The Role of Systematic Phonics Instruction in Phonemic Development

The Role of Systematic Phonics Instruction in Phonemic Development

The Role of Systematic Phonics Instruction in Phonemic Development

by Brian Davis

     Phonics instruction is a vital part of a successful literacy program.  Students should receive direct and systematic instruction in the basics of decoding.  This is particularly important in the primary grades.  Increased knowledge of the phonetic structure of the English language is helpful to all students and is especially helpful to struggling students.

     Palmaffy shares the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Chief Reid Lyon’s views on the absolute necessity of phonics instruction for half the children learning to read (as cited in Palmaffy, 1997, Phonics ascendant):

     The next quartile of children will learn to read, but they may fall behind without strong early phonics instruction.  For the remaining 25 percent, though reading will be one of the greatest challenges they will face in life.  To enable them to meet that challenge, Lyon says “phonics is non-negotiable.”  Without systematic, explicit instruction in the sound-symbol relationships that comprise the English language, they will not read with the facility required to glean meaning from text.

     Developmental psychologist Dr. Joseph Torgesen found that children who could not distinguish the 44 phonemes in the English language were almost always unable to read.  He and his colleagues also found that if these same students had received intensive, explicit phonics early intervention instruction, most would be able to read at or near grade level. (As cited in Stephenson & Reynolds, 1998, Phonemes first)

    Torgesen’s research group completed a two-and-a-half-year-long study in 1996 involving 180 kindergarten children who were identified to be at risk of reading failure by the second grade.  The group that received explicit phonics instruction had a 9 percent retention rate compared to 41 percent for the group that did not.

    The researchers conducted a follow-up study with fourth and fifth grade students described as being severely dyslexic by their teachers.  The students received a total of 67 hours of intensive phonics training over a two-month period.  All the students made huge gains in their ability to read.  (As cited in Stephenson & Reynolds, 1998, Early intervention the key)

    Even widely used programs such as Reading Recovery are much more successful when explicit phonics instruction is included.  “Tunmer found that when Reading Recovery was modified to be more systematic, it was 37% more effective.” (as cited in Grossen, Coulter & Ruggles)  A research study commissioned by the New Zealand Ministry of Education found that “the failure of RR to significantly improve the reading performances of children in the present study is most likely due to the instructional philosophy and practices of RR.” The researchers specifically cited the cause of this failure was the lack of recognition that “skills and strategies involving phonological information are of primary importance in beginning literacy development.”  (Chapman, Tunmer, & Prochnow, 1996)

    Yet, Askew, Pinnel, Fountas, Schmitt, and Lyons state that Reading Recovery does give “specific and explicit attention to letters, sounds, and words, both while reading and writing extended text and as direct instruction.” (as cited in Robinson, McKenna, and Wedman, 2000, p. 296)  The important thing to note is that both critics and proponents of Reading Recovery acknowledge that phonics instruction is a vital part of a program to help remediate reading difficulties.

    Instructional practices involving the teaching of phonological processing is gaining much more attention.  While not neglecting the need to teach other reading skills, the importance of systematic phonics instruction was highly emphasized in the findings of the National Reading Panel.  “Overall, the findings showed that teaching children to manipulate phonemes in words was highly effective under a variety of teaching conditions with a variety of learners across a range of grade and age levels…” (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000, Findings and determinations) 

    Still, many questions remain for educators.  What phonics approach is best?  How much time should be spent on phonics instruction?  How should phonics fit into a balanced literacy program?

    One distinction in methodologies is between analytic and synthetic approaches.  A synthetic approach starts by teaching children isolated sounds.  Those sounds are then blended (synthesized) into words.  The National Reading Panel found that that systematic synthetic phonics instruction was of particular benefit to students with learning disabilities, low-achieving students, and low socioeconomic status students. (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000, Findings and determinations)

    In an analytic approach, students begin with known words.  The letter-sound relationships in those words are analyzed.  This is a whole-to-parts method.  Some analytic methods are systematic, while others may take a more intrinsic approach, teaching phonics concepts as the need arises.

    Often, isolated sounds are slightly modified when combined with other sounds.  McCormick (1999, p. 302) states that “those who subscribe to this method of presentation maintain that letter sounds should be produced only within the context of words because some sounds are difficult to pronounce in isolation.”   The Latin root of the word “consonant” means “to sound with”.  Indeed, some consonants are difficult to pronounce in isolation without adding a vowel sound; /b/ is not /bu/.  B-a-t is not blended into /bu-at/. 

    Analytic methods can put more phonemic demands on the students. The advantage of the synthetic approach is that students do not need to have as strong of phonemic segmentation skills.  That is, they do not have to know how to break words down into sounds.  In fact, the synthetic approach teaches this skill.

    Dare cites a study of 13 primary classrooms. (Dare, 1999, Sound out words) The classes were divided into three groups.  Four classes were taught by an analytic phonics method.  Four classes were using a combination of analytic phonics and phoneme-and-rime awareness training.  The last five classes were taught using a synthetic phonics approach.  By March, the synthetic group was reading eight months ahead of the other two groups.

    There are other methods that fall somewhere between these two basic approaches.  Another common phonics instructional method involves using word families.  Students draw upon their previous knowledge to expand their word knowledge base.  Common words are divided between the onset and the rime. The onset is the part of the word that comes before the vowel.  The rime is the rest of the syllable.

    Activities are designed to manipulate words by substituting different onsets to make new words with the rime.  For example, the word cat can be changed to bat, hat, and sat by changing the onset.  Students may practice this using magnetic letters, tiles, or erasable boards.

    In my personal experience, I have used all of these methods to some extent.  In my kindergarten classes, students were rapidly introduced to the short a sound and seven consonants in a five-week period.  The consonants were chosen by how well they could be used to form common words with the short a vowel sound. 

    Students were taught the sounds in isolation, but within the same lesson, the new letters were formed into words using previously learned sounds.  With the introduction of a limited sight vocabulary (the, is, in, and on) students began to write and read these words in the context of sentences and stories featuring decodable text.  As new sounds were introduced, rime-onset activities explored new words.

    Classroom averages of students taught with this methodology were in the 99th percentile on the language arts sections of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills.  By the end of first grade, one of my former students scored at the 6.9 grade level on the SAT.  One parent was particularly surprised when his kindergarten son opened a menu in a restaurant and began to read it.

    A key component to success is connecting phonetic instruction to actual reading experiences.  Honig states: “Connected reading provides the meaningful exercises necessary for linking spelling patterns with the rest of the cognitive system, whereas phonics without connected reading amounts to useless mechanics and is too easily forgotten.” (Honig, 1996, p. 66-67)

    Using phonetic knowledge in connected text builds fluency. Books can be reread to provide even more exposure to phonics concepts. Students should be given opportunities and encouragement to use their phonics skills in creative writing. Reading, writing, and skill development are all important parts of a balanced literacy approach.

     The McRuffy Press Kindergarten SE program uses reading material that is highly connected to the phonics concepts.  Themes within the books are used to develop writing activities.  Students are even encouraged to interact with the stories using creative drama.  Students also practice spelling, grammar, handwriting, and other basic skills integrating phonics concepts.

     Teachers could further develop a balanced literacy approach from this foundation by reading and discussing a wider variety of literature.  These in turn could be a part of guided reading and writing experiences.  Teachers could further reinforce phonics concepts by pointing out words that fit the current phonics concepts in the shared-reading of big books.

    Some researchers feel that “…too much attention to phonics can detract from the construction of meaning…”  (Weaver, 1996 Toward a consensus on teaching phonics) Integrating the phonics concepts into spelling, reading, language, and writing greatly increases the exposure to the phonics concepts.  This eliminates the need for extensive drilling periods.  One of the other benefits is that it puts the phonics concepts into a meaningful context that enables students to develop comprehension skills along with phonics skills.

    In my teaching experience, I have noticed that as students gain competency in phonics, less effort is spent on decoding.  This allows children to focus more on context and meaning.  The labored blending of consonants and vowels is replaced by instantaneous word recognition and fluent reading.  This is often referred to as automatic recognition.  I believe this to be due in part to following a prescribed sequence of instruction.

    Allington (Allington, n.d.) concludes that: “There is no “scientifically” determined sequence of instruction and no conclusive evidence on what sorts of phonics lessons, of what duration would most effectively develop the optimum level of decoding efficiency in children.”  Perhaps this is due to the self-evident structure of the English language.  A logical progression would be from simple common words to more complex word structures.

    Progression from exposure to regular spellings of phonemes to irregular spellings would be the next step.  Phonics instruction in the later primary grades and above should focus more on larger parts of words (affixes, morphemes, root words, syllabication).  Chall & Popp outline a general format for a primary level progression of systematic phonics instruction (Chall & Popp, 1996, chap. 7).  They advocate teaching consonants before vowels, short vowel words before long vowel words ending with silent e, then other long vowel words, and finally syllabication.

    Exposure to good systematic phonics instruction should help students develop the cognitive structures that will allow them to make generalizations.  Once students understand the underlying concepts that words are composed of bits of sounds (phonemes) that can be decoded and encoded using symbols (graphemes),  phonics instruction can be as simple as telling the child that “ai makes the long a sound in the words rain, train, and brain.” 

    Most of my students reached the point where they could make these generalizations independently by the end of Kindergarten (some by mid-year).  Yet, systematic phonics instruction was still helpful in developing an understanding of spelling patterns.  It also highlights variations in grapho-phonemic patterns.

    Through a systematic presentation of phonics concepts, I was able to ensure that all students gained a foundational skill for reading that allowed them to progress in developing other reading and writing skills.  Although students progressed at various rates, they all seemed to benefit from the initial instruction.  Some students required additional reinforcement and practice to address specific weaknesses.  But, seeing the differences between what was initially taught and what was learned helped to refine the instructional focus to meet individual needs. 

    Phonics knowledge and skills alone are not enough to achieve literacy, yet it is vital to reading success.  Instruction in phonics does not need to “drill and kill” interest in reading.  It can be a vital part of a balanced literacy program even if taught systematically and directly.   Activities can be enjoyable and relate directly to contextual reading.

    Research, debates, and commentaries on the topic of phonics instruction are filled with accusations of misinterpretation of “scientific evidence”.  It is at times emotionally charged.  Phonics and reading instruction has ridden political and philosophical pendulums.  The issues related to the role of phonics in reading instruction are by no means resolved either in the scientific literature or in practice.  As long as educators strive for the best interests of the learner, this on-going dialog should encourage us to keep seeking and keep learning, and that will ultimately produce a very positive outcome.

Allington, R.L. (n.d.) Overselling phonics.  Retrieved March 25, 2002, from University at Albany State University of New York Web site:


Chall, J. S., Popp, H. M. (1996) Teaching and assessing phonics: Why, what, when, how. Cambridge, MA: Educators Publishing Service, Inc.

Chapman, J., Tunmer, W., Prochnow, J. (1996) Success in Reading Recovery depends on the development of phonological processing skills.  [Electronic version] Massey University, New Zealand Retrieved March 19, 2002, from


Dare, M. (1999) Phonics works: But some programs work better than others. [Electronic version].  Professionally Speaking, June 1999.  Retrieved March 19, 2002 from

Davis, B. (2014) McRuffy Kindergarten SE Phonics and Reading. Raymore, MO: McRuffy Press

Grossen, B., Coulter, G., Ruggles, B. (1996) Reading Recovery: An evaluation of benefits and costs.  Effective School Practices, 15 (3).  Retrieved July 15, 2000

Honig, B. (1996) Teaching our children to read. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Inc.

McCormick, S. (1999) Instructing students who have literacy problems. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000)  Teaching children to read:  An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction.  (NIH Pub. No. 00-4769) Retrieved July 21, 2000 from

Palmaffy, T. (1997). See Dick Flunk [Electronic version].  Policy Review, 86. Retrieved February 10, 2002, from

Askew, B. J., Pinnell, G. S., Fountas, I. C., Schmitt, M. C., & Lyons, C. A. (1998) Reading recovery review: Understandings, outcomes, and implications. In R.D. Robinson, M. C. McKenna, J. M. Wedman (Ed) Issues and trends in literacy education (Second edition). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon

Stephenson, F & Reynolds, A.  (1998/1999 Fall & Winter) The Phonics Revival {Electronic Version].  Research in Review.  Retrieved February 10, 2002, from

Weaver, C. (1996) Facts on research on the teaching of phonics. [Electronic version] Prepared for the Michigan English Language Arts Framework project.  Retrieved March 25, 2002, from




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