Phonics is one of the five keys to reading. It should be taught every day in early years classrooms with phonemic awareness (until this is established), fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

Phonics is best taught explicitly and systematically.  It is essential that the terms explicit and systematic are fully understood and practiced daily in classrooms. These terms are explained on the essential principles page.

In order to read words efficiently a reader must firstly identify a word by decoding it. If a word is unfamiliar or new, the reader must use knowledge of letter-sound relationships to give a plausible pronunciation of the word and activate the meaning from their vocabulary.

Contrary to any intuitions we many have about sight-word learning, a substantial amount of research shows that letter sound knowledge is central to both phonic decoding and sight word learning.
Kilpatrick 2015 Assessing, Preventing and Overcoming Reading Difficulties
Explicit instruction is “a systematic method of teaching with emphasis on preceding in small steps, checking for student understanding, and achieving active and successful participation by all students.”
Rosenshine 2012
Instruction is explicit when the teacher clearly, overtly, and thoroughly communicates with students how to do something.
Carnine et al. 2005
Systematic implies that there is attention paid to the detail of the teaching process. Instruction will usually be teacher-directed, based on a logical analysis of the skills required and their optimal sequence. At its most systematic, it will probably involve massed and spaced practice of those skills (sometimes in isolation and in text), corrective feedback of errors, and continuous evaluation of progress.
Hempenstall, 2016

Orthographic mapping: teaching phonics to the point of automaticity

Once a reader has had several exposures to a word, its unique string of letters becomes anchored to its pronunciation in long term memory so it can be easily retrieved. This is known as orthographic mapping. Orthographic mapping uses letter-sound correspondences to establish a memory for printed words. Orthographic mapping facilitates comprehension because it allows automatic retrieval of words, therefore freeing up mental resources for understanding what is being read.

Orthographic mapping is a process that develops a reader’s sight word vocabulary, making the reading of words seem effortless, as if they read the word as a whole. When a word is orthographically mapped, reading that word occurs without effortful attention to each and every grapheme-phoneme correspondence, but it does not mean that we ignore letters and their positions. The brain processes every single letter and does not look at the whole word shape. Proficient readers take in the letters so quickly that its imperceptible until we come across a new word that we are not familiar with such as ‘pachycephalosaurus’ or ‘pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis’ (a lung disease caused by inhalation of silica or quartz dust). When presented with words such as these we revert back to effortful attention to the sequence of letters again, until we ‘map’ the word for fast retrieval.

Both phonic decoding and orthographic mapping are reliant on knowledge of grapheme-phoneme correspondences, or phonics, therefore teaching letter-sound correspondences is essential and the fastest way to acquire reading comprehension. 

Essential skills

Research suggests that there is a set of skills that should be taught explicitly and systematically to ensure students learn phonics more effectively:

  1. Phonemic awareness: in particular phoneme segmentation AND phoneme blending
  2. Phonics: Systematic teaching grapheme phoneme correspondences and combining this with phonemic awareness once children start school
  3. Fluency: practice recognising and writing GPCs in words, sentences and then longer connected text.
  4. Vocabulary: expanding word usage and understanding through progressive building of words with GPC’s and systematic teaching of morphology from simple to complex
  5. Comprehension: using knowledge of print sound mapping or GPCs to enable correct pronunciation of words and morphemes when read in texts, and then practice using these in sentence and text writing.
  • Reviews previous learning/prerequisite knowledge and skills
  • Identifies objective/specific elements to be learned
  • Activates and builds background knowledge
  • Limits amount of new information to be taught
  • Models/demonstrates/“thinks aloud” effectively
  • Provides examples and, if appropriate, non-examples
  • Maximizes student engagement
  • Paces instruction appropriately
  • Checks for understanding
  • Provides corrective feedback
  • Reteaches when necessary

Adapted from “Checklist for Effective Instruction,” found in Texas Center for Reading and Language Arts. (2002). Second grade teacher reading academy. Austin, TX: Author.

Teaching systematic phonics recognises the need for the beginning reader to progressively build and practice phonic knowledge. Systematic phonics also takes into account the developmental sequence that facilitates the acquisition of letter sound knowledge (more about this can be found on our “teaching phoneme grapheme correspondences” page), and recognises the need to combine this with oral blending so that students acquire the skill of phonic decoding.

Systematic and explicit teaching of these skills ensures permanent word storage via orthographic mapping. Orthographic mapping is an essential mental process required to store words for immediate and automatic retrieval using letter sound knowledge and connecting this to our spoken vocabulary.  Understanding the systematic and developmental sequence of phonics, and its role in decoding and orthographic mapping, is essential knowledge for all teachers of reading.