The Science of Reading Explained: Phonics

Oct 24, 2023
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In our article and video series, The Science of Reading Explained, we unpacked this important research model that backs one of the most critical elements of education—foundational literacy. This specific model is a popular topic in education right now due to pandemic disruptions affecting reading proficiency growth scores during 2022 spring assessments. States across the country are turning to research-backed, effective literacy practices, such as those suggested by the science of reading, to accelerate learning recovery.

If you’re looking for more information on what exactly the science of reading entails and why it’s currently generating buzz, be sure to check out the first post in this series. If you’re all caught up, let’s dive in to the first science of reading pillar—phonics!

What Is Phonics?

Phonics instruction teaches students the correlating sounds with letters or groups of letters in an alphabetic writing system. The science of reading research tells us that phonics instruction is necessary for all students and that effective phonics instruction should be systematic.

With Exact Path, Edmentum’s K–12 diagnostic-driven, individualized learning program, phonics instruction is woven in throughout the program in a systematic, research-based way that follows the science of reading best practices. Going a step further, phonics instruction is an umbrella for four different skills: print awareness, sight words, alphabetics and decoding, and word analysis. Let’s take a closer look at each of these skills to learn why they are important for building successful readers and how Exact Path addresses each of these skills.

Print Awareness

Print awareness is the earliest introduction to a child’s literacy. When learning print awareness, students master six key aspects about print and books:

1. Print carries meaning
2. Books contain words and have meaning
3. Books are structured with words forming sentences and paragraphs
4. Books are handled in specific ways, such as top to bottom and left to right
5. Each part of a book can be easily identified
6. Authors write books, whereas illustrators make the images and pictures

Students are exposed to print awareness long before they enter school. Not only is it modeled at home and school during read-alouds, but they see print all around them—on signs and billboards, in alphabet books and story books, and on labels.

Students will see print awareness modeled and practiced in Exact Path through character interaction and discussion on how to read a book and descriptions on essential book parts.

Kindergarten lesson: Cover to Cover

The first image shows direct instruction about the book elements: title, author, and illustrator. The second screenshot shows the character modeling how books work—the print moves from left to right, lines are read from top to bottom, and pages are turned.

Sight Words

Sight words are the words that appear most frequently in our reading and writing, and often, these words do not have a concrete image that matches them. Learning sight words, also known as high-frequency words, is an important part of phonics instruction. Not only do students learn the words that make up 50–80 percent of our reading, but they also see that not all words follow phonetic rules.

To support students’ sight word skills, Exact Path’s engaging characters introduce a word explicitly and integrate it in practice, encouraging students to authentically read sight words in context.

Grade 1 lesson: Raindrop Sight Words

The first image shows the direct instruction for a sight word—including how to spell the word. The second picture shows a more interactive practice item where students look for the sight word in context and click on it.

Alphabetics and Decoding

The skill of alphabetics and decoding makes up a significant portion of phonics instruction, and this ability is taught over multiple grade levels. Mastering alphabetics allows students to connect spoken sounds to letters. Decoding is the ability to apply one’s knowledge of letter-sound relationships, including knowledge of letter patterns, to correctly pronounce written words. When working on this skill, students will also learn how letters work together to create sounds and how syllable patterns can be used to decode words. Research shows that early skills in alphabetics serve as strong predictors of reading success, while later deficits in decoding is the main source of reading difficulties—making this skill an especially important part of phonics.

When it comes to alphabetics and decoding, Exact Path uses a systematic progression throughout its foundational reading content in the elementary grades. For your youngest learners, Exact Path introduces each letter and coordinating sound. This foundation is then used to successfully introduce word blends and other letter combinations to build new words followed by multisyllabic and academic words.

Kindergarten lesson: Letter Pop

Grade 1 lesson: Vowel Match

Kindergarten (Letter Pop) shows students starting with individual letter sounds. Grade 1 (Vowel Match) students learning to decode words where letters work together to create a sound (in this case r-controlled vowels).

Word Analysis

The last skillset under the umbrella of phonics is world analysis, which involves students breaking down words into the smallest units of meaning. When students work on this skill, they are learning to see “chunks” at the beginning or ending of a word to assist with decoding and then to identify these chunks as prefixes and suffixes. This practice helps build students’ vocabulary and develop their critical reading skills.

Grade 2 lesson: Party Prefixes

Extend learning with this Phonics Matching Game, challenging students to match consonants with the most common phonograms to form words. This engaging activity reinforces the understanding of sound-symbol correspondence and strengthens word decoding skills.

Why Exact Path?

Throughout exploration of each essential phonics skill, students will encounter a developmentally appropriate approach to learning with engaging, friendly characters and explicit, systematic instruction. When embedded in your station-rotation model or independent practice time, Exact Path is the perfect complement to your daily reading practice, primed to help you support academic recovery and develop lifelong readers. Learn more about phonics, and see our Exact Path program come to life in this accompanying video.

Ready to learn more about the Science of Reading? Check out the rest of the series, The Science of Reading Explained, Phonological Awareness, Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension.

Explore Edmentum's ongoing commitment to the Science of Reading in our white paper, Exact Path: Designed with the Science of Reading.

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