On the teaching
of phonics

Through critical attention to relevant research and careful observation of children in the reading-writing process, we teachers can intelligently decide how to teach phonics. . . . I prefer to teach phonics strategically, in the meaningful context of the predictable stories children read and write every day. In the context of written language, phonics instruction facilitates meaning making and independence.
-Regie Routman, 1991


Educators generally agree that children learning to read and write English need to understand that there is a relationship between letter patterns and sound patterns in English (the alphabetic principle), to internalize major relationships between letter and sound patterns, and eventually to develop an awareness of the "separate" sounds in words (phonemic awareness). In other words, educators agree that emergent readers and writers need to develop a functional command of what is commonly called phonics. However, this does not not necessarily mean that children should be taught phonics intensively and systematically, through special phonics programs or even through phonics lessons in basal reading books and workbooks. Indeed, various lines of research argue for helping children develop phonics knowledge in the context of reading and enjoying literature and in the context of writing, rather than through isolated skills lessons. Many of these reasons are listed below, followed by a list of ways that teachers and parents can help children learn phonics and develop phonemic awareness while reading and writing interesting texts.

Comparative and naturalistic research

Research on the reading process and on the effects of reading instruction


Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Applebee, A. N., Langer, J. A., & Mullis, I. V. S. (1988). Learning to be literate in America: Reading, writing and reasoning. The nation's report card. Princeton, NJ: National Assessment of Educational Progress, Educational Testing Service.

Cambourne, B. (1988). The whole story: Natural learning and the acquisition of literacy in the classroom. New York: Scholastic.

Carbo, M. (1987). Reading style research: "What works" isn't always phonics. Phi Delta Kappan, 68, 431-35.

Chall, J. (1967/1983). Learning to read: The great debate. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Chomsky, C. (1976). After decoding: What? Language Arts, 53, 288-296, 314.

Cunningham, P. (1995). Phonics they use: Words for reading and writing. New York: HarperCollins.

Freppon, P. A., & Dahl, K. L. (1991). Learning about phonics in a whole language classroom. Language Arts, 68 (3), 190-97.

Foorman, B. R., Francis, D. J., Beeler, T., Winikates, D., & Fletcher, J. M. (Forthcoming.) Early intervention for children with reading problems: Study designs and preliminary findings. Learning Disabilities: A Multi-Disciplinary Journal.

Goodman, K. S. (1973). Theoretically based studies of patterns of miscues in oral reading performance. Detroit: Wayne State University. ERIC:ED 079 708.

Griffith, P. L., & Olson, M. W. (1992). Phonemic awareness helps beginning readers break the code. The Reading Teacher, 45, 516-525.

Kasten, W. C., & Clarke, B. K. (1989). Reading/writing readiness for preschool and kindergarten children: A whole language approach. Sanibel, Florida: Educational Research and Development Council. ERIC: ED 312 041.

Meek, M. (1983). Achieving literacy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Holdaway, D. (1979). The foundations of literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Manning, M., Manning, G., & Long, R. (1989). Effects of a whole language and a skill-oriented program on the literacy development of inner city primary children. ERIC: ED 324 642.

McIntyre, E., & Freppon, P. A. (1994). A comparison of children's development of alphabetic knowledge in a skills-based and a whole language classroom. Research in the Teaching of English, 28, 391-417.

Mills, H., O'Keefe, T., & Stephens, D. (1992). Looking closely: Exploring the role of phonics in one whole language classroom. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Moustafa, M. (1996). Reconceptualizing phonics instruction in a balanced approach to reading. Unpublished manuscript. San Jose, CA: San Jose State University.

Powell, D., & Hornsby, D. (1993). Learning phonics and spelling in a whole language classroom. New York: Scholastic.

Richgels, D., Poremba, K., & McGee, L. (1996). Kindergarteners talk about print: Phonemic awareness in meaningful contexts. The Reading Teacher, 49, 632-641.

Routman, R. (1991). Invitations: Changing as teachers and learners K-12. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Routman, R., & Butler, A. (1995). Why talk about phonics? School Talk, 1 (2). (National Council of Teachers of English.)

Smith, F. (1988). Understanding reading (4th ed.). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Smith, J. W. A., & Elley, W. B. (1995). Learning to read in New Zealand. Katonah, NY:Richard C. Owen.

Stahl, S. L., McKenna, M. C., & Pagnucco, J. R. (1994). The effects of whole-language instruction: An update and a reappraisal. Educational Psychologist, 29, 175-185.

Stephens, D. (1991). Research on whole language: Support for a new curriculum. Katonah, NY: Richard C. Owen.

Tunnell, M. O., & Jacobs, J. S. (1989). Using 'real' books: Research findings on literature based reading instruction. The Reading Teacher, 42, 470-477.

Wagstaff, J. (n.d.). Phonics that work! New strategies for the reading/writing classroom. New York: Scholastic.

Weaver, C. (1994a). Phonics in whole language classrooms. ERIC: ED 372 375.

Weaver, C. (1994b). Reading process and practice: From socio-psycholinguistics to whole language (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Prepared for the Michigan English Language Arts Framework project and © 1996 by Constance Weaver. In C. Weaver, L. Gillmeister-Krause, & G. Vento-Zogby, Creating Support for Effective Literacy Education (Heinemann, 1996). May be copied.