In general, a program of effective phonics instruction includes:
• systematic introduction and explicit teaching of sounds and their spellings;
• explicit modeling and teaching of how to blend sounds to make words and how to segment words into sounds; and
• clear and consistent instructional routines (e.g., Al Otaiba, Kosanovich-Grek, Torgesen, Hassler, & Wahl, 2005; National Reading Panel, 2000).
Because some misunderstandings exist as to what systematic and explicit mean in terms of phonics instruction, it is important for us to clarify these terms before moving on.
First, systematic does not mean simply following a set sequence for introducing sound/spellings and phonics skills. In fact, research has not validated any one best sequence for doing this (Au, 2003). Rather, phonics instruction is systematic when teachers introduce and model skills, then provide ample opportunities for students to practice applying the skill on their own.
Although research has not identified a ‘best” sequence of sound/spelling introductions, it is logical to conclude that the most effective sequence is one that makes it possible for students to start reading words as soon as possible. To achieve this goal, the sequence of introduction logically should begin with sound/spellings that are most useful in making the largest number of words. For example, teaching students the consonants m, n, p, s, and t and the vowel a allows students to read the words am, at, map, mat, man, nap, pan, pat, sat, sap, tan, and tap. After all consonants and short-vowel sound/spellings are introduced, the sequence moves on to introduce long vowels. Why not do long vowels first? Just to keep things simple: In general, one short vowel sound equals one spelling. But long vowels have many spellings, and teaching (and learning) these spellings takes a lot of class time. By the end of grade 1, instruction can proceed systematically to include more complex or difficult sound/spellings, including variant vowels and consonant digraphs (ch, sh, th, wh) (e.g., Adams, 1990; Simmons & Kame’enui, 1998).
Second, approaches to phonics instruction can be identified as implicit or as explicit. Most often, implicit phonics instruction begins with whole words with which students are familiar and uses those words to teach specific sound/spellings. Explicit instruction begins with having students identify each individual letter in a word and its sound, then blend those sounds to make words. In its analysis of the effectiveness of various approaches to phonics instruction, the NRP (2000) concluded that explicit approaches are more effective than implicit approaches.
As described by the NRP, effective explicit sound/spelling instruction follows a routine such as this:
• The teacher writes a letter on the board, says the letter name, and then says its sound. Students repeat the sound several times.
• The teacher writes on the board a word containing the target letter and other sound/spellings that students have already learned. After saying the sounds for the letters with the teacher, the students blend the sounds to read the word. They do this several times, until their pronunciation of the word sounds natural.
• The teacher writes other words that contain the same sound/spelling for students to read.
• Students practice identifying and reading the target sound/spelling by reading materials that contain several words with the target sound.
Blending is an important part of effective phonics instruction. The consistent use of a set routine for blending is very helpful to students and keeps instruction moving smoothly and quickly. Once students have learned the blending routine, they can focus all of their attention on learning new sound/spellings.
Finally, sound/spelling instruction is of limited value if students do not have ample opportunities to practice using what they are learning. This means providing them with a range of materials that contain words that they can decode easily (e.g., Beck 1998). In general, these practice materials follow a progression that corresponds to the skills of the readers:
• pre-readers: rebus books, or books with some decodable words, high-frequency words, and little pictures for words students cannot yet read.
• beginning readers: decodable books, or books that contain many words made up of taught sound/spellings and some high–frequency words. Good decodables repeat important words and introduce some words that are unfamiliar to students so that they must apply their knowledge of sound/spellings, often through the use of word families (e.g., dot, not, hot, and the less familiar word jot). However, good decodables are more than a collection of words; they also tell a story or give information that grabs and holds students’ interest (Beck & Juel 1995; Hiebert 1999; Juel & Roper/Schneider, 1985).
• early independent readers: leveled readers that reflect a range of difficulty in content and vocabulary—and the varying abilities of students. These are sets of small books that reflect increasing levels of reading difficulty. As a rule, leveled readers meet specific criteria for each designated reading level, such as number of words, word length, sentence length, word variety, and number of high-frequency words.
A last, but very important, point: To build beginning readers’ skill in and use of written and spoken language, students must receive systematic and explicit phonics instruction (National Reading Panel 2000). But because reading requires more than word recognition, this instruction must not be done in isolation. Rather, phonics instruction must be accompanied by daily opportunities for students to see that the skills they are learning have a purpose and a value. This means engaging students daily in listening to and reading “real” materials, including fiction, nonfiction, poetry, plays.