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Systematic and explicit phonics instruction: A scientific, evidence-based approach to teaching the alphabetic principle. In R. Cox, S. Feez & L. Beveridge (Eds.), The alphabetic principle and beyond (pp. 49-67). Newtown, NSW: Primary English Teaching Association Australia

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This chapter explains how beginning readers are taught the alphabetic principle using systematic and explicit phonics instruction in the first few years of school. The purpose of this type of instruction is to teach all beginning readers how to decode and recognise words accurately, independently and automatically. This is achieved by directly and systematically teaching children letter–sound correspondence in a planned sequence. Word recognition is described as one component of skilled reading alongside comprehension, but it is the component that represents the foundation of future reading success.
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49
CHAPTER 4
Systematic and explicit
phonics instruction:
A scientific, evidence-based
approach to teaching the
alphabetic principle
Jennifer Buckingham, Robyn Wheldall
and Kevin Wheldall
This chapter explains how beginning readers are taught the alphabetic
principle using systematic and explicit phonics instruction in the rst
few years of school. The purpose of this type of instruction is to teach
all beginning readers how to decode and recognise words accurately,
independently and automatically. This is achieved by directly and systematically
teaching children letter–sound correspondence in a planned sequence. Word
recognition is described as one component of skilled reading alongside
comprehension, but it is the component that represents the foundation of
future reading success.
048-101 PART2_CH4-6.indd 49 7/2/19 3:48 pm
Published in:
Buckingham, J., Wheldall, R., & Wheldall, K. (2019). Systematic and explicit phonics instruction: A scientific,
evidence-based approach to teaching the alphabetic principle. In R. Cox, S. Feez & L. Beveridge (Eds.),
The
alphabetic principle and beyond
(pp. 49-67). Newtown, NSW: Primary English Teaching Association Australia.
PART 2 EXPLORING THE TERRAIN
50
INTRODUCTION
The hallmark of skilled reading is fast context-free word identication. And rich context-dependent
text understanding.
(Perfetti, 1995)
Written over twenty years ago, this quote from Perfetti still elegantly summarises the state of the art
with regard to reading instruction. Since it was written, considerable further research has continued to
accumulate in support of Perfetti’s statement (Castles, Rastle & Nation, 2018).
But it is still important to emphasise, at the outset, that teaching children to read involves so much more
than teaching ecient, rapid decoding. Advocates for the importance of a phonics-based approach to
teaching the alphabetic principle are often unfairly criticised for recommending phonics only, to the
exclusion of other techniques, but this criticism is misplaced.
Phonics
is a body of knowledge about the relationship between the sounds of spoken language and the
letters used to represent them in writing. Phonics instruction teaches children this knowledge and how
to apply it when reading, but it is most eective when used in combination with other, complementary
strategies. Nonetheless, the focus of this chapter is clearly with the first part of Perfetti’s observation:
‘fast
context-free
word identification’.
Reading is a complex cognitive process. Unlike speaking, reading is a skill that does not typically develop
spontaneously in children. This significant understanding underpins the scientific evidence of how
children learn to read. There is evidence that children who are raised in language-rich homes with
frequent exposure to books will be more likely to learn to read early, but not always (Puglisi, Hulme,
Hamilton & Snowling, 2017). Many children in such enriched home-literacy environments struggle with
reading, and the corollary is also true that many children from language- and literacy-impoverished
home environments learn to read with little diculty at school. Early language experience is a predictive,
but not determining, factor (Buckingham, Beaman & Wheldall, 2014).
THE ROLE OF THE ALPHABETIC PRINCIPLE IN LEARNING
TO READ
The key to understanding how reading skill develops is understanding how beginners learn to
recognize written words accurately and automatically.
(Ehri, 2005, p.168)
The alphabetic principle is the understanding that letters and letter clusters in written words represent
the sounds in spoken words, and that letter–sound correspondences are predictable and reversible. It is
the understanding that written English is a code invented to record and communicate spoken English,
and that the code is systematic and largely consistent. Hence, acquisition of the alphabetic principle is
essential for learning to read and write. When children begin to learn to read, they are building
neurological connections between parts of the brain that store letters (visual information) and sounds
(phonological information). These connections are formed by knowledge of the alphabetic system.
Beginning readers access the meaning of a word via a phonological pathway in the brain; that is,
through the sound of the word, not its shape. Over time, with multiple exposures to written words,
readers build up a mental lexicon of sight words that allows them to make direct, or at least rapid,
connections between print and meaning (Castles, Rastle & Nation, 2018). Therefore, the ability to
convert the written word to the spoken word through phonological decoding is crucial in the early
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CHAPTER 4 SYSTEMATIC AND EXPLICIT PHONICS INSTRUCTION
51
development of reading. According to Nation (2017), ‘there is clear consensus that in alphabetic
languages, phonological decoding is at the core of learning to read words’.
The Simple View of Reading
The Simple View of Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) is a model of reading that has been tested and
supported in dozens of experimental studies (Vaughn, 2018). It does not suggest that reading is a
simple process; rather, the model is conceptually simple, separating the complexity of reading
comprehension into two distinct component parts: the product of word identification and language
comprehension (see Feez, Chapter 2, this volume).
A note on terminology
In the original paper on the Simple View of Reading, Gough and Tunmer (1986) use the term ‘decoding’
instead of ‘word identication’. However, as noted by Hoover and Tunmer (2018), decoding is usually
used in reading research literature as shorthand for
phonological
decoding. The word-identication
component of the model is not limited to phonological decoding (it may occur via sight-word
recognition); therefore the broader term ‘word identication’ is often used to avoid confusion.
Using this model, it is clear that if either the ability to identify words or comprehend language are
impaired or absent, then reading comprehension will suer. In plain language, if a child cannot work
out what a written word is, then they cannot make meaning and they are not reading. Likewise, if they
can read a word aloud but do not know what it means, they are not reading. Numerous studies have
found that the combination of word identification and language comprehension (as measured by either
vocabulary or listening comprehension) accounts for the majority of variation in reading comprehension
(Tilstra, McMaster, Van den Broek, Kendeou & Rapp, 2009; Lonigan, Burgess & Schatschneider, 2018;
LaRRC, 2018).
The word-identification component of the Simple View is described by Wheldall (2011) as ‘the ability to
translate or decode the marks on the page or screen into words’. Decoding takes place at the
grapheme
subword
level (see Feez, Chapter 2, this volume); research has shown that both beginning and skilled
readers attend to all of the letters, as well as their position, when reading a word (Rayner, White &
Liversedge, 2006; Grainger, 2008). Likewise, eye movement studies show that when people read a text,
their eyes land on practically every word (Rayner & Pollatsek, 1989). These studies show that readers do
not ‘sample’ text or memorise whole words by their shape; rather, they store words in their long-term
memory via a process called orthographic mapping (Kilpatrick, 2015).
Comparing phonics with other approaches
These features of beginning and skilled reading explain why using phonics to decode unknown words
is a more ecient and accurate strategy than using cueing systems that prioritise semantic (meaning)
and syntactic (grammatical) context (Kilpatrick, 2017). A recent systematic review states that using
semantic and syntax context cues before phonological decoding is ‘little better than guessing, since
they often lead to learners producing words other than the target’ (Torgerson, Brooks, Gascoine &
Higgins, 2018, p.2).
Learning the alphabetic principle and becoming proficient at using it for phonological decoding has
two key benefits for learning to read. First, it facilitates the storage of words in long-term memory so
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PART 2 EXPLORING THE TERRAIN
52
they can be retrieved instantaneously as
sight words
. Letter–sound knowledge (phonics) is the mnemonic
system that bonds written words into long-term memory as sight words. (‘Sight words’ in scientific
reading research refers to words which have been stored in memory by repeated exposure and are
recognised automatically, not to lists of high frequency words that are taught by rote.) When readers
acquire sucient knowledge of the alphabetic system, they are able to learn sight words quickly and
remember them long-term (Ehri, 2005).
Knowledge of the alphabetic principle and letter–sound correspondences also helps children to develop
their vocabulary. Studies have shown that children are more likely to remember the meanings of words
if they know how to spell them (Ricketts, Bishop & Nation, 2009; Rosenthal & Ehri, 2008).
Therefore, early acquisition of this knowledge is essential for children to begin to read accurately and
independently. Early accurate reading facilitates reading volume, which in turn develops reading ability
in a positive reciprocal relationship (Sparks, Patton & Murdoch, 2014).
HOW DOES LETTER–SOUND KNOWLEDGE DEVELOP WHEN
CHILDREN ARE LEARNING TO READ?
Acquisition of the alphabetic principle depends on children having developed at least some facility with
phonemic awareness (the ability to hear and discriminate the individual sounds – phonemes – in spoken
words). Without phonemic awareness, it is dicult for children to map print to sound and vice versa
(Melby-Lervag, Lyster & Hulme, 2012). Most children have developed sucient phonemic awareness for
phonics instruction to begin in the first few weeks of formal school education, but some need a limited
amount of explicit phonemic awareness instruction prior to phonics instruction. Phonemic awareness
continues to develop with phonics instruction. Likewise, many children will have some knowledge of the
alphabetic principle before they begin school, either of letter names, letter sounds, or both.
According to Ehri (2005), development of the alphabetic principle occurs in four phases (see Table 4.1).
Children become adept at decoding words when they move from the partial alphabetic to the full
alphabetic phase. Making this transition requires them to learn a great deal of information that is largely
abstract; the shape of a letter contains no clue to the way it is pronounced in words. The letter–sound
associations must be learnt to the point of automaticity in order for children to fluently and seamlessly
blend letter–sounds to make words. This multimodal (sight and sound) paired-association memory task
is cognitively demanding and often eortful (Seidenberg, 2017).
The consolidated alphabetic phase is achieved when children have sucient word-reading fluency and
proficiency to generalise their decoding skills to read and learn new words independently in a process
described by Share (1995) as ‘self-teaching’. At this stage, children’s reading comprehension becomes
constrained by their oral vocabulary or language comprehension, according to the Simple View of Reading.
Many children begin to learn about letters and the alphabet from the age of two or three years, and it is
beneficial to introduce some structured phonemic awareness and letter–sound activities in early education
settings and at home. However, there is strong evidence that the acquisition of knowledge and skills
required for fluent phonological decoding and word reading is most likely to occur early and successfully
with systematic and explicit instruction in phonics in the first few years of school. Such instruction uses a
carefully developed sequence of letter–sounds that has been developed to minimise confusion while the
alphabetic principle is consolidating in a beginning reader (Stuart & Stainthorp, 2016).
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CHAPTER 4 SYSTEMATIC AND EXPLICIT PHONICS INSTRUCTION
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Table 4.1 Four phases in the development of the alphabetic principle (Ehri, 2005).
PHASE CHARACTERISTICS
Pre-alphabetic Children recognise words in their environment that have a
distinctive shape but do not pay attention to the individual letters
Partial alphabetic Children know a few letters and sounds and use them to predict
words; this phase is typified by invented spellings that use only
consonants
Full alphabetic Children know all the major letter–sound correspondences
and are able to blend and segment all of the phonemes and
graphemes in a word, and are building a sight-word vocabulary
Consolidated alphabetic Children blend whole words and parts of words using their
grapho-phonological properties into chunks or units of
information, and retain them as sight words in the form of unique
letter strings
There is no accepted ‘best’ sequence for the systematic teaching of letters and sounds, but there are
some research-based criteria (Carnine, Silbert & Kame’enui, 1997):
Introduce single letter–sounds first, and progress to the more complex code of digraphs and
trigraphs (speech sounds of two and three letters, respectively)
Begin with a small set of letters that can be combined to make a number of simple vowel-
consonant and consonant-vowel-consonant words, in order to facilitate blending and
segmenting
Introduce letters at a rate of 3–6 a week, teaching cumulatively
Teach high-frequency letters first
Separate the teaching of visually and auditorily similar letters.
These criteria characterise a ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ (SSP) approach to instruction in the alphabetic
principle, as opposed to non-systematic approaches (such as ‘phonics in context’) or instruction that
works on larger sub-word units such as onset–rime analysis (see Feez, Chapter 2, this volume). The SSP
pedagogy is explained in more detail below.
PHONICS IN THE CURRICULUM
Given that the alphabetic principle is the basis of our English language, it makes sense that having a
firm grasp of this knowledge, and the skills that are associated with it, is fundamental to learning how
to read. This is particularly important in the beginning stages of learning to read. As has been described
earlier, the alphabetic principle gives rise to phonics instruction – teaching students how to match a
sound in our language (a phoneme) to its representation on paper (a grapheme). This is why
grapheme–
phoneme correspondences
(GPCs) are central to a phonics approach to teaching reading. This
foundational skill for learning to read is reflected in the Australian Curriculum: English (ACARA n.d.a)
and in the National Literacy Learning Progression (ACARA n.d.b). Being such a critical skill, it is not
surprising that the features of teaching the alphabetic code appear early in the Curriculum and in
the progression.
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PART 2 EXPLORING THE TERRAIN
54
The Australian Curriculum: English is built around the related strands of Language, Literature and
Literacy. The Literacy strand is the most pertinent here, and we have italicised key words and terms in
the following extracts.
From the Foundation year, students are expected to ‘engage with a variety of texts for enjoyment’. The
Foundation Year Level Description (the highest level) for English states that students:
listen to,
read
and view spoken, written and multimodal texts in which the primary purpose is to
entertain, as well as some texts designed to inform . . . They participate in shared reading, viewing
and storytelling using a range of literary texts, and recognise the entertaining nature of literature.
Moreover, the English Curriculum Level Description (next level from highest) mandates the types of text
that should be used by beginner readers:
Literary texts that support and extend Foundation students as beginner readers include decodable
and predictable texts that range from caption books to books with one or more sentences per page.
The Curriculum prescribes the use of texts that ‘can be decoded phonically’. These are, of course, in
addition to a range of literary texts to foster and develop other capabilities. They are by no means
intended to be the only books to which young children are exposed. The inclusion of the use of
decodable books highlights the importance of phonological recoding in the very beginning stages of
reading. This skill draws directly on the alphabetic principle.
This requirement to read decodable and predictable texts continues into Year 1, with the inclusion of
words that need to be ‘decoded phonically’. By Year 2, the Level Description specifies that teachers
should use literary texts ‘that support and extend Year 2 students as
independent readers’
, (our
emphasis) and any reference to the use of decodable and predictable text has disappeared.
The Curriculum provides descriptions with accompanying codes to guide the skills that students need
to gain and thereby inform the instructional approaches of teachers. Many of these relate to the skills
that arise from the alphabetic principle. For example, ACELA 1440, Phonics and word knowledge, states,
‘Recognise and name lower-case letters (graphemes) and know the most common sound that each letter
represents’.
As another example, the Curriculum Content Description for the Foundation year ACELY1649,
Interpreting, analysing, evaluating, states that children should be able to:
Read decodable and predictable texts, practising phrasing and uency, and monitor meaning using
concepts about print and emerging contextual, semantic, grammatical and phonic knowledge.
To read decodable texts, most children need to be taught phonics. While some children do appear to
deduce the phonic code for themselves, the vast majority require this to be taught explicitly.
It has recently been argued that the requirement to use two types of text in the beginning stages of
learning to read draws on two dierent theories of reading – the whole-language method and a code-
based method (phonics), based on the alphabetic principle – that are in conflict with each other
(Pogorzelski & Wheldall, 2018). At best, this is highly confusing for teachers. More research is needed in
this area, but there is mounting evidence that decodable texts are more useful in the beginning stages
of learning to read than are predictable books (Mesmer, 2005; Cheatham & Allor, 2012). What is not
debatable is that phonics is the most direct route to skilled reading, as explained earlier.
The requirement for children to understand and become proficient with the alphabetic code is also
reflected in the National Literacy Learning Progression. This emphasis can be found in the Reading and
Writing element, specifically the ‘Phonic knowledge and word recognition’ (PKW) sub-element. There
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CHAPTER 4 SYSTEMATIC AND EXPLICIT PHONICS INSTRUCTION
55
are, of course, as the Progression document states, particular links between this sub-element and the
sub-elements Phonological awareness, Spelling, and Understanding texts (ACARA, n.d.b). The Literacy
Progression sub-element PKW provides detail on how phonic knowledge can be developed sequentially.
It, understandably, provides more fine-grained detail of the skills that are required for students to
become fluent in using alphabetic knowledge than is provided in the Curriculum and General
Capabilities. To this end it may be more useful for teachers in supporting children to become skilled and
independent readers.
Decoding
It is worth looking at the definition of decoding in the Australian Curriculum, as this is likely to cause
some confusion. It is as follows:
Decoding
A process of working out a meaning of words in a text. In decoding, readers draw on contextual,
vocabulary, grammatical and phonic knowledge.
Readers who decode eectively combine these forms of knowledge uently and automatically, and
self-correct using meaning to recognise when they make an error.
(ACARA n.d.a, Glossary)
This is not a widely-accepted definition of the term decoding. As noted earlier, in research literature
based on scientific studies of reading, the term decoding is most frequently used as shorthand for
phonological decoding (which is also sometimes called phonological recoding) (Hoover & Tunmer,
2018). This is a much narrower definition than that proposed in the Curriculum, which more closely
describes the ‘three cueing systems’ approach to word recognition, which encourages children to use
context-based cues before phonic cues to read unfamiliar words (see Cox, Feez & Beveridge, Chapter 1,
this volume). In this chapter we use the word decoding to mean phonological decoding.
TEACHING THE ALPHABETIC PRINCIPLE
It has now been established, by scientific reading research carried out over the last 30–40 years, that
phonics instruction is the best way to teach the alphabetic principle. It is now beyond reasonable doubt.
As Stanovich (2000, p.415) puts it:
That direct instruction in alphabetic coding facilitates early reading acquisition is one of the most
well established conclusions in all of behavioural science.
Three national committees of inquiry, from the USA (NRP, 2000), the UK (Rose, 2006) and Australia
(Rowe, 2005), have all concluded that phonics is the best way forward. In Australia, the committee
argued strongly for empirical evidence to be used to improve the manner in which reading is taught in
Australia (Hempenstall, 2016).
However, the recommendations of these reviews have not been adopted widely in policy or by extension
in Australian schools (Australian Government Expert Advisory Panel, 2017). Many Australian teachers do
already make some use of phonics in their reading instruction; however, the nature and quality of this
instruction varies. It is important, then, to define clearly what is meant by the term ‘phonics’, or the
form of phonics instruction, advocated here.
According to these three inquiries, phonics teaching in the alphabetic principle should be structured
and systematic. This does not include ‘incidental phonics’ taught on the run or ‘phonics as the last
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PART 2 EXPLORING THE TERRAIN
56
resort’, as part of the three cueing systems. Central to eective phonics instruction is the systematic
teaching of letter–sound correspondences in a logical sequence, so that
all
correspondences and blends
are taught.
It has sometimes been argued that analytic and analogic phonics can be taught in a structured and
systematic way. In these approaches, the phonemes associated with particular graphemes are not
pronounced in isolation (that is, outside of whole words), and students are asked to analyse the common
phoneme in a set of words in which each word contains the phoneme being introduced. The lesser
overall eectiveness of analytic phonics instruction may be due to a lack of sucient systematic practice
and feedback usually required by the less able reading student (Hempenstall, 2016; Wheldall, Snow &
Graham, 2016). These dierences may be due to confusion regarding terminology, so it is important to
define, then, exactly what SSP means.
Systematic synthetic phonics (SSP)
The use of the word ‘synthetic’ is a cause for confusion to some. In this context, it does not mean fake
or artificial, like nylon or plastic. It refers to the notion of
synthesising
learned letter sounds to ‘sound
out’ or ‘read through’, the word. So, once a child has learned the sounds associated with S, M, T, I and
A, for example, they are encouraged to
blend
the sounds together to form ‘sat’, ‘mat’, ‘sit’, ‘Sam, ‘Tim’
etc. The child is also shown how to
segment
words, by replacing a letter sound and thereby changing
the meaning: for example, from ‘sat’ to mat’, by changing one letter.
One of the most alarming concomitants of misunderstanding the real meaning of synthetic phonics is the
myth that it refers to the teaching of non-words or pseudo-words. In England, this has led to some
teachers attempting to teach lists of pseudo-words in preparation for the Phonics Screening Check
(discussed later), rather than teaching phonic decoding (sometimes known as phonological recoding)
per se
.
An eective program of early literacy instruction will have at its core an explicit and systematic phonics
component to teach the alphabetic code. This should be included daily for at least 20–30 minutes until
the full code has been taught. Well-designed programs will provide multiple engaging activities within
this session to ensure that children’s attention is sustained. In addition to phonics instruction (which
would also address phonemic awareness and fluency), there should also be an extensive focus on oral
language, vocabulary and comprehension using quality children’s literature so that all elements of the
Five Big Ideas (see Feez, Chapter 2, this volume; Armbruster, Lehr & Osborne, 2008; Snow, Burns &
Grin, 1998) are addressed. InitiaLit is an example of such a program (MultiLit, 2017, 2018). A wealth
of free resources and information on teaching the Five Big Ideas is also available on the FIVEfromFIVE
website (http://www.fivefromfive.org.au/).
Explicit instruction is an evidence-based pedagogy in which the teacher:
explains, models and demonstrates the content or skill to be learned
has a stated learning objective for each lesson, and
uses clear and unambiguous language.
Systematic instruction means that there is a planned sequence of phonics elements that comprises a
logical progression of skills and knowledge, with sucient practice and cumulative review for mastery
to be achieved. Synthetic phonics is highly explicit and systematic, and is characterised by a number of
steps involving grapheme–phoneme correspondence (GPC) (being able to match a phoneme to a
grapheme and vice versa):
Clearly define a sequence of letter–sound (grapheme–phoneme) correspondences (see above).
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CHAPTER 4 SYSTEMATIC AND EXPLICIT PHONICS INSTRUCTION
57
Introduce new GPCs cumulatively.
Start with single letters and a sound for each, moving onto common digraphs (
sh
,
oo
) and
larger grapheme units (
eigh
,
air
,
igh
).
Introduce blended phonemes for reading with the first set of GPCs, adding more GPCs as they
are taught.
Introduce segmented phonemes for spelling with the first set of GPCs, adding more GPCs as
they are taught.
Introduce the most common spellings for sounds first, and then the alternative sounds for
spellings and alternative spelling for sounds.
Introduce strategies for reading and spelling high-frequency words containing unusual letter–
sound correspondences.
Provide opportunities for applying word-reading skills in reading decodable books matched to
the phonics sequence to support students in using phonological strategies as a first approach to
reading.
Once children have some basic knowledge of letter–sound combinations and can blend and segment
words with three phonemes (or sounds), they can quickly begin to read small decodable books for
themselves by using the decoding skills that they have learned to ‘lift the words o the page’.
This early engagement with books that children can read for themselves is very motivating for beginning
readers. Of course, decodable books are only a small part of the diet of books that children should be
experiencing both before they commence school and after (see Pogorzelski & Wheldall, 2018). Decodable
books only need to be used in the early stages of beginning reading, when children are mastering the
alphabetic code, but they do provide a bridge to reading more natural language text and allow children to
practise their growing alphabetic knowledge. The sooner we can teach the alphabetic code, the sooner
children can become independent readers and will be able to read a wide variety of texts. This way children
develop their vocabulary and increase their knowledge of the world, a key element in reading comprehension.
WHICH STUDENTS BENEFIT FROM THIS APPROACH?
In essence, all children benefit from learning the alphabetic principle but not necessarily to the same
extent or in the same way, best summarised in this oft-quoted (and sometimes misquoted) statement
by Snow and Juel (2005, p.518):
In our view, then, the ndings from a wide array of sources – studies of reading development,
studies of specic instructional practices, studies of schools and teachers found to be eective –
converge on the conclusion that attention to small units in early reading instruction is helpful for all,
harmful for none, and crucial for some.
A small minority of children learn to read with either no or minimal instruction, often before they even
begin school. We might speculate that these children are neurologically wired so that tasks like learning
to decode written words, to lift words o the page, are part of their biological make-up, but we know
of no research to test this idea.
We do know that humankind has been using written forms of language to communicate for only a short
time in evolutionary terms (compared to using oral language), and it is highly unlikely that humans have
developed specific neural organisations dedicated to reading. It is more likely that neural pathways and
mechanisms dedicated to other purposes (such as pattern recognition) have been brought into service
in the cause of reading and writing (Dehaene, 2009). Some children, by no means necessarily the most
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PART 2 EXPLORING THE TERRAIN
58
intelligent, appear to be able to make use of these mechanisms more readily than others. For some (the
lucky few) learning to read appears eortless; they seem to work out learning to read by themselves.
A far greater proportion — the majority of children — will not work out how to read without some sort
of instruction. Most children appear to learn to read after attending school for a few years, whether
there has been a strong phonics focus in their instruction or not. Some of these will have been able to
build a model of the alphabetic principle for themselves, while others may have amassed a large reading
vocabulary of words learned as whole words. The diculties for this latter group become apparent when
they reach Years 3 or 4, when the number of words they need to be able to read becomes so large that
they can no longer handle the volume and they ‘hit the wall’, struggling to make further progress.
Finally, there is a sizeable minority (perhaps a quarter) of all children who will always struggle to learn
to read – especially (but not exclusively) children from disadvantaged and at-risk populations, and
children with learning diculties and disabilities such as dyslexia – without explicit and systematic
phonics instruction as part of a comprehensive literacy program. Many of these children will be
disadvantaged in the school learning environment from day one, compared to their more middle-class
peers (Buckingham, Beaman & Wheldall, 2014).
Response to Intervention approach
An approach to literacy education known as Response to Intervention (RtI) is designed to meet the needs
of all students. In the standard three-tier model of RtI (see Figure 4.1), all children beginning school receive
high-quality, evidence-based instruction addressing all of the Big Five Ideas of reading in the universal Tier
One (whole class) program, including explicit instruction in letter–sound correspondences. This aords
every child with the opportunity to learn to read, but some will make faster progress than others.
RtI has become the alternative to the ‘wait to fail’, or reading discrepancy method, of identifying
children struggling to learn to read. In ‘wait to fail’, children were deemed to be in need of support if,
and only if, their reading performance was judged to be significantly inferior to what might be expected
from a knowledge of their overall cognitive ability (usually measured by an IQ test). A particularly
disturbing aspect of this approach was the fact that children with poor reading skills supposedly on a
par with their overall low cognitive ability were judged to be less in need of support than children with
average reading ability but whose cognitive ability was above average.
The Three-Tier RtI model posits that 80 percent of children will make good progress as a result of this
universal exemplary instruction. The remaining 20 percent identified as making less-than-adequate
progress are oered Tier 2 level instruction, usually in small withdrawal groups of three to four children,
where a similar approach to Tier 1 is deployed, again based on the best available scientific evidence, but
provided in greater intensity and more capable of addressing the specific reading problems these children
are experiencing. Tier 2 programs of this kind are usually able to get three-quarters of these struggling
children (or 15 percent of the total cohort) back on track and returned to the classroom.
This leaves about five percent of children in the year group in need of further, even more intensive, one-
to-one, individualised instruction, preferably by a skilled reading expert. Again the most eective
scientific, evidence-based methods are employed, with even greater intensity and specificity.
This model may be regarded as a form of dierentiated instruction in many ways and is likely to lead
to only about 2–3 percent of the overall age cohort in need of further ongoing remedial support. This
small group of children may be regarded as the true dyslexics, if we wish to use that label. Note however
that this form of dierentiated instruction diers in terms of intensity and specificity, rather than by
dierence in terms of generic pedagogy or curriculum. This is in line with the non-categorical model of
instruction (Wheldall, 1994; Wheldall & Carter, 1996) discussed below.
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CHAPTER 4 SYSTEMATIC AND EXPLICIT PHONICS INSTRUCTION
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Finally, it is important to emphasise that all children should be oered explicit instruction in the
alphabetic principle, including those who come to school apparently already able to read. There is no
way of knowing ahead of time which students will struggle to learn to read, and so it is best practice
to provide structured, systematic instruction to all children beginning school.
MEETING THE NEEDS OF ALL STUDENTS
Systematic, explicit phonics instruction within an RtI model may be considered as a ‘non-categorical
approach’ (Wheldall, 1994; Wheldall & Carter, 1996). It is beyond the remit of this present chapter to
consider the non-categorical conceptual model in detail but it is an important predicate to a more
general understanding.
In brief, the non-categorical model argues that instruction should not be tailored to the perceived needs
of
categories
of students but rather to the specific instructional needs of the individual child. In this
sense, it is truly ‘child-centred’. Advocates of this approach argue that while it may seem like useful
information to be able to diagnose a child’s diculties as stemming from their dyslexia, autism or Down
Syndrome, for example, this very rarely leads to specific information about how best to teach a particular
child. There is likely to be more variation within categories than there is between them. Children with
these disabling conditions do not need programs based on their condition but rather a program that is
based on the best scientific evidence for ecacy of instruction. This is sometimes rendered as ‘instruction
is instruction is instruction’.
Decades of research on so-called aptitude-treatment interaction has failed to provide convincing
evidence that dierent children need dierent instruction based on their categorical denomination
(Wheldall & Carter, 1996). For example, Wheldall, Beaman and Langsta (2010) have demonstrated that
low-performing Aboriginal children learn to read just as readily as similarly low-performing non-
Aboriginal children when aorded appropriate instruction based on the principles advocated in this
chapter. They do not need programs specifically geared towards the needs of Aboriginal children since
all children learn in the same way.
Figure 4.1 The Three-Tier model of Response to Intervention (RtI)
5%
15%
80%
Tier 3
Individual (5%)
Tier 2
Small group (15%)
Tier 1
Whole class (80%)
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PART 2 EXPLORING THE TERRAIN
60
Similarly, considerable research on the learning styles of children has failed to demonstrate that so-
called visual learners, auditory learners and kinaesthetic learners benefit dierentially from specific
instruction provided in their preferred modality (Wheldall & Carter, 2018). In spite of all the evidence,
this myth of learning styles is still remarkably pervasive.
How then may children with dierent profiles best be taught? The answer is to use the scientifically
proven, most eective methods of instruction for all children. This is not to say that ’one size fits all’
but rather to argue that ‘a coat should be cut according to the cloth’. The same established instructional
principles, in many cases the same programs, may be deployed with all children. What diers is their
initial placement and the progress that they may make. Some children, regardless of profile or category,
may need more, and more-intensive, instruction than others. Some children will quickly master the
sequence of instruction after having been taught a new letter–sound combination only once, while
others may need many repetitions. The RtI model, described earlier, provides a paradigm for this, the
appropriate tier of instruction being determined by continual monitoring of student performance and
progress, as discussed below.
ASSESSING STUDENT PROGRESS
The assessment and monitoring of student performance is central to a systematic and explicit approach
to reading instruction. Both formative and summative assessments are deployed in what we may roughly
categorise under four headings: two formative (placement and progress monitoring) and two summative
(criterion and norm-referenced) measures of student achievement in reading. All of these measures have
advantages and disadvantages but are used for dierent purposes. It is important to use them and the
data they provide for the appropriate purpose.
Curriculum-based assessment
The first concern is to determine what a child already knows or does not know; that is, where in the
instructional sequence the student is to be placed to begin or continue instruction. This requires what
is known as curriculum-based assessment or CBA (Hosp, Hosp, Howell & Allison, 2014). CBA determines
how far along a scope and sequence of instruction (in this case of the alphabetic principle) a child has
reached. It may also highlight gaps in the child’s acquisition of the sequence. Many, if not most,
structured, sequenced programs of reading instruction will include a placement test comprising test
items at each of the levels of the scope and sequence of the program – see, for example, the placement
test for the MiniLit small group, Tier-2 remedial program for children struggling to maintain progress
after their first year of schooling (Buckingham, Wheldall & Beaman, 2012). By giving the child the
placement test, the teacher gains knowledge of how far in the sequence the child has progressed and
any gaps in knowledge of the sequence that additionally need to be addressed.
Curriculum-based measurement
Curriculum-based measurement or CBM determines how far the child has progressed overall in learning
academic skills (Hosp, Hosp & Howell, 2016). The CBM of reading is a reading fluency measure, reading
fluency having been shown to be highly correlated with overall reading development. Depending upon
how far the child has progressed in learning to read, the CBM may comprise a list of non-words, single
words or a text passage, the criterion assessed being the number of single words (or non-words) the
child is able to read in one minute (Reynolds, Wheldall & Madelaine, 2009). When students have
progressed even further, measures of the number of words a child can read from carefully written
passages of text (stories) are more appropriate (Wheldall & Madelaine, 2006). The series of CBM tools
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CHAPTER 4 SYSTEMATIC AND EXPLICIT PHONICS INSTRUCTION
61
known as DIBELS oers a comprehensive selection of measures that are already being used in some
Australian schools (see https://dibels.uoregon.edu/assessment/dibels).
Criterion-referenced assessment
Criterion-referenced assessments include more global measures of reading achievement such as the National
Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN). Essentially a measure of reading comprehension,
students are assessed in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 on the same scale (albeit using dierent test items). For each age,
a criterion is set for the minimum band (of nine bands) students are typically expected to exceed.
More pertinent for the present purposes of assessing progress in achieving the alphabetic principle is the
Phonics Screening Check (PSC) developed and used in England for assessing students at the end of Year
1 and now being implemented in South Australia (Buckingham & Wheldall, 2018). The PSC comprises
40 items — 20 regular words and 20 pseudo-words (or non-words). Those failing to meet the criterion
score (32/40 in England, 28/40 in South Australia) are oered additional instruction. The aim of the PSC
is to ensure that all children master the alphabetic principle and hence are well on the way to having
learned to read in their first few years of schooling.
Norm-referenced assessment
In contrast to criterion-referenced tests are standardised norm-referenced tests such as the well-known
Neale Analysis of Reading Ability (NARA) (Neale, 1999) and the more recent York Assessment for Reading
Comprehension (YARC) series of tests (Snowling et al., 2009). The most pertinent measure for early
reading is the YARC Early Reading Test (Hulme et al., 2012) which measures letter–sound knowledge,
early word recognition, and phoneme awareness. Norm-referenced tests like these are based on testing
large representative samples of children to generate norms according to age (or stage) which allows
children to be compared using standard scores or (less reliably) reading ages. Measures like these may
also be used for comparing the ecacy of dierent approaches to teaching the alphabetic principle,
such as synthetic phonics instruction compared with analytic phonics instruction.
PHONICS IN THE LITERACY PROGRAM
Mastering the alphabetic code that sits behind our spoken language is essential to becoming a skilled
reader in English. While being central, it is by no means the only factor or skill required. As is often said,
it is ‘essential but not sucient’. This point cannot be emphasised enough. There is often a distracting
element in the discussions that are referred to as ‘the reading wars’ (Castle, Rastle & Nation, 2018).
While phonics is an essential element of any literacy program that aims to develop independent reading
skills in children, it is by no means the only element that is important.
Much has been written about the Five Big Ideas in reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency,
vocabulary and comprehension (see Feez, Chapter 2, this volume). This construct recognises the key
elements that are required for children to become skilled readers. Teaching the alphabetic code via
explicit and systematic phonics is one way to ensure that all children have the skills they need to become
confident readers. Teaching phonics using a synthetic approach appears to be the most ecient way of
doing this (Johnston, McGeown & Watson, 2012).
As noted earlier, the so-called Simple View of Reading model (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) reflects the
complex cognitive skills that are involved in reading. To reiterate, skilled reading is the product of
decoding (by which we mean word recognition) and language comprehension. This model is useful
educationally because it helps us to recognise the elements that need to be addressed in instruction
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PART 2 EXPLORING THE TERRAIN
62
when we are teaching children to read. Clearly, for the decoding component of the model, word
recognition is developed optimally by using explicit and systematic synthetic phonics instruction.
Scarborough’s Reading Rope (see Figure 4.2) represents these processes in a very helpful diagram. The
diagram combines elements of language comprehension and word recognition, including decoding
using the alphabetic principle, in an increasingly entwined ‘rope’ that results in skilled reading. All
elements of the Five Big Ideas are represented in Scarborough’s rope, resulting in ‘fluent execution and
coordination of word recognition and text comprehension’ (Scarborough, 2001). The alphabetic principle
is fundamental to this process.
Teachers need to ensure that children entering the school system are provided with the most eective
ways of developing the skills they need to become independent and confident readers and spellers. If
this does not happen early on, children can experience lost opportunities for learning across the
curriculum as they are delayed on their reading journey. However, it is never too late to address lack of
progress in reading, and the best place to start is with the mastery of the alphabetic principle. Decoding
skills remain important and relevant throughout all the years of schooling, particularly when the
student is faced with unknown technical words in specific subject areas (Snow, 2018).
HOW EFFECTIVE IS THE ALPHABETIC PRINCIPLE?
There is abundant evidence that explicit and systematic teaching of the alphabetic principle and
phonological decoding is the most eective way to teach children to read words accurately and fluently.
Systematic reviews have reached a consensus on this point (Castles, Rastle & Nation, 2018; Torgerson et
al., 2018). They are cautious about concluding that synthetic phonics is more eective than other
systematic approaches; however, it is not clear that alternatives to synthetic phonics meet the criteria
for systematic and explicit teaching. These are the critical characteristics that are overwhelmingly
supported in scientific research and expert reviews.
Figure 4.2 Scarborough’s Reading Rope
Republished with permission of Guilford Publications, from Scarborough (2001); permission conveyed through Copyright Clearance Center, Inc.
Language comprehension
Background knowledge
(facts, concepts, etc.)
Vocabulary
(breadth, precision, link, etc.)
Language structures
(syntax, semantics, etc.)
Verbal reasoning
(inference, metaphor, etc.)
Literacy knowledge
(print concepts, genres, etc.)
Word recognition
Phonological awareness
(syllables, phonemes, etc.)
Decoding
(alphabetic principle, spelling–sound
correspondences)
Sight recognition
(of familar words)
Skilled reading
Fluent execution and
coordination of word
recognition and text
comprehension.
increasingly
automatic
increasingly
strategic
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CHAPTER 4 SYSTEMATIC AND EXPLICIT PHONICS INSTRUCTION
63
In 2000, the USA National Reading Panel (NRP, 2000) presented the largest, most comprehensive
evidenced-based review ever conducted of research on how children learn to read. Its findings were
drawn from the most methodologically sound research from the approximately 100,000 reading studies
that had been published since 1966, and from another 15,000 earlier studies.
As outlined by Feez (Chapter 2, this volume), the NRP found that the Five Big Ideas of reading instruction
– phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension – were crucial. The
recommendations were that they should be taught explicitly and systematically. The NRP found that
children as young as four benefited from instruction in phonemic awareness and the alphabetic principle
when the instruction was presented in an interesting and entertaining, albeit systematic, manner.
This finding was recently supported in a South Australian study involving typically developing preschool
children and children with spoken language diculties. It found that both groups of children had higher
levels of phonemic awareness and letter–sound knowledge after participating in teacher-led, systematic,
developmentally appropriate instruction than a control group of children. Preschool literacy skills are
highly predictive of successful early reading (Carson, Bayetto & Roberts, 2018).
For school-age children, the NRP recommended that schools should teach phonemic awareness and
phonics emphases directly, rather than incidentally, as eective instruction in both skills leads to strong
early progress in reading and spelling. Expecting students to deduce these skills with only minimal
guidance results in an avoidable wide range of learning outcomes.
The NRP review of the research on phonics instruction came to the following conclusions:
Systematic phonics instruction makes a bigger contribution to children’s growth in reading than
alternative programs providing unsystematic or no phonics instruction (2.84)
Various types of systematic phonics approaches are significantly more eective than non-
phonics approaches in promoting substantial growth in reading (2.85)
Phonics instruction taught early proved much more eective than phonics instruction
introduced after first grade (2.85)
Systematic phonics instruction is significantly more effective than non-phonics instruction in
helping to prevent reading difficulties among at risk students and in helping to remediate
reading difficulties in disabled readers (2.86).
In Australia, the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (Rowe, 2005, p.37) produced similar
recommendations:
In sum, the incontrovertible nding from the extensive body of local and international evidence-
based literacy research is that for children during the early years of schooling (and subsequently
if needed), to be able to link their knowledge of spoken language to their knowledge of written
language, they must rst master the alphabetic code – the system of grapheme–phoneme
correspondences that link written words to their pronunciations. Because these are both
foundational and essential skills for the development of competence in reading, writing and
spelling, they must be taught explicitly, systematically, early and well.
On the basis of strong scientific evidence, the report argued strongly for empirical evidence to be used
to improve the manner in which reading is taught in Australia:
The Committee recommends that teachers provide systematic, direct and explicit phonics
instruction so that children master the essential alphabetic code-breaking skills required for
foundational reading prociency.
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The 2006 Independent Review of Early Reading in the UK, led by Sir Jim Rose (the ‘Rose Review’), found
that a synthetic phonics approach was more eective than analytic phonics, particularly for those at risk
of having problems with reading (Rose, 2006). The review stated that, ‘the case for systematic phonic
work is overwhelming and much strengthened by a synthetic approach’, the key features of which are
to teach beginner readers:
grapheme–phoneme (letter–sound) correspondences (the alphabetic principle) in a clearly
defined, incremental sequence
to apply the highly important skill of blending (synthesising) phonemes in order, all through a
word to read it
to apply the skills of segmenting words into their constituent phonemes to spell
that blending and segmenting are reversible processes.
But perhaps the clearest findings in favour of synthetic phonics come from the powerful and long-
lasting eects reported from Clackmannanshire in Scotland (Johnston, McGeown & Watson, 2012). In
this study, school beginners were taught by either synthetic or analytic phonics programs for 20 minutes
per day over an intensive 16-week period from school commencement. All students completed the
programs by the end of their first year. They were then re-assessed annually.
At the end of the first year, those taught by the synthetic phonics method were seven months above
their chronological age in reading and similarly advanced beyond their analytically taught peers. In the
2003 follow-up, the synthetic group’s word-reading ability was three-and-a-half years ahead of the
analytic group, and almost two years ahead in spelling. Disadvantaged children achieved a similar rate
of progress as their more advantaged peers. Only 5.6 percent of the students taught synthetic phonics
were behind in word reading at the five-year follow-up.
In a follow-up study, students taught by the two methods were re-assessed at age 10:
Overall, the group taught by synthetic phonics had better word reading, spelling, and reading
comprehension . . . After 6 years at school, children taught by the synthetic phonics approach read
words, spelt words and had reading comprehension skills signicantly in advance of those taught
by the analytic phonics method . . . Maintaining the gain in word reading for age would have been
noteworthy, but in fact it increased over time, leading to a high level of attainment at the age of 10.
(Johnston, McGeown & Watson, 2011, p1381)
Obviously, without such instruction some students can learn to read, but seriously at-risk students are
likely to fail. Machin, McNally and Viarengo (2018) analysed student performance in the first five years
after the English government mandated synthetic phonics and found that there was a significant
improvement in reading among 5- and 7-year-old children across the board, with significant improvement
for children from disadvantaged non-English speaking backgrounds at age 11. This study was conducted
prior to the introduction of the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check (see earlier) and the more detailed
phonics teaching specifications.
An Australian study by Christensen and Bowey (2005) found significant advantages for systematic
synthetic phonics over analytic phonics in reading and spelling for students in their second year of
school. Studies of high-performing primary schools in England and in Perth, Western Australia, have
found that these schools were using synthetic phonics as part of their early literacy programs (Louden,
2015; OFSTED, 2010).
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CHAPTER 4 SYSTEMATIC AND EXPLICIT PHONICS INSTRUCTION
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CONCLUSION
The multi-disciplinary evidence supporting the ecacy of explicit and systematic instruction for teaching
children the alphabetic principle, and how to apply it to achieve accurate and fluent word reading, is
extensive, rigorous and remarkably consistent. If the goal of teachers is to ensure that as many children as
possible learn to read early and successfully, so they can begin to read independently and with enjoyment,
synthetic phonics is an essential component of a comprehensive early literacy program.
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... This report will not present a detailed treatise for what constitutes evidence-based reading instruction as that research literature has been comprehensively covered elsewhere (Hempenstall, 2016;Seidenberg, 2017;Castles, Nation, & Rastle, 2018;Buckingham, Wheldall & Wheldall, 2019). Studies of reading over the past several decades have identified and repeatedly confirmed that reading development occurs most successfully when instruction includes five elements: ...
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Initial teacher education students, and the children they eventually go on to teach, are being short-changed. This report adds to the evidence supporting the need for urgent and dramatic improvement in initial teacher education by looking at the extent to which literacy units in undergraduate initial teacher education courses provide evidence-based information on how children learn to read; and the most effective ways to teach them.
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This study investigated the effect of preschool-wide, teacher-implemented, phoneme-focused phonological awareness (PA) and letter-sound knowledge (LSK) instruction, on raising code-based school-entry reading readiness for children with Spoken Language Difficulties (SLD) and Typical Development (TD), when supported by weekly coaching by trainee speech-language pathologists. A total of 90 4-year-old children participated, whereby 50 children, inclusive of 13 children with SLD, received 10 weeks of preschool-wide, teacher-delivered, phoneme-focused PA and LSK instruction. In all, 40 children, inclusive of 10 children with SLD, continued with the usual preschool program. Post-instruction, children in the experimental condition performed significantly higher in phoneme awareness, LSK, and early decoding compared with control children. Children with SLD in the experimental condition performed significantly higher in phoneme awareness and LSK, but not in early decoding, compared with control children with SLD. Overall, preschool-wide, teacher-implemented, phoneme-focused PA and LSK instruction can support code-based reading readiness skills for children with SLD and TD.
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A significant number of people have very low levels of literacy in many OECD countries. This paper studies a national change in policy and practice in England that refocused the teaching of reading around "synthetic phonics." This was a low-cost intervention that targeted the pedagogy of existing teachers. We evaluate the pilot and first phase of the national rollout. While strong initial effects tend to fade out on average, they persist for those with children with a higher initial propensity to struggle with reading. As a result, this program helped narrow the gap between disadvantaged pupils and other groups.
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Ten years after publication of two reviews of the evidence on phonics, a number of British policy initiatives have firmly embedded phonics in the curriculum for early reading development. However, uncertainty about the most effective approaches to teaching reading remains. A definitive trial comparing different approaches was recommended in 2006, but never undertaken. However, since then, a number of systematic reviews of the international evidence have been undertaken, but to date they have not been systematically located, synthesised and quality appraised. This paper seeks to redress that gap in the literature. It outlines in detail the reading policy development, mainly in England, but with reference to international developments, in the last 10 years. It then reports the design and results of a systematic ‘tertiary’ review of all the relevant systematic reviews and meta-analyses in order to provide the most up-to-date overview of the results and quality of the research on phonics.