The Six Essential Skills
Systematically taught phonics

The aim of phonics instruction is to help children acquire alphabetic knowledge and use it to read and spell words.

According to the National Literacy Trust... 

Phonics is a way of teaching children how to read and write. It helps children hear, identify and use different sounds that distinguish one word from another in the English language.

Written language can be compared to a code, so knowing the sounds of individual letters and how those letters sound when they’re combined will help children decode words as they read.

Understanding phonics will also help children know which letters to use when they are writing words.

Phonics involves matching the sounds of spoken English with individual letters or groups of letters. For example, the sound k can be spelled as c, k, ck or ch.

Teaching children to blend the sounds of letters together helps them decode unfamiliar or unknown words by sounding them out. For example, when a child is taught the sounds for the letters t, p, a and s, they can start to build up the words: “tap”, “taps”, “pat”, “pats” and “sat”.



There have been many debates about how children should learn to read; those between proponents of phonics instruction and proponents of whole-language instruction have sometimes been so heated that they have been called the “reading wars.” In reality these 'wars' are often arguments between politicians, researchers and policy makers. In actual classrooms most teachers tend to use a combination of strategies. 

But as different as the 'camps' were both used the same metaphorical (and rhetorical) baseball bat with which to thrash their opponents. The “r” word and “research says” were and have been the lingua franca of both sides in those “wars”.

That was why the federal government stepped into the fray back in the 1990s. Congress asked that a panel be appointed, not to make recommendations on how to teach reading, but to determine just what it was that the research actually had to say about the teaching of reading.

That’s what the National Reading Panel (NRP) was all about. By law the panel could only make determinations of fact.

Basically, the result of their analyses was the conclusion that explicit teaching of phonemic awareness, phonics, oral reading fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension offered learning advantages to kids. The reason the panel could determine those particular facts — and not some others — was the decision-making rules that the panel set for themselves.

The panel decided it would only conclude that an instructional approach worked if it were tried out and, as a result, kids did better in some way. That’s why the panel limited its review to experimental studies; that is, studies that test the effectiveness of particular interventions or instructional efforts in real instructional situations. Of course, that meant ignoring lots of studies. 


But let's look at what was recommended, because 'most of the studies of phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, oral reading fluency, and reading comprehension strategies completed since NRP have tended to confirm the generalizability of the findings to an expanded range of students (e.g., younger kids, older kids, second language learners).

Download NPR Doc - Phonics

As Castles and colleagues discuss, extensive research has shown that systematic phonics instruction as currently practiced leads to better word-level skills than does whole-language instruction. But is phonics instruction ideal as currently practiced? Advocates of phonics instruction have been somewhat reluctant to discuss this point because such discussions might be seen as weakening their position. Many do, however, represent the findings of the NPR to support their favoured systematic phonics approach. It only takes a few minutes to google 'systematic phonics' and see listings that have included 'synthetic' and claim to offer the most effective approach. On the basis of which research?  

Some self-proclaimed phonics authority attributes findings to the NRP that we didn’t actually find (usually because they didn’t actually
read it). 
The one this week has been one of the more frequent misclaims. He claimed that the NRP found synthetic phonics instruction
to be more effective than analytic phonics instruction.


Synthetic phonics instruction focuses on teaching each individual letter sound and having kids try to sound each letter or letter combination (like th, sh) one at a time and then try to blend those back into word pronunciations.

By contrast, analytic approaches focus attention on larger spelling generalizations (like rimes: ab, ad, ag, ack, am, an) and word analogies (if game is pronounced with a long a then came must be pronounced with a long a).

What did the National Reading Panel conclude about synthetic and analytic phonics instruction? That they both conferred a learning advantage on young readers. The average effect size was somewhat higher for synthetic than analytic approaches, but not significantly so (it was so small a difference that one can’t say one is really higher than the other). In other words, synthetic and analytic phonics are equally good. Shanahan

There are numerous issues to consider regarding HOW to teach children to map phonemes to graphemes.

We found this really useful. Should we teach children to map using a Speech to Print or Print to Speech approach?


“One of the most fundamental flaws found in almost all phonics programs, including traditional ones, is that they teach the code backwards.  That is, they go from letter to sound instead of from sound to letter.”

Louisa Moats, 1998



From 'Why phonics teaching must change' 

Decoding and Encoding

There are two ways to provide systematic instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics: decoding (reading words) and encoding (constructing words). Each approach involves a very different sequence of brain activation. To read an unfamiliar word, such as cat, a reader would go through the following sequence using decoding (moving from print to speech):

  1. Look at the first letter, c. What sound does it make? Do the same with a and t.

  2. Blend the sounds together. Does it sound like a familiar word?

  3. If the learner successfully pronounces cat, he or she will, finally, recognize its meaning. (Oh! That word is cat.)


In contrast, to write cat using encoding (speech to print), a beginning reader goes through this sequence:

  1. Access the word's meaning (activating speech and comprehension).

  2. Pronounce the word and segment the sounds (analyzing articulation).

  3. Remember which letter stands for the sound /c/ ? (and /a/ and /t/).

  4. Assemble c, a, and t into cat.

  5. Read what is written.


Several points about decoding make it a less-than-ideal place to begin reading instruction:

  • Visual processing is activated first. A reader relies on analyzing and recognizing patterns, contours, shapes, and configurations (typically right-hemisphere processes). The reader achieves pronunciation and meaning only after successful visual analysis.

  • Retrieval of knowledge about the alphabet code involves letter-to-sound associations. This process involves visually deconstructing a word that has already been written by someone else; often these words use more advanced rules of spelling or break the rules. When a student is trying to learn the alphabetic principle, it's confusing to encounter exceptions.

  • Instructional activities tend to be divorced from meaningful experiences with text. Exercises often involve visually analyzing lists of unrelated words or sentences, such as counting phonemes, underlining blends and digraphs, or copying sentences from the board. Such activities do not elicit the joy of personal construction. They reinforce dependency on the teacher rather than independent learning.


For the following reasons, encoding instruction is a more powerful place to start:

  • Pronunciation and meaning are immediately activated because the reader must pronounce the word he or she wants to build, either silently or aloud (which typically involves left-hemisphere processing).

  • The reader segments phonemes primarily by using the motor system of speech, with its superior capability for sequencing and memory.

  • Retrieval of knowledge about the alphabetic code involves articulated sound-to-letter associations.

  • Activities involve meaningful interactions with text—primarily assembling letter tiles or using a keyboard, magic slate, or pencil to write dictated words or sentences. The teacher guides instruction of encodable consonant–vowel–consonant words in a systematic way so students gradually build up a repertoire of the 40 letters and digraphs that represent the basic phonemes in English. Neural networks for these 40 paired associations will thus be laid down consistently without the confusion of dealing with more complex spelling patterns. Writing becomes an efficient route to early reading rather than a separate subject.

  • These activities are empowering. Mastering the code enables a student to write any word. Even if the student does not spell a word perfectly, someone can usually read it. Successful communication makes clear to the student how words get on paper and what reading and writing are all about.


Students are generally eager to read what they have written. Encoding and decoding are both important, and students will have a better chance of developing decoding skills without frustration if they start by reading "decodable" (regularly spelled) words that they themselves have written. If letters are scrambled or missing, the teacher should give a minilesson about correcting the initial encoding.

Dealing successfully with written language as a writer or reader—the task of literacy—requires automatic skill with the alphabetic code. Practice with encoding enhances facility with decoding; they are two halves of the same learning task.



As seen in Step 1, we take a Speech to Print (encoding to decoding) approach 

A 3 year old learning high frequency graphemes using the chants (SSP Monster Mapping app)

  • Steps to Reading - Part of the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach

© 2020 Steps to Reading Program - Teaching Reading and Spelling in the Early Years - Part of the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach from Miss Emma, The Reading Whisperer 

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