The University of Iowa

The Importance of Phonics Instruction for All Students

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The word “train” with the letter combination ai is one of six ways in English to make the sound /ā/. English words can be difficult to decode, emphasizing the importance of phonics instruction.


Posted on: September 6, 2016

The goal of reading is to make meaning from print, but a reader first has to know what the printed symbols represent before meaning can be assigned to them. In English, the printed symbols are letters, and those letters represent the sounds of our spoken language. In some languages, such as Spanish, the letters make only one sound. When there is only one sound possible for each symbol, the process of decoding—or turning the written code into recognizable words—is straightforward. However, many English letters can make multiple sounds, and some sounds can be represented by multiple letters or letter combinations (see the figure below). For these reason, decoding English words is challenging.   

Chart showing how many English letters can make multiple sounds, and some sounds can be represented by multiple letters or letter combinations

Five Common Misunderstandings about Phonics Instruction

1. Only students with dyslexia or other reading difficulties need systematic phonics instruction

Students who do not make adequate progress in reading will need additional phonics instruction or targeted intervention that continues into upper grade levels where it is not commonly a part of the core reading instruction. However, beginning readers in kindergarten through third grade all benefit from learning phonics skills.

2. If we give children many opportunities to read and be read to, they will figure this out on their own

Exposure to lots of words in print is important, but English decoding skills are not intuitive. The sound-symbol correspondences must be directly taught.

3. It is more efficient to keep the words whole and have students learn to recognize them by sight

Memorizing whole words supports reading those words that are not decodable, such as “have” or “of.” Many of these words also are high frequency words, or words that appear often in print; therefore, quickly recognizing them by sight is a part of becoming a fluent reader. However, memorizing whole words is less efficient as the words become longer and less familiar. Furthermore, memorizing does not equip students to figure out newly encountered words. Decoding skills are a means to reading independence because they teach students how to problem solve unfamiliar and difficult words.

4. Decoding skills can be taught in mini lessons when a student happens to make a mistake while reading

Students who are in the beginning stages of learning to read printed words and those who are experiencing reading difficulties are likely to make mistakes on many words, except the ones they have memorized by sight. This presents a lot of options for mini lessons but does not guarantee they will occur serendipitously in the proper order, from easier to more difficult. To support students in making progress, it is better to teach decoding skills in a purposeful manner that is aligned to the developmental sequence (see the figure below). While teaching a particular skill along this continuum, it can be reinforced with mini lessons.  


Table of phonics skills

5. There are too many exceptions to make teaching phonics skills worthwhile

Only about 50% of English words are fully decodable, but an additional 37% of words are mostly decodable with the exception of one sound. That means only 13% of English words need to be memorized. Learning rules that govern the patterns of letters in our language increases the predictability of the words. In addition, many words that are not fully decodable can be solved by their morphemes or their prefixes, roots, and suffixes. Decoding alone does not equate to reading or understanding the messages of print, but a lack of decoding will prevent students from experiencing reading success. By directly teaching phonics skills, it becomes possible for students to figure out the printed words they need to make meaning.