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Why Do We Emphasize Phonics in the Lower School?

May 4, 2022 | Dana Baker

Why do we teach phonics in the Lower School? Do all students benefit? And how could phonics instruction support reading skills in Middle School? 

Reason #1: English, surprisingly, is actually a phonetic language, meaning it follows a set of rules. A common myth is that English isn’t a phonetic language; that is, most words don’t follow patterns or set rules. Thus, the assumption follows that teaching phonics doesn’t have much of an impact. While English certainly does have very (often unnecessarily) complicated rules, 84% of words do follow a set structure. Of the 16% that don’t, it’s usually just one letter that’s off.

For those 16%, only the part of the word that doesn’t follow the rule needs to be memorized. Let’s take the word “what” for example. 

Phonetically, it should be spelled /w/ /u/ /t/, right? But, the phoneme /wh/ makes the /w/ sound, so it’s really just the letter “a” that’s breaking protocol. But, “a” in this context has a “schwa” sound – similar to the “a” in the word alone and pizza.

Franco explains this even better below.

So what does that mean for teaching? Rather than simply teaching rote memorization of the spelling, we can teach students which parts follow the rules and which letter is the exception. 

Reason #2: Research shows systematic phonics instruction supports fluent decoding, which in turn supports reading comprehension. Reading involves matching sounds to symbols (decoding), understanding the meaning of spoken words in context, and then deriving meaning from print through that decoding and understanding.

Systematic instruction in sound-symbol relationships (paired with exposure and instruction in vocabulary on a range of topics) supports students’ ability to comprehend more complex text. This is especially important as they move into Middle School, where students rely on reading to gain access to content across subject areas. 

Eliza, below explains how she uses vowel placement to determine how to divide a word into syllables and match sounds accordingly. As students learn more rules – vowel combinations, diphthongs, suffixes – they can apply them to accurately decode and spell more complex words. 

Reason #3: Teaching systematic phonics is helpful to all students and essential for some. 

Research from the learning sciences (psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience), has reinforced the importance of systematic phonetic instruction for fluent reading development. All students benefit from systematic phonics instruction, but over 50% of students require this code-based instruction to develop fluency. 

So, in line with the science, we are working to format our Lower School program to incorporate systematic, sequential phonics instruction for all learners. 

Why do we teach phonics throughout the Lower School? It supports fluent reading for all!

Want to learn more? Here’s more about how kids learn to read and some ways to support your child’s phonological skills at home.

Dana Baker

Learning Specialist Preschool to Grade 3

Ms. Baker began her career teaching kindergarten at Mustard Seed in 2008, where her passion for working with all kinds of learners continued to grow. She transitioned into working as Learning Specialist for the Lower School in 2013, where her goal is to ensure all students become expert learners. She collaborates with teachers and parents to create plans for all students to be supported and challenged.

Ms. Baker is highly interested in research surrounding the relationships among neuroscience, psychology, and education. She delights in neurodiversity and learner variability, and she recognizes that differences further enrich and strengthen a community. Her focuses in professional training have included the impact of trauma informed practices, therapeutic teaching, reading intervention, handwriting intervention, and Universal Design for Learning.

Ms. Baker tries to read at least 100 books a year, relishes hikes outside the city, and is ever-searching for the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe (as is her namesake).

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