Many people remember that they were taught phonics in elementary school, but most do not know the details as to what quality phonic decoding instruction is or why it is important.

Phonics (also known as orthographic mapping) is an instructional method that teaches the relationships between sounds and letters. For example, a kindergartner receiving orthographic mapping instruction will learn that when they see the symbol “a” it represents the /a/ sound. A third grader receiving phonics instruction might learn that the “g” makes the /j/ sound when followed by an “i” or an “e.”

Once students recognize and master how sounds correspond to letters and letter patterns, they begin to read fluently. Those with a limited understanding of print to speech often struggle with reading. However, once students receive explicit systematic instruction, “breaking the code” of written English becomes a fun and engaging experience rather than a frustrating and intimidating one.

Decoding instruction is not just for the early elementary years. Students young and old, English Language Learners (ELL), emerging readers, proficient readers, struggling readers, and students with learning disorders such as dyslexia, all benefit from systematic phonics instruction.

Phonics is crucial for many students, but its benefits are not limited to improving reading skills. A solid phonics foundation aids in students’ learning to become more efficient. It helps students develop better spelling, handwriting, listening, and pronunciation skills by teaching the connections between the spoken and written forms of English.

The Best Way to Phonics

Implicit or Explicit?

All forms of phonics instruction are not equal. Some programs use an implicit method, which requires students to learn each new word as a whole and compare beginning sounds, ending sounds, vowel sounds, and word families. Readers heavily rely on context clues to determine unknown words, leading many to guess words in proximity in place of actual decoding.

Research shows explicit phonics instruction is the most effective for teaching students to read. Each lesson is designed sequentially, allowing skills to build on one another. Students start with learning letters (graphemes) and their associated sounds (phonemes), then they learn blends, and finally, they learn how to build the sounds into a complete word. Explicit instruction provides students with a manageable set of strategies that can be applied again and again to decipher and read new words.

Teach Sound/Letter Correspondence Using Multisensory Dictation

Starting with the simplest concept—a single letter for a single sound—and progressing to the more complex such as writing multisyllabic words, students learn the written expressions of English sounds through a multi-sensory process called dictation.

Dictation is a process in which the instructor prescribes sounds, words, or sentences and the students record, spell, read, and “prove.” By proving a word, students mark the word with specific symbols that demonstrate pronunciation and syllabication. Dictation gives the students a chance to dive deep into their understanding of decoding patterns and use academic language through accountable talk to explain their thinking.

For struggling readers and spellers, dictation provides access to successful habits because it highlights patterns in words that guide students to understand the functions of print to speech.

Dictation actively engages all the language skills—listening, speaking, writing, and reading—simultaneously, helping students to make the necessary connections between what they hear, say, write, and read. Dictation also incorporates the different learning styles (auditory, visual, tactile, and kinesthetic), making it a particularly effective way to reach all students.

Combine Letters to Create Written Slides and Written Words

After working with individual letters in both uppercase and lowercase forms, students start combining letters to build slides (blends) and single-syllable words (for more information on slides, see Phonemic Awareness).

The slide is vital for students to practice the phonemic awareness skill of blending sounds. Without the practice of sliding a consonant sound into a vowel sound, many students struggle to blend sounds together when sounding out unknown words. Once students have mastered slides within a contained letter group, they learn to add an ending sound to the slide, thus creating a (consonant vowel consonant) word.

Learners quickly need to learn to identify the vowels in a written word as each syllable contains one working vowel. These foundational skills quickly build off each other to help students create more complex, multisyllabic words.

Good readers use multiple pathways within the brain. Readers rely on several skills such as phonics, syntax, and background knowledge to decode words and comprehend text. Implementing phonics strategies helps all learners gain the skills they need to to become lifelong readers.

To find more resources for teaching reading, visit the Reading Horizons Reading Strategies Homepage. There, you’ll find an entire section devoted to answering the question “What is decoding?” as well as a compiled list of reading strategies. If you're interested in teaching phonics to young children, then you can check out our free early reading skills resource. We also have resources on including phonics instruction in high school classrooms.

Download our free Phonics Resource Kit