Published Jul 28th, 2023
min read
Parent Resources

What Is Phonics and Why Does It Matter?

Lauren Sittel
Literacy Specialist

When it comes to reading education, the term "phonics" often takes center stage, but what is phonics? And why does it matter so much in children’s reading? In this article, we will explore the significance of phonics in children's reading development and discover compelling examples that illustrate why it plays a crucial role in their journey toward literacy.

Understanding Phonics

“Phonics” is all about sounds; it even come from the Greek word for “sound.” And this evidence-based, research-backed approach to reading instruction emphasizes the correlation between letters and sounds. By grasping this relationship, children learn to decode words by breaking them down into individual sounds called phonemes. 

Phonics instruction starts by teaching children the sounds associated with each letter of the alphabet. Readers then progress to blending these sounds together to form words. It then progresses to teaching phonemes that are represented by groups of two or three letters (such as “sh,” “tch,” or “ow”), and from one-syllable words to two-syllable words. With direct, explicit phonics instruction, a young reader isn’t left to guess or infer the patterns or rules that govern English spelling, which enables them to unlock the mysteries of written language and tackle progressively difficult texts.

Why Phonics Instruction Matters: The Evidence

  • Word Decoding: Phonics equips children with the skills to independently decode unfamiliar words1. For example, when encountering the word "cat," children who have learned phonics can break it down into the phonemes /k/, /a/, and /t/, and then blend them together to correctly pronounce and understand the word.
  • Spelling Proficiency: Phonics not only enhances reading abilities but also improves spelling skills2. For instance, children who have mastered phonics understand that the word the letters R-A-I-N say “rain” because they can associate each grapheme with its corresponding sound. They will know “ai” is one way to make the long a sound, particularly when the long a sound is in the middle of a word.
  • Fluency and Comprehension: Proficiency in phonics leads to fluency in reading. As children become adept at decoding words, they can read with greater speed and accuracy3, allowing them to focus on understanding the text's meaning4. This comprehension is crucial for overall literacy development. For example, a child proficient in phonics can read a passage about dinosaurs and comprehend the information about different species and their habitats.
  • Vocabulary Expansion: Phonics enables children to decode and understand new words, thus expanding their vocabulary. For instance, when encountering the word "magnetic," children who are familiar with phonics can break it down into phonemes and connect the sounds to their corresponding letters to understand its meaning.
  • Independent Reading Skills: Phonics empowers children to become independent readers5. Armed with phonics knowledge, they can decipher words on their own, boosting their confidence and igniting a passion for reading. For example, a child who has mastered phonics can pick up a book and read sentences independently, without relying on constant guidance.

Implementing Phonics

To be frank, being able to answer the question, “What is phonics?” is the easy part. As with any instructional methodologies, the real challenge is determining the most effective ways to implement phonics instruction in the classroom and at home. While that’s a topic for another blog post, here are a few simples strategies to try out:

  • Engage in games and activities such as word puzzles, rhyming games, I Spy, and decoding games
  • Try interactive phonics apps and subscribe to Ello to make sure your child gets phonics-based support while reading at home
  • Look for structured phonics programs and curriculum that provide explicit instruction in phonics rules
  • Create a language-rich environment where children encounter phonics in daily reading and writing activities. Letter flashcards, decodable books, and writing implements are a great place to start!

Phonics is the cornerstone of children's reading proficiency, enabling them to decode words, comprehend texts, and foster a lifelong love of reading. Phonics instruction provides children with the essential skills they need to become confident, independent readers, paving the way for their academic success across subject areas. And the Read With Ello app provides parents and teachers with an easy, effective, and fun way to infuse more phonics into reading time.

My child really likes [Ello] and is motivated to use it. I appreciate that it breaks words down to help my kiddo understand the phonics
Molly W.

1. The Science of Learning to Read Words: A Case for Systematic Phonics Instruction by Linnea C. Ehri

2. Teaching and Learning bySpelling Rebecca Treiman

3. The Impact of Explicit Phonics Instruction and Decodable Text on Fluency with Third-Grade Students by Megan Bitney

4. The Science of Reading Comprehension Instruction by Nell K. Duke

5. Effectively teaching phonics to promote proficient, strategic readers and writers by Cassy Hinderman,%20Cassy.pdf?sequence=1