What Do The Best Phonics Programs Include?
Research shows that the best way to teach kids to read is to teach them phonics. So when you're searching for a phonics program, you want to make sure that it's a good one! In this post, we're going to explore five features that the best phonics programs include. All of this is based on current research on phonics instruction!
What is Phonics?
Phonics is the relationship between letters and sounds. When students learn phonics, they learn that, for example, the letter "r" can represent the /r/ sound, or that the letters "igh" can represent the long i sound as in "light." As students progress in their phonics knowledge, they begin to learn to break up longer, multisyllabic words.
The human brain is not naturally "primed" to link visual shapes (letters) with sounds. When we teach kids phonics, we're actually building neural pathways that didn't previously exist!
Other ways to teach reading, like a "sight word approach," are less effective than phonics-based reading instruction. In a sight word approach, students are asked to memorize many, many words so that they can read them quickly and easily. The problem is that there are around a million words in English, so it's not efficient to expect kids to "memorize" them all!
When students learn phonics, however, they can decode (read) many, many words. It's like the whole "teach a man to fish" saying - we're teaching kids to "crack the code" so they can become independent readers!
(Note: This is not to say that it's not important to teach kids high frequency words, so that they become sight words. It's all about how they are taught. Read more about that in this post.)
Now that we've discussed what phonics instruction is, let's dive into the features that the best phonics programs include.
Feature #1: Systematic Instruction
Systematic instruction follows a developmentally appropriate sequence of phonics skills. For example, students learn the alphabet, digraphs, consonant blends, long vowels, diphthongs, etc. Skills are sequenced based on developmental phonics research. This means that, for example, students are not taught long vowels before they are instructed in short vowels, because short vowels are what students typically master first.
Here's an example of part of a 1st grade phonics scope and sequence. (You can get a complete scope and sequence by signing up for a trial of our phonics program, From Sounds to Spelling, at this link.)
In systematic phonics instruction, the teacher does not randomly select phonics skills to teach. Nor do they wait for phonics patterns to appear in the texts that they're using with students. Instead, the scope and sequence guides them. And so does their students' progress. When the teacher sees that students have not fully mastered a skill, she should continue addressing that skill until students have attained a higher level of mastery.
Feature #2: Explicit Phonics Instruction
Explicit phonics instruction actually involves several different aspects:
- Clearly teaching students the relationships between letters and sounds (students are not asked to guess; these relationships are directly taught)
- Breaking down complex skills into smaller tasks - for example, rather than tackling all vowel teams at once, the teacher moves through one vowel team at a time
- Using modeling and think-alouds - for example, if students are asked to decode words with digraphs, the teacher models this first and explains how she says only one sound for a digraph, even though she sees two letters
- Providing corrective feedback - the teacher monitors student progress and gives feedback as needed
- Distributing practice over time - teaching a phonics skill doesn't happen in a single day; skills are practiced over multiple days and even weeks (review is key!)
- Using assessment data and making adjustments to instruction accordingly - for example, in From Sounds to Spelling, we provide an "end of the week" dictation assessment, as well as guidance for teachers in whether they should move on to the next skill or not
The best phonics programs include all of these aspects of explicit phonics instruction. Teachers are busy, and it's much more likely that explicit phonics instruction is going to happen in full if they can simply follow an effective program that uses explicit instruction.
If you'd like to see some example weeks of explicit phonics instruction "in action," sign up for a free trial of From Sounds to Spelling at this link (no credit card required).
Feature #3: A Research & Evidence Base
A research base means that a program is based on principles of effective phonics instruction (i.e. that it is systematic and explicit). An evidence base means that the program has been used in studies that show its effectiveness.
The best phonics programs have both a research base and an evidence base. Click here to get your f
Feature #4: Tools & Guidance for Differentiation
Even though all students need to learn phonics skills, kids learn them at different paces. Most phonics programs provide "one size fits all" instruction, and teachers are left on their own to try to differentiate.
But this is highly ineffective and unrealistic. It's very rare that a teacher is given a class of students who are truly all on the exact same level. Teachers are busier than ever, and if they aren't given any tools to differentiate, it creates a bigger burden for them.
From Sounds to Spelling is different from other phonics programs. We provide many differentiation options to teachers, like:
- Differentiated word sorts
- Suggestions and visuals for English Language Learners
- Suggestions for advanced students
- Multi-leveled decodable texts
Having students at a range of levels is a reality. Why not set teachers up for success by giving them the tools they need to differentiate?
Feature #5: Teacher Training
Unfortunately, it's very common for teachers to be given a new program and simply expected to pick it up and teach it. The end results are overwhelm for the teachers and, in some cases, ineffective implementation of the program.
Professional development sessions are very helpful, and we offer them for From Sounds to Spelling. However, what about teachers who miss the PD session? Or simply need a refresher mid-year?
The best phonics programs include resources that teachers can easily access to continue learning about effective phonics instruction and how to implement the program. In From Sounds to Spelling , teachers get access to a login area where they can download the printable teaching materials AND access PD videos. These videos explain how to best use the program, and they also address common obstacles that teachers face.
No matter how good a phonics program is, if it's not implemented correctly, it's not going to have the best results for students. This is why teacher training is so key - and not just from a "one and done" professional development meeting.
How Can I See an Example of an Effective Phonics Program?
You can download samples of From Sounds to Spelling for free - no credit card needed! You'll receive free weeks from our Kindergarten, 1st grade, and 2nd grade programs. You'll also get a phonics scope and sequence, plus more information about the program.