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The Role of Phonics in Reading Instruction

In this post, we're going to dive into the role of phonics in reading instruction. But first, let's take a step back and discuss some interesting (and concerning) statistics.

Let's begin with this one:

Did you know that around 95% of children can learn to read?

This is AMAZING news: literacy success contributes to success in other school subjects and can contribute to students' future health and happiness!

However, a 2019 report indicated that only 79% of adults in the United States have sufficient literacy skills.

So where is the disconnect? If 95% of people should be able to read, why do we have this 79% figure in the U.S.?

The truth is that many factors contribute to low levels of literacy. But a primary reason is that struggling readers often lack phonological awareness and phonics skills.

In this post, we're going to discuss the role of essential role of phonics in reading instruction.

What is Phonics?

Phonics instruction involves teaching the relationships between letters and sounds. To learn more about phonics instruction and what it looks like at each grade level, check out this blog post: Phonics Instruction: What It Is and Why It’s Important.

Phonics and the Brain

Two of the parts of the brain that facilitate reading are the phonological processor and the orthographic processor.

The phonological processor facilitates spoken language (speech). The orthographic processor handles visual images (like processing letters on a page, for example).

Most people are born with these two parts of the brain intact and functioning. This means that they can process spoken language and recognize the shapes of letters.

However, no one is born with built-in pathways to connect the two (vision and speech).

These pathways must be built through instruction and practice: learning how sounds and language connect to visual images.

When we teach phonics, we're building up the neural system that connects vision and speech: in the phonological assembly region.

The brain is not born "ready to read." We must help kids build pathways to connect vision and speech through phonics instruction. 

This is why phonics instruction is vital in teaching reading!

From Phonics to Reading

As you probably already know, learning phonics and actually reading are two different things.

A child can know, for example, the sounds of the letters m, a, and t - but not be able to read the word "mat."

Here's where phonological awareness and phonemic awareness skills come in - readers must be able to blend sounds together to make words.

(To read more about what blending is and how to help students who struggle with blending, check out this blog post: 3 Tips to Help Students Who Struggle with Blending.)

As children learn...

  • The sound(s) for each consonant
  • The sound(s) of the vowels
  • How different groups of letters work together to represent sounds (i.e. digraphs)
  • How to blend sounds together
  • How to break apart longer, multisyllabic words

...their reading fluency grows. This means that they are able to read at a good pace (not too slowly) and accurate decode the words.

When reading fluency grows, typically reading comprehension (ability to understand what is read) improves as well. 

Here's an example to explain the connection between phonics, reading fluency, and reading comprehension:

Imagine a student who is still struggling with phonics. They read slowly (poor fluency) and incorrectly decode many of the words.

This student's reading comprehension isn't going to be very strong, is it? Because:

1. If they aren't reading most of the words correctly, they're going to miss some of the information in the text, and

2. If their working memory is devoted primarily to figuring out the words, they aren't going to be able to pay much attention to what the text actually means.

On the flip side, if you have a student with strong phonics knowledge, this usually means that reading fluency is also strong, and this paves the way for strong reading comprehension.

It's all connected, and as you can see, phonics plays a vital role in reading instruction!

Making This a Reality

I'm sure you agree that all children deserve the opportunity to learn to read! This also means that children deserve excellent phonics instruction, so they can build a base that leads to strong reading fluency and comprehension.

Effective phonics programs like From Sounds to Spelling make it easy for educators to deliver outstanding phonics instruction that meets students' specific needs.

To download free materials and learn more about this multi-sensory, science-based phonics program, click here.

What Should a Kindergarten Phonics Curriculum Cover?

3 Phonics Strategies That Help Kids Retain Skills

Tips for Teaching Phonics to English Language Learners