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).
Assessing Phonics Skills
The Tile Test
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).
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.
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.
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
Implicit Phonics Instruction
Using Nonsense Words To Teach Phonics
The Phonics Dance
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 http://www.readinghorizons.com/reading-strategies/teaching/phonics-instruction/explicit-vs-implicit
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 http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/23348/2/RR418A_Phonics_screening_check_evaluation.pdf
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