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The Guiding Principles Behind the Units of Study in Phonics (Part 1)

Screen Shot 2018-04-12 at 9.33.49 AMThe following excerpt is adapted from A Guide to the Phonics Units of Study, Grade K–2 and offers a closer look into two of the guiding principles of the Units of Study in Phonics series and the values that they represent. Watch for next week’s blog for descriptions of two more of the principles, or download the sample chapter from the Guide to read about them all.

Download a Sample Chapter from the Guide


1) Phonics Instruction Supports Children’s Reading and Writing; To Be Useful, Phonics Must Be Transferred

To start, it is important to remember that the goal of phonics instruction is to support kids’ progress as readers and writers. Every message you send during phonics instruction needs to be angled to support transfer to reading and writing. Your goal is not for your kids to become linguistic scholars, able to pontificate about the six syllable types or the eight sounds that an O can make. Instead, phonics instruction only matters because it enables reading and writing.

This commitment to teaching phonics in ways that give your kids wings as readers and writers has important implications for the nature of your phonics instruction. It means that the pace and content of your instruction needs to align to the work your children do as readers and writers. Instead of starting kindergarten by teaching one letter a week, for example, you’ll want to quicken the pace of that instruction, knowing that your children can cement their knowledge of letter-sound correspondences as they use that knowledge to label their drawings during writing time. The demands that books pose will also influence the pace of your phonics instruction. If you keep in mind that level C books contain contractions and that children reading level E books will need to draw on a knowledge of long vowels, then it is clear that your phonics curriculum cannot proceed slowly enough that children master one bit of content before proceeding to another. And if your phonics instruction aims to keep pace with your children’s reading and writing development, you won’t be able to give equal time to all twenty-six letters, the thirty-seven most common phonograms, and to each and every blend!

Even something as simple as the sequence in which you teach high-frequency words will be affected by your commitment to teach in ways that align with your reading and writing instruction. You’ll presumably still draw on Fry’s list of 250 high-frequency words, but you’ll tweak the sequence in which you teach those words so that when children are writing Small Moment stories, they learn to spell said and went, and when they are writing How-To books, they learn to spell how and put.

It is not just the content of your phonics curriculum that will shift when your teaching is designed to support transfer to reading and writing—the kind of work you ask of children will shift as well. During a phonics unit on short vowels, your children will still spend time doing the sorting work that can help them distinguish one short vowel from another, but to help transfer, you’ll also ask children to look over the writing they’ve done recently, making sure that every syllable of every word contains a vowel. Have they chosen the correct short vowel? You’ll tell them that checking for this requires careful listening for the small nuanced differences between the short I and the short E, for example. When teaching with the transfer of phonics skills to reading and writing in mind, the work the children do during and especially near the end of phonics time is more apt to look like, feel like, and even be reading and writing.


2) Phonics Instruction Benefits Children When It Follows a Research-Based Sequence

This curriculum relies on proven, research-based practices, drawing on the work of Adams, Bear, Beck, Blevins, Cunningham, Ehri, Fountas, Fry, Helman, Hiebert, Ganske, Graves, Kaye, O’Connor, Pinnell, Rasinski, Scanlon, Snowball, Yopp and Yopp, and others. We also bring to this curriculum a deep respect for the important work of Reading Recovery™ and of the late Marie Clay. How fortunate we are that these meticulous researchers have collected data on things such as the varying degrees of challenges children encounter when learning the twenty-six letters and the six syllable types. We make no claim to having done this original research, but it is with enormous gratitude that we stand on the shoulders of these researchers.

The sequence of these Units of Study in Phonics follows a pathway that is widely supported in this research. We detail that pathway later in this Guide, but for now, suffice it to say that whether children are studying the Units of Study in Phonics or Bear’s Words Their Way (Bear et al. 2016) or Cunningham’s Phonics They Use (2016) or Fundations (2012), or Fountas and Pinnell’s Phonics Lessons (2003), or any one of many other programs, the sequence of topics they study will not be widely different. Always, children first develop phonological and phonemic awareness: learning to segment words into phonemes, to blend phonemes into word parts and words, and to rhyme and play with language. Simultaneously, children learn the alphabetic principle—learning letter names and sounds and formation. They also become immersed in concepts of print. By late fall, kindergartners progress to learning rimes (word families such as -at: rat, cat) and digraphs (sh, th, ch); in the late winter, they study short vowels and begin to learn vowel flexibility.

Blends will be important, too. Many of those topics will need to be revisited before kindergarten is over, and again in first grade. Throughout all of this, kids learn high-frequency words—about fifty of them during kindergarten, 100 in first grade, and another fifty in second grade. The progression unfolds further in first and second grades, as kids quickly move from consonant blends and digraphs to trigraphs, to long-vowel patterns, diphthongs, R-controlled vowels, inflected endings, and onward toward vocabulary. The sequence of instruction is spiraled, designed to reinforce children’s earlier learning and build upon it with additional complexity and precision.

Researchers have some differences of opinion—should students develop phonemic awareness prior to any involvement with phonics (with visible letters) or can phonemic awareness develop in synchrony with phonics knowledge? How much emphasis should be given to word families (rimes) as opposed to letter-by-letter cumulative word solving? Do children need to know and name syllable types or can they rely on recognizing familiar word parts and patterns to decode multisyllabic words? These differences of opinion are relatively small, however, compared to the consensus that emerges among people who know and study about phonics instruction. We are grateful for this research base.

Of course, any curriculum developed by the team at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project will also draw on decades of research and practice in the teaching of reading and writing more broadly. Given that phonics is important only insofar as it transfers to and informs literacy writ large, we think it is essential that a phonics curriculum draw on this broad, deep, applied knowledge of how students develop as writers and readers, speakers and listeners.

This phonics curriculum is also informed by a dedication to a growth mindset, and it is steeped in knowledge of child development. This means the curriculum is infused with a commitment to giving young children opportunities to take risks, try again, talk, explore, pretend, move, play, question, invent, sing, and laugh. It also is shaped by our knowledge of you, our readers. My colleagues and I have gone to great lengths to develop a curriculum that reflects our firsthand knowledge of the many competing demands on you as you work with your quirky, boisterous crew of students in our increasingly complex profession.


Watch for next week’s blog for descriptions of principles 3 and 4:

3) phonics instruction benefits children when it supplements and does not replace reading and writing instruction;

4) children benefit when they are taught the strategies and purposes that allow them to draw on item knowledge.


To download a sample chapter from the Guide and read about the other guiding principles behind the Units of Study in Phonics, click here.

Download a Sample Chapter from the Guide


Topics: Units of Study, Lucy Calkins, TCRWP, Teachers College, Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Phonics, Units of Study Phonics

Date Published: 08/28/19

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