Approaches to phonics instruction

Phonics is generally accepted in Australia as an important component of early reading instruction, however, there is considerable variation in the level of understanding of the different types of phonics instruction and what quality phonics instruction looks like.

Phonics instruction comes in many different forms, and not all phonics instruction is equally effective. Many teachers are teaching phonics to some extent, but are often unaware of the type of phonics instruction they are using, or they might be attempting to teach phonics without knowledge of the underlying skills of phonological and phonemic awareness that make phonics instruction more effective. So what are the different approaches to phonics?

Systematic phonics

This can be any phonics approach or program that plans and sequentially presents phonics elements and teaches them explicitly and systematically. Implicit, incidental or embedded phonics does not meet the criteria for systematic phonics.

Linguistic phonics

Instruction begins with the sounds of spoken language. Students are taught to notice spoken words, syllables, rhymes and eventually individual phonemes, which are then mapped to a grapheme (the letter or groups of letters that represent our speech sounds)

Systematic and explicit reading and spelling instruction can combine linguistic and synthetic phonics approaches.

Synthetic phonics

Instruction is systematic and sequential, building up from the simplest and most common GPCs to more complex and less common GPCs. Synthetic doesn’t mean unnatural or fake, synthetic refers to synthesising or combining separate elements (GPCs) to form a coherent whole (words). The sequence in synthetic phonics is carefully planned to minimise confusion and to achieve decoding quickly. Students learn to link graphemes to phonemes and vice versa, and blend (synthesise) these sounds together to read words. They learn to segment words into the separate speech sounds and link these to the appropriate GPCs for spelling. Blending and segmenting are introduced early.

Analytic & onset/rime phonics

This approach is more systematic than incidental phonics and teaching begins with whole words. GPCs are taught by breaking words down into component parts and drawing comparisons between similar words. In analogy/onset-rime phonics, attention is drawn to rime families, such as the –it family: pit, fit, bit, lit, mit. Students are encouraged to read unknown words by analogy, so knowing ‘–ing’ allows the reader to read ring, sing, thing, bring.  This can be difficult for some children because the analytic method assumes that students already have the sophisticated phonemic awareness knowledge needed to allow successful comparison of the words.

In analytic approaches students are often taught consonant blends/clusters as single units (e.g., fl, str) which are then combined with the rimes (e.g., fl + ing, str + ing). Teaching consonant blends as clusters is problematic for several reasons.

Analytic phonic approaches typically take words from the reading children are doing and analyse the grapheme-phoneme correspondences in that text. The order in which GPCs are encountered will differ from classroom to classroom and from school to school, therefore it is not systematic, and knowledge of GPCs is therefore not guaranteed for all students. Teachers cannot be sure that they have covered an appropriate range of GPCs and this may lead to gaps in children’s development. There are many more onsets and rimes than there are GPCs so this approach can take a long time.

This approach does not use a developmental sequence in which GPCs are best learned. More on GPC teaching sequences can be found in the Teaching phoneme grapheme correspondences page.

Implicit or incidental phonics, also known as embedded phonics

Children are taught grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs) through reading connected text.  Children will encounter different letter sound relationships as they read, so this type of phonics teaching is not systematic or explicit. There is no clear system to ensure all GPCs are covered which potentially leaves many unexplained. Implicit or incidental phonics approaches are usually coupled with multi-cueing or three cueing strategies. Student reading is supported by teachers using semantic (meaning) cues, followed by grammatical/ syntactic cues, and finally, as a last resort, a phonic prompt. This approach is fundamental to Balanced Literacy instruction which is a pedagogy descended from Whole Language teaching, it is also forms the basis of Reading Recovery, L3 (in NSW) and Leveled Literacy Intervention. Multi-cueing is not supporting by scientific reading research. Read more about it here.

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