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Developmentally Responsive Phonics Instruction: A Research-Based Approach

E10544_Mesmer_Bookcover_101718_6750Recently, I was talking to a group of primary grade teachers after finishing a workshop. They were all very conscientious, but they were also frightened, angry, and distracted by the tenor of recent conversations about phonics. One teacher said something like this, “Of course I teach phonics and of course I want to get better, but I am afraid to ask questions because I might use the wrong term, or say the wrong thing and be completely discredited. People are so reactive about phonics.”

Like this teacher, I too, am concerned. Increasingly I hear angry, accusatory voices at the extremes of the discussion—voices demanding one-size-fits-all phonics instruction for everyone and voices claiming phonics instruction to be unnecessary despite decades of research (Adams 1990, Chall 1967, NICHHD 2001, Lonigan and Shanahan 2009). Unfortunately, the headline-grabbing extremes mostly spread hysteria, not effective instruction. I see school systems that are frantically snatching up phonics programs and thrusting them into the hands of untrained teachers. I see some classrooms where there are two or more different phonics programs working at cross-purposes and confusing children.

My plea is that we cut through the drama, focus on research, and translate it into effective, specific, teaching practices. In a recent blog, I named five research-based practices found in high-quality phonics lessons. In this blog, I add another research-based principle, one that I do not hear people discussing, but one that is well-known and promoted in the middle school, early childhood, and word study literatures-developmentally responsive instruction (e.g. Cook et al., 2016; Dennis, et al., 2011; Ellerbrook, 2015; Gehsmann, 2012, Graue, et al, 2014;Templeton, 2015; Templeton & Gehsmann, 2013; Templeton, 2012).

What Is Developmentally Responsive Phonics Instruction?

We all know that effective phonics instruction is systematic and explicit, meaning there is a clear scope and sequence and direct language that is telling students the phoneme/grapheme relationships being taught. However, a robust line of research tells us that educators must also respond to students’ development even as they work within a scope and sequence (Gehsmann, 2012; Templeton, 2012, 2015; Templeton & Gehsmann.. An important study in the premier publication Science confirms this (Connor et al. 2007). Students need different types and amounts of code instruction based on their development and current knowledge.

As Templeton and Gehsmann (2013) specify, developmentally responsive instruction is

  1. teaching grounded in what students already know about the English code
  2. instruction in exactly the content they need to know next based on their development.

Developmentally responsive phonics instruction adds the next piece, right in time, to vertically advance the student to the next developmental stage. For example, if a student can quickly identify the phonemes associated with single consonants and vowels, then we know that the next step is decoding simple words with the c-v-c pattern. If a student can blend a simple c-v-c word (e.g., cap), then she is ready to add some consonant blends to that word base (e.g. trap, cast, strap).

When a teacher is developmentally responsive, she has a specific, internalized sequence in mind. Many use broad, general labels to describe their students’ stages of development, such as “emergent, beginning, and transitional.” Less often, I hear labels to describe specific code-based knowledge of phoneme/grapheme information. The spelling stages developed by Henderson and Beers (1980) and detailed in Words Their Way (Beer et al., 2016) are an exception. Those labels do directly reflect students’ understandings of English spelling. Research generally tells us that students acquire code information that is simpler first, although there is no one definitive phonics developmental sequence (Ehri 2005, Gehsman, 2012; Henderson and Beers 1980, Share 2004a,Templeton, 2012). For instance, beginners learn one-to-one letter-sound relationships (e.g. single consonants, short vowels) before two-to-one and three-to-one patterns (e.g., team, eight, shook). They decode single-syllable words earlier than multisyllabic words. They even learn letter-sounds with the target sound at the beginning of the letter name (e.g., Bb, Dd, Pp, Tt, Jj, Kk) prior to those without this scaffold (e.g. Hh, Ww) (Share 2004b). For example, see the following sequence:

Single-syllable words

  1. Alphabet knowledge: Single consonants + short vowels
  2. Decoding short vowels (at, it, in| bag, pen, hit)
  3. Decoding blends (stop, strip, must, bent).
  4. Decoding vowel teams (team, shoot, toy, eight)

Multi-syllabic words

  1. Decoding multisyllabic words.

Developmentally responsive phonics instruction means offering instruction that may be both qualitatively and quantitatively different. Qualitatively different instruction is like students decoding different types of words based on their stage. However, developmentally responsive instruction can also mean quantitatively different instruction at different stages, instruction with more repetition, practice, modeling, and time to advance toward essential developmental milestones. For example, some kindergarteners will learn letter names but struggle to learn the sounds. Often this is because they do not perceive phonemes in words, the basis of the alphabetic symbol system. In this situation, more phonemic awareness instruction to fill the developmental gap is needed. Students need to play alliterative games, sort items by sound, and hear the sounds in words.

What Is Not Developmentally Responsive Phonics Instruction?

There are three ideas that sometimes get confused with developmentally responsive instruction: on-the-fly instruction, grade-driven teaching, or teaching to knowledge gaps. Sometimes people hear the word “responsive” and think, “Oh I respond to students by observing them as they read or spell and that tells me which letter-sounds I am going to teach that day.” Of course, teachers should observe and act on their observations, but developmentally responsive teaching relies on a preset scope and sequence based on development to determine patterns and letters to be taught. Observations may influence the pacing of the scope and sequence, but they should not drive content. Teachable moments are for reinforcing or reteaching within the scope and sequence.

Second, as argued in a recent piece entitled Stages and Standards in Literacy: Teaching Developmentally in the Age of Accountability, teachers must think “development” rather than “grade.” (Gehsmann, 2012). It is development that drives phonics instruction, not grade. Typically-developing students in different grades do tend to have similar needs. For instance, pre-kindergarteners and kindergartners tend to need alphabet instruction. However, in any grade students can have a range of developmental needs. They learn at different rates, enter school with different levels of knowledge, and/or have different previous educational experiences. Developmentally responsive teaching prioritizes development as the decisive factor in choosing what to teach.

Oh, so developmentally responsive instruction is just individualizing, right? Not exactly. Thus, third, developmentally responsive instruction prioritizes teaching the next step in development, not simply what the student does not know. Let’s say that a group of students can decode words like trap and grip but cannot decode words with blends at the end (e.g. best, jump), words with silent e (e.g., bite, hope), or words with two vowels (e.g. seat, book, boat, bow). If the teacher just taught the “gaps” she could start at any of these places: moving from the silent e pattern to multisyllabic words, and moving to words with blends, for instance. However, as the sequence above suggests, that would not be developmentally responsive.

How Can You Implement Developmentally Responsive Instruction?

There are three basic steps to a developmentally responsive approach:

  1. Use a scope and sequence based on development
  2. Assess (and reassess) students’ knowledge to fit them into the scope and sequence
  3. Teach what is unknown.

Before even starting phonics instruction, you must have a scope and sequence that presents code information in an order that matches development. The scope and sequence is the teaching path you will follow.

The next step is to find out where students are on the path, where they fit into the scope and sequence. A good assessment will match the code information and patterns on the scope and sequence. For example, the assessment will point to the alphabetic knowledge a student has and the types of words that a student can decode. A solid assessment will tell you, for example, quite specifically the code information a student needs to learn. Reassessment is also important throughout the year because students learn at different rates.

It is my opinion that phonics and decoding assessments should be the diagnostic driver for beginning readers. (Note that I have used the word opinion.) A diagnostic driver is an assessment that reflects a teaching priority, something that students really must know, and something that is holding them back. Because code information is often the primary gap with beginning readers, a phonics assessment should be a diagnostic driver. It is the ability to read words that holds students back at this level.

The last step is to teach the content that students need. In most classrooms (but not all) this will mean grouping students with similar needs together. In some classrooms, everyone in the class will have similar needs. Remember to challenge students to independently read and spell many words during phonics lessons. Do not do it all for them. When we observe students applying knowledge independently, we can see what has really “stuck.”

Ultimately, developmentally responsive instruction is teaching the right content at the right time. You can deliver systematic and explicit phonics instruction, but if the content you are teaching does not intersect with what a student needs, it will not work. More than simply teaching what is unknown, developmentally responsive instruction prioritizes specific instruction that advances a student to the next important developmental stage.



Adams, M. J. 1990. Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Bear, D. R., Invernizzi, M. A., Templeton, W. S., & Johnston, F. (2016). Words Their Way: Phonics, vocabulary, and spelling instruction. New York: Pearson.

Chall, J. S. 1967. Learning to Read. New York: McGraw-Hill

Connor, C. M., F. J. Morrison, B. J. Fishman, C. Schatschneider, and P Underwood 2007. “Algorithm-

Guided Individualized Reading Instruction.” Science, 315 (5811), 464–465.

Cook, C. M., Faulkner, S. A., & Howell, P. B. (2016). The developmentally responsive middle school: Meeting the needs of all students. Middle School Journal, 47(5), 3-13.

Dennis, D. V., Parker, A., Kiefer, S. M., & Ellerbrock, C. R. (2011). " I can read this!" Promoting Developmentally Responsive Literacy Practices in a Middle School Science Classroom. Journal of Reading Education, 36(2).

Ehri, L. 2005. “Learning to Read Words: Theory, Findings, and Issues.” Scientific Studies of Reading 9: 167–88. doi:10.1207/s1532799xssr0902_4.

Ellerbrock, C. R., Denmon, J., Owens, R., & Lindstrom, K. (2015). Fostering a developmentally responsive middle to high school transition. Middle Grades Research Journal, 10(1), 83-101.

Gehsmann, K. M. (2012). Stages and standards in literacy: Teaching developmentally in the age of accountability. Journal of Education, 192(1), 5-16.

Graue, E., Whyte, K., & Delaney, K. K. (2014). Fostering culturally and developmentally responsive teaching through improvisational practice. Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 35(4), 297-317.

Henderson, E. H., and J. W. Beers, eds. 1980. Developmental and Cognitive Aspects of Learning to Spell: A Reflection of Word Knowledge. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Lonigan, C. J., and T. Shanahan. 2010. Developing Early Literacy: Report of the National Early Literacy Panel (NA). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Executive summary: v–xii.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development 2000. Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction: Reports of the Subgroups. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health.

Share, D. 2004a. “Orthographic Learning at a Glance: On the Time Course and Developmental Onset of Self-Teaching.” Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 87 (4): 267–98.

Share, D. 2004b. “Knowing Letter Names and Learning Letter Sounds: A Causal Connection.” Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 88 (3): 213–33.

Templeton, S. (2015). Building Foundational and Vocabulary Knowledge in the Common Core, K-8: Developmentally-Grounded Instruction about Words. Language and Literacy Spectrum, 25, 7-17.

Templeton, S. (2012) Foundations of Developmentally Responsive Word Study: The Spelling System and the Learner. The Oklahoma Reader, 918, 7.

Templeton, S., & Gehsmann, K. (2013). Teaching reading and writing: The developmental approach. Pearson Higher Ed.

Please note: In an effort to bring you even more resources for information and the most up-to-date references, we are currently working to expand this reference section, please check back soon for updates.

Heidi Anne Mesmer

Heidi Anne E. Mesmer, PhD is the author of the Heinemann title Letter Lessons and First Words. She is Professor in Literacy in the School of Education at Virginia Tech. A former classroom teacher, she works extensively with teachers, schools, and young readers, directing numerous school-based initiatives to improve reading instruction. Heidi Anne studies beginning reading instruction and text difficulty. Her work has been published in The Reading Teacher, Reading Research Quarterly, The Educational Researcher, Elementary School Journal, and Early Childhood Research Quarterly. She is the author of Tools for Matching Readers to Texts, Reading Interventions in Primary Grades, and Teaching Skills for Complex Text.

Topics: Effective Instruction, Research, Nell K. Duke, Phonics, Letter Lessons and First Words, Heidi Anne Mesmer

Date Published: 01/13/20

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