The Role of Phonics in the Teaching of Reading:
A Houghton Mifflin Position Paper

by Dr. John J. Pikulski

Overview

A reputable body of research substantiates the positive effects of well-designed phonics instruction and provides guidance about the form that instruction should take. The following research conclusions guided the development of Houghton Mifflin's newly published program, Invitations to Literacy:

Based on the available research, Houghton Mifflin incorporated into Invitations to Literacy the following essential components of an effective program for development of word identification skills and reading fluency:

  1. Phonological/Phonemic Awareness -- In order to learn to read an alphabetical language like English, children must grasp what is called the alphabetic principle--that printed words are not an arbitrary sequence of letters to be memorized, but that letters represent a limited number of speech sounds that combine to form spoken words. Young children do not intuitively grasp this principle nor do they think of spoken words as having any dimension other than meaning. Phonological awareness refers to children's conscious awareness of the fact that spoken words are composed of identifiable units including syllables, rimes, and sounds (phonemes). It also refers to children's ability to manipulate (segment, blend, substitute) those sound units.

    In the Kindergarten level of Invitations to Literacy children are taught concepts of rhyme and beginning sounds, the most fundamental phonological awareness skills. They also become proficient in blending and segmenting onsets (the initial consonant or consonants, e.g., the s in sit) and rimes (the remainder of a one syllable word, e.g., the -it in sit). In addition to building phonemic awareness, instruction in onsets and rimes prepares children to read words by analogy. (For example, a child who knows initial consonants and the rime -it in sit can likely read hit.)

    In Grade 1, phonological and phonemic skills are extended and refined. As children encounter words they cannot read, they are taught to use their knowledge of letter sound associations and to blend the phonemes into meaningful, spoken words. Segmenting the sounds of the spoken words and representing them with letters are taught and practiced frequently as children grow in their spelling abilities.

  2. Familiarity with Print -- There are several dimensions of familiarity with print including:

    Letter Names/Shapes -- Knowledge of letter names is highly associated with success in beginning reading. In Invitations to Literacy children learn to recognize letters accurately and quickly. Letter names are, in most cases, good clues to letter sound associations. Being able to form letters quickly is important for writing, which reinforces and extends phonological awareness, knowledge of letter/sound associations, and familiarity with the form of written and spoken words.

    Concepts of Print -- Children become familiar with concepts of letter, word, sentence, and the relationships of printed and spoken words. They develop the understanding that there is a correspondence between the number of words printed and the number of words read, and they are taught to use this concept to track print.

    High Frequency Vocabulary -- While phonics skills can be used to identify printed words, many frequently used words (the, to, was, etc.) are not phonically regular; these words must be recognized accurately and quickly. In Invitations to Literacy children are taught these words and have frequent opportunities to practice them in reading for fluency and in their writing.

  3. Systematic, Explicit Phonics -- Phonics instruction in Invitations to Literacy is systematic in that it introduces children to more simple, stable letter/sound relationships (e.g., regular consonants) and then introduces more complex and variable elements (e.g., vowels and vowel pairs). Many common letter patterns are highly regular and common (e.g., -it, -en, -og); they are introduced early. All essential phonic elements are taught.

    Phonics instruction is explicit; children are directly and clearly taught about relationships between letters and sounds. They have many opportunities to practice and apply these learnings in a variety of ways, including manipulating letters to build words and applying phonics skills to decodable texts and to writing. Through phonics and spelling instruction children develop the ability to segment and blend phonemes and to sound out words by blending letter sounds from left to right.

  4. Spelling -- In Invitations to Literacy spelling and phonics are integrally related. Phonics elements that are taught in a unit of instruction are reinforced in spelling instruction in the same unit. In spelling lessons, children learn to carefully process the letters in words from left to right and to segment and blend the sounds the letters represent.

  5. Vocabulary -- Beyond the initial stages of learning to read, there is a very strong relationship between knowledge of word meanings and reading comprehension. Vocabulary instruction and learning to derive word meanings from context begin in kindergarten and continue throughout Invitations to Literacy.

  6. Fluent Reading -- Decodable text is essential to provide opportunities for children to practice and apply phonic elements in the context of real reading. Invitations to Literacy includes many decodable books for practice with high frequency words and words that use previously taught phonic elements. In addition to a wide variety of reading materials that are part of the program, Invitations to Literacy provides carefully developed reading lists, frequent suggestions to teachers, and extensive communications with the home to encourage the wide independent reading that leads to fluency.

  7. Writing -- Writing offers the opportunity to apply phonics and related spelling knowledge. In shared writing and other writing activities, children learn to think about the sounds in words they want to write and to use phonics skills to represent the sounds. As they proofread their writing, they apply spelling patterns and phonic elements they have been taught.


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