Pillar 2: Phonics

The Science of Reading approach to reading instruction is based on five decades of research in cognitive science and literacy.  The approach emphasizes five pillars as the core for explicit teaching of reading.

The Five Pillars to the Science of Reading are:
  1. Phonemic Awareness
  2. Phonics
  3. Vocabulary
  4. Oral Reading Fluency
  5. Comprehension

It’s likely that you’ve heard the word “Phonics” many times, it has been around for a long time. The second pillar in the instruction of Science of Reading is probably the most commonly discussed. Phonics refers to the explicit instruction on the relationship between letters and sounds and the reading of words. In short, phonics is identifying and understanding the sounds created from letters and that combining these letters creates words to read and understand.

Phonics is the most commonly discussed pillar of Science of Reading because it was mostly left out of a previously popular reading instruction methodology, such as Balanced Literacy.  Balanced Literacy proponents expected students to learn to read through exposure to words, literature, and reading. Decades of neuroscience have concluded this methodology was flawed and children do, indeed, require explicitly taught phonics instruction to achieve reading growth.

Science of Reading Educators often refer to learning phonics as “cracking the code” or learning to “decode” words.  Think about it this way: every letter or combination of letters represents a sound and students can “crack the code” by identifying the sounds and putting them together to form words.

A common misconception about phonics is that there are lots of exceptions. In fact, many of the exceptions we’ve declared as such are actually rules. Let’s try an example:

Think about this letter: S What sound does it make?

More than likely, you thought about the /s/ sound like in snake or sun.

But now think about words like: loves, gives, flies, hands. In all those cases, the s makes a /z/ sound. For a long time, children were taught this as an exception to the /s/ rule. However, s actually makes a /z/ sound at the end of words about 75% of the time. That’s not an exception; that’s a teachable and memorable rule.

Great phonics instruction is built on teaching children all the various rules of different letters and helping them find meaning in learning the rules and decoding the language for themselves. Science of Reading experts recommend replacing strategies like guessing words and reading other words with attacking words. Attacking words means using phonics rules to decode the word. It’s more strenuous than guessing but leads to longer term reading abilities.

There are a lot of great ways to practice phonics with your student. One of the most important ways to practice is to help your child read and attack words. Do not encourage guessing but instead encourage reading.

Caregivers can also ask their teacher which sounds are being introduced at school so they can reinforce practice at home. Science of Reading research indicated that the best way to learn phonics is through explicit instruction of sounds and regular practice of reading. Some schools also access programs like Amira Learning. Amira Learning is a Science of Reading based app that asks children to read out loud to the AI avatar and deploys great decoding and Science of Reading instruction when the young learner gets stuck or requires additional support. Amira is a great tool for decoding because children are reading out loud with the avatar.

Phonics is the most discussed and often considered most essential pillar in Science of Reading based instruction. While all the pillars weave together for a comprehensive reading instructional strategy, be sure to check out information on all the pillars: Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension.

Amira Learning helps students develop their phonics skills with in-the-moment coaching for students with an AI reading tutor. As students struggle to decode a word, Amira pops in with a Science of Reading decoding strategy to help the students persist and grow as readers. The combination of reading practice and explicit instruction is proven to help students grow and Amira is able to provide these supports through a reading application used by parents and teachers.
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