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School Yourself: Phonics Edition

Here comes a handy blog written for educators seeking to learn more about phonics. Just in time for summer professional learning season!

First… why all the hoopla about phonics?

In the last year, we’ve seen a growing national conversation about an unfortunate reality: many teacher preparation programs didn’t arm teachers with enough information on how kids learn to read.

This helped to foster considerable buzz, from media to school districts to parent communities. I captured it in an executive summary of this ‘literacy tsunami’.

The result: today, many educators are on a professional learning journey around the science of reading.

I’m down for that, y’all! And happy to help where I can.

Phonics Research: A Self-Study Syllabus

Here’s my list of progressively-deepening reads for anyone trying to understand phonics Instructional Musts, particularly in early grades.


A recent Science News article does an excellent job of introducing the context around the phonics vs whole language approaches, and summarizing the evidence in favor of phonics – both the well-known National Reading Panel and studies and evidence in favor of phonics that emerged in the subsequent 20 years.

Then, this EdWeek overview of the research on phonics is extensive and excellent.

Timothy Shanahan does a great job of explaining what quality phonics instruction is – and is not – in his recent blog, What is the science of reading?

In Phonics: 13 things every teacher should know, Clare Sealy shares tangible insights on phonics instruction.

Misunderstandings abound, and this recent article in AFT magazine, Phonics Faux Pas, by respected research scientists Nell Duke and Heidi Mesmer, focuses on common mistakes and how to avoid them.

David Liben and David Paige authored a truly informative, practical paper, Why a Structured Phonics Program is Effective, which tops my must-read list. It’s a bit longer, but this research-rich overview defines structured phonics, contrasts it with other approaches, unpacks pitfalls to getting it right, and cites curricula that nail it.

For a sage educator voice, teacher Kyle Redford penned a stellar EdWeek editorial that confronts misconceptions head-on: Explicit Phonics Instruction: It’s Not Just for Students With Dyslexia.

And for a quick glimpse of a strong phonics work in a classroom, check out this video of a first grade lesson from EL Education.

Common word recognition strategies like ‘Skippy the Frog’ get in the way of phonics learning, as unpacked in this blog on what not to do.

Deeper Learning:

How much time should we spend on comprehension and phonics? is an excellent blog by Timothy Shanahan, delving into the balance we need to find between different literacy foci. He’s also on point in How would you schedule the reading instruction?

Louisa Moats penned the classic Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science, and it’s an oldie but a goodie, touching on phonics and other reading instruction essentials.

Moats dispels confusion in How Spelling Supports Reading: And Why It Is More Regular and Predictable Than You May Think. For anyone skeptical of phonics due to the belief that English is such a wacky language that sound-symbol correspondences can’t be taught systematically, Moats shows otherwise.

There are two different types of systematic phonics: analytic and synthetic. In Synthetic Phonics or Analytic Phonics: What does the research really say?, Timothy Shanahan discusses the evidence base for both. “The take away: Make sure young children receive daily, explicit, systematic decoding instruction. But don’t be fanatical about synthetic or analytic approaches.”

Teaching Phonics to English Learners is another Timothy Shanahan gem.

We shouldn’t just talk about phonics instruction, we should also talk about the ways the rest of the curriculum supports the phonics learning (ex. using decodable readers to help students practice the sounds they have learned). And we need to name the approaches, like the use of ‘meaning, syntax, and visual’ cues, that impede phonics learning; here’s a collection of reads on that important nuance.

Master Class:

To go to 201 level:

Achieve the Core offers a seven-module learning series on foundational skills, with an emphasis on phonological awareness and phonics, which includes webinars, powerpoints, and handouts. Excellent for professional learning!

Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition from Novice to Expert is a free, widely-praised journal article that is incredibly informative, albeit dense.

Mark Seidenberg wrote the book on this stuff – Language at the Speed of Sight – and it earns raves. Pro Tip: time-starved educators can read chapter 1 then skip to chapters 4-9 (the ‘How We Read’ section) and still absorb the key info; if you’re tight on reading time, take a pass on chapters 2-3, which go into the historical weeds… interesting, but not critical to get instruction right.

Meredith and David Liben just penned a book on foundational skills, Know Better Do Better, that’s getting heaps of praise from a who’s who of literacy leaders. It tops my summer reading list because the Libens are my literacy oracles; they taught me much of what I know. Also, they’re former successful school leaders who later became research luminaries, so their work always has a refreshingly practical and accessible bent.

The Free Instructional Materials We Need

Did you know that two curricula with excellent phonics components are FREE, openly-licensed resources… so you can use the full curricula – or just the foundational skills components – gratis?

More folks need to know this!! I discussed the OER landscape with Jennifer Gonzalez for her Cult of Pedagogy podcast and blog; check it out for the bigger picture on OER.

These free OER curricula are highly-rated on phonics: EL Education Language Arts and Core Knowledge Language Arts. Explore them as exemplars – or as your new source of materials!

The Excellent Curricula We Need

Six curricula are lauded for their strong foundational skills components – and for being strong on the other key pillars of early reading instruction.

They’re also relatively new options, mostly becoming available in the last few years, in what literacy leaders call a ‘curriculum renaissance.’ Many come from providers beyond the traditional publishers, often pioneering nonprofits. Odds are, you probably haven’t looked at them.

So, I’ll try to tell you a bit about them. As a group, they’re consistently distinguished for their excellent, engaging texts; the intentional way that they get all kids working with grade level texts; a content knowledge-building approach (which is key, based on research); strong writing components; use of formative assessments; and more.

Four K–5 curricula have all-green reviews from EdReports, including strong scores for phonics:

  • ARC Core from American Reading is notable because it allows schools to customize subjects studied from an array of knowledge-building options, and for its strong ‘IRLA’ assessment tool; I’ve heard teachers rave about how this assessment supports differentiation as well as student ownership of learning, with each student working on individual ‘Power Goals.’
  • Core Knowledge Language Arts is designed to build content knowledge across a broad array of history and science topics; its foundational skills components are described as easy to use by teachers; and it’s available for free; it was developed by the nonprofit Core Knowledge foundation, and Amplify offers a slightly enhanced version with services like print materials and PD.
  • EL Education K–5 Language Arts, developed by the nonprofit school network leader EL Education, is designed around science and social studies themes; notable for its unique social-emotional learning attributes; and available for free, with services like print materials and PD available from nonprofit Open Up Resources or Learnzillion.
  • ReadyGen from Pearson. [Jan, 2020 Update: I have been hearing concerns about this program, which I am looking into… largely ’cause I can’t find anyone who’s happy with it to vouch for it. Kick the tires hard on this one.]

These curricula are also recommended by literacy leaders:

  • Wit & Wisdom – this K–2 curriculum, developed by nonprofit Great Minds, doesn’t have its own phonics component, but it was designed around the Fundations phonics program; combined, they represent a comprehensive core, and Fundations users will find Wit & Wisdom to be a natural complement; in addition, Wit & Wisdom and Wilson developed a new library of decodable readers – called Geodes – which are apparently quite well done. Schools always have the option of using phonics programs other than Fundations. Wit & Wisdom does have all-green EdReports reviews in grades 3+, but it’s unreviewed in grades K–2, because EdReports doesn’t have a means of evaluating curricula that have been designed to work alongside other third-party programs.
  • Bookworms Reading and Writing – the first version of this curriculum was excellent on phonics, but earned middling reviews by EdReports because the curriculum lacked a writing component. The nonprofit Open Up Resources recently worked with author Sharon Walpole, of the University of Delaware, on an upgrade that turned Bookworms into a full reading & writing program; it has been getting lots of attention for its strong outcomes and more. Bookworms is distinguished for its frequent formative assessment, which feeds into skill-based small group work.

There’s a lot more to say about each of the curricula above. Check out #CurriculumMatters in Twitter to find educators using each of these core programs.

Phonics Supplements

Yes, there are phonics supplements out there, some better than others. But as a literacy advocate, I recommend that folks look at the options on the core curriculum list, above.

Why? A few reasons:

Firstly, I’m with David Liben and David Paige when they name the downsides of using phonics components that are disconnected from the rest of Tier 1 ELA instruction. To wit:

‘Even if a school provides a structured phonics program for its students, there are still common errors made that cause “failure to thrive” conditions for too many children. Some schools now combine a structured phonics program (e.g., “Fundations,” “Reading Mastery,” and others) with predictable or leveled texts. While this combination is clearly better than no structured phonics at all, it has two potential pitfalls. Time spent on the predictable or leveled readers often means less time attending to spelling/sound patterns. If little or no attention is paid to spelling/sound patterns when students work with the predictable or leveled texts, then students could end up losing the spelling/sound knowledge they have acquired. It also is difficult (though not impossible) to attend to spelling/sound patterns in these texts since the texts are not aligned with the patterns students have learned. In addition, a student may need more work with a specific pattern that does not appear in the predictable text in use.

There are other critical underpinnings for student reading success that few schools address adequately. As mentioned previously, a major one is reading fluency. In order to read with comprehension, students need to read with fluency. Fluency is defined as reading accurately, at a rate appropriate to the text, and with proper expression (Rasinski, 2004). The first step in fluent reading is to accurately and effortlessly recognize the words in the text; this step is called automaticity. A proficient reader reads about four to five words per second. Students who frequently stumble or hesitate in recognizing words are prevented from reading a text fluently. A structured phonics program, by continually assessing and addressingstudents’ progress in mastering spelling/sound patterns, assures that all students going through the program can decode with automaticity, without which fluent reading is not possible.’

This is real talk. Great curricula take pains to align the phonics instruction with the rest of the reading work. Here’s a recent teacher tweet that drives the point home; her curriculum (ARC Core, one of the ones named above) lines up the foundational skills work and the reading practice artfully:


Also, we all know that there’s a lot more to reading instruction than phonics. K–2 reading instruction is described as “rocket science” for good reason, and using a comprehensive core lets schools know they are attending to all of these key elements (hat tip to Achieve the Core for the helpful graphic):

fs shifts

Lastly, if you have a phonics gap, you could have other reading instruction gaps. Most folks do… I’ve seen numerous school and district leaders conduct literacy audits using a good tool (ex. the Instructional Materials Evaluation Tool); I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone conclude by saying, “we were getting it all right, except for just one thing!”

All of that says to me: start by looking at the core programs. The whole of a strong core is consistently greater than the sum of supplement parts.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for sharing. Let’s keep the important national conversation about reading instruction going, y’all!


Reading Research Fans Might Also Enjoy…

Essential Research No One Knows: Knowledge Matters To Reading Comprehension is another blog that aggregates articles and videos to support educators in understanding an important literacy pillar.

Published inK–12 EducationLiteracy


  1. Joyce Joyce

    Other excellent science-based reading resources include videos from the group, The Reading League, and books/articles by David Kilpatrick, Stanislas Dehaene, Maryanne Wolf, Sally Shaywitz, and Virginia Berninger.

  2. Linda Rourke Linda Rourke

    I’m curious about where the phonics instruction is in American Reading?

    • karenvaites karenvaites

      You would need to be using their ARC Core curriculum, which is its own product. It’s early elementary grades incorporate a phonics component.

      • Jennifer Jennifer

        I recently sat through two lengthy sales pitches from ARC about their IRLA and Literacy Labs curriculum. They claim to have a structured phonics program, but it utilizes analytic phonics and many whole language approaches to reading, i.e. look at the picture and the first letter and then guess at the word. Their IRLA assessment is essentially a running record and places students into leveled books. When I was looking at the IRLA, it even stated in the lower levels that what the students “read” didn’t have to be correct; it just had to make sense. Their theory is that by placing students into high interest books at the student’s “level”, then the students will become better readers. They also state that their books are “decodable” readers, but they are just patterned books where each sentence begins the same and then has lots of words from a word family thrown in.

  3. Wow! This is a lot of great information. I love how you put it all together. Thank you.

  4. Norka Padilla Norka Padilla

    This is a terrific concise resource that helps us support schools. When we are proficient, our students are proficient. Thank you.

    • karenvaites karenvaites

      Thank you, Norka! I appreciate the kind words. K

  5. I am a mom who grew frustrated when I could not find systematic Decodable chapter books for my daughter with dyslexia so I started writing them for her. As I discovered how many children, both with dyslexia and typically learning, are not helped by their schools and how expensive it is to hire specialist tutors I started doing what I could to help.

    DOG ON A LOG Books are listed by The Reading League, Reading Rockets, and more. Not only are there decodable books, but there are parent and teacher guides, a series for teaching phonological and phonemic awareness, and lots and lots of free literacy and dyslexia gameboards, flashcards, activities and more. All the printables and most formats of the parent and teacher guides are free because I want to help families and teachers as best I can.

    DOG ON A LOG Books follow a structured literacy/Orton-Gillingham phonics sequence.

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