March 3, 2021

Where Have All the Phonics Gone?

Walk into any classroom and observe the language arts instruction that’s taking place. What do you notice about the teaching and learning? Do you see small group reading instruction, whole group reading instruction, paired reading, or independent reading time? Do you see children completing language arts worksheets or interacting in literacy stations around the room? One thing I see less of today in classrooms around the country is phonics instruction.

Over 60% of nine-year-old students read below grade level; this percentage increases to 80% in low-income areas. This statistic is a combination of the fact that reading is developmental, which does not always match grade level assessment measures and that phonics instruction is lacking. When a child does not successfully read on grade level by third grade, it’s mostly because their word work knowledge is weak. When students are struggling in reading at the age of ten, thirteen, or seventeen, it again comes back to the foundations of word work. Therefore, it is essential to create classrooms that foster a love of literacy while teaching the foundations of reading.

Here’s a handy check list of components you can use for phonics instruction in your classroom to ensure literacy success: 

  • Reading Corner: Create a classroom library of high-interest, leveled books for students to read during independent reading time. Include nursery rhymes, children’s songs, and chants to emphasize phonemic awareness. Adding decodable books to match the grade level and developmental reading level word families gives the opportunity for students to read while practicing phonics. A young reader’s confidence increases when they’re provided with text they can easily read. One great example is a poetry notebook filled with weekly poems taught during whole group phonics instruction. Another example is a basket of class made books following a particular theme, story starter, or rhyme pattern. Students will be excited about reading (not “fake reading”) a variety of text based on the foundational word skills they need. 
Teaching Phonics in the Classroom

  • Print-rich environment: The classroom should be adorned with instructional resources, not decoration. Students should be referring to anchor charts that teach rhyme or word patterns. A pre-k or kindergarten classroom benefits from a sound wall displaying the letter and images or pictures that match the beginning sound of a word. Since we want our students to use the word wall to assist in reading and writing, it’s imperative that not all of the words for the academic year are displayed from the first day of school. A phonics board is also helpful during reading and writing. Once a word pattern is taught, whether it is at, eak, or ung, the teacher can write the pattern on an index card or sentence strip. This visual serves as a reminder during reading and writing.
  • Guided reading groups: In many guided reading lessons, the word study component is in the final 3-5 minutes of the lesson. Unfortunately, this is the first thing that gets cut for time. If this happens daily, it’s about 25 minutes of lost leveled phonics instruction. Instructional leveled books, sorting activities, and sound boxes led by the teacher can guide young readers on their literacy path.
VIDEO: C-V-C: Phonemic Awareness

VIDEO: C-V-C: Phonemic Awareness

  • Independent reading time: Incorporate word hunts during independent reading time based on previously taught phonics patterns, word families, or word structures, including prefixes or suffixes. Encourage students to keep a word bank of new words to match features like a prefix to increase vocabulary.
  • Whole group instruction: Teaching grade level phonics in a whole group lesson using poetry or short text provides students with word knowledge they can use in small group reading, independent reading, and in writing. We want to teach word work through reading and writing rather than isolation so students see words as a major link in literacy.

In thinking about these key components, teachers should ask themselves how many experiences a day they provide teaching and working with words. This includes phonemic instruction (rhyme, letter sound patterns, etc.) in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade followed by phonics instruction at all ages and grade levels. Every child deserves a quality literacy education that will help them become life-long readers and learners. It’s also the most complex subject to teach with often the least amount of support for teachers. Helping teachers become confident and competent in teaching reading is my favorite role. When this happens, we’re able to help our students become successful independent readers.

Special Invitation: Winter Literacy Webinar

If you’re ready to further explore the connection between reading and writing instruction, I invite you to join our Winter Literacy Webinar. Click on this link to register and choose if you’re able to attend live or receive the recorded version to enjoy at your convenience.


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