How to Teach Phonics

› Phonics

Here's how to teach phonics without sobbing into your coffee! It might not be fun, it often isn't pretty, but kids need basic reading instruction in how our language works.

Understanding what phonics is and how our language manipulates sounds is a critical part of students' growth as readers.

According to the National Reading Panel, phonics is "the relationship between a specific letter and its sounds, only as it relates to the written word."

Hang on: Phonics, as part of the whole reading process, is word recognition (or we could call it word discrimination).


how to teach phonics in elementary school


There are some people who would disagree with this statement, but thoughtfully consider what word recognition really is (and it isn't just sight words!).

Without a working knowledge of phonics, a child is at great risk for not learning how to read.



In fact, failure to master phonics is the number one reason our students have difficulty with reading.

Many whole language proponents say that if we immerse children in quality literature they will naturally learn how to read. That does happen, but not very often.

Phonics is when a child knows how to read unknown words by breaking them down into meaningful parts.

For example, if a student does not recognize the word bench, he can break it into pieces, such as /b/ /e/ /n/ /ch/, then blend the sounds together to read the word fluently. This knowledge will translate into writing.



Some teachers mistakenly think that learning phonics will hinder comprehension. Not true.

Ignoring teaching phonics is like ignoring traffic signals. Chances are if you do it too often, you will get in an accident.  I view phonics as having a great set of brakes - when you need to slow down to assess a "situation" the brakes better be in good working order to help you.

I believe that the goal of phonics instruction should be to make the students not need it anymore, just like an excellent driver shouldn't need to always slam on the brakes.

How many of us sound out all of our words when we read? We don't. We only do that for the unusual or very difficult words. The rest of them...we decode them in an instant and read the whole word. That's what we want our kids to be able to do: develop word automaticity, or instant word recognition.

Understanding how to teach phonics means you explicitly instruct students in systematic decoding, how to use the skills, then watch them become fluent readers.


Phonics as Part of the Reading Process

Phonics is only one component of the reading process, but it is a necessary part. You do not need to spend hours every day on explicit phonics instruction. 10-15 minutes daily will do it for most students. There are also excellent ways of how to teach phonics by embedding word recognition instruction into all areas.

Teaching reading is a combination of skills. You really can't teach one of the five components of reading instruction without the others. Those components are:

  1. Phonemic Awareness
  2. Phonics
  3. Fluency
  4. Vocabulary
  5. Text Comprehension

There are ways to teach these altogether, in a way that makes sense for how students learn best.

Of course kids should know how to identify and use blends, digraphs, word families, vowel teams, and everything else.  But does it really help them to be able to say, "Oh, that's a blend!"  unless they know how to use it?  

This is where the importance of the quality of phonics instruction comes into play.

Phonics is a simply a stepping stone to fluency which is the bridge to comprehension.  


How to Teach Phonics Everyday

There are many ways to teach phonics. It should not be the overriding component in teaching reading, but it should definitely be there. Think of it as a Tier 1 intervention for RTI information. You have to do it to have excellent teaching.

Here are some great ways for how to teach phonics as part of your daily lessons.

1. Focus on patterns, not rules.
Our brains look for patterns to help us make meaning. This doesn't mean you ignore the rules, as there are some phonics rules worthy of being taught. However, making a game with word families through sorts or writing rhyming poems every day is much more effective than learning a rule every day.

2. Making & Writing Words: Word Families
Making and writing words are is a great way to talk about how sounds change, introduce the concepts of blends and digraphs, plus get in that much needed vocabulary. One of the important things about this is that the students are actively writing the words, not just making them. There is a powerful connection between the hand and the brain.

3. Explicitly teach high frequency words
These are the words kids see and use most often. My preference is the Fry Word List, as these words are introduced in order of occurrence in the English language. If our students could master the first 100, that is equivalent to nearly 50% of all the words they will ever read! The first 300 = 67%, and the first 600 = 75%. This makes it worth teaching.  These words have to be known instantly, with no hesitation.

4.  Games
Children respond to games - that's nothing new.  Just putting a little thought into how to teach phonics with games instead of a worksheet can make an otherwise dreary subject something to look forward to.

5.Phonics with poetry
Poetry is natural repeated reading. But phonics? Absolutely. Rhyming poems use word families, different vowel teams to make the same sound...you can analyze a poem for blends such as "str"...look for the digraph "th"...anything can be done with phonics poetry.

The best phonics poetry will encourage repeated readings for fluency, then cross over into the deeper level of reading, which is comprehension. This is a well documented fluency strategy that requires a knowledge of how to teach phonics.


Teachable Poetry for Fluency and Comprehension does just this.

This is a great resource that gives you a poem for every week of the school year and includes phonics work, fluency practice and comprehension.

I use it every week in my classroom, and my students absolutely love it.




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