Adapted from Choosing and Using Decodable Texts by Wiley Blevins. Copyright © 2021 by Wiley Blevins. Reprinted by permission of Scholastic Inc. All rights reserved.
Characteristics of Strong Phonics Instruction
There are seven characteristics of strong phonics instruction (listed below). For years, I have worked with teachers and publishers to ensure that these were in place in their foundational skills instruction. You will notice that one of these characteristics is the reading of connected texts - decodable, accountable stories. Therefore, these texts are an essential part of phonics instruction.
Phonemic awareness and alphabet recognition are the two best predictors of early reading success. These skills play a key role in foundational-skill instruction and in getting children ready to decode (read by sounding out) and encode (write/spell) words.
Scope and Sequence:
While there is no "right" phonics scope and sequence, there are those that are more beneficial for student learning. These scopes and sequences start with high-utility vowels and consonants so words can be formed as early as possible. They separate confusing letters and sounds. They also have a built-in review and repetition cycle to ensure mastery. A strong scope and sequence serves as the spine of all the instruction and is tightly linked to the stories children read.
This is the primary decoding strategy, in which children string together the sounds in a printed word to read it. This strategy must be frequently modelled and applied in connected text reading.
This is guided spelling. It is a critical way for teachers to think aloud about how they write words as they model for children how to use and transfer their phonics skills to written words, sentences, and stories. Weekly dictation is not a test, but rather a guided exercise that can help accelerate children's use of phonics skills in writing. It should begin in early Kindergarten (e.g., the teacher says a sound and children write the letter, then proceed to writing simple words and a simple sentence) and progress in complexity throughout the grades. Dictation exercises should include words with the new target phonics skill as well as words with previously taught skills to extend the learning and supported application
Word-building and word sorts are two ways to increase children's awareness of how English words work. These activities involve conversations and observations about words, ensuring that the phonics instruction is active, engaging, and thought-provoking-the goal of strong phonics instruction. These activities can help consolidate and solidify student learning.
High-frequency words are the most common words in English, but some of these words are irregular. That means they can't be sounded out using the standard phonics skills we teach in Grades K-2. These words need to be taught differently. Research-based routines, such as the Read/Spell/Write/Extend routine (see pg. 36, Blevins, 2021), can accelerate student learning of these words. Children need to focus on the individual sounds and spellings of these words - highlighting the "irregular" part - to orthographically map the words so they can be readily accessed while reading and writing.
Reading Connected Text:
Using controlled, decodable text at the beginning of reading instruction helps children develop a sense of control and comfort in their reading. The application of phonics skills to authentic reading experiences is critical for mastery and transfer. Reading these texts should be followed by writing to give children a direct and scaffolded opportunity to apply the phonics skill in encoding and documenting understanding.
Plus... You, the Teacher
The success of all these characteristics rests on the shoulders of a highly trained teacher. In addition, a teacher's attitudes and background knowledge or phonics expertise all play a crucial role in instructional success.
Common Causes of Phonics Instructional Failure
Having the seven characteristics of phonics instruction, including the use of decodable texts, in place isn't enough. There are some common obstacles teachers may face when delivering phonics instruction that can impede or limit student learning. Below, I list ten of the most common causes of phonics. instructional failure based on my research and classroom practice. Notice that causes 2 and 3 are directly related to the use of decodable texts
Inadequate or Nonexistent Review and Repetition Cycle:
We underestimate the amount of time it takes young learners to master phonics skills. When we introduce a new skill, we should systematically and purposefully review it for the next four to six weeks. Our goal must be to teach to mastery rather than just exposure. With the fast pacing of most curricula, a more substantial review and repetition cycle often must be added. Look at the skill you are teaching this week, then mark all the instances you review it in the upcoming four to six weeks, including in the texts children read (note the variety of words used). Increase opportunities to practice through additional words in blending work, dictation, and repeated readings of previously read decodable stories
Lack of Application to Real Reading and Writing Experiences:
Children progress at a much faster rate in phonics when the bulk of instructional time is spent on applying the skills to authentic reading and writing experiences, rather than isolated skill-and-drill work. At least 50 percent of a phonics lesson should be devoted to application exercises. Evaluate the average amount of time your students spend on reading and writing during your phonics lessons.
Inappropriate Reading Materials to Practice Skills:
The connection between what we teach and what we have young learners read has a powerful effect on their word-reading strategies and their phonics and spelling skills. It also affects their motivation to read. Examine a few pages from the books you give your students to read in K-1. Children should be able to sound out more than 50 percent of these words based on the phonics skills you have taught them up to that point. If not, you need to provide more controlled text until they get additional phonics skills under their belts and develop a sense of comfort and control in their reading abilities. You can usually transition to more challenging texts in the second half of Grade 1. Reading decodable texts should be a daily phonics lesson activity.
Ineffective Use of the Gradual Release Model:
Teachers of struggling readers often spend too much of the instructional time doing the "heavy lifting," such as over-modelling and having children simply repeat. Whoever does the thinking in a lesson, does the learning. Children might struggle, but you are there to provide corrective feedback and support. Limit "parrot" activities in which children simply repeat what they hear or see.
Too Much Time Lost During Transitions:
Phonics lessons often require a lot of manipulatives and materials. Turn transitional times, when materials are distributed or collected, into valuable instructional moments by reviewing skills (e.g., singing the ABC song, doing a phonemic-awareness task, reviewing sound-letter action rhymes to focus children's attention on an instructional goal). To maximize impact, plan these transitions at the beginning of the week (e.g., select three or four great transitions per week) around skills you want to review.
Limited Teacher Knowledge of Research-Based Phonics Routines and Linguistics:
Teachers with backgrounds in phonics or linguistics are better equipped to make meaningful instructional decisions, analyze student errors, and improve the language and delivery of instruction. Also, teacher attitudes toward phonics instructional materials (e.g., decodable text) and routines (e.g., sorts, word-building, blending) matter. Explore these within grade-level teams.
Inappropriate Pacing of Lessons:
Teachers often spend too much time on activities they enjoy or are easier for children and less time on the more challenging or "meaty" activities that increase learning. High-impact activities include blending, dictation, word-building, word sorts, and reading and writing about decodable texts. Keep lessons fast-paced and rigorous. Phonics should be fun, with children active and engaged throughout the entire lesson. The bulk of time should be devoted to real reading and writing experiences.
No Comprehensive or Cumulative Mastery Assessment Tools:
Teachers should assess phonics skills over an extended period of time to ensure mastery. Weekly assessments focusing on one skill often give "false positives." That is, they show movement toward learning, but not mastery. If the skill isn't worked on enough for subsequent weeks, learning can decay. Cumulative assessments help you determine which skills children have truly mastered. Comprehensive assessments help you place children along a phonics continuum (for targeted small-group instruction to meet their needs) and can be used to determine whether or not children have met phonics grade-level expectations.
Transitioning to Multisyllabic Words Too Late:
Most curricula focus on one-syllable words too long in Grade 2, yet the stories children read at that grade are filled with more challenging, multisyllabic words. More emphasis needs to be given to transitioning to longer words at this grade (e.g., going from known to new words, like can/candle, and teaching the six major syllable types [closed, open, r-controlled, vowel team, vowel-silent e, consonant + /e]). Add this to your weekly lessons all year.
Overdoing It (Especially Isolated Skill Work):
Some curricula overemphasize phonics (especially the isolated skill type of work) while ignoring other key aspects of early reading needs (e.g.. vocabulary and background knowledge-building) that are essential to long-term reading progress. Modify your reading time to provide better balance.