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Phonics instruction from a Teachers' Perspectives

Doug Fisher.

In balanced approaches to literacy, there is consensus that decoding is a critical component of the reading process (Baumann, Hoffman, Moon, & Duffy-Hester, 1998; California Department of Education, 1995). However, the amount of time spent on phonics instruction and the approaches used continue to be debated (Lapp & Flood, 1997, 1998; Groff 1998). Fortunately, there is a great deal of information available on effective instructional methods related to phonics (e.g., Chall, 1996; Dahl & Freppon, 1995; Hall & Cunningham, 1996). Whether traditional or contemporary approaches to phonics instruction are used, teachers across the country have access to information about research-based instructional methods. Stahl, Duffy-Hester, and Stahl (1998) define good phonics as the following:
1. Good phonics instruction should develop the alphabetic principle.
2. Good phonics instruction should develop phonological awareness.
3. Good phonics instruction should not teach rules, need not use worksheets, should not dominate instruction, and does not have to be boring.
4. Good phonics instruction provides sufficient practice in reading words.
5. Good phonics instruction leads to automatic word recognition.
6. Good phonics instruction is one part of reading instruction (pp. 339-343)
While the debate about the when’s and how’s of phonics in the literacy curriculum of first and second language students continues (Coles, 1998; Kozloff, 1998; Lapp & Flood, 1998; Groff, 1998), little actual research about teacher’s beliefs, philosophy and practices has been conducted. In fact, an ERIC search reveals the paucity of information available related to teachers’ voices in the phonics debate. Three exceptions are worth noting.
Teacher beliefs about the effectiveness of teaching phonics vary widely. In their 1998 study, Baumann, Hoffman, Moon and Duffy-Hester reported teachers’ beliefs, priorities, and practices of 1207 elementary school teachers related to phonics. They found that a majority of the teachers (89%) believed that skills instruction should be combined with literature and language-rich activities. They also found that a majority of teachers (63%) believed that phonics should be taught directly in order to enable readers to become skillful and fluent.
The majority of these teachers reported that they used systematic instruction within the context of either synthetic phonics or analytic phonics. More specifically, the majority of teachers reported that they provided instruction through word families/phonograms, in the context of children’s literature, and through spelling and writing activities. Further, the teachers indicated that they often used read alouds, accepted invented spellings, and engaged children in oral language, journal writing, and reading response activities.
In a second study which investigated the ways in which a first grade teacher used a whole-part-whole reading model with her 15 students, Fowler (1998) explained that she taught phonics in a wide array of instructional activities: reading aloud in pairs, discussions of sound symbol similarities, journal writing based on just-learned phonemes, and phonemic awareness training. This teacher practiced an integrated approach to phonics instruction.
A third study focused on the language learning of one first grade student who transitioned to more conventional writing over the course of the school year (Sipe, 1998). This case study highlighted the interactions between the focus student and his teacher and peers. The author noted that this student became increasingly literate in an eclectic classroom “where there were some very holistic practices and some more traditional practices” (p. 384).
Language advocates espousing balance in literacy instruction have claimed that phonics is embedded in classroom literacy activities and that child-centered instruction provides phonics instruction according to learner need (Freppon & Dahl, 1991; McQuillan, 1998). At this point, the literature consists of surveys, first person accounts, and case studies of individual students. The survey work by Baumann, Hoffman, Moon, and Duffy-Hester (1998) indicates that teachers support a balanced approach and self-report providing that balance. The personal narrative (Fowler, 1998) and the case study (Sipe, 1998) indicate that these two teachers meet individual students needs through contextualized phonics and eclectic approaches to literacy instruction. However, few analyses exist that have examined whether these embedded phonics practices do occur or whether phonics is taught as a separate subject. In our study, we examined the ways in which phonics is taught in order to understand: (1) if it is contextualized or isolated; (2) if it is presented in the same way for all children; (3) what percentage of lesson time is related to phonics instruction; (4) what materials are used to teach phonics; and (5) the reasons teachers give for their practices. More specifically, we were interested in learning from larger numbers of teachers about their actual practices related to phonics instruction.
The purpose of this study was to provide information about the current practices of classroom teachers relative to phonics instruction. Teachers were surveyed and observed to determine their perceptions of the importance of phonics instruction, methods for phonics instruction, time spent on phonics, materials used, and grouping strategies.
One hundred and eighteen teachers from Southern California were randomly selected from a pool of teachers whomet the following criteria: 1) teaching in one of the 30 urban schools in which San Diego State University and San Diego Unified School District are partners in the preparation of new teachers. This spread of schools afforded the opportunity to study issues related to phonics/reading instruction for children from many cultures, language backgrounds, and socioeconomic levels; and 2) either a master’s degree or current enrollment in a graduate program after completing a credential program. The total number of teachers who met the criteria in these 30 schools was 1182. The total number of teachers employed in these 30 schools was 1675. Teachers’ selected ranged in experience from 1 to 29 years, with an average of 5.5 years. The number of teachers per grade level included:
• 59 K-2 teachers
• 21 3-4 teachers
• 24 5-6 teachers
• 14 7-8 teachers
Two measures were designed to survey and observe the participants.
Survey. This instrument, which contained a total of 10 questions, was divided into three sections (see Appendix A). Section one, which contained three questions, focused on instructional beliefs. The first two questions were likert-type questions related to concern about and confidence in using phonics instruction. A third, open-ended question was designed to ascertain the specifics of the confidence and concern questions. Section two, which contained four questions, focused on student needs and methods of instruction. The first open-ended question in this section asked teachers to indicate the most pressing reading needs presented by students in their class. The next question asked about the importance of integrating phonics instruction into a language arts program. Choices on this 5-point, likert-type question ranged from “not at all important” to “very important.” The third question in this section was open-ended and asked for information about the methods used to provide phonics instruction. Teachers were asked to expand on their answers and provide examples. The final section of the survey related to logistics and included three open-ended questions about the materials used to teach phonics, the grouping strategies used during phonics and/or language arts time, and the amount of time spent on phonics instruction per day. The survey was piloted on five teachers who taught at schools not considered for the study. Minor changes in wording were made based on the feedback from these five teachers.
Classroom observations. The second measure consisted of classroom observations. The 118 teachers who completed the survey all agreed to possible selection for a classroom observation. This allowed the researchers to observe a randomly selected subset of the teachers who completed surveys (n=35); 33% from grades K-2 (20 teachers), 25% from grades 3-4 (5 teachers), 25% from grades 5-6 (6 teachers), and 25% from grades 7-8 (4 teachers). We were interested in how teachers actually taught phonics and the amount of time they allotted to phonics instruction. The number of observations per grade level decreased as did the need for and time spent on phonics instruction. The observations were unannounced and occurred during the literacy block of time. Fieldnote forms (LeCompte & Preissle, 1993) were used to create a record of classroom events and conversations. To ensure consistency and inter-rater reliability, teachers were always observed by at least two of the researchers, both of whom had experience with ethnographic and qualitative research. Teachers were observed twice each and classroom observations typically lasted between 60 and 100 minutes.
The results from the 118 surveys and 35 observations were combined into several areas related to phonics instruction, including concern and confidence, importance, methods, materials, grouping, and time.
Concern and Confidence
We first asked the teachers about their concern for phonics instruction as well as their confidence in teaching phonics lessons.
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It seems logical that concern would decrease through the grades as students become more proficient readers. Interestingly, the fifth and sixth grade teachers remained fairly concerned about phonics instruction, but did not have as much confidence in their ability to provide phonics instruction. It also seems logical that primary grade teachers were more confident with their phonics instruction skills given their professional preparation and the student needs.
Observational data supported these findings. Teachers in the primary grades were very pleased to have visitors observe their lessons and talked freely about the ways in which they addressed student needs. As one first grade teacher said, “Come on in, we’re just about to start our literacy block. We are working with words first today so you will see how students use word families based on the story we are reading.” However, upper grade teachers were concerned that they were not performing in some way that the researchers expected. As one sixth grade teacher said, “I’m not sure what you are looking for. I really don’t know much about phonics instruction. Some of my second language students might need that, but all students in our school have a reading class as one of their electives. All my students read well and I’m working with them on comprehension of our social studies book.”
Student Needs
When asked about the reading needs of their students, the primary grade teachers saw the needs of their students differently than did teachers of older students. Teachers in the intermediate and middle grades were much more focused on comprehension and vocabulary development needs than the primary grade teachers who identified phonics as the primary need.
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The observational data supported the survey data for the primary grade teachers. Clearly phonics was important to them, they talked about phonics instruction with the researchers, and they conducted classroom activities that clearly addressed phonics instruction. At the third and fourth grade levels, teachers commonly reviewed and integrated phonics instruction into the language arts time. This was reported in the survey and consistently observed. However, the observational data did not support the survey data for grades 5 and above. After fourth grade, identifiable phonics instruction was increasingly sparse. Unless asked, teachers did not discuss phonics instruction and no specific phonics instruction was observed. However, teachers from the upper grades were consistently observed conducting lessons that contained comprehension questions and activities. As a seventh grade teacher said, “I really want my students to understand what they are reading. I know that they know most of the words, and trying to sound out ‘government’ isn’t going to help them understand the branches and balance of power in the US democracy.”
Contextualized or Isolated Phonics Instruction
The teachers were also asked to respond to a question about the importance of integrating phonics instruction within the language arts program. Sixty-four percent of the K–2 teachers reported that integrated phonics instruction was “very important.” In addition to integrating phonics instruction through their basal stories and related little books these teachers also taught “extra isolated phonics” as they saw the need. The other thirty-six percent of the K-2 teachers indicated that they taught phonics as a separate part of word study that may or may not be directly related to the books they were reading to and with the children. This compared with 86% of the third and fourth grade teachers, 40% of the fifth and sixth grade teachers, and 0% of the seventh and eighth grade teachers who felt that integrated phonics instruction was important. We also asked the teachers to select the primary way in which they taught phonics. The previous question related to teacher beliefs while this question related to teacher practices. The data for the K – 4 teachers were most interesting. After fourth grade most teachers indicated that they did not teach phonics.
The most common selection for the method of teaching phonics was “integrated within lessons.” Thirty-six percent of the teachers indicated that they used a “text to phonics” approach. The next most common answer was “authentic samples of student work.” Thirty-three percent of the teachers indicated that they used student writing to develop their phonics lessons. The third most common response was a “separate instructional times for phonics.” Twenty-five percent of the teachers reported using a “phonics to text” approach in which phonics instruction was isolated from the rest of the language arts block. Last, 6% of the teachers reported that they did not teach phonics at all.
The observational data also supported these survey results. Most teachers were observed using a text or students’ writing to develop instructional activities for phonics. All of the elementary school teachers used a three-hour literacy block. This means that, for three hours each day, students were engaged in reading, writing, speaking, listening and viewing. The primary grade teachers often set aside time during this block for phonics instruction. Most often, teachers’ lessons came directly from the basal that the class was using. In addition, several of the primary grade teachers used instructional materials that were either developed locally or were commercially available. In about half the classes in which teachers used specific instructional time for phonics, students were observed working in small groups. The groups were homogeneous in nature and each small group was working on an instructional activity designed to address an observed need (e.g., playing fish-matching onset and rime cards; partner reading of the word wall and little books; worksheets and computer software designed to practice various phonic elements). In all instances, what the groups were doing was very specifically planned to enhance individual word recognition and phonics strategies.
The third and fourth grade teachers who were observed integrated phonics instruction into their lessons during the literacy block. Most often this was done through children’s writing in which the teacher read the student’s journals and then created small group lessons based on the needs identified. Following the observations, several teachers commented on their phonics instruction. One teacher said, “I use a big book and identify specific phonemes for students to work on. I can usually find supplemental materials and activities that focus on the specific phoneme we are studying. I also use a word wall and reinforce the place where students can find a spelling pattern or a sight word on the wall.” It appeared to the researchers that the concept of phonics instruction had been expanded to include more vocabulary and word study at these grade levels.
A teacher who was observed using authentic samples of student work said, “Student writing is a rich source of information for me. I review student journals every week and identify spelling patterns that students need to work on. Then I either find a book that has a lot of those spelling patterns in it or I find worksheets that review that pattern. I do this with small groups at the teacher table during center rotations.”
Finally, a teacher who was observed implementing a phonics program based on a separate instructional time for phonics said, “I think it is important to have kids learn the code. Every day there is a center that focuses on a specific phonetic rule. All of the students must complete this center so that they get the direct instruction they need. Often my aide works at that table. At the end of the week, I try to find a book that shows the rule in action.”
It was interesting to observe the types of materials that teachers used to teach phonics. Many teachers used materials and texts that were commercially available to them, including their basals, little books, and workbooks. They also used a number of chants, songs, and games, computer software and materials they had created. As the students got older, there was a clear increase in the reliance on literature and children’s writing for phonics instruction. On the survey, teachers overwhelming indicated that they used commercially available materials. However, the materials they identified as commercially available ranged from basals to a local workbook series to an instructional arrangement (the Four Blocks) to an assessment and early intervention program (First Steps) to materials produced by the Wright Group and software by Lightspan. Very few teachers reported on the survey that they made the materials themselves (8%) or used songs, games and manipulatives (8%). Only 2% of the teachers indicated that they used literature as one of the materials in phonics instruction. For some reason, the teachers in this survey seemed confused by the materials they used. Either they believed that the songs and literature had little impact on phonics knowledge or they only thought of commercial materials as the phonics part of their day. Regardless, the observational data indicated that teachers had a wide range of materials that they accessed for phonics instruction such as literature, student writing, games, songs, manipulatives, and computer software programs. In contrast, the survey data indicated a significant reliance on commercially available materials.
Grouping Strategies
In addition to the methods and materials used to teach phonics, we were also interested in the grouping strategies that teachers used during the literacy block. It should be noted that California has reduced class size in grades K-3 to a maximum of 20 students. The upper grade classrooms still contain 32-36 students. Teachers across grades differed widely in their grouping strategies for instruction in reading. For example, 58% of the primary grade teachers reported using homogeneous groups in contrast to the upper grade teachers who reported 25%. The primary grade teachers reported using whole group 42% of the time whereas the upper grade teachers used whole class 65% of the time. Finally, the primary grade teachers reported using heterogeneous groups 14% of the time compared with 42% for the upper grades.
This was very clearly displayed in the observations. The primary grade teachers in this study very often grouped students for phonics instruction need. These were not permanent ability groups for the entire day but were fairly consistent across literacy block time. Students in the primary grades worked in small homogeneous groups most often with other students that the teacher had identified. As one first grade teacher said, “It is easier for me to get them the appropriate instruction when they are with peers who have the same needs. This way I plan three or four different levels of instruction for the students and then group them together.” Contrary to many current studies on ability grouping, the ability groups were not permanent for their entire elementary school day experience. In observations at the same schools in which ability grouping was occurring in the primary grades, the upper grade teachers were using much more heterogeneous grouping patterns. However, it should be noted that the upper grade teachers still had a wide range of fluency levels and that previous ability grouping of the students did not necessarily result in leveling the groups. As a fourth grade teacher said, “I know my colleagues in the younger grades group by ability. I’m not sure why they do that, I still get students with all kinds of skills. I don’t group that way because I think students need to interact with their peers. However, during center rotations I do sometimes meet with a group of students with similar skills. Since I change the groups all the time they don’t really know if they are in a high or low group. I think the primary grade teachers may group by ability for younger children because they only have 20 students and I have 36 and they are teaching them to read. I have to be much more creative than the three traditional groups of high, middle and low.”
Time Allocations
The final question related to the amount of time that teachers spend on phonics instruction. As was previously noted, after the fourth grade, teachers rarely reported spending any time on phonics instruction. The teachers in grades K – 4, however, were very consistent with their responses: about 25% of the literacy block was devoted to phonics lessons and word development activities which were based on the teachers’ beliefs about integrated instruction and children’s writing. This translates to about 45 minutes per day of, as one teacher said, “working with words.” In addition, several teachers noted that students were learning phonics at other times of the day, e.g., when they are on the computer, during writing conferences with the teacher, when they use the word wall to spell a word during science or social studies, and as they participated in music, movement, and art activities.
The observational data supported the information from the survey. Teachers in grades K – 4 were observed spending significant amounts of time on phonics and word study activities. Their philosophical orientation was the greatest predictor of the ways in which they used this time. None of the teachers, including the one who reported on the survey that she did not teach phonics, were observed not actively engaging students in the study of sounds, letters and words.


Doug Fisher  (United States)
Associate Professor
Teacher Education
San Diego State University

  • Phonics
  • Teacher Perceptions

(30 min Conference Paper, English)