Phonics has several related meanings – the relationship between speech sounds and their letter symbols, the methods used to teach that relationship, and the process of using letter-sounds relationships to sound out (decode) words.


The English written language is an alphabetic code in which spoken language is represented by symbols (letters) grouped into words. By learning the relationship between speech sounds and letter-symbols, children can use this code to read almost any word.

English is more complex than other alphabetic languages but it is still has conventions that can be learned. Around 50% of words in English are directly decodable from their written form and a further 36% violate only one sound–letter rule (usually a vowel), 10% can be spelt correctly if morphology and etymology are taken into account, and fewer than 4% are truly irregular.

Scientific research has demonstrated that initial phonics instruction is the single most effective word-decoding approach for students. All children benefit to some extent from such instruction but children at risk of reading failure achieve greater success under a phonics regime, as do those in the average range, and those who are making progress, but slowly.


In 2005, the Committee for the National Inquiry into Teaching Literacy in Australia recommended that teachers provide systematic, direct and explicit phonics instruction to allow children to master the essential alphabet code-breaking skills required for foundational reading proficiency.

There are two main approaches to explicitly teaching phonics: synthetic phonics instruction and analytic phonics instruction. Their effectiveness differs markedly. The model known as ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ has the strongest research support.

In synthetic phonics, students learn the associations between letters and their sounds in a clearly defined, incremental sequence. Students also learn the highly important skills of blending (putting sounds together to make words) and segmenting (sounding out words).


“Theoretical research and empirical evidence support the need for students to apply phonics skills in connected text. The evidence is very clear that decodable text positively impacts early reading progress.”
Cheatham & Allor (2012)
“The evidence is clear that the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics is the most effective way of teaching young children to read, particularly those at risk of having problems with reading.”
Rose review, England (2006)
“That direct instruction in alphabetic coding facilitates early reading acquisition is one of the most well established conclusions in all of behavioural science.”
Stanovich (2000)
Boy reading

KEY RESEARCH FINDINGS

The US National Reading Panel’s review of research on phonics instruction in 2000 found:

  • Systematic phonics instruction makes a bigger contribution to children’s growth in reading than programs providing unsystematic or no phonics instruction
  • Phonics instruction taught early proves much more effective than phonics instruction introduced after the first year of school, and
  • Systematic phonics instruction is significantly more effective than non-phonics instruction in helping to prevent reading difficulties among at risk students and in helping to remediate reading difficulties in disabled readers.


Subsequent research has shown the power of systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) in particular.

In Clackmannanshire, Scotland, school beginners who were taught by the synthetic phonics method were found to be reading at seven months above their chronological age after one year, and similarly advanced beyond their peers taught by analytic phonics.  Six years later, the synthetic group’s word-reading ability was three-and-a-half years ahead of the analytic group, and almost two years ahead in spelling. Disadvantaged children achieved a similar rate of progress. Only 5.6% of the students taught synthetic phonics were behind in word reading at the five-year follow-up. In a longer term follow-up, students taught by the two methods were re-assessed at age 10. Children taught by the synthetic phonics method not only maintained their advantage but increased it over time.


RECOMMENDED READING

Adams, MJ (1990).
Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print.
Cambridge, MA MIT Press.

Australian Government Department of Education, Science and Training (2005).
Teaching Reading: National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy.
Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

Moats, L. (1999).
Teaching Reading is Rocket Science: What Expert Teachers of Reading Should Know and Be Able To Do.
American Federation of Teachers.

Moats, L.C. (2010).
Speech to Print.
Language Essentials for Teachers (2nd edition), Paul H. Brookes Publishing, Baltimore.

National Reading Panel (2000).
Teaching children to read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and its Implications for Reading Instruction.

Rose, J. (2006).
Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading.
UK Department for Education and Skills.

Sonnenschein, S., Stapleton, L.M. & Benson, A. (2010).
The relation between the type and amount of instruction and growth in children’s reading competencies.
American Educational Research Journal, 47(2), pp. 358-389.