What We Already Know

Phonemic Awareness is Key

A phoneme is an individual sound. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear an individual sound, recognize it and manipulate it. For example, the word cat contains three phonemes (sounds): /k/, /a/ and /t/. A child who has good phonemic awareness skills would be able to recognize each phoneme and verbalize it individually. If a child is asked to name a rhyming word that sounds kind of like cat, but starts with a different sound, the child might say “bat” and be able to separate out the “b” sound from the word. Developing strong phonemic awareness is the first step in learning to read. Development of this skill begins at birth.

Phonics Comes Next

Matching sounds to written letters is called phonics. For example, in the word “cat” the c makes the /k/ sound. The formal teaching of phonics usually begins in kindergarten; however, many children can begin learning phonics earlier. Phonics instruction includes teaching how certain combinations of letters create specific sounds. For example, the “ph” combination results in the sound /f/ and the “tion” combination creates the sound /shun/. Good phonics instruction provides an understanding of the patterns that create specific sounds. For example, a silent “e” at the end of a word usually means the vowel sound in the middle is long. We can see this in the words “fat” and “fate.” When a reader applies phonics skills to figure out a new word, we refer to it as decoding.

The direct teaching of phonics is critical for many students to become good readers. However, it is important to understand that phonics is not directly taught in some schools, in favor of the “whole word” or “whole language” method. Some elementary school teachers were not taught phonics as children and have not been trained in the teaching of phonics. Therefore, they will not be able to teach phonics to their students. This has caused great difficulty for many students who do not become good readers. Educators and policymakers have debated the inclusion of phonics in reading programs since the late 1800s. We know now that reading programs need to include both phonics and “whole language” strategies in order for all children to learn to read.It is estimated that currently about 68% of third graders are not on grade level in reading.

Good phonics instruction will result in readers who can read more naturally and spell with greater accuracy. The most effective phonics instruction will be very organized and systematic, with a sequence that moves from the simplest concepts to the most complex.

Phonics Leads to Fluency

Once a reader can use phonics skills to decode words quickly, reading becomes automatic. Over time, with a great deal of exposure to new texts, a reader begins to develop fluency. This means that reading is smooth, natural, accurate, with appropriate expression. Speed increases along with fluency. Fluency is sometimes referred to a the bridge between phonics and comprehension. It is difficult to comprehend something if it takes a great struggle to read it in the first place. The key to becoming more fluent is lots and and lots of practice until reading becomes very natural.

Fluency Leads to Comprehension

Comprehension means the reader can understand what is being read. In the earliest stages readers can understand exactly what the author is saying. This is called literal comprehension. As readers mature, they develop the ability to interpret what they read or to understand what may be implied but not directly stated. This is known as interpretive or inferential comprehension. Once readers develop literal and interpretive comprehension skills they can advance to evaluative comprehension. This means they can make judgments and think critically about what they are reading by relating other information and background knowledge to the text.

It is important to remember that comprehension is greatly impacted by a reader’s phonics skills. Readers who are still struggling with phonics have not developed adequate fluency, and cannot possibly develop advanced comprehension skills. It is not uncommon for educators and parents to mistakenly identify a reading problem as a comprehension issue when the reader is really struggling with phonics.

Best Practices in Reading Instruction


All students benefit from direct instruction in phonics. Younger students, in grades K-3 learn to read faster when specific skills are taught in an organized and way that allows them to build on what they have already learned. Older students who are struggling with reading are able to overcome reading deficits and increase comprehension skills by learning phonics. Students with dyslexia can “rewire” their brains and overcome the challenges of having this difference in brain functionality. English language learners can master the English language much faster when they understand the patterns of spelling and pronunciation based on phonics.

Multisensory Instruction

Multisensory instruction means that learners will use cues from what they see, hear and feel to learn and remember new things. In reading, this means they will see a word, hear a word, say a word, write a word, spell a word in order to learn a word. Specific techniques in reading instruction were first used in the 1920s by Dr. Samuel Orton. He was influenced by Helen Keller and Grace Fernald. Later, Anna Gillingham and Bessie Stillman wrote a manual that described a specific teaching method that was sequential (teaching step-by-step, from simple concepts to more complex) and multisensory. This teaching method was based on Orton’s work so it became known as the Orton-Gillingham approach.

Multisensory instruction has been proven to be more effect in the teaching of phonemic awareness, phonics and comprehension. Students who are taught using multisensory methods that include phonics outperform other students who do not receive this type of instruction.


Your vocabulary is the number of words you know and understand. The more you read, the larger your vocabulary will be. The larger your vocabulary is, the more you will comprehend what you read. Good decoding skills allow a reader to begin understanding a new word in a text. Some words can be understood through the context of reading. Other words must be directly taught so the reader can master the word within the text. Good reading instruction includes a combination of these two approaches. It is important that parents and teachers continually support vocabulary development by using as many variations of words as possible. For example, instead of always saying “big” substitute more sophisticated synonyms such as gigantic, enormous, huge, etc.


Spelling instruction supports reading. Poor spelling is an indication that a reader has not mastered phonemic awareness and phonics. When reading and spelling are taught together, students get practice applying the patterns of the language. We know that integrating spelling and decoding instruction will result in greater gains in fluency and comprehension.


We know that the best reading instruction is multisensory. Handwriting allows the reader to feel the letters and words as they are being written. This reinforces the recognition and recall of individual letters, spelling patterns and words. Good reading instruction integrates handwriting along with spelling.

Kim JS. Research and the Reading Wars. The Phi Delta Kappan [Internet]. 2008;89(5):372-375. Publisher's Version Abstract prof_pub-pdk-kim-reading_wars.pdf

Early Warning! Why reading by the end of third grade matters - a special report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2010.

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