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Mass Literacy

Phonics and Decoding

Reading is the act of processing text in order to derive meaning. To learn to read, children must develop both fluent word reading and language comprehension (Gough & Tunmer,1986). Fluent word reading stems from underlying skills: phonological awareness, phonics and decoding, and automatic word recognition.

What Are Phonics and Decoding?

Phonics is a "way of teaching the code-based portion of reading and spelling that stresses symbol-sound relationships; especially important in beginning reading instruction" (Massachusetts 2017 English Language Arts and Literacy Framework ).

Decoding is "the ability to translate a word from print to speech, usually by employing knowledge of sound-symbol correspondences; also the act of deciphering a new word by sounding it out" (Foorman et al., 2016 ).

How Phonics Contributes to Reading Development

All readers of an alphabetic language such as English use phonics knowledge and decoding skills to read words (Seidenberg, 2017). Readers know the relationships between letters or groups of letters and their sounds (called sound-symbol correspondences or phoneme-grapheme correspondences) and rules for how words are spelled. Readers can decode words, which involves using phonics knowledge and phonemic skills to turn a printed word into sounds. Becoming a proficient reader requires these skills.

"In alphabetic systems, the phonemes of the language are represented by letters or groups of letters (graphemes, e.g., b → /b/, ph → /f/). If a child learns to decode that symbol-to-sound relationship, then that child will have the ability to translate printed words into spoken language, thereby accessing information about meaning" (Castles, Rastle, & Nation, 2018 ).

The National Reading Panel (2000) conducted an exhaustive review of research on phonics, and drew the following conclusions:

  • "An essential part of the process for beginners involves learning the alphabetic system, that is, letter-sound correspondences and spelling patterns, and learning how to apply this knowledge in their reading."
  • "Systematic phonics instruction makes a bigger contribution to children's growth in reading than alternative programs providing unsystematic or no phonics instruction. Phonics instruction taught early proved much more effective than phonics instruction introduced after first grade…These results indicate clearly that systematic phonics instruction in kindergarten and 1st grade is highly beneficial and that children at these developmental levels are quite capable of learning phonemic and phonics concepts."
  • "Systematic phonics instruction has been used widely over a long period of time with positive results. A variety of phonics programs have proven effective with children of different ages, abilities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. These facts should persuade educators and the public that systematic phonics instruction is a valuable part of a successful classroom reading program."

Susan Brady (2011) conducted a well-respected review of research on phonics instruction in the 10 years following the National Reading Panel, to determine what new findings had emerged. Based upon an additional 10 years of research, her report found:

  • "Systematic, explicit methods of code instruction are more effective than approaches that are less explicit and/or less systematic."
  • "Normally achieving students, students at risk, and severely disabled readers all have been documented to benefit from systematic, explicit instruction."
  • "Research outcomes are pointing to the value of extending code-based instruction beyond first grade, not only for struggling readers but also for those with stronger prowess in basic skills."
Nadine Gaab
"You can listen to Mozart or Beethoven for many, many years. But if you were sitting in front of the piano, it doesn't mean that you can then play the piano. [You need] explicit instruction to practice and develop this skill. It's something that happens over a prolonged period of time. It's not something that happens overnight and it's for sure not something that happens naturally."

Nadine Gaab
Associate Professor of Education
Harvard Graduate School of Education

Effective Phonics and Decoding Practices

Plan Systematic Instruction

For systematic instruction, lessons build on previously taught information, from simple to complex (Brady, 2011). A carefully planned sequence for instruction, similar to a builder's blueprint for a house, generally starts with regular spelling patterns and progresses intentionally to more challenging patterns.

Use a Gradual Release Approach

A gradual release approach involves explicit instruction and modeling; followed by active guided practice; and finally, independent application and transfer to text (adapted from Pearson & Gallagher, 1983).

Deliver Explicit Instruction

Tiffany Hogan
"The process of learning to read written words is a new process in the evolution of humans and we are using different parts of our brain than we have for processing language to do this task. So reading is not something that comes naturally to children. It requires explicit instruction."

Tiffany P. Hogan
Director of the Speech and Language (SAiL) Literacy Lab
MGH Institute of Health Professions

Explicit instruction involves direct explanation. The teacher's language is concise and specific. Explicit instruction means that the actions of the teacher are clear, unambiguous, direct, and visible. This makes it clear what the students are to do and learn. Nothing is left to guess work. (Florida Center for Reading Research Glossary of Reading Terms).

Examples of Explicit Instructional Routines

Provide Interactive Practice

Interactive practice is hands-on, engaging, and multimodal, such as moving tiles into sound boxes as words are analyzed, using hand gestures to support memory for associations, building words with letter tiles, or assembling sentences with words on cards. Listening, speaking, reading, and writing are often paired with one another to foster multimodal language learning (adapted from International Dyslexia Association). Effective guided practice includes corrective feedback to students.

Examples of Interactive Practice Activities

Integrate Encoding With Decoding

Linking direct and explicit instruction in decoding with encoding produces positive gains in both reading and spelling. Providing practice with decoding (reading) and encoding (spelling and writing) of letter-sound correspondences positively impacts reading, writing, and spelling (Weiser & Mathes, 2011).

Promote Transfer of Decoding Skills to Text

To support beginning independent reading success, students need to practice reading recently taught letter-sound correspondences in connected text. When students have the opportunity to immediately apply newly learned skills to their reading, they are more likely to use decoding strategies to read unfamiliar words and are more skillful at decoding (Hatcher, Hulme, & Ellis, 1994; Cheatham & Allor, 2012).

Learn More About Phonics and Decoding

Considerations for Students Learning English

English learners should have equal opportunity to meaningfully participate in all foundational skills instruction. These recommendations and resources will further support English learners to develop phonics and decoding skills. Also, please refer to WIDA Can Dos and WIDA Instructional Supports.

Taking Bilingualism into Account

  • English learners may have alphabet knowledge in a home language with similarities and differences from English. A child's home language may use the same letters as English, but have different names and sounds for letters (e.g., Spanish). Or, a child's home language may use a different alphabet and English letters are not yet familiar (e.g., Cyrillic alphabet).
  • Teachers should work with a child and his/her family to understand what literacy skills the child already developed in the home language. Many literacy skills built in the home language can "transfer" and support developing English literacy. For instance, once the concept of matching a symbol with a sound has been learned, it can be applied to new languages (Colorín Colorado **).
  • Systematic phonics instruction is effective in helping ELs learn to decode words, even at lower levels of English language proficiency. However, decoding alone does not facilitate reading comprehension if students' oral language proficiency is not developed to the level of the texts they are expected to read (Helman, 2004; Droop & Verhoeven, 2003).
  • Teachers should consider if the heritage/home language of the students is logographic or syllabic (Bialystok, 2002; Durgunoğlu, 2002) to inform plans to introduce the child to English letters and to make supportive connections to their home language based knowledge.
  • English learners may speak with a dialect different than the teachers. This can affect the pronunciations of the words. This does not indicate a reading problem as long as pronunciations are consistent (Colorín Colorado **).
  • ELs may feel anxious and/or frustrated about attempting to produce sounds in English. A supportive environment helps lower affective filter and promotes risk taking (Krashen & Terrell, 1983).

Supports for English Learners


Bialystok, E. (2002). Acquisition of literacy in bilingual children: A framework for research. Language Learning, 52 (1), 159–199.

Blevins, W. (1998). Phonics from A to Z: A practical guide. New York: Scholastic Professional Books.

Brady, S. (2011). Efficacy of phonics teaching for reading outcomes: Indications from post-NRP research. In Brady, S., Braze, D.,& Fowler, C., eds. Explaining Individual Differences in Reading: Theory and Evidence. New York: Psychology Press.

Castles, A., Rastle, K., & Nation, K. (2018). Ending the reading wars: Reading acquisition from novice to expert. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19(1), 5–51.

Cheatham, J. P., & Allor, J. H. (2012). The influence of decodability in early reading text on reading achievement: A review of the evidence. Reading and Writing, 25(9), 2223–2246.

Droop, M., & Verhoeven, L. (2003). Language proficiency and reading ability in first- and second-language learners. Reading Research Quarterly, 38 (1), 78–103.

Durgunoğlu, A. Y. (2002). Cross-linguistic transfer in literacy development and implications for language learners. Annals of Dyslexia, 52, 189–204.

Foorman, B., Beyler, N., Borradaile, K., Coyne, M., Denton, C. A., Dimino, J., Furgeson, J., Hayes, L., Henke, J., Justice, L., Keating, B., Lewis, W., Sattar, S., Streke, A., Wagner, R., & Wissel, S. (2016). Foundational skills to support reading for understanding in kindergarten through 3rd grade (NCEE 2016-4008). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from the NCEE website:

Gersten, R., & Geva, E. (2003). Teaching reading to early language learners. Educational Leadership, 60 (7), 44–49.

Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, Reading, and Reading Disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6–10.

Hatcher, P. J., Hulme, C., & Ellis, A. W. (1994). Ameliorating early reading failure by integrating the teaching of reading and phonological skills: The phonological linkage hypothesis. Child Development, 65, 41–57.

Helman, L. A. (2004). Building on the sound system of Spanish: Insights from the alphabetic spellings of English-language learners. The Reading Teacher, 57 (5), 452–460.

Krashen, S.D., & Terrell, T.D. (1983). The natural approach: Language acquisition in the classroom. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Linan-Thompson, S. and Vaughn. S. (2007). Research-based Methods of Reading Instruction for English Learners, Grades K–4. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Pearson, P. D. & Gallagher, M.C. (1983). The Instruction of Reading Comprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8, 1983, pp. 317–344.

Schickedanz, J. and Collins, M. (2013). So Much More than the ABCs. National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Seidenberg, M. (2017). Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can't, and what can be done about it. New York, NY: Basic Books.

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Last Updated: March 14, 2023

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