Explicit, Systematic Phonics Instruction? So glad you asked . . .

Does your program provide explicit, systematic phonics instruction?

How would you respond to this question in real time? Would you gaze toward the nearest open doorway and slip through ASAP? Or would you confidently engage in conversation, “Does our program provide explicit, systematic phonics instruction? I am SO glad you asked!”

Recently I revisited this topic with colleagues in a partnering district. We did a deep dive into how Being a Reader small group reading instruction matched their state framework for phonics instruction. With the assistance of the 2006 National Institute for Literacy document Put Reading First and specific examples of instruction from Being a Reader Small-Group Reading, I would like to build our confidence in answering this question without hesitation.

First let’s consider: What does explicit instruction mean?

Put Reading First: Simply put, explicit means“the direct teaching of a set of letter-sound relationships.” (p. 12)

Explicit signifies that we show the students the letter symbol and tell the students the letter sound. In the step of each Being a Reader lesson titled “Introduce the Spelling-Sound ___,” we provide explicit phonic instruction. Note the explicit instructional language in this Being a Reader Small-Group Reading example (Set 2, Week 2, Day 1, p. 25):



Next: What does systematic instruction mean?

Put Reading First: “A program of systematic phonics instruction clearly identifies a carefully selected and useful set of letter-sound relationships and then organizes the introduction of these relationships into a logical instructional sequence. The instructional sequence may include the relationships between the sounds associated with single letters (for example, the sound /m/ with the letter m), as well as with larger units of written language (for example, letter combinations such as th or ing or spelling patterns such as ea or ie).” (p.14)

Matching examples are found in the Being a Reader Scope and Sequence for Sets 1–5. They are nestled into a larger sequence of letter-sound associations that supports the students in recognizing the English letter and word system and how it works.

Set 1, Week 2: consonant m /m/

Set 2, Week 5: digraph th /th/

Set 3, Week 1: inflectional ending ing /ing/

Set 4, Week 6: long vowel sound ee, ea /ē/

Consonant and vowel letter-sound relationships are taught in order of utility in Being a Reader, giving the new reader immediate opportunities to use what they are learning to decode words in isolation and in connected text. Students also learn that some words are decodable while other words are irregular and must be learned and remembered (high-frequency words).

There is another essential question to consider in our preparation for this conversation:

What else should I look for in a phonics program?

Put Reading First: “Programs should acknowledge that systematic phonics instruction is a means to an end. Although children need to be taught the major consonant and vowel letter-sound relationships, they also need ample reading and writing activities that allow them to practice using this knowledge.” (p.15)

Phonics instruction in Being a Reader is always in service of meaning. Words appear strategically in the connected texts for each week of instruction, requiring readers to use the recently learned sounds and words to navigate the text independently and make sense of what they’ve read. To wrap up the lesson each day, students further apply their growing letter and word knowledge to encode words and sentences in the Guided Spelling step. Valerie Fraser, our lead in program development of Collaborative Classroom materials, recently explained in the Collaborative Classroom Circle publication that “. . . students need to see that decoding is immediately applicable. Immediate application to connected text and to spelling communicates to students that phonics is not dry material to be mastered: it makes a whole world of reading and writing possible.” (Fraser, 2019)

Wait! There are other questions: What about phonemic awareness? What about phonics taught in small groups rather than the whole class?

While important, these questions will have to wait for another conversation! For now, lead toward your room, locate your Being a Reader Small-Group Reading materials, and show how your students indeed receive explicit, systematic phonics instruction.