lessons should begin with letter shapes and names, include segments on phonemic awareness, and focus on all major letter-sound relationships. As their comfort level and understanding of letter-sound relationships progress, children should be taught to use this knowledge to read and write words. Whole-class, small-group, and individual instruction are all effective in teaching phonics. Ideally, the choice of approach depends on the needs of the students and the number of adults available to work with them.

A few studies indicate that when phonics instruction starts in kindergarten and first grade, both normally developing readers and at-risk readers benefit, and the results are sizeable and long lasting. However, more research is needed to determine whether phonics instruction has any benefit beyond second grade for students who began learning to read with phonics (Ehri et al. 2001). A handful of reports also show that when introduced in grades two through six, phonics instruction has a smaller effect on normally progressing readers, and does not enhance reading among low-achieving readers in these grades.

This research review was prepared for the Center for Public Education by freelance writer Eileen M. O'Brien with additional editorial contributions from Sally Banks Zakariya. Much of O'Brien's work has focused on access to quality education for disadvantaged and minority populations. She has a master of public administration from George Washington University and a bachelor of science degree in psychology from Loyola University of Chicago. Zakariya, a free-lance writer based in Arlington, Virginia, is former editor-in-chief of American School Board Journal and director of publications for the National School Boards Association.

Posted: October 17, 2008

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