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By Tam from Miss Learning Bee
Phonics is hands down one of my favourite subjects to teach. There is something so magical about witnessing the ‘ah ha’ moments that kids have as they unlock the mystery of the English language.
Explicit systematic synthetic phonics has consistently been found by research to be the most effective approach by far in teaching kids how to read and write- you can’t get much more important than that! Following the Rose Review in the United Kingdom, synthetic phonics became a mandatory part of the curriculum. They concluded: ’the evidence is clear that the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics is the most effective way of teaching young children to read, particularly for those at risk of having problems with reading’. The Australian National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy also found that systematic phonics instruction (rather than unsystematic or whole language phonics instruction) led to the greatest improvements in reading, writing, spelling and comprehension.
In the older years, poor decoding (reading) and encoding (spelling) skills significantly impacts on reading comprehension, writing and vocabulary. Whilst strong reading strategies include far more than just phonics skills (vocabulary skills, the ability to infer and make connections to name just a few), if students are not able to decode single words efficiently and effectively, this will significantly impact their fluency and comprehension of a text. In writing, even if they have amazing and creative ideas, poor spellers will avoid harder words and stick to the high frequency words that they know how to spell, which leads to significant underachievement in writing.
My point is this: spelling/phonics is far more than just a subject. It is one of the most powerful tools that we can give our students to equip them in unlocking so many other areas of their learning!
So how do you ensure that your spelling program is effective and using evidence-based best practices?
Here are some crucial aspects to ensure you are implementing an effective phonics approach:
It is a SYNTHETIC PHONICS APPROACH
Synthetic Phonics involves breaking up words into individual sounds and then ‘synthesising’ or blending them together to read words. It teaches decoding skills (reading) and encoding skills (spelling). Decoding is the process of seeing a written symbol (grapheme) and being able to say what sound (phoneme) that represents. E.g. in the word ‘sat’, children use synthetic phonics knowledge to identify each individual phoneme and then blend them together to read the word: s-a-t. The encoding process requires children to hear a whole word and then be able to write that word with correct graphemes for each sound by segmenting the word into each sound.
A key component of synthetic phonics programs is that students are taught to blend from the very beginning (as opposed to just focusing on beginning sounds). Synthetic phonics teaches students to hear phonemes throughout the word- beginning, middle, end. For example, when teaching the /t/ phoneme, it’s important not just focus on words such as ‘pot’ or ‘pen’ but also words like ‘map’ or ‘rip’.
Learning to blend letter-sound correspondences together allows students to read any number of unknown words. This is a far more effective strategy than learning words by sight, as most students will never be able to memorise all of the words that they will encounter. The only ‘sight words’ that I teach my students are high frequency irregular spelling words (e.g. the, what) because my students haven’t yet been exposed to the advanced phonological skills required to decode or encode those words.
But for the most part, I really can’t stress enough the importance of teaching phonological strategies so that we can equip our students to decode or encode an infinite number of words
It is EXPLICIT
A thorough knowledge of phonemes (sounds) is the most important part of spelling, and this needs to be taught explicitly and repetitively. We cannot expect children to just pick up this knowledge indirectly- they need to be explicitly and directly taught the specific connections between the different letter combinations and the sounds that they make. Students need explicit instruction of all the phonemes in the English language, and all the ways of writing them down, so that they have the tools to make specific connections between different letter combinations and the sounds that they make.
I highly recommend getting a wireless presenter tool to assist you in your explicit phonics lessons. It is one of my most used classroom resources!
One of my favourite quotes about the power of phonics is from Dr Seuss. When writing “The Cat In The Hat”, his publisher limited him to using 236 specific words from the Dolch sight word list. Here’s what he thought about focusing solely on learning words by sight: “They threw out phonics and went to word recognition, as if you’re reading Chinese pictographs instead of blending sounds of different letters. I think killing phonics was one of the greatest causes of illiteracy in the country”.
There are over half a million base words in the English language. Students cannot POSSIBLY be expected to learn all of these words off by heart!! We need to give our students the problem-solving skills required to read and spell those words. In short- we need to explicitly teach spelling knowledge, not spelling lists.
It is taught SYSTEMATICALLY
The English language can seem confusing and complicated, which is why letter sound correspondences need to be taught systematically, starting with simple letter sound combinations and moving onto more complex patterns. There are 44 phonemes that make up the English language. Sometimes these are represented by a single letter (e.g. s, m, c) or sometimes two, three or four letters are put together to make a sound (e.g. sh, igh, ng). All 44 phonemes need to be taught explicitly and systematically- a scope and sequence across K-6 is crucial to ensure this happens. It is not enough for students to be exposed to a concept once, they need to continue to build on and practise that concept throughout the year, as well as review it year after year and build on that knowledge.
To begin with, children are taught one way of writing down each of the phonemes, and are then gradually introduced to more spelling alternatives for each of the phonemes.
In the first year of school, phonemes should be taught in clusters. Within the first few weeks of synthetic phonics, children should be able to read words made up of the letter/sound relationships they have learnt. Students are immediately learning to blend and manipulate sounds.
For example, if the first set of phonemes in a phonics program are s, a, t, p, i, n then these should be taught together. Once children have learnt to recognise these phonemes, they will be able to read and later spell simple words using these phonemes e.g. at, sat, pit, tap.
In Years 1-6, a student’s phonological knowledge should be progressively built on, introducing students to more complex phonemes, and rarer spellings. For example:
There are lots of opportunities for PRACTICE
In addition to spelling knowledge being taught systematically and explicitly, students must be given regular opportunities to interact with phonemes and their different grapheme representations (e.g. all the different ways of spelling /ay/) and to practise their blending/segmenting skills. Teaching concepts once or even twice is not enough- students need hundreds or even thousands of opportunities to work with phonemes/graphemes before we can be sure they’ve really stuck!!
Maximum exposure to different grapheme representations of a sound will help students to learn to recognise when a word does or doesn’t look right.
All my phonics activities involve lots of repetition so that students are interacting with sounds and their different spelling alternatives over and over and over again.
For more information and ideas about teaching phonics, make sure you download Miss Learning Bee’s FREE #frothinonphonics handbook. You can find it at her TPT store:
You can also find Miss Learning Bee on Instagram (@misslearningbee) and on her website (www.misslearningbee.com).