Cutting through the Gordian Knot of Phonics Instruction Circa 2019: My advice on how to build word work (decoding) into your Guided Reading Classroom by Dr. Sam Bommarito

reading creatuve commonsLast week my blog focused on tweaking how we implement guided reading. In the past week, it had over 1200 readers in over 30 different countries. Today’s title is as follows:

“Cutting through the Gordian Knot of Phonics Instruction Circa 2019: My advice for how to build word work (decoding) into your Guided Reading Classroom”

In this entry I am attempting to give a “Cliff’s Notes” version of my recommendations around phonics, decoding and guided reading/reading workshop. I do have research-based evidence to back up what I say. Most of it has appeared in previous blogs. I am currently working with some of my colleagues to produce a book-length version of these ideas. It will include all these ideas and a more systematic look at all that aforementioned research.

Let me begin by giving a summary of what I am about to say in this post. Fit the instruction to the child, not the other way round. Train teachers in ALL the approaches to teaching phonics. Empower teachers to use the approach that best fits their kid(s). A strong reminder is given that what works with one kid might not work with another. Make sure that whatever scheme is adopted for teaching decoding leaves sufficient time to also include teaching comprehension. This should be done even at the earliest levels of literacy instruction.

In my opinion, the key to cutting through the Gordian knot of phonics instruction is to empower teachers (allow teachers!) to fit the decoding instruction to the child. In that way, every child gets what they really need. The “point” person in all this is the classroom teacher. At the end of the day, they know the children best. Since the publication of the 1st Grade Studies over 50 years ago and through subsequent work by Dick Allington and others there is a strong research base indicating that teachers make more difference in reading achievement scores than any particular method or approach. It is time our educational policies reflect this. It is time to start treating teachers like the valuable resource they are and untie their hands so they can do their work. It is work they have demonstrated a remarkable ability to carry out even in the current circumstances, which are far less than ideal for best results.

  1. Teaching Teachers to Teach Phonics (Decoding)

The current state of affairs in teaching preservice teachers about phonics is unacceptable. Many teachers are coming through their pre-service work without learning the basics of how words work, what the sound symbol relations are et. al. Think diphthongs and digraphs and voiceless consonants and all the nuances of letter sounds. Look to the programs for speech pathologists. They’ve had a great curriculum in place for decades. The program for classroom teachers need not be as involved as that curriculum. but a basic program for all teachers should be put in place, informed by the speech pathologist’s current curriculum. I will acknowledge that many teachers, left to fend for themselves, have managed to gain such knowledge anyway. Care should be taken that this gaping hole in the typical curriculum for pre-service teachers is filled as soon as possible and that appropriate coursework for practicing teachers be provided.

There are several ways to teach phonics. The two used the most often are analytic and synthetic phonics. See the following ILA position paper which explains the various approaches:

There is research evidence to indicate that each of these approaches can help some children. In fact, there is even evidence that some children (a VERY small number of children) need no phonics instruction at all. My preference is for district-level literacy programs that start with synthetic phonics. My recommendation is that decisions on which of the approaches to use as the base program in a district be made at the district level. Any overall literacy program/well-rounded literacy program must also include well-informed systematic teaching of comprehension strategies (or if some analysts are correct a program based on teaching the overall problem-solving strategy common to all the so-called separate reading strategies).  Local school boards know their children the best. Informed by the teachers’ experiences with the children, local school boards can make the best decision for their district.

  1. Teach all the Approaches to Teaching Phonics For a basic explanation of the two most widely used approaches to teaching phonics see the following ILA paper:
  • Analytic- This is often done on an as a needed basis. When using this approach teachers should be aware that the greatest danger is that large holes can be left in the students’ knowledge around phonics and how words work. This can be rectified by having district-wide goals, K-1 (K-2?) with teachers directed to track what goals they have completed and adding instruction as needed to make sure the overall experience gets the students all the things they need. Done this way, I think analytic approaches can meet the criteria of “systematic”. Systematic phonics instruction (that reads systematic not synthetic) phonics instruction seems well supported by the research.
  • Synthetic- This approach is more direct and is inherently done in a systematic way. When using this approach care should be taken that instruction given to Tier-one children be efficient and leave time for concurrent work on comprehension strategies. A “leave comprehension for second grade or later” approach is not recommended. Children needing more time for additional explicit decoding instruction should be served in Tier two or Tier three programs.

Just as you do with comprehension work, use the small group setting within Guided Reading or Reading Workshop as the final scaffold into using the decoding strategies. Especially be aware of what work you are leaving for the students and why.

3. For analytic phonics lessons use predictable text at or near the most difficult part of the student’s instructional level (barely above their “challenge” or “frustration” level). Pick text that will give multiple opportunities to use the decoding skills being taught (e.g. say the first sound and think of the clues).

4. For synthetic phonics lessons use decodable text at or near the most difficult part of their instructional level (barely above their “challenge” or “frustration” level). Pick text that will give multiple opportunities to use the decoding strategies being taught (e.g. letter by letter sounding)

5. Word work for the older child: From late second grade forward try to expand the student’s knowledge of both consonant and vowel digraphs. Include instruction on the r-controlled sounds as well. Work in learning about prefixes, suffixes, and roots can also be beneficial. This is especially true in content area reading. Think science and all that one can learn about the meaning of words by noticing the prefixes, affixes, and roots of those words. Tim Rasinski’s website has a number of resources that can be used toward teaching about this part of word work.

6. The importance of teaching prosody Too often, fluency is treated as an issue mainly dealing with reading speed. This position is rebuked by the following ILA position paper: Do we want a nation of reading robots or reading storytellers? Given the promising work Rasinski and others have done in demonstrating improving prosody also improves comprehension I choose the latter. Rasinski’s work includes a reliable rubric for prosody which is contained in the book The Megabook of Fluency. He co-authored that book with Melissa Cheeseman Smith.

7.  The importance of including wide reading and giving children access to culturally relevant books is a theme I’ve written about many times. Research demonstrates the importance of building background knowledge in order to improve the ability to read with real comprehension.  The following ILA papers give compelling reasons to support wide reading as part of any literacy program,

8. The importance of including concurrent comprehension work from the very outset of reading instruction. In the 1980s, Presley, Durkin, and others began advocating the direct teaching of comprehension. Because I believe that reading is NOT a natural act (i.e. it is a learned behavior, not an inborn behavior) I believe the need for direct and explicit teaching of comprehension skills exists. Some educators believe that rather than a constellation of strategies, there is really just one overall strategy for comprehension, a generalized problem-solving strategy. Whichever way teachers approach it, as a constellation or a single factor strategy, the fact remains the direct instruction in comprehension is imperative. I believe the advice of some current advocates of the simple view of reading is that the majority of the time in early literacy instruction be spent on decoding, with time for comprehension instruction being left for later grades, perhaps as late as the beginning of third grade. I do not recommend or support that approach.

9. The Dyslexic child

 This topic is important enough and complex enough to merit its own separate section. It will be the topic of next week’s blog. My preview statement to that entry is that there is no question that the Dyslexic student exists. Dyslexic students require the kind of complete/intense approach to phonics that is found in programs like Orton Gillingham.  A friend who does a great deal of work with Dyslexic students reports there are several programs that are OG influenced This means they are multisensory, explicit, systematic, sequential, and cumulative. These include programs like Barton Reading & Spelling System, The Wilson Reading System and Take Flight and Spire. How all this might fit into an overall literacy program will be discussed at length in the next blog entry.

Conclusion- I’ll end where I began. Improve teacher education so that teachers know about sound-symbol relations. Teachers should be educated in and then empowered to use a variety of approaches to teaching phonics.  Comprehension and decoding should be taught concurrently from the very beginning of literacy instruction.

As much as possible I’ve tried to make this entry in the spirit of dialogue rather than debate. I hope I have at least been successful in part in doing that. My final thought is this. While most of us might think of ourselves as working for a particular district or organization or whatever, in point of fact none of those folks are the real boss. The kids are our real boss. They don’t care who wins the reading wars or even that the reading wars continue to rage. They do care that their teacher can help them. They need to know their teacher will do everything possible to help.  For teachers that might mean conceding that sometimes the “other side” just might have something that will help this particular child. If they do, then within the bounds of propriety, for goodness sakes use it! When I did my training to become a reading specialist (more years ago than I care to admit), my university instilled in all of us a belief that there is always something that can help this particular child. It’s our job to find it. Fellow teachers, I pass that job on to you. Administrators and policy makers, please give the teachers the training and the permission to use the best methods for THAT PARTICULAR CHILD. Don’t make them throw away things that are working. Do ask them to keep an open mind about new things that might also help. And most of all, find ways to listen to them. They know your kids best and can give you feedback about them. Take advantage of that knowledge as you develop your district-wide plans.  If we did all this, I believe this Gordian knot can be cut and we can finally get down to the business we’re all supposed to be about. That is the business of helping kids learn the joys and benefits that literacy in all its’ forms can bring into their lives.  When all that happens, then I think the literacy evolution will have happened.  I am so looking forward to that day!

Happy Reading and Writing


Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka, the glass half full kind of a guy)

Copyright 2019 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

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2 thoughts on “Cutting through the Gordian Knot of Phonics Instruction Circa 2019: My advice on how to build word work (decoding) into your Guided Reading Classroom by Dr. Sam Bommarito

  1. gjn

    You have addressed the great reading debate in a very sensible way…give each reader the tools THEY need to read.

    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      GJN, that’s exactly it!!!! Easier to say than to do, but I’m confident it can be worked out. It is CRITICAL Dyslexic children get an intense systematic OG based program. Not all children need that. Most children do need some kind of phonics instruction. Let teachers provide whatever it is the PARTICULAR CHILD needs. Guess the previous sentence is going to become my mantra!


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