Phonics is just 30 minutes a day. C’mon!

Why do I keep harping on the importance of explicit, systematic phonics instruction? I know it bugs some people.

Teaching decoding and encoding of written words in English shouldn’t be much more than 30 minutes a day for most kids at a K-2 level. So what’s the big deal, right?

Here’s my “why”:

First of all, until perhaps very recently due to a growing outcry from parents, journalists, and other advocates, there are still schools out there not teaching any phonics systematically at all, aside from whatever teachers may have taken on themselves.

Second of all, a school may be using a phonics program or teaching phonics, but just having a program doesn’t mean doing it well.

I have witnessed elementary schools that claim to be “doing Fundations,” yet when you dig below that statement, teachers are actually using bespoke and scattered materials gathered online they feel more comfortable with, cutting out or modifying essential components (such as phonemic awareness!) or otherwise planning and delivering the program haphazardly, scheduling it at the last period of the day when kids are packing up to leave, or newer teachers haven’t been adequately—or ever—supported in using it.

In other words, phonics instruction is all too often missing that whole explicit, systematic aspect that makes it effective according to decades of research.

Furthermore – and this is the most pervasive and fundamental part that seems to be getting lost in the mix again – many of those very same schools that are “doing Fundations,” have ALSO been heavily invested in using F&P BAS and guided leveled reading, and/or the non-updated version of TCRWP Units of Study, and have been actively confusing kids who may be struggling to internalize and apply decoding and encoding skills. Such schools lean more heavily into practicing “sight words” and guessing based on context clues (i.e. “three cueing”) rather than providing direct and explicit instruction at the age and time when kids most need it. This is the “phonics patch.”

Is it hard to put numbers on this? Definitely. We barely know what curriculum is being used in most schools. But the numbers we do have across the U.S. point to a substantial number of elementary schools that fits this kind of profile.

Who loses? The students who need that explicit and systematic instruction the most. The students for whom the effort required to gain automaticity goes unrecognized and unsupported, and so they give up.

Some phonics patch schools may have overall numbers that can look pretty good from afar on outcomes-based measures, like ELA state tests. But I ask you to think about that 10, 20, or 30% of children in those schools who are NOT achieving basic proficiency. And all the other students in so many other schools who are not achieving the decoding thresholds required for deeper reading comprehension. They are for whom it matters the most.

So let’s go back to that 30 minutes a day of explicit, systematic phonics instruction. It may only be 30 minutes, but this kind of instruction requires automaticity in planning and delivery that only comes with deeper knowledge and experience. That same teacher who is delivering that 30 minutes is also teaching nearly every other subject, aside from one period, every single day. So let’s not pretend it’s easy to get this right.

Teachers need district and school leaders who provide the systems and structures needed to plan and deliver that high density instruction well.

And please, let’s also not overcorrect and feed the trolls and do phonics instruction for an hour a day. A strong, high quality ELA block should include the writing, shared reading, and read-alouds so important to gaining fluency, building language and knowledge, and peer interaction to explore multiple perspectives.

Furthermore, for students new to the English language, the critical importance of oracy and connecting decoding and encoding of words to their morphology and meaning can’t be lost. And just because an older student is new to the U.S. and learning English does not mean they need phonics instruction — and when they do, they also need all the other components of the English language.

But don’t sleep on that 30 minutes of high quality, well-delivered, direct, explicit, and systematic daily phonics instruction in the earliest grades.

I’ve also experienced this difference firsthand. My son was going to a school that fit the phonics patch profile I described above. They were supposedly “doing Fundations” alongside TCRWP, but the only evidence of instruction I could see was related to sight words and print-outs from random websites. He was not making the growth I expected, given what I knew he was capable of. I began gearing up to teach him phonics myself, but by the time I got home each day it was hard to manage.

So I pulled him out in the middle of the year and put him in another school that was also “doing Fundations,” but here’s the difference: I could immediately see the impact of it, literally after one day. As he was doing his homework after his first day in that new classroom, he was segmenting words using his fingers to figure out their spelling. He had not been doing that before. All it took was a little dose of explicit instruction, and consistent structure and routines. Now for homework, instead of random worksheets with sight words and patterned sentences for which I felt like the burden of teaching was on me, he is applying the skills he is learning in class.

Are we still also doing flashcards of “tricky words”? Of course! That’s part of the equation when learning to read in an orthography where there aren’t always direct correspondences between sounds and symbols. The difference is that the balance in practice has shifted towards gaining automaticity and accuracy with decoding and encoding, rather than putting most or all of the weight on memorizing and guessing.

My son doesn’t suffer from a language-based disability, and I am fortunate to be able to have options. But what about all the kids who aren’t so lucky? This is why I keep harping on about foundational literacy.

Let’s get that 30 minutes a day right. And let’s get that ELA block right with a high quality knowledge building curriculum. Until we do, please stop pretending that sprinkling in a little phonics into a balanced literacy mix is enough.

For more on why 30 minutes a day, see this Tim Shanahan piece: How Much Phonics Should I Teach?

#literacy #reading #sightwords #phonics #curriculum #knowledge