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Cracking the Reading Code with Phonics Instruction

Learning how to read is not an automatic process. Although the human brain is wired to easily learn how to talk, it is not wired for the automatic ability to read and write (Daniels and Bright, 1996), which makes phonics instruction especially important. 

Through decades of research studies, scientists have found that learning to read requires that students are explicitly taught early reading skills. And one of these key skills is phonicsalso known as the alphabetic principle (Ehri, 2004; Foorman, Francis, Fletcher, Schatschneider, & Mehta, 1998).

The importance of phonics instruction was highlighted in a recent story broadcast on American Public Media titled Hard Words: Why Aren’t Kids Being Taught to Read?  The story noted that explicit phonics instruction can make the difference in whether a student learns to read. And, they explored how schools teach phonics and why explicitly teaching these skills are necessary for learning how to read.

What is (and isn’t) Phonics?

Phonics is the set of skills readers use to identify and manipulate letters (graphemes) of a written language with the corresponding individual sounds (phonemes) of the spoken language.

Not all languages use phonics. But it is essential for alphabetic languages where there are specific sounds matched to the letter. Making the connection between letters (or letter combinations) and sounds enables reading (decoding) and writing (encoding).

Phonics Instruction

Phonics instruction is focused on teaching beginning readers how sounds are linked to letters (or letter combinations) in the written language. In the case of the English language, phonics instruction teaches students that there are predictable patterns between letters and sounds. Knowing these letter-sound relationships is how students recognize and decode words.

Phonics skills include a progression of skills that start with identifying letter-sound relationships leading to decoding multisyllabic words. Phonics instruction ideally begins in Kindergarten and can continue into later elementary grades to teach advanced phonic analysis skills.

Phonics vs. Phonemic Awareness

One important note:  phonics is different than phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is knowing that words are made up of separate sounds. Although phonics skills are built from phonemic awareness skills, these are different skills. I talk more about Phonemic Awareness Intervention in this post.

Why Focus on Phonics?

Phonics instruction is a primary focus in early elementary grades because it is a foundational skill necessary to establish before reading can be automatic and fluent. Children need to be able to “crack the code” of written language. Cracking the code happens most effectively and efficiently through systematically and explicitly teaching phonics and other basic reading skills such.

Reading English words requires matching the letters to their correct sounds. As children build their decoding skills through phonics instruction, they use these decoding abilities to recognize word patterns and develop word accuracy such that word recognition becomes automatic and fluent (Hiebert & Taylor, 2000).

And, when children become fluent at the decoding of words, they then have the capacity to focus their attention on comprehending what is read (Adams, 1990; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998).


The National Reading Panel (2000) affirmed that systematic phonics instruction is the most effective method for ensuring that all students master the English alphabetic code. Teaching phonics skills increases the likelihood that students will master the necessary foundational reading skills and continue to meet expected reading proficiency goals.  

Identifying Students in Need of Phonics Interventions

Teachers can identify students in need of phonics intervention by using FastBridge earlyReading™ assessment results. Subtests within the earlyReading™ suite that target phonics include letter names, letter sounds, decodable word reading, and nonsense word reading.  These assessments may also be used to monitor intervention progress.

One of these subtests, Nonsense Words, is included in the earlyReading™ screening Composite score in the winter and spring of kindergarten and in the fall, winter, and spring of first grade. The earlyReading™ Composite includes four subtests and that score can be used to identify students who are not on track (i.e., at-risk) for reading problems. For those students whose Composite scores indicate risk, teachers can look at specific earlyReading™ subtest scores to identify student difficulties.

For example, if a student’s score on the earlyReading™ Letter Sound subtest is low, it might indicate a need for phonics instruction focused on letter sounds. If a student’s score on the earlyReading™ Decodable Words is low, it might indicate a need for phonics instruction focused on consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) word instruction.

Phonics Interventions Available in FastBridge

Given that phonics is a foundational skill in learning to read, how can we support students in developing such skills?

Fastbridge offers reading interventions that target phonics skills. The interventions are based on prior research about effective phonics instruction and are aligned with the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts for grades K-5.

The phonics interventions are available within the Fastbridge Training & Resources section of the online system. For each intervention, there is an online course with a series of eight lessons that include the following components.

  • Lesson 1: An introduction to the intervention
  • Lesson 2: Standardized administration information with a short video
  • Lesson 3: Whole group step-by-step administration guide with student and teacher materials to use.
  • Lesson 4: Small group step-by-step administration guide with student and teacher materials to use.
  • Lesson 5: Formative assessment with progress monitoring recommendations
  • Lesson 6: Practice options, including a checklist to monitor intervention fidelity
  • Lesson 7: Certification in implementing the intervention (coming soon)
  • Lesson 8: Resources such as references to prior research about the intervention methods.

Currently, there are four phonics interventions available for educators to use. The interventions begin with easier phonics skills and move toward challenging skills. As supported by research, these interventions are explicit and systematic.


The interventions directly teach students phonics through modeling and practice activities.


The interventions follow a planned and progressive sequence of phonics skill development using clearly defined lessons with many practice opportunities for students to build accuracy and automaticity of these skills (Carnine, Silbert, Kame’enui, & Tarver, 2010).  

The four phonics interventions include Picture Card Sort, Letter Sound Bingo, Word Boxes, and Word Mix Up.

Picture Card Sort

Picture Card Sort should be used when students need to improve their letter-sound accuracy. The goal for this intervention is for students to demonstrate 95% or higher accuracy with letter sounds.

Letter Sound Bingo

This intervention should be used when students demonstrate limited automaticity with letter-sound knowledge. Letter Sound Bingo is focused on increasing automaticity and retention of letter sounds such that students can identify each letter sound in 3 seconds or less. Letter Sound Bingo can be used alongside Picture Card Sort.

For example, a teacher could use Picture Card Sort 3 or 4 days a week and then at the end of the week use Letter Sound Bingo, focusing on the letters that were taught throughout that week. Letter Sound Bingo can also be used on its own 3 or 4 times per week if students already demonstrate 95% or better accuracy with letter sounds but are not yet automatic with them (i.e., still need to learn how to say each sound in less than 3 seconds).

Word Boxes

This intervention is more specialized and should be used when students have an accuracy need specifically related to segmenting, blending, and decoding consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words with short vowels (such as cat, cut, cot, set, sit). The intervention materials include a set of 15 CVC word lists that can be used by teachers across 15 sessions. The goal of this intervention is to increase student decoding accuracy with CVC words to 95% or more.

Word Mix Up

This intervention is designed for students who need to improve both accuracy and automaticity with blending and decoding various word types. The intervention is designed to support students in learning how to decode simpler word types such as CVC (e.g., cat, sat) and consonant digraphs (e.g., shop, that, chill) as well as  more complex word types that include vowel teams (e.g., week, piece, load) and variant vowels (e.g., right, spy, pool, cook, house).

Teachers can use the Word Mix Up materials to teach the sequence of word types. The Word Lists, Sentences, and Stories include 108 lessons from easier to more difficult that use specified word lists matched with sentences and a story with the words used in them. This allows students to generalize the words they learn in a list format to connected text that has a high percentage of decodable words in the text.  


As every teacher knows, students enter school with diverse prior experiences. As a result, they are at different readiness levels for learning phonics skills. Teachers will need to determine how to differentiate core instruction and provide additional supplemental interventions for students who are behind or at-risk for not meeting grade-level reading goals. Fastbridge has new phonics interventions that can be used to assist struggling students master letter-sound correspondence. These interventions range from basic to more advanced and help students through direct and systematic instruction. 


Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Carnine, D., Silbert, J., Kame’enui, E. J., & Tarver, S. G. (2010). Direct instruction reading (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Daniels, P. T., & Bright, W. (Eds.). (1996). The world’s writing systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ehri, L. C. (2004). Teaching phonemic awareness and phonics: An explanation of the National Reading Panel meta-analysis. In P. McCardle & V. Chhabra (Eds.), The voice of evidence in reading research (pp. 153–186). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

Foorman, B. R., Francis, D. J., Fletcher, J. M., Schatschneider, C., & Mehta, P. (1998). The role of instruction in learning to read: Preventing reading failure in at-risk children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 37–55.

Hiebert, E. H. & Taylor, B.M. (2000). Beginning reading instruction: Research on early interventions. In M. J. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.). Handbook of reading research, Volume III (pp. 455-482) Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum.

National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Shaywitz, S. (2003). Overcoming dyslexia: A new and complete science-based program for reading problems at any level. New York: Knopf.

Simos, P. G., Fletcher, J.M., Sarkari, S., Billingsley, R. L., Denton, C., & Papanicolaou, A. C. (2007). Altering the brain circuits for reading through intervention: A magnetic source imaging study. Neuropsychology, 21, 485–496.

Snow, C. E., Burns, M. S., & Griffin, P. (Eds.). (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.


Lynn M. Edwards, PhD

Lynn M. Edwards, PhD, is a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Minnesota and school psychologist at an elementary charter school in Minneapolis. Her current work is focused on leading the effort to develop and conduct research for the Personalized System of Instruction (PSI) project in collaboration with colleagues and FastBridge Learning. PSI is a computerized cloud-based instructional software program that will streamline the use of assessment to continuously inform instruction. Dr. Edwards’ primary research interests focus on identifying causal mechanisms of learning and designing effective technology-based instructional systems, resources and tools for educators.

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