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Reading Unraveled: Demystifying the Code Through Phonics

The ultimate goal of reading is what we do with the information and ideas that we take in through the written word. This involves high order cognitive engagement and is impacted by many factors including saliency determination, verbal conceptualization, critical thinking, creativity, and life experience. However, without prolonged practice with the foundational processes of reading, this goal becomes inaccessible to most students even when we work to cultivate these higher order functioning skills. Building an awareness of the underlying factors that impact reading competency is essential for effective instructional design at any grade level. This is the fifth and last of a series of short articles designed to unpack these factors in response to real questions asked by teachers.

Question 5

I thought phonics instruction was only for children with dyslexia. So, why does it matter in my general education classroom?

Unraveling this myth is essential before we can become truly effective as early years teachers of reading and once we understand the answer to this question, we can never un-know it. The short answer is that this is a false assumption. All people learn to read using the same skills. “To decode text, a reader must (1) distinguish one letter from another, (2) hear individual speech sounds, and (3) know the mapping between letters (and letter groups) and speech sounds” (Willingham, 2017).

While this appears pretty straight forward (and it is), there are obstacles to adjusting our instruction in a way that truly meets our learners of reading where they are. Most adults  have already developed automaticity with the sound-symbol mapping that explicit phonics instruction makes visible. It happened so long ago, we’ve forgotten that in the beginning, we needed to be taught this code. What we do remember is the high school focus on comprehension that our teachers impressed on us as the most important element of reading proficiency. Being able to apply intellectual empathy to stand in the shoes of our youngest learners, putting aside our assumptions and personal propensities, does not come easily for most of us. Deconstructing knowledge and skills down to their basic elements is a professional discipline that elementary teachers must actively learn and practice in every discipline; reading is no exception. All of our emerging readers need to know the rules (and exceptions) of our written code, not only children with dyslexia.

The fact is that every proficient reader uses their knowledge of the code to decipher unfamiliar words. As a five-year-old, this applies to every word they come across. As an adult, I continue to use my knowledge of the code every time I google a medical website to figure out what my new symptoms might mean. Ultimately, if our goal is to have each student fully realize their potential in every area of study, we need to equip our future linguists and high-level academics with the knowledge that will support their exceptional relationship with our language. This is equally as important as making sure that students who may need repeated explanation and practice to build capacity as readers get the knowledge and practice they need to become functionally proficient. The good news is that what all our children need is exactly the same – intentional instruction in the code of our alphabetic language, otherwise known as phonics.

But, what does research show phonics instruction should look like?

1. A clearly laid out scope and sequence.

This matters because in its absence, individual teachers may or may not follow a useful sequence that builds from simple to complex pair associations (between symbols and sounds) that cover all of the code without any missing pieces. A haphazard approach does not lead to consistently predictable higher reading outcomes. Several slightly different sequences appear to lead to similar outcomes when studied, so right now the thinking is that there is not one right order to teach phonics. If everyone in your school is using the same logical sequence, your learners will benefit from this intentional pathway.

2. Diagnostic responsiveness.

Diagnostic assessments measure specific components of reading and are used to plan future instruction, design opportunities needed by a range of students, and keep track of the effectiveness of your approach. Lessons in every subject area should be designed to connect old knowledge with new, address misunderstandings as they become visible, and avoid unnecessary redundancy. Adjusting your teaching based on the information you gather from frequent check-ins is what diagnostic responsiveness is all about.

3. Explicit instruction.

Teachers need to take the lead to intentionally build the skills of reading that our brains are not naturally wired to accommodate (Dehaene, 2011). All of our students become better readers when we clarify the phonology and support the orthographic mapping of our written language. A constructivist approach simply won’t work for reading instruction.

4. Systematic approach.

Supporting the cognitive load of our students by using a system they can apply over and over with new phonics concepts leads to better retention of the rules of reading. This is true when learning any new complex body of knowledge and cannot be overlooked in the teaching of reading.

5. Memory enhanced practice

Most linguists agree that there are 44 distinct sounds (phonemes) used in the English language. This is not a huge number, but even adults find it challenging to memorize this much information, and there are several letter combinations that represent the same sound adding to the memory demands. To make phonics sticky (and engaging), teachers need to plan lessons that leverage the science of memory. Planning for spaced retrieval practice, reviewing the cumulative body of knowledge young readers are building, and centering playful learning through interactive and multimodal activities and games is essential, and never boring. When phonics instruction is “telling”, drilling, and worksheet-based, it becomes demotivating for the learner, but this is true of any content delivered in this way. “Great phonics instruction is active, engaging, and thought provoking, whereby children are observing and talking about how words work” (Blevins, 2021).

Teaching reading the way kids need to learn is not sexy and spontaneous, it is methodical and calculated in a way that requires preparation, planning, and commitment on the part of the teacher. When we know that “few interventions improved conventional literacy skills or the precursor skills most related to later literacy growth, the exception being code-focused interventions” (Lonigan, 2009) and that “phonological decoding and intelligence mostly work independent from each other” (Stanovich, 1988), we can be confident that our efforts in this area make a huge difference for our all our young learners. This part of your day may not be the most entertaining for you as an adult, but if you dig in and do what is needed, you will be rewarded with the enthusiasm and joy your students experience as the magical world of the written word opens up for them.

Afternote: For all elementary educators reading this article

This is the final in a series of five articles, each unpacking the importance and application of one of the five pillars of reading identified by the National Reading Panel, 1999. Phonics is not taught at the expense of comprehension, the semantics of vocabulary is not ignored in the pursuit of rote “word calling”, and the richness of story is not lost by teaching the structure of our language. With practice, skillful phonics instruction does not take up your whole day and if you meet this instructional need early, students will begin entering third grade with everything in place to connect strong word recognition with their broad knowledge of the world, verbal reasoning, and experience of the norms of different styles of writing (that you’ve been modeling from the start through daily interactive read aloud) to construct rich awareness of meaning beyond your wildest expectations.

Teaching phonics does not turn the entire education system upside down for 20% of the kids, as was suggested by a Fountas and Pinnell representative in 2021. It simply acknowledges the demands of the skill of reading and takes responsibility for building the knowledge needed in ways that resonate with young learners. With so much evidence supporting the importance of orthographic mapping in the process of decoding and so much to gain for our students, why would we ever choose to leave high quality phonics out of our efforts to educate fully literate future leaders.


Blevins, W. (2021, April 18). Phonics and the science of reading. Sadlier’s english language arts blog.

Dehaene, S. (2011). The massive impact of literacy on the brain and its consequences for education. Human Neuroplasticity and Education Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Scripta Varia 117, Vatican City.

Lonigan, C. & Shanahan, T. (2009). Developing early literacy: Report of the national early literacy panel. Executive Summary. A Scientific Synthesis of Early Literacy Development and Implications for Intervention. National Institute for Literacy.

Share, D. L. (2011). On the role of phonology in reading acquisition: The self-teaching hypothesis. In S. A. Brady, D. Braze, & C. A. Fowler (Eds.), Explaining individual differences in reading: Theory and evidence (pp. 45–68). Psychology Press.

Stanovich, K. E. (1988). Explaining the differences between the dyslexic and the garden-variety poor reader: The phonological-core variable-difference model. J. Learn. Disabil. 21, 590–604. doi: 10.1177/002221948802101003

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Report of the National Reading Panel. Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Retrieved November 19, 2022, from

Willingham, D. T. (2017). The reading mind: a cognitive approach to understanding how the mind reads. Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Brand.

Hanford, E. (Host). (2022). Sold a Story [Audio podcast]. American Public Media.