Reading Foundations: Phonics and Decoding

By: Yvette Arañas

For many years, literacy scholars have opposed each other during what is now referred to as the “reading wars.” One camp argued that phonics (i.e., learning and sounding out the parts of a word) helped children become skilled readers. The other side insisted that whole-language approaches were more effective, which emphasized text comprehension. Proponents for the whole-language approach argued that readers would be able to infer what a word is based on context and background knowledge.

More recently, research has recommended a balance between the two approaches (Pearson, 2004). The use of meaning and comprehension is important for reading development, but learning how to decode words is just as important, especially for early readers. The research has suggested that explicit phonics instruction is beneficial to students, including children with reading disabilities and those who have been identified to be at risk for later reading difficulties (National Reading Panel, 2000).

What is phonics?

If you recall from our previous post, phonemes refer to the most basic unit of sound in spoken words. After children master phonemic awareness, they can move on to applying phonemes to graphemes, or printed letters. At the phonics stage, children learn how to sound out and read novel words by associating phonemes with print. The ability to apply letter-sound relationships to printed text and recognize word patterns is called decoding (Hiebert & Taylor, 2000).

Why is phonics so important?

Learning the relationship between sound and printed letters enables children to read novel words, particularly ones that follow regular spelling rules. For words that are irregularly spelled, children can still use their alphabetic and phonemic knowledge to remember these words each time they see them in print. After readers establish letter-sound relationships, they eventually learn how to read words automatically and comprehend text. Though children can learn these relationships on their own, explicit instruction can be beneficial to them, especially for struggling readers. Phonics instruction also has been shown to help prevent reading difficulties in at-risk readers and improve reading achievement in children with reading disabilities (National Reading Panel, 2000).

How to improve students’ decoding skills

When providing children phonics instruction, it is important to start as early as possible (i.e., first grade and before). There are quite a few strategies that parents and teachers can do to help children master their decoding skills (Adams, 2001; National Reading Panel, 2000; Florida Center for Reading Research, 2008). First, when children are very young, it is important to teach them how to identify and recognize letters before they associate them with sounds. Having children practice naming and matching letters can help them strengthen this foundational skill. Children who need more practice can also practice writing the letters and identifying which letters are in a given word.

Eventually, children can move on to matching the first phoneme of a word to the word’s first letter. One activity they can do is match pictures to initial letters. For instance, a child can focus on the letter g and identify which pictures show objects that begin with the /g/ sound. Later, the child can move on to matching pictures with final letters (e.g., which objects end with the letter t?) and later with medial letters. Note that teaching middle vowel sounds are typically taught last because each vowel has multiple sounds, making them more challenging to master. It is also crucial to teach students rules that affect medial letters, such as adding a silent e to the end of a word.

In addition to teaching sounds of individual letters, it is also important to teach the sounds of pairs of letters called digraphs (e.g., ea, th, sh), which are single sounds that have two letters. The same strategies mentioned above for teaching individual letters can be applied to digraphs.

Later, children can move into more complex phonics-related skills. Using magnetic letters, blocks, and other manipulatives, they can learn how to switch out initial, final, and medial letters to make new words. For example, a child can create many words that contain –an, such as can, fan, tan, pan. Eventually, they can learn how to write words on their own from a selection of letters.

Assessing Phonics

The most basic phonics-related assessments often measure students’ ability to identify letter sounds. FastBridge Learning’s earlyReading includes Letter Names, which is a one-minute measure of this skill. After mastering individual letter-sound relationships, students can move on to more advanced decoding assessments. A common way to measure decoding is to have students read words that follow regular grapheme-phoneme relationships (i.e., regularly spelled words). earlyReading provides two options for measuring decoding. One is the Decodable Words subtest, which is a timed test that assesses the ability to read phonetically regular words. The other subtest is called Nonsense Words, which is similar to Decodable Words, except that the words are made up and do not exist in the English language. The advantage of using Nonsense Words over Decodable Words is that Decodable Words may contain a word that a student can identify automatically without any decoding skills.

While learning how to analyze printed words and their sounds is necessary to one’s reading development, we cannot forget the importance of applying meaning to the text. Topics that we will cover in the near future will include vocabulary and comprehension.


Adams, M. J. (2001). Alphabetic anxiety and explicit, systematic phonics instruction: A cognitive science perspective. Handbook of early literacy research, 1, 66-80.

Hiebert, E. H., & Taylor, B. M. (2000). Beginning reading instruction: Research on early interventions. Handbook of reading research, 3, 455-482.

Florida Center for Research (2008). Student Center Activities: Grades K-1. Retrieved from

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Pearson, P. D. (2004). The reading wars. Educational policy, 18(1), 216-252.

Yvette Arañas is a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota. She was a part of FastBridge Learning’s research team for four years and contributed to developing the FAST™ reading assessments. Yvette is currently completing an internship in school psychology at a rural district in Minnesota.

phonics, reading, reading development, Ask the Experts, Blog, Decodable Words, earlyReading, Nonsense Words, phonemic awareness

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