Evidence-Based Practices: Systematic Phonics Instruction; Pair Phonics with Meaning-Based Strategies

Systematic Phonics Instruction Pair Phonics with Meaning-based Strategies

What is phonics?

Phonics is the link between individual speech sounds (phonemes) and graphemes (the letter(s) that represent those phonemes) and their application in decoding (reading) and encoding (spelling) words.  Phonics is sometimes referred to as the “code” of the English language and often targets common patterns, word parts, and expectancies. Research outlines the importance of teaching phonics in a systematic and explicit fashion. Phonics is the focus of the 3rd Reading Rockets module as part of Eagle Academy’s professional development program around literacy skills. Reading Rockets defines systematic and explicit phonics instruction in the following terms:

Systematic: the letter-sound relationship is taught in an organized and logical sequence, with many opportunities for cumulative practice. Regular progress monitoring helps ensure that word recognition is taught to mastery.

Explicit: the instruction provides teachers with precise directions for teaching letter-sound relationships.

There is also sufficient evidence suggesting that phonics strategies are more successful when students are provided opportunities to apply what they learn about letters, sounds, patterns, and words to reading and writing.  For this reason, it is recommended that phonics be paired with “meaning-based strategies” where students are taught to decode (sound out and read) words, analyze word parts (graphemes, phonemes, morphemes, roots/affixes, inflectional endings), and write words.

What does research say about phonics?

Instruction in speech-sound awareness reduces and alleviates reading and spelling difficulties (Adams, Foorman, Lundberg, & Beeler, 1998; Gillon, 2004; NICHD, 2000; Rath, 2001). Teaching speech sounds explicitly and directly also accelerates learning of the alphabetic code. Therefore, classroom instruction for beginning readers should include phoneme awareness activities

For early readers (1st grade and below), decoding accounts for 80% of passage comprehension.  Decoding accounts for nearly 70% of passage comprehension for 2nd graders and 60% of passage comprehension for 3rd graders (LETRS, Module 1, 2009).

The What Works Clearinghouse report, “Foundational Skills to Support Reading for Understanding in Kindergarten through Third Grade”, indicates “strong evidence” for teaching phonics (pgs. 28-37, portions of report excerpted below):

(https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/Docs/PracticeGuide/wwc_foundationalreading_040717.pdf#page=20 )

Teaching students to decode and recognize words and word parts was one of the effective instructional techniques identified by the National Reading Panel (NRP).

How should phonics be taught?

The progression of skills from most basic to most difficult is as follows:

  1. Individual letter-sound correspondence
  2. Consonant digraphs
  3. Vowel teams
  4. Blends
  5. Trigraph patterns
  6. Word families
  7. Inflectional endings
  8. Common prefixes and suffixes
  9. Morphemes
  10. Syllable Types


Each skill is outlined below, with sample activities to target each skill. A more comprehensive list of sample activities is available via the “phonics” tab on the literacy portal.

  1. Individual Letter-Sound Correspondence


Students must learn letter-sound correspondences for all consonants and vowels. Students should be able to identify the sound when given a letter as well as identify the letter when given a sound. Best practices include:

●       Modeling the mouth position used to articulate a sound, and using the mouth position as a trigger to remind students of the sound when they forget

●       Using multi-sensory instruction

●       Using other triggers such as sample words containing the sound

●       Practicing visual recognition of the letter/sound as well as having students spell the sound when presented orally

●       Practicing sounds in isolation as well as in context (sound sorts, identifying sound in books, sound spelling test)

Sample Activity:


Air Writing:  Demonstrate how you can trace letters/sounds in sand, shaving cream, in marker on a dry erase board, etc.  Then tell students they will learn how to see and trace a word in the air, visualizing it in front of them, by doing something called air writing.  Model this for students by turning your back to them so they can follow your finger movements and see the letter you trace. After you model, students should practice. Teacher says: “This is the letter ‘o’.  ‘O’ makes the ‘o’ sound.  Watch me as I say the letter name and then trace it in the air while I say the sound. ‘O’ says ‘o’ (tracing shape of ‘o’). Now you will all try.  What will you say as you start to write/trace?”




  1. Consonant Digraphs


Once students master letter-sound correspondences, it is important for them to learn that sometimes two letters that occur together make one sound.  These are called digraphs. Consonant digraphs include: ch, sh, th/th, wh, ck, ph, ng.  Use the same strategies outlined under individual letter-sound correspondence to make digraphs stick for students.

Sample Activity:


Voiced and Unvoiced Sound Sort:  Your mouth position is the same when articulating certain sounds (p/b), but one sound is “voiced” (/b/) and one is unvoiced (/p/).  Unvoiced is a term for quiet sounds (the vocal cords are not engaged) and voiced is a term for noisy sounds (vocal cords engaged).  The “th” digraph has an unvoiced sound (as in “thin” and “thick”) and a voiced sound (as in “this” and “the”). Use mouth positioning to model the two different sounds. Then, group students in pairs and give students two notecards, one with /th/ at top  (quiet/unvoiced) and another one with /th/ voiced. Underline the second th to identify it as the noisy/voiced one. Students are given a set of words that contain either a voiced or unvoiced /th/ word.  Students work together to read the word and identify which column to sort the word under.  To finish the activity, each student reads all the words aloud.

  1. Vowel Teams


Vowel teams are mostly digraphs, though some can be diphthongs (sounds that are pronounced by moving your mouth from one position to another). Use the same strategies outlined under individual letter-sound correspondence to make vowel teams stick for students.   Below is a possible scope/sequence for introduction of sound patterns:

●       ie (tie), oe (doe), ee (see), a-e (bake), i-e (bike), o-e (joke), e-e (Pete)

●       oo (food, mood, soon… good, book, took)

●       oi/oy (oink, boy), ou/ow (couch, now), au/aw (laud, thaw)

●       ai (rain), ay (say), oa (oats), ow (slow, throw), ue (true), ew (new), ui (suit), ou (group)


Sample Activity:


Phoneme-Grapheme Mapping:  Give students a phoneme-graphing mat like the one below.  Turn over vowel team words and have the students map the words on their phoneme-grapheme mat. When mapping, there should be one phoneme per square, which means vowel teams go together in one square).  Ex: “Sheet” would be mapped Sh—ee—t (three phonemes even though there are five graphemes in the word).

  1. Blends


As students enhance their decoding skills, they need to progress from sounding out 2-3 sound words (it, on, cat, Sam) containing no blends to 4-5 sound words with beginning or ending blends (glad, sweet, risk, task, blend, drench).  For this reason, modeling how sounds must be blended together quickly when sounding out 4-5 sound words is beneficial.  Some suggested beginning and ending blends are below:

●       Beginning Blends

○        sc, sk, sl, sm, sn, sp, st, sw, str, scr

○        br, bl, dr, fr, fl, gr, gl, pr, pl, tr

●       Ending Blends

○        sk, st, nk, nd, nt, ks, ct, ft

Sample Activity:


Cooperative Nonsense and Real Word Decoding: Give students a list of words containing blends.  Pair weaker and stronger readers together.  Encourage them to go through the list together.  One student identifies the blend (weaker reader) and the other student decodes the word (stronger reader).  When the list is completed, students switch roles.  The teacher circulates through the room and supports as needed.


  1. Trigraphs


There are a few combinations in English where three letters combine to make one sound. Those are called trigraphs. Students will benefit from learning these patterns and how to read/spell them.

●       tch (pitch, itch)

●       igh (sigh, thigh, high)

●       dge (edge, fudge)


Sample Activity:


Swat: Provide students with two trigraphs (“igh” and “tch”).  Review what each one says, air writing the letters and saying the sound (“ ‘igh’ says ‘ie’, ‘tch’ says ‘ch’.”).  The teacher then has the students place a “tch” and “igh” notecard on their desk. The teacher distributes fly swatters to each student.  The teacher says a sound, and the students must swat the correct notecard containing the trigraph.  Once they master both trigraph sounds, give them words containing the trigraphs (verbally or in written form on a flashcard).  Students must swat the trigraph that the word contains.

  1. Word Families


Word families are groups of related words that have the same root word or the same set of graphemes (letters) making the same sounds.

Same root word

●       help, helper, helping, helped, helpful, helpless

●       fast, faster, fastest

Same graphemes making same sounds (rimes)

●       Bat, cat, sat, mat, fat, hat

●       Can, man, pan, tan, fan, van

●       Think, stink, pink, rink, sink

●       High, sigh, thigh

●       bear, pear, wear

●       hear, dear, clear, near

Sample Activity:


Word Family Go Fish: Make up decks of cards containing common word families.  Students pair up with a partner to play Word Family Go Fish.  The game works just like actual Go Fish.  Students ask each other questions: “Do you have a word from the “at” family?”  “No, go fish.”


  1. Inflectional Endings


Inflectional endings are a group of letters added to change a word’s meaning, such as:

●       -s or –es

●       -ing

●       -ed

●       -er


Best Practices include:

●       Discussing how inflectional endings work (i.e., their purpose, -s or –es make words plural)

●       Providing either the spelling of the root word or the inflectional ending at first until students start to recognize common inflectional endings

●       Discussing rules/changes when adding inflectional endings (changing “hope” to “hoping”, “bud” to “budding”, “match” to “matches”)

●       Discussing how some inflectional endings affect pronunciation (Ex: The “ed” ending can be pronounced different ways.  It can sound like /t/ in a word like “helped,” like /d/ in a word like “buzzed,” and /id/ in a word like “printed”).

Sample Activity:


Sparkle Spelling Game: Teacher arranges chairs in a circle in the classroom.  The teacher starts the Sparkle game by picking a root word (such as “hope”).  The teacher then tells students to add an inflectional ending to the root word (“ed” for example).  The student to the left of the teacher spells the first letter in the word (h) and the next student spells the next letter (e).  That process continues until someone spells the last letter. The student after the person who spells the last letter stands up and says: SPARKLE.  That student is temporarily out of the circle for a round.  If a student misses a letter in the word, then they are temporarily out a round.  A round consists of spelling one word.

  1. Common Prefixes, Roots, and Suffixes


Many prefixes, roots and suffixes are derived from other languages.  This fact is significant for two reasons.  First, many of the prefixes/suffixes/roots are challenging to sound out, as they don’t play by English phonetic rules.  Thus, students need to be exposed to these and learn how they sound when encountered in words.  Additionally, many prefixes/roots/suffixes have a meaning associated with them that can often help students figure out the meaning of the overall word if they know the meaning of the prefix/root/suffix.  Use techniques to reinforce prefixes/roots/suffixes with students (word sorts, reading/spelling in isolation, locating prefix/suffix/root in a text) to reinforce.  Some common prefixes/suffixes/roots to start with are below: in, un, ex, pro, pre, re, con, dis, trans, sub, per, less, ness, tion, ly, ment, tive, sive.  If students master those you can move onto more complicated endings (bene, mal, tia, tian, cia, cian, tiate, tience, ciate, gion, gious, etc.).

Sample Activity:


Prefix/Root/Suffix Sort: Make up decks of cards containing common prefixes, roots and/or suffixes.  Pick two specific prefixes, roots, or suffixes (Ex: pre and pro).  Have students sort the words under a heading for each prefix/root/suffix.  Students can be given words that contain one or other of the prefixes/roots/suffixes or words that don’t contain either.  After the words are sorted, students work in teams to segment and sound out each word based on what they know the prefix/root/suffix says.


  1. Morphemes


Morphemes are the meaningful units of a word.  For example, the word “unreachable” has three morphemes (“un,” “reach,” “able”) and each one plays a role in the meaning of the overall word. Students benefit from breaking words down into morphemes, as well as learning the meaning of certain morphemes.

Sample Activity:


What’s My Meaning: Students are grouped into pairs and given words that contain a number of morphemes (you can call them “word parts” to simplify).  Students must count the word parts and then see if they know the meaning of any of the parts. Students work as a team to determine the overall meaning of the words. The teacher will have a bank of common morphemes and corresponding meanings for students to reference. Word meaning is reviewed once the students have made their predictions about the word meaning.   

  1. Syllable Types


Knowledge of the 6 different types of syllables will better enable students to decode and encode words, especially multisyllabic words. Each syllable type is explained in the table below.

Sample Activity:


Chunk Lines: This is a multi-syllable spelling activity.  Students are given paper and asked to spell multisyllabic words.  Before spelling the word, the students are instructed to pound, clap, or count out the syllables and draw “chunk lines” for each syllable of the word.  The student fills in any common prefixes/suffixes they hear first, and then attempts to spell the rest of the word.  The class discusses the different syllable types seen in the word chunks, and how this affects pronunciation and spelling.


Important terms to know:
Word Definition
Grapheme Letter(s) that correspond to speech sounds
Phonemes Individual speech sounds
Morpheme The meaningful unit or part of a word.  The word “unlawful” has three morphemes that each determine the meaning of the overall word: “un”, “law,” and “ful”.
Roots Part of a word that often comes from another language and often carries meaning (Ex: “bene” is a Latin root meaning “good” as in “benefit” or “beneficial”).
Affixes A word part that can be attached to a root/base to create a new word (Ex: “non” in the word “nonfat” is an affix).
Prefix An affix (word part) added to the front of a word (Ex: “un” as in “unlawful”)
Suffix An affix (word part) added to the end of a word (Ex: “tion” as in “description”)
Inflectional Ending Suffix that changes the grammatical properties or meaning of a word (Ex: “es” or “s” makes words plural as in “cats” or “beaches”)
Word Family Groups of related words.  These related words can have the same root word (Ex: “help” as in “helper,” “helping,” “helpful,” “helped”) or the same set of graphemes (letters) making the same sounds (“at” as in “cat,” “bat,” “fat,” “sat,” “hat”).
Digraph Two letters together making one sound (“sh” makes one sound as in “shop,” “ai” makes one sound as in “rain”)
Trigraph Three letters together making one sound (“igh” making the long “ie” sound as in “high,” “sigh”; “tch” making the “ch” sound as in “hitch” or “pitch”)
Diphthong When two vowels combine to make one sound.  A diphthong is different from a digraph because for diphthongs your mouth slides from one position to another (Ex: “ou,” as in “out”, your mouth slides from open to slightly more of a tightly closed circle
Syllable Types Knowledge of the 6 syllable types will better enable students to decode and encode words, especially multisyllabic words.  The 6 syllables are as follows:
Syllable Type Definition Examples
closed Contains a short vowel sound and ends in a consonant back, cat, mess, stuff, mat, top
vowel consonant e (VCe) Contains long vowel sound spelled with a single letter, followed by a single consonant and a silent e; also known as “magic e” pattern wake, rude, hare, make
open Ends in a long vowel sound spelled with one vowel letter go, ri-val, bi-ble,
vowel team Can be two, three or four letters that represent a long, short or dipthong vowel sound thief, boil, hay, boat, straw
r-controlled R consonant changes the sound of the vowel (ex: er, ir, ur, ar, or); also called “bossy r” far, her, bird, surf, car
-le Found only at the end of words; contains a consonant followed by -le whistle, cycle, title, bubble