Teaching phonics is crucial to effective early literacy education and sets children up with the foundations necessary to develop into successful readers.
Teaching phonics is a crucial component of effective early literacy education, with overwhelming research showing that beginning readers need to be explicitly taught how the sounds of spoken words relate to the letters of the alphabet in written words.
The term phonics represents two things: the relationship between the 26 letters of the English alphabet and their 44 speech sounds; and an approach to teaching reading and spelling that directly emphasises these relationships.
Why is teaching phonics essential?
When children are first learning to read, they need to build neurological connections between the parts of the brain that store letters (visual information) and sounds (phonological information). Children are most likely to show great early reading progress when they are systematically and explicitly taught this phonological coding information.
Beginner readers need to learn how speech sounds (phonemes) map to letters and letter combinations (graphemes). They need to learn these grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs) in a logical and sequential order. Teaching phonics helps children learn segmenting, blending and phoneme manipulation, which are essential phonemic awareness skills.
The complexity of English — which has 44 sounds to the 26 letters of the alphabet — makes it difficult for children to learn the rules and variations without careful and explicit teaching. Systematic instruction in phonics teaches children to decode words, leading to accurate and fluent word recognition and stronger reading ability.
Approaches to teaching phonics
There are many different approaches to phonics instruction, some considered more effective than others.
Children are taught GPCs through reading connected text and encountering different letter-sound relationships as they read, without systematic or explicit phonics instruction. These approaches are usually paired with multi-cueing or three-cueing strategies, which are not supported by scientific reading research.
Analytic and onset/rime phonics:
Teaching begins with whole words, with GPCs taught by breaking words down into component parts and drawing comparisons between similar words. Students are taught about rime families and consonant blends/clusters. This approach assumes students have the phonemic awareness needed to successfully analyse and compare words and is not consistent across classrooms or schools. This is a lengthy process and can lead to gaps in children’s reading development.
Teaching is systematic, sequential and carefully planned to avoid confusion and teach decoding quickly, starting from the simplest and most common GPCs. Students learn to link letters to speech sounds and to blend (synthesise) these together to read and spell words.
Focusing initially on the sounds of spoken language, students learn to notice spoken words, syllables, rhymes and eventually individual phonemes, which are then mapped to a grapheme or letter/letter group.
Any approach that explicitly and systematically teaches phonic elements in a planned and sequential manner.
Evidence for Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP)
The role of phonics in learning to read is one of the most researched aspects of education, with a large volume of consistent evidence demonstrating the importance of teaching phonics in a systematic and explicit way.
Hundreds of studies of the cognitive processes involved in developing skilled reading point to the need to build neurological connections between letters and sounds so that words can be decoded accurately and the meaning of the word can be activated. Eye-tracking studies show that readers of all levels look at all the letters in a word, rather than memorising whole word shapes. This makes decoding unknown words with phonics a better reading strategy than using meaning and grammar cues as it builds the strongest links between print, speech and meaning.
The scientifically demonstrated cognitive processes required for skilled reading are best developed through a systematic and explicit approach to teaching phonics. Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) aligns closely with the scientific evidence for reading development and was shown to be particularly effective through expert reviews in Australia and England, while studies found SSP to be a common factor in high-performing primary schools. SSP is always recommended to be implemented within a literacy program that also develops knowledge and enjoyment of language and literature.
How InitiaLit incorporates phonics
MultiLit’s InitiaLit literacy programs take a systematic synthetic approach to teaching phonics, paired with a rich literature and vocabulary component.
In the Foundation and Year 1 programs, students are systematically and explicitly taught the basic alphabetic code in a set sequence. This includes letter-sound correspondences and how they apply to reading and spelling, as well as an introduction to common morphemes and simple grammatical concepts. Many early lessons are dedicated to phonological awareness, and phonemic activities are embedded within most lessons throughout the program.
In InitiaLit–2, earlier content is revised and expanded with a focus on spelling, comprehension and fluency, and grammar. The remainder of the advanced alphabetic code is systematically taught, along with new spelling rules and morphological concepts.