As anyone who teaches reading can tell you, Phonics plays a critical role in literacy instruction. In today’s episode of The Heinemann Podcast, we sit down with authors Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell to discuss why Phonics is a critical part of a cohesive literacy system, what they mean when they say “teaching is a science,” and how we can continue to find new ways to ensure that students have access to the wonder of books and independent writing.
Below is a transcript of this episode.
Gay Su Pinnell: We've always valued phonics as a critical component of a system for teaching literacy. I never stopped teaching phonics, even when I was working with what I call the literature-based instructional program. And my mother was a first grade teacher, and she was very big into phonics, and I inherited all of her games and materials. And so as a young teacher, I thought I had a pretty good handle on it. But we were in a period of time when teachers weren't learning much about the building blocks of language. They didn't know what a diphthong was or whatever, and they weren't teaching it or they were using some extremely rigid program that took far too much time and was too inefficient.
It cannot be allowed to consume the entire instructional time for reading so that kids learn a lot of phonics but don't learn to read. I was just talking with someone yesterday who has a fifth grade granddaughter who they say reads every word 100% accurately, and the school is saying she doesn't seem to put ideas together. Not anything so wrong with her, but she just is not comprehending. Well, we've always known these things have to be integrally related.
So during this period of time, teachers were asking us a lot about, "What's the role of phonics, what's the place of phonics?" So the third book we wrote was called "Word Matters", and it was all about the linguistic system, the graphic system, helping teachers get straight in their minds about these language systems that people have developed and how that plays itself out in written language and how children can learn letters and sounds and how to blend words together and how to take words apart. And from that book, "Word Matters", people found it very valuable and we're using many of the ideas in the classrooms, but it was still very hard for teachers to put this together in sequence.
Sequence is difficult because not everybody learns "A" as their first letter. They'll learn it with the first group of letters, certainly. So we had suggested many, many activities, such as name charts and alphabet games and all kinds of things to get kids going, and we then began to realize that this learning about language and written language and how it works, how words work, is a long continuum of experience. They're almost recreating linguistic history when a child learns this wonderful, wonderful tool: language.
And I myself have never forgotten studying Greek and Latin word roots and how it opened up the world to me and I thought, "We need to get there." So we created the Phonics Continuum that was in the larger Literacy Continuum, and after that came, with some help from some very good friends at Heinemann, something we call The Comprehensive Phonics Continuum, which is everything you ever wanted to know about English language, letters, sounds, words and how they work, the parts of words, the affixes, the suffixes and so on.
So we began then to propose to Heinemann that we write phonics lessons, and this was fairly early on. We started with Kindergarten and going by the Continuum, writing phonics lessons for grades K, 1, 2. I can't remember how far up we went. 3. K, 1, 2, 3. 100 lessons for each grade level. They've since gone into a new edition that's very much improved on that, and it crossed nine areas of learning. I won't name them all, but everything from phonemic awareness in those very early understandings to word structure and word meaning. So it encompassed vocabulary, spelling and phonics and what we call word work, which goes way beyond phonics.
And we're now in the very exciting work of creating lessons for fifth and sixth grade that have, I believe, will give students tools that will ... well, one, it will help them in taking tests and in reading technical vocabulary because a lot of it is about taking apart long multi-syllable words and noticing the meaning of the word basis and the word roots. And this is just really basic to a large vocabulary and to reading academic type of work, so it should help them in middle school and high school. But more than that, what I hope is that they develop a lifelong excitement about words. I think words are very exciting. I always like hearing the PBS Word of the Day and its origin and how these words have evolved from their early meanings to what we mean by them today. There's a fascination to human language. It's such an incredible tool, the most powerful tool ever developed and the more kids become interested in language for its own sake, the more they'll just enjoy living in a literate world.
Irene Fountas: Gay referred to the importance of teachers understanding language and in particular, the alphabetic system and "The Comprehensive Phonics Spelling and Word Study Guide" is really the body of knowledge that teachers need to understand, the principles of how language and words work. And we find that not all teachers have strong understanding of the alphabetic system and it's very difficult to teach children how to use letter sound relationships, how to use word parts if they don't understand themselves the logic in the alphabetic system. So we believe that tool is an essential one. And of course, "The Continuum of Literacy Learning" lays out the behaviors and understandings to notice, teach for and support across grade levels so teachers can actually see what that development looks like over time, again, because that's just a principle of effective teaching, looking at what they already know and building on that.
So we in the Phonics and Word Study System, which is essentially our lessons and various resources to implement those lessons, we created a lesson design so that teachers will have a very explicit lesson, inquiry-based, where children learn how to generalize important understandings about letters, sounds and words. The early levels involve children in so much kinesthetic work using magnet letters, name puzzles, sandpaper letters so that children are developing multi-sensory understandings about letters, sounds and words, and they engage in things like word sorts and tracing letters and so on.
We have created a lesson design where the teacher works with the whole group. They engage in noticing things about letters, sounds and words or taking words apart or whatever that might be, and then they actually have a try with it, with their partner or in threes, and then they go off and work independently or with a partner or in a small group applying what it is they've learned, and then come back and share so that they have a very explicit lesson where the teacher addresses each bullet in "The Literacy Continuum" to be sure that the children are not only developing their knowledge about letters, sounds and words through reading and writing, but are also having explicit teaching in a specific phonics or word study lesson.
So we believe that in the Design for Responsive Literacy Teaching, this out of context, teaching is very important because children have different attention to how letters sounds and words work when you take them out of text. So that is one important dimension of the teaching. But phonics and spelling are for reading and writing. They're not for kids just to recite principles or something of that sort. So the real measure of effective phonics instruction is how children use that knowledge as readers and writers.
So what you would notice in any of our professional writing about instruction or certainly in Fountas and Pinnell Classroom, is that we have designed lessons where kids are learning how to read and write, but in every lesson, they're learning how to think about letters, sounds and words and how they work, because that is part of the reading process and spelling is part of the writing process. So we like to talk about teaching both out of context and teaching in context, and I know from working with children who've found literacy learning very difficult that for some children they can focus on learning about letters, sounds and words out of context, but there's a wall and they don't connect what they've learned to what they're reading or what they're writing.
So we feel that as teachers, we need to break down that wall. Kids need to know why they're learning what they're learning about letters, sounds and words and how they're using it as readers and how they're using it as writers. I will also say to you that when we developed the Benchmark Assessment System, we developed a very comprehensive selection of assessments that teachers could use to look at each of the dimensions of letters, sound and word learning. So they could, for example, give a group assessment of the phonograms that children knew or give an alphabet test or engage in a quick rhyming phonological awareness. So that's important.
And then of course, there are some instructional contexts where we believe there are powerful opportunities for children to develop their letter, sound and word knowledge. And in Shared Reading, there's great power. There, the children are actually seeing the print and the teacher is able to, after enjoying a wonderful first and second reading with the children, revisit the texts and help kids notice how the letters, sounds and words are working in the text.
We also, of course, build into the Guided Reading , not only helping children solve words as they read, but also engaging in manipulative work at the end of the lessons so they develop fluency and flexibility with letters, sounds and words. In other words, no matter what, in reading and writing, we as teachers need to help children understand how to use the alphabetic system proficiently. And we are very committed to not only helping teachers develop the body of knowledge, but helping them use language and use instructional techniques that help children apply their learning in very effective ways and being able to assess those outcomes by observing how students read and how students write.
But of course, along with all of this comes important professional learning. I mean, we spend a lot of time helping teachers look at things like running records where they can actually see what aspect of visual information or letter, sound relationships children are actually using in the reading process, with the meaning and the language of the text, what sources of information, and we do not mean three cueing systems. That is not language we use or that Marie Clay has used, but rather we help teachers look at the relationship between letters and sounds and sounds and letters and also how to help children link that graphophonic knowledge with the meaning and the language so that when they read, they're able to bring all of that together in a fluent literacy processing system.
So when a child really understands how letters, sounds and words work, you will actually be able to see it in the fluent processing of the text. So as Gay said, the language is fascinating, and if teachers can understand how it works, they'll really be able to get children excited to learn how it works as well. We find that the teachers are really enjoying phonics lessons, the word study lessons, and that the learning for the children in that it is inquiry-based and hands on and partner work is very focused on their thinking, their understanding, their active engagement. Phonics is not like it was when I was in school or even when I was a young teacher where what one would often see was drill or filling out work papers or reading flashcards. Learning how letters sounds and words work does not have to be boring drill. It can be active engagement, inquiry-based and children can have a lot of fun as they learn.
Maybe the other thing I think it's important for us to think about together is that in the entire world, there is a strong belief that children need to understand letter-sound relationships in every language, a symbol-sound relationships in any language, and phonics knowledge is essential to effective reading. There is total agreement on that. But there can be various perspectives on how to achieve that. And in our work, we're staying focused on assuring that the work we do, the work we model, what we write about helps teachers not only understand the alphabetic system but helps them engage in ways of working with the children that are effective and that they use the data on their children to document the effectiveness, meaning look at how children are using what it is they've learned and assuring that there is evidence of strong phonics knowledge. So that's where our effort is and will continue to be, how to get there, because we all know we need to get there.
Gay Su Pinnell: There's a lot of misunderstanding around what some people are calling three cueing systems, and I think it's related to maybe some coding that teachers are using. But if we go back to Clay, she's always talking about these language systems going together, the cognitive understanding, the phonemic aspects of language. So there's the sound system of the language, the graphic system, the written symbols that are the key for us to recognize and get into words, and the strong reliance of the young child on the knowledge of syntax that he has developed hard wired through learning language in the home and community.
Now, the young human being uses everything at his disposal to learn that we want him to do that. Flexibility is the key, and rapid word solvers have many ways to get to a word and not just to get to a word, but to monitor his accuracy of reading the word that the reader sees all the letters, uses all that visual information but connects it to the sounds that are connected to the letters and the clusters of letters, and that's really important. And by the way, of course, we all know that there are several sounds can be connected to one letter, several letters can be connected to the same sound, so these are systematically connected but not one to one connected.
Well, that's one way, and the reader can look through the word, but the reader has to check on whether that word makes sense and whether it sounds like language. It does matter if you say pony for horse because what are you not using there? You're not noticing the visual information, and as children are reading these very simple books in the beginning, a teacher would want them to start to learn to check, make sure it fits, and that's what's really meant by using different sources of information, but it's not necessarily three, it's many and in a fairly complex way, so you can't bring it down to something very simplistic.
What we're observing is complex human behavior from the start. To me, one of the keys is we want that reader to become as deft and rapid and successful as possible. Any human being coming on something they don't know will start to make a hypothesis. It will happen, because we try to make sense of our world and every word the child meets in a text, they may have a sort of an anticipation, a pleasing tension that helps them anticipate. But at the same time, they're going to notice the graphic symbols and connect them to the sounds, both to solve a word and to check on the word. And they use meaning in the same way.
Irene Fountas: Yeah, and I would add that when children learn that what they read needs to make sense and sound right and look right, they are learning how to use what Clay referred to as sources of information, meaning structure or language and letter, sound, sound, letter. And what's wonderful about the early books, and I think the way children are able to use the alphabetic system changes over time, but to get children reading those early books that are natural language structures enables them to learn more about the print, the letters and sounds by being supported with the meaning and the language.
So if it's familiar language and the illustrations support them in the earliest book, and that's where we really need to be careful when we talk about reading development, because it depends at what point in time the child is developing. We can't just over-generalize. So early on, if a child is learning how to use the first letter and then more of the letters and the endings and all of the letters, that's happening over time. And what I think is exciting is that you can get a young child reading a book and having more attention to the letters and sounds because the meaning and the language are accessible to them. It actually gives them room to pay attention to the letters and sounds. They're learning about letters and sounds through having the support of the meaning and the language of the text.
So I think we need to understand how children develop phonological awareness, graphic awareness in complex ways, but starting simple and getting more complex. And no one will ever say the child does not need to look at the whole word. The child does need to look at the whole word. The child does need to look at all the letters. A child who's just learning can't do it all at once. If any of us have learned to do anything, we weren't expert in all aspects of it in the early stages, but we grew towards that. And so I think it's very important to all of us who study the development of children's literacy to become more and more articulate about development and understand what children are attending to and learning will change over time and not get too simplistic about it because one size does not fit all.
The children that we've worked with have learned the letters and sounds of their name before they've learned any other letters. They've learned to recognize the letters and sounds of their name and their family names and what's memorable to them. But we'll also say to you that we have been in pre-K kindergarten classrooms where children have engaged in shared reading every day or interactive writing every day. And we see that those children are learning all their letters and all their sounds, and they're starting to put them together in simple books where they feel like, "I can read, I'm successful," and then the skillful teacher who understands how to scaffold the child's learning is taking the child's literacy power further. And so it's the teacher's decisions and the teacher's observations, particularly the teacher's knowledge of proficient reading, that will enable the teaching of reading to be powerful or not.
So teaching reading is a science. Teaching is a science, but it's a science of observation and decision making and knowledge. It's not mindless teachers simply delivering something, delivering a program, delivering lessons. It's thinking teachers, thoughtful teachers, knowledgeable teachers. And we have so much trust in teachers' decisions, because the teacher has to make the decision about the child in front of him, not something outside of that. So our trust is in teacher knowledge and in assuring teachers have the opportunities to develop that knowledge. That's what being a professional is all about. It's in the teacher.
Irene C. Fountas is the Marie M. Clay Endowed Chair for Early Literacy and Reading Recovery at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts and director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative in the Graduate School of Education. She has been a classroom teacher, language arts specialist, and consultant in school districts across the nation and abroad. She is the recipient of the International Literacy Association’s Diane Lapp & James Flood Professional Collaborator Award, and the Greater Boston Council and the International Reading Association’s Celebrate Literacy Award. Currently, she works with administrators, coaches and teacher leaders in systemic school improvement.
Gay Su Pinnell is Professor Emerita in the School of Teaching and Learning at The Ohio State University and a member of the Reading Hall of Fame. She has extensive experience in classroom teaching, field-based research, and in developing comprehensive literacy systems. She is the recipient of the International Literacy Association’s Diane Lapp & James Flood Professional Collaborator Award, The Ohio State University Alumni Association’s Medalist Award, the International Reading Association’s Albert J. Harris Award for research in reading difficulties, the Ohio Governor’s Award, the Charles A. Dana Foundation Award, The Eastern New Mexico University Hall of Honor, and a 2018 recipient of an honorary doctorate Lesley University for her contributions to literacy education.
Fountas and Pinnell's collective and comprehensive literacy work includes a cohesive classroom literacy system for grades PreK–6 (Fountas & Pinnell Classroom™), an intervention system for grades K–12 (Leveled Literacy Intervention), an assessment system (Benchmark Assessment Systemfor grades K–8 and Sistema de evaluación de la lecturafor grades K–3), an extensive professional book base, and professional learning opportunities. Fountas and Pinnell continue to influence and inspire educators nationwide and abroad with their transformative resources and books.
Read their shared history — The Fountas & Pinnell Story
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