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The Phonics Wars

Phonics Wars

The Phonics Wars

The Reading Wars have largely centered on one key issue of contention: How to Teach Phonics. More aptly named, the Phonics Wars have been going on since the 1950s. Different sides will occasionally declare victory when new research comes out or when new test results are released, such as the recent Mississippi NAEP improvement, and claim that the wars are over. Locally, among your district, county, or state colleagues, there may be a ceasefire; however, nationally and internationally the wars continue to rage on. The best evidence to support this fact? Facebook reading instruction groups. Believe me, the battle lines are still drawn. Even within the same type of phonics, some of the toughest battles are being waged e.g., the current International Dyslexic Association v. International Literacy Association accusations and name-calling.

This post is designed to get you up to speed about the three approaches to phonics, the key instructional activities, the programs and supporters, and the lingo used by advocates. My instructional goal is help you classify reading strategies, lessons, and activities according to the three approaches to phonics.

Three Approaches to Phonics

1. Synthetic Phonics: Teaches students to convert the 26 letters of the alphabet into the 43 or 44 English phonemes (speech sounds e.g., /sh/) and then blend these sounds to read syllables and words. This is known as decoding. Students also learn to use the graphemes (the letters or groups of letters which represent the common phoneme spellings, also known as sound-spellings) to spell the syllables and words. This is known as encoding. Both decoding and encoding are taught together in synthetic phonics.

Example: Individual sounds: sh-ow-n Blended sounds: shown

*Note: The slanted /lines/ indicate sounds. The _blanks_ indicate that other letters must come before and/or after the spelling.

Key Instructional Activities: Sound-by-Sound Blending, Sound-Spelling Cards, Decodable Book Practice, direct spelling pattern instruction

Programs and Supporters: Read 180®, Open Court, SRA, LETRS, Success for All, LiPS®, Wilson Reading System® and Fundations, Orton-Gillingham, Language! Live®, Hooked on Phonics®, Saxon Phonics®, Fundations, SRA Corrective Reading, International Dyslexic Association, International Literacy Association

Lingo: The Science of Reading, structured, explicit, systematic, sound-out, alphabetic code, , word identification, word attack

2. Analytic (Analogy) Phonics: Teaches students to look at the whole word, especially the onset (the beginning letter or letters) and rime (the sound pattern known as a word family), and to compare to similarly structured words which are already known.

Example: sh-ock like the words st-ock and kn-ock

Key Instructional Activities: Word sorts, word family flashcards, rhyming books, spelling patterns

Programs and Supporters: Words Their Way®, Making Words, International Literacy Association, Dr. Seuss

Lingo: Word families, onsets and rimes, word sorts. “Get your mouth ready…”, word recognition, high frequency words, whole to part

3. Embedded Phonics: Teaches students phonics within the context of reading as needed to cue the pronunciation of a word. Phonics skills are learned deductively from the whole to the part as one of the three cueing strategies for comprehension i.e., 1. M = Meaning 2. S = Structure (sentence structure, grammar, word order) 3. V = Visual (phonics, onsets and rimes, sight words)

Example: “What’s the sound of the first letter in this word?” From the other words in the sentence, what would be your best guess as to how to say it?

Key Instructional Activities: Mini lessons, predictable texts, picture walks, guided reading, shared reading

Programs and Supporters: Fountas and Pinnell Leveled Literacy Intervention, Reading Recovery, HMH Journeys , HMH Into Reading, Units of Study for Teaching Reading Series

Lingo: Whole Language, Balanced Literacy, Structured Literacy, guided reading, shared reading, leveled books, authentic reading, word walls, high frequency sight words, strategic guessing


My take? Synthetic phonics is the most efficient means of teaching the alphabetic code and should be taught systematically as part of any beginning reading program or reading intervention program. However, good reading and spelling programs provide additional analytic phonics activities, such as syllabication and spelling pattern word sorts. Plus, while most students learn with a synthetic approach, others respond best with an analytic approach. Good teachers also use incidental embedded phonics instruction as teachable moments to study words in depth as they use shared and guided reading. The best means of determining whether any method of reading instruction is working? Assessment. Flexible teachers use data to inform instruction and the instructional approach to meet the needs of individual students.

Get the Diagnostic Reading  and Spelling Assessments FREE Resource:

I’m Mark Pennington, author of  the Teaching Reading Strategies (Reading Intervention Program). This program provides all the resources teachers need for flexible, student-centered reading instruction. The program is designed for non-readers or below grade level readers ages eight-adult. Ideal as both Tier II or III pull-out or push-in reading intervention for older struggling readers, special education students with auditory processing disorders, and ESL, ESOL, or ELL students. This full-year (or half-year intensive) program provides explicit and systematic whole-class instruction and assessment-based small group workshops to differentiate instruction. Both new and veteran reading teachers will appreciate the four training videos, minimal prep and correction, and user-friendly resources in this program, written by a teacher for teachers and their students.

The program provides 13 diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files). Teachers use assessment-based instruction to target the discrete concepts and skills each student needs to master according to the assessment data. Whole class and small group instruction includes the following: phonemic awareness activities, synthetic phonics blending and syllabication practice, phonics workshops with formative assessments, expository comprehension worksheets, 102 spelling pattern assessments, reading strategies worksheets, 123 multi-level fluency passage videos recorded at three different reading speeds, writing skills worksheets, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards (includes print-ready and digital display versions) to play entertaining learning games.

In addition to these resources, the program features the popular Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable books (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each 8-page book introduces two sight words and reinforces the sound-spellings practiced in that day’s sound-by-sound spelling blending. Plus, each book has two great guided reading activities: a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns and 5 higher-level comprehension questions. Additionally, each book includes an easy-to-use running record if you choose to assess. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug. These take-home books are great for independent homework practice.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books






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