By Amanda Zeafla and Ally Phillips

What Is Phonics?

Phonics teaches children the relationships between the letters (graphemes) of written language and the individual sounds (phonemes) of spoken language (National Institute for Literacy).

Phonics refers to the ability to match the sounds one hears within language to printed text (Tracy & Morrow).

An Overview of Phonics Instruction

  • The goal of phonics instruction is to help children understand the alphabetic principle.
  • If children can understand the systematic and predictable relationships between written letters and spoken sounds, they will be better able to recognize familiar words and "decode" unfamiliar words.
  • Research finds that phonics instruction that is systematic and explicit is much more effective than non-systematic or no phonics instruction at all.
  • Systematic phonics instruction involves direct teaching of letter-sound relationships in a clearly defined and ordered sequence.
  • Systematic and explicit phonics instruction is most beneficial to children's reading and spelling achievement when it begins early (kindergarten or first grade). It should typically be taught about two years.
  • Systematic and explicit phonics instruction significantly improves a child's word recognition, spelling, and reading comprehension.
  • Systematic and explicit phonics instruction benefits all children, regardless of socioeconomic background, and is particularly beneficial to children who have difficulty learning to read or who are at risk for future reading problems.
  • Phonics instruction alone does not constitute a whole reading program. Instruction should be part of a whole reading program that includes reading and writing activities as well.
  • Phonics can be effectively taught to the whole class, small groups, or to individual students.
  • There are several different approaches to phonics instruction. Many programs use a combination of approaches. Others use non-systematic programs which research has found to be less effective than systematic and explicit phonics instruction (National Institute for Literacy).
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Assessing Phonics Skills

The Tile Test

The Tile Test is a diagnostic assessment that is administered individually to students typically in kindergarten or first grade. It quickly and efficiently measures skills related to phonemic awareness, letter and sound correspondence, decoding and spelling of words, and sight-word recognition. To begin the assessment you will need to gather the necessary materials. You will need a set of tiles with various letters written on them - both consonants and vowels - as well as word tiles. You can buy these tiles or make your own. Spread the tiles out on a table so that they are easily accessible and visible to both you and the student. Start by explaining the process and include a little bit of conversation and practice. You want the student to be comfortable and relaxed.

There is a scripted test recording sheet for this assessment that will explain exactly what to do. The first section involves saying a letter and then asking the student to point to that letter followed by you pointing to a letter and asking the student to identify the letter and sound. You will keep track of correct and incorrect responses on the test recording sheet. The next section requires you to build simple words with the tiles and then ask the student to read the word aloud to you. Be sure to ask questions about why the student responded as they did, "How did you know....?" As you go from one word to the next, only change the letters that need to be changed. For example, if the first word was top and the next word is mop, only change the first letter. In the next section the roles reverse and you say the word and the student then has to build it with the letter tiles. For the sight-word section, use tiles with words already printed on them and ask students to read the words that you point to. Next move on to the sentence section. Start by building sentences with the word tiles and asking students to read the sentences followed by having the students build sentences.

The purpose of this assessment is to inform the teacher about students' present skills related to phonics. It is less about what the student got right or wrong and more about distinguishing what areas a student needs more instruction in. It can be administered at any time - before, during, or after instruction. This assessment can be adapted and modified to fit your specific needs (Norman & Calfee).
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The Core Phonics Survey

About the CORE Phonics Survey:

“The CORE Phonics Survey is a non-standardized, individually administered diagnostic test, which includes a list of letters and words for the student to represent his or her alphabetic knowledge skills and decoding skills.”(Park, 2014)

The CORE Phonics Survey is a criterion-referenced test. It tests the knowledge of alphabetic knowledge, decoding and spelling skills. Within alphabetical knowledge, the survey tests letter names, uppercase and lowercase, consonant sounds, long vowel sounds, and short vowel sounds. The decoding skills section tests digraphs, consonant blends, and long vowel spellings. The CORE Phonics Survey is an inexpensive and fast assessment to assess students with mild reading challenges that have not been put into special education yet.

Assessment Process:

The CORE Phonics Survey is divided into five categories for alphabetic knowledge. The categories included all twenty-six letter names for uppercase and lowercase, twenty three consonant sounds, five long vowel sounds and five short vowel sounds. To test decoding seven categories were used. Within each category real and nonsense words were both used. The categories included ten short vowels in consonant-vowel-consonant words, ten items with short vowels, digraphs, and –tch trigraph, twenty consonant blends with short vowels, ten items of long vowels, ten items of variant vowels and diphthongs, ten items of r- and i-controlled vowels, and twenty-four items of multisyllabic words.

How we know it works:

Yujeong Park, Amber E. Benedict, and Mary T. Brownell analyzed the CORE Phonics Survey using a sample of 165 students in elementary school with specific learning disabilities. The analysis was used in order to determine if the CORE Phonics Survey was useful in predicting students’ success in word level reading and oral reading fluency a year after the assessment was administered. After the analysis was done it was found that the CORE Phonics Survey is a helpful diagnostic assessment for teachers with students who have reading disabilities. The analysis also found that the Survey was easily interpreted which allowed teachers to provide phonics instructions that were directly related to their students’ needs. While it was proved to help special education teachers to progress toward IEP goals, and instructional groupings, it also can be said that the CORE Phonics Survey can help other students, not only ones with reading disabilities.

The Phonics Screening Check

About the Phonics Screening Check:

The Phonics Screening Check is a test devised by the Department for Education (United Kingdom). It was first administered in June 2012 and now is continuously administered each June. It is a short assessment which tests all Year 1 students to ensure that they have learned phonic decoding to an acceptable level. The Phonics Screening Check assesses pronunciation of real words and pseudo-words.

Assessment Process:

The Phonics Screening Check has students pronounce twenty different real words and twenty different pseudo-words. The goal is to have students correctly sound out the phonics of the word. To be considered at the expected standard, students must receive thirty-two out of forty correct.

How We Know it Works:

For three consecutive years the progress of students who used the checklist were examined. Within those three years sixteen percent more students had reached the phonics standard.

With that, not only had students improved and reached the standards, teachers and schools began changing their phonics teaching.

  • There is evidence that the introduction of the PSC has led to schools making changes to their phonics teaching and classroom practice in each and every year of the evaluation.
  • The survey’s most frequent reported change in 2014 was that there was an increase in the pace of phonics teaching. This was also supported by case studies. In 2013, an increased focus was put on pseudo-words according to reports from participants in the survey and case studies.
  • Literacy coordinators reported that their Reception, Year 1, and Year 2 teachers had used the check to review or revise phonics teaching plans. Teachers also reported using evidence from the check to help aid in decisions about extra support for individuals (Walker, Sainsbury, Worth, Bamforth, & Betts, 2015).

Methods of Phonics Instruction

Explicit Phonics Instruction

In this version of phonics instruction, also known as synthetic phonics, you start by teaching the part first and then build to the whole. In other words, you start by teaching your students the letters (graphemes) first with their associated sounds (phonemes). Next, you teach your students how to blend sounds into syllables and then build them into words. Everything is taught in a logical instructional sequence. It is research based and scientifically proven to be effective (Reading Strategies).
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Implicit Phonics Instruction

Also known as analytic phonics, this version of phonics instruction starts with the whole and then works its way down to the smallest part. The phonemes (sounds) are not produced in isolation. Instead, students will analyze a set of words to find the common phoneme in them. Students will determine which grapheme (letter) to write or which phoneme (sound) to read based on their comparisons and identification. Instead of learning to blend sounds and build words, students recognize new words by their shape, their beginning and ending letters, and by context clues. Implicit phonics instruction is considered to be a whole-language approach (Reading Strategies).
What is Explicit and Systematic Phonics Instruction?

Using Nonsense Words To Teach Phonics

When children encounter nonsense words it gives them the opportunity to apply their decoding skills and their knowledge of the alphabetic principle. These skills can then be applied to real words that children encounter for the first time. This is especially beneficial as students progress and encounter larger, multi-syllabic words. There are a number of different activities you can use to incorporate nonsense words into your phonics instruction. One such activity is explained in the video below. It involves creating nonsense words by rolling dice and creating random words that students will sound out using decoding skills. When using nonsense words, it is important that you make it clear to your students that nonsense words are not real words. Make sure your students understand that nonsense words have no real meaning and clearly identify which words are nonsense words so you don't confuse your students. Also be sure to still rely heavily on using real words when teaching phonics (Reading Strategies).
Blending Unfamiliar Words: Nonsense Word Fluency

The Phonics Dance

The Phonics Dance
Official Phonics Dance Video- Hunk & Chunks- ed at the end of a root word


Components of an explicit phonics lesson. (n.d.). Retrieved August 30, 2015, from

National Institute for Literacy. (2003, 2007). Put reading first: the research on building blocks for teaching children to read. Center for improvement of early reading.

Norman, K., & Calfee, R. (2004). Tile test: a hands-on approach for assessing phonics in the early grades. The reading teacher, 58(1), 42-52.

Reading strategies: decoding nonsense words. (2014). Retrieved August 30, 2015, from

Reading strategies: explicit vs. implicit phonics instruction. (2014). Retrieved August 30, 2015, from

Tracy, D., & Morrow, L. (2009). Best practices for phonics instruction in today’s classroom. Sadlier professional development series.

Walker, M., Sainsbury, M., Worth, J., Bamforth, H., & Betts, H. (2015). Phonics screening check evaluation: final report. National foundation for educational research. Retrieved September 1, 2015, from

Yujeong Park , Amber E. Benedict & Mary T. Brownell (2014) Construct and predictive validity of the CORE Phonics Survey: a diagnostic assessment for students with specific learning disabilities. Exceptionality: a special education journal, 22:1, 33-50, DOI: 10.1080/09362835.2013.865534