How Should a New Elementary School Teacher Handle Phonics?

As a teacher you hold a key to one of the most fundamentally important parts of any child’s ability to learn and understand language: phonics. This concept can be abstract for students, but there is a lot of great research and ideas for making phonics lessons a success.

Basic Principles of Phonics Instruction
Cognitive clarity is an important part of the equation that educators need to consider as they begin phonics instruction. In a guide for the International Reading Association (IRA), Patricia and James Cunningham describe cognitive clarity as understanding what you are trying to learn, and why. Student’s need to grasp what phonics are and why they are important to be able to properly cooperate during lessons. In other words, students may be able to work harder if they understand what their eventual goal is. Adults can easily forget how abstract phonics may seem, and relaying that message so kids understand why phonics matter is important. Research shows that fostering cognitive clarity and engaging students with instruction that considers different learning styles and preferences is critically imporant. Howard Gardner of Harvard University introduced the term multiple intelligences to describe the different ways people learn. As Gardner describes, some children are visual-spatial learners, others are linguistic and others may be intrapersonal. An approach to phonics lessons that attempts to take these differences into account will help engage kids in the way that best suits their needs.

Building Blocks
Depending on the age of the children, one of the earliest encounters students are likely to have with phonics is the connection that words are made up of sounds, or phonemes, which are combined to produce what we read and write. This abstract sounding idea can be hard for students to grasp at first.The IRA encourages teachers to develop phonemic awareness at as early an age as possible through exposure to books and nursery rhymes that play with words to illustrate sounds and rhyming. Dr. Suess books are famous for their playful nature, which also helps students hear phonemes. The Berenstain Bearsseries is another set of books that can build these skills, according to the IRA. IRA tells us that phonemic awareness is one of the best indicators of reading success, and daily reading to a child is the easiest way to encourage this.

Developing Tools for Decoding
Along with grasping phonemes, students have to learn how those sounds and letters work together. Decoding is a critical part of phonics understanding. The literacy initiative Reading Rockets describes decoding as the ability to apply knowledge about letter and sound relationships to correctly pronounce words. It requires an understanding of letter patterns to decode words that students may have not seen before. Teacher instruction can help students understand the principles of the letter-sound relationships and exceptions to those rules in order to improve decoding skills. This process works best through beginning with the most basic sounds, and graduating to more complex patterns as the child’s understanding grows, according to the Florida Center for Reading Research. The FCRR encourages teachers to use explicit instruction, meaning the individual letter/sound relationships are taught in isolation, and then incorporated into words so students can begin to recognize familiar sequences in their reading. The research also encourages phonics and decoding lessons to be taught in a systematic fashion in order to develop proper habit and ritual. For example, teachers can introduce the most common and useful sounds of a letter first, and progress to more complex letter/sound exceptions.

Ideas for Instruction
One of the more widely cited research papers regarding phonics instruction, titled Everything You Wanted to Know About Phonics (but Were Afraid to Ask), concludes that there are several different approaches to phonics instruction, and no absolute best practice. One of the more successful approaches is a curriculum of planned, sequential lessons that systematically help students understand phonics education, according to Wake Forest University. WFU describes this systematic approach broken-down by the grades of students. Teaching students systematically helps develop and strengthen skills before moving onto the next step. In kindergarten children learn about the alphabet and letter-sounds; they then begin using the sounds through reading and writing. In first grade, teachers add letter-sound patterns, such as the most common consonant and vowel patterns. This is coordinated with developing skills that help students decode and spell. In second grade, students may be ready to move onto the less common letter-sound exceptions and continue to review the patterns taught in the first grade. FCRR says that most students will be able to finish their phonics instruction by the end of second grade.

Additional Resources
Teaching a student how to read is one of the most rewarding ways to make a difference in a child’s life. Ensuring that students learn at their own pace, appropriate to their age, helps promote the confidence children need to embark on what can be a challenging series of tasks to achieve a rewarding goal. There are tons of great resources for educators on the web to help design and implement a successful phonics curriculum. Here are just a couple sources worth checking out.

  • The Florida Center for Reading Research has excellent instructional materials, lesson plans and ideas for teachers who want to implement a phonics curriculum based on evidence-based research.
  • Launched in 2001 as an education initiative from WETA, the third largest contributing producer for public television and radio, Reading Rockets has received funding from the U.S. Department of Education and other organizations in order to help young kids learn to read and to teach adults how to help them. The site has great teaching tools such as strategies, books and research.

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