How Much Phonics Should I Teach?

  • decoding phonics
  • 05 February, 2022

Teacher: I keep hearing about the science of reading and that I need to teach phonics (I’m a second-grade teacher). I’m okay with that but there is a lot to teach in reading. How much of the time should I spend teaching phonics?

 Shanahan’s response:

Man was I surprised. I’d already spoken to the principal about the school curriculum. He’d given me an overview and assured me that what his teachers needed was training in academic language and how to ask high level comprehension questions. The speaker at a professional conference had stressed the importance of those in high poverty schools and the principal was convinced that was the road to higher test scores.

I’d asked about how much reading instruction his students were receiving in phonics and fluency, and he assured me those were already addressed. “No, the problem is those higher-level thinking skills that our students lack.”

I told him that I thought I could help but that I wanted to be sure. “Could I visit some classrooms before I decide?”

What I saw wouldn’t surprise me now, but at that time I was gob smacked.

The teachers’ lesson plans showed a lot of reading instruction. My classroom observations showed something else. Much of the instructional time wasn’t used for instruction at all. The teachers spent a big chunk of time on “sustained silent reading” and they read to the children quite a bit, too. All the classrooms had multiple reading groups. That meant that the boys and girls did a lot of worksheets to keep them quiet while the others were reading with the teacher.

The small group teaching entailed little more than reading a story together out of a textbook, with quite a bit of round robin reading. I guess that was the fluency work.

Oh, and the phonics instruction?

There was some but that was pretty thin gruel, too.

The teachers would hand out a couple of phonics worksheets from the textbook program. She’d read the directions to the class and have the kids fill out the pages and then she’d score them and hand them back. Phonics assignments more than phonics instruction. I don’t know what the publisher had in mind, probably not what the students were getting.

I didn’t keep track at the time. In retrospect I’d guess those kids got about 5 minutes a day of phonics (and as for quality of instruction, please don’t get me started). The same point could be made about the “fluency work.” Round robin reading rarely gives kids more than a minute or so of practice. Across a school year, that would amount to less than 3 hours of oral reading practice if done daily!

In other words, these children weren’t getting much phonics or fluency teaching.

These boys and girls needed to learn how to read. Nevertheless, no one was teaching them very much.

Students could practice but practicing what you don’t know how to do is not especially effective.

The principal was right. They weren’t getting much help with academic language or higher order thinking. But that wasn’t their problem.

You asked, “how much phonics should you teach?” Certainly, more than these kids were getting.

The National Reading Panel concluded that students benefited from explicit phonics instruction. It didn’t determine how much phonics might be beneficial (it did say that phonics from kindergarten through second grade was a good idea).

In response to your letter, I took another look at those 38 studies. Eighteen of them gave information about dosage. They all were successful. That is, the kids who got those amounts of phonics outperformed the ones who weren’t getting that instruction.

These daily amounts ranged from 15 to 60 minutes per day.

Since the phonics instruction in all these studies was beneficial, you could say 15 minutes per day is enough, and maybe it is. But I’d lean towards the averages. There are different ways to calculate averages. In this case, they all came out to around 30 minutes per day (the mean was 34.4 minutes, and the mode and median were both 30).

Does that mean every child needs 30 minutes of explicit phonics teaching every day?

Not necessarily. Carol Connor found she could divide first-graders based on their decoding proficiency. Those who could decode well already, did better working on more advanced reading and writing activities. Those not so proficient did best with explicit phonics teaching. Her study gives lie to the notion that there is no cost to teaching phonics to kids who can already decode well. What that means is that some kids would get more phonics and some would get less.

Also, even with 30 minutes of decoding instruction each day there are sure to be kids who need even more (decoding is a bigger challenge for some). Those kids might receive in-class or pull-out interventions added to the daily classroom phonics instruction.

I required 30-45 minutes of such instruction when I was director of reading in the Chicago Public Schools. We aimed for 2-3 hours per day of reading and writing teaching, so we devoted a quarter of the whole to making sure kids could read the words. Obviously, there is more to teaching reading than that, but 25% is a considerable commitment. Over three years (from kindergarten to grade 2), that would mean roughly 270 hours of decoding instruction would be available to all students (with some kids getting less due to their burgeoning proficiency and some others getting more –beyond the classroom -- due to their particular needs). In the long run, that’s more time than any of the studies have provided and certainly more than I often see in the classrooms that I visit.

What counts as decoding instruction?

That will vary a bit from grade level to grade level. Kindergartners need to be taught the letters (lower case and capitals, names, most common sounds, how to write them).

Kids must perceive the sounds within words if they’re going to link them with letters, and phonemic awareness instruction aims to accomplish that. I would definitely make that part of my decoding instruction, too.

As the kids progress up the grades, spelling patterns and their pronunciations become an issue.

Phonics instruction should teach kids to hear the sounds, to recognize the letters or spelling patterns, and then to connect the sounds and the letters/spellings. They need a lot of practice with those elements within words and some reading practice with them, too (that’s where decodable texts come in handy – as part of the phonics instruction).

Instruction should emphasize using this knowledge of letters and sounds to decode words and to write or spell them, too (reading and spelling are closely connected). Decoding words and spelling words should take up a big part of the phonics instruction real estate.

Finally, good phonics instruction must nurture a sense of flexibility. Kids who come to see these letter and sound relations as “rules” don’t do as well as those who see them as possibilities or alternatives.

Thirty minutes per day on that kind of learning in Grades K through 2 is a wise investment.

Perhaps you’ve heard of those 10-minute phonics programs? Given the evidence, they don’t seem like such a good idea to me. – more like a patch on deficient reading program than a serious effort to meet kids’ learning needs. Thirty minutes a day makes sense to me, I hope it does to you.


See what others have to say about this topic.

M Feb 04, 2022 05:02 AM

Thank you! Do you see that amount of time changing in response to the pandemic? About half of my third grade class is reading at a kindergarten/ first grade level, yet I’m expected to structure my “workshops” as you described above/ go full speed ahead with the same curriculum from before covid, as if remote learning never happened. The heavy focus is on comp, when many kids haven’t even developed decoding/ fluency. I’m just at a loss post pandemic and doing the best I can. I don’t use guided reading for small groups, thanks to your articles, and am heavily focused on more phonics instruction, at the appropriate level. We aren’t allowed to shuffle kids in classes during phonics like we used to be able to, so I’m teaching third grade Fundations to the whole class, even when half of them aren’t there yet. I know I went off on a tangent and you might not have an answer, but how can we adjust reading instruction in response to covid? Also, what do you recommend for teachers who are knowledgeable in the science of reading but are expected to use curriculums that have time and time again been proven ineffective and even harmful to literacy development?

Timothy Shanahan Feb 04, 2022 02:02 PM

There is no question that COVID shutdowns, etc. have thrown the learning calendar off in many communities. Kids who would have sufficiently mastered decoding by the end of Grade 2 in the past, very well might need to continue working on that beyond the normal ending point. Schools that have been monitoring kids' progress regularly should see that and adjust their instruction accordingly. Those schools that haven't been monitoring learning closely should start that now as part of an effort to intensify their efforts to reverse the COVID losses. Finally, many districts have monitored kids' learning in grades K-2 and they might want to push that into early Grade 3 as well until things get straightened out.


Mark Bench Feb 05, 2022 05:51 PM

What about vocabulary?

Sam Bommarito Feb 05, 2022 06:02 PM

I'm running out of room on my office walls for posts of best ideas from you. However I'm definitely making room for the part of your your current post under the heading: "Does that mean every child needs 30 minutes...." I am very glad to see your take on what to do for the children children who don't need as much phonics instruction. Once again I don't always agree with everything you say (and you do sometimes return the favor) BUT I have learned a lot from you over the past 4 years, and several of my outakes from you blog are in front of me daily as I teach. This one is going up for sure! Thanks. Sam (@doctorsam7, from St. Louis).

Timothy Shanahan Feb 05, 2022 06:06 PM


That's a whole other topic that will have to be addressed some other time...



Debbie Feb 05, 2022 06:14 PM

For any teachers feeling unsupported with appropriate phonics resources and practices, I have a free, full programme that is easily adaptable for the few differences in spelling and pronunciation in America and Canada. If nothing else, it can give an idea of a programme considered highly in England's context and already used in different countries around the world - and in different contexts (school, home-education, tutoring, different ages as required, English as the main or additional language). See here: . If nothing else, teachers can compare this with their present provision and programme (if they use a specific programme). I agree with everything Timothy has suggested - including that shift to phonics for spelling and the need for children to be flexible readers. See also, these free Alphabetic Code Charts: Best wishes to all - and thank you Tim for a great blog. X

Sandy Backlund Feb 05, 2022 06:19 PM

Afte my retirement, a district hired me to coach a special ed teacher on how to teach literacy to children who were sent to her in a pull-out program. The students were not progressing. Your experience made me want to share my observations of the teacher, because it is a little like yours. For a couple of weeks, I sat in,observing and also doing diagnostic testing on her students. As the light began to dawn on me, I, with a hidden stopwatach observed a an entire typical day of her five pull-out 45 minute classes sessions , recording minutes devoted to any direct instruction in literacy. The grand total was 19 minutes of instruction for the entire DAY. No one was more shocked by this data than the teacher. I won't go into the details, other than to say it was a turning point that went in a very positive direction.

Lynn Atkinson Smolen Feb 05, 2022 06:38 PM

Thank you, Dr. Shanahan, this is very helpful information. I would like to add that it is very important to make sure that meaningful learning is emphasized when teaching phonics to English learners. That is, teachers should make sure that ELs know the meanings of the words they are learning how to decode. If this doesn't happen, ELs are likely to get the impression that "reading" is nothing but barking at text.

Denise Feb 05, 2022 06:42 PM

Spot on! Your take on 30 minutes is a great guideline but even louder did I hear the need for differentiating the amount of phonics instruction by student need. Granted, all K-2 students need good explicit, systematic phonics instruction but some need more or less. Thank you for the timely and relevant blog.

Sebastian Wren Feb 05, 2022 06:49 PM

I'm part of a High Dosage Tutoring program in Austin (called Literacy First) that focuses on students in K-2. We provide 1-on-1, 30-minute lessons with students every day for as long as they need us. We have developed four "tiers" of intervention, starting with the most basic orthographic mapping (letter-sounds, phoneme awareness, simple decoding), to more sophisticated phonics and word processing (digraphs, word patterns, sight-words, automaticity), and then transitioning to daily practice with oral reading fluency. Each student is given the "tier" of support that is most appropriate for them as individual learners. The program is highly effective, but I will admit, knowing when and how to transition from phonics to fluency is as much art as science. There are signs that a student's phonics knowledge and decoding automaticity is sufficiently developed, but not all of the signs are completely obvious and formulaic. I'm always looking for a solid foundation in phonics and decoding skills before I start transitioning to more of a focus on fluency with more authentic text. But, alas, I don't have a simple, reliable assessment for when a student has a "solid" foundation to build on. Some of it is data-driven, but some of it is just years of experience.

Timothy Shanahan Feb 05, 2022 07:05 PM


Your experience (and mine) have been well backed by research. I know many phonics proponents decry the amount of actual instruction in phonics that is given to children -- and they are right in my opinion, there is too little. But what they often fail to note is the same could be said of vocabulary instruction, comprehension instruction, fluency instruction, writing instruction. Far too much time goes to doing things that don't teach. Assignments alone are not teaching. Nor is a good deal of what passes for independent activity. Protecting children from instruction is not in anybody's best interests.


Guillermo Rocha Feb 05, 2022 07:28 PM

Do you have suggestions on how to apply this with English language learners? In Mexico? Thank you.

Kathleen June Brown Feb 05, 2022 07:28 PM

Dolores Durkin would be disappointed that her conclusions from observations of classroom reading instruction 45 years ago are still in evidence. Sigh... Here is the cite for anyone who hasn't already read this landmark study:

What Classroom Observations Reveal about Reading Comprehension Instruction
Author(s): Dolores Durkin, Reading Research Quarterly, 1978 - 1979, Vol. 14, No. 4 (1978 - 1979), pp. 481-
533. Published by: International Literacy Association and Wiley

Nan Lafferty Feb 05, 2022 07:31 PM

Can you point me in the direction of resources that allow a teacher to give some kids more and some kids less instruction in phonics? What do the kids that need less phonics doing? Assume one teacher and 20 students. I know I should know this and be good at differentiation, but I don’t and I’m not. If students doing worksheets without the teacher is not ideal, what is ideal, especially in the real world? We’re working to change.

Danielle Ogle Feb 05, 2022 07:48 PM

I’m addicted to this blog! Now after reading the stories and questions of so many others, I am also in need of advice. I teach reading intervention for grades 9-11 and work with students who are reading at primary/elementary levels. My diagnostic assessments informed me that most of these students have gaps in their knowledge of basic phonics skills—mostly long vowel patterns. The high school special ed teachers don’t feel that phonics and fluency goals are worth the time for a teenager who needs to be prepared for life beyond high school, however, I wholeheartedly believe it’s CRITICAL that I teach explicit phonics, syllable types, vocabulary through morphology studies, etc. so these kids have a chance to access text as adults. My question is, does the 30 minutes of phonics instruction still apply to my situation? I lose sleep over the fact that these kids are running out of time and many of them have case managers who just don’t get it. With SO much work to do in so little time, how do I prioritize my instructional time in an effective way that will not just prevent these big kids from becoming illiterate adults, but equip them with the literacy skills they need to be successful after graduation?? Thank you!

James Feb 05, 2022 07:56 PM

I teach Y3 in UK. No formal phonics past Y2 in my school but I have large spelling issues with many children - less so reading. I do 10 minutes of reintroducing grapheme and getting class to generate example words. They then find examples in a sentence and then write sentences using the grapheme. Do you think this is worthwhile if those steps are done well in the 10 mins?

Grace Vyduna-Haskins Feb 05, 2022 08:21 PM

In teaching phonics through spelling, it usually took us 20 minutes to get through the lesson itself -- dictating 20 words for children to write and providing a meaning for each. Then there might be time for talking about those words -- action words (verbs), naming words (nouns), (maybe both), or whatever else they might be. Sometimes we'd do estimating, deciding which word family had the most members, and graphing (cutting up the papers and sorting the words into families). Then there was sentence work -- sometimes using their examples and sometimes putting a sentence on the board and having them punctuate it. We approached phonics from many angles, adding handwriting to the mix. Add to this the use of decodable readers only until they can attack most words. Then switch to more meaningful materials. What i found was that the strongest students became even stronger and the slower students mastered the concepts. Boys, especially, seemed to thrive on the concept of building words in a systematic way. If one teaches the concepts throughly, basic phonics instruction can be completed in first grade. Second grade can be a review of the basics and beginning to concentrate on affixes, more advanced parts of speech, etc. By third grade, most children should be ready for the kind of structured word inquiry as suggested by Peter Bowers or building words from Latin and Greek roots.

Lynda Feb 05, 2022 08:30 PM

Would love your thinking about ways to help kids learn to blend sounds when attempting to decode an unfamiliar word. Some of my first graders seem to have an innate ability to blend while others find this skill terribly difficult. What teaching strategies do you suggest?

Margo Kujat Feb 05, 2022 08:36 PM

Systematic and explicit phonemic awareness and phonics instruction are needed at least in K and1. Sound blending and segmentation are essential. Children should be reading decodable texts (not leveled). Sight words should be taught with Orthographic mapping, teaching the decodable parts of the word and the “tricky” parts. Comprehension, building background knowledge and vocabulary should be taught through read alouds through at least first grade and possibly second.

This is what the Science of Reading means to me.

Emma Feb 05, 2022 09:11 PM

Our reception kids get 30 minutes daily, and they all do the same activities but at their 'Code Level'; this is our 'Phase 2. Phase 1 ensures we know which come to school with good phonemic awareness, and we teach PA explicitly, mapping those phonemes to graphemes around the end of week 1. Phase 2 ends around the middle of year 1, with over 80% having already moved into the 'self-teaching' phase. They have moved through the 100 or so high frequency graphemes within 4 code levels - reading readers that only include those target graphemes, as well as mapped high frequency words.
At a specific stage of this 'learning to decode' journey they also move into 'transition' readers, so that they get experience of texts with repetitive and predictable words, while also moving through their 4 'code level' readers (there are over 500 in our guide) They therefore choose to decode but also use other cues when needed. If they figure out a word they couldn't decode then they work backwards - ok, if that is the word, what is the mapping? As they have good PA they only need 1 or 2 exposures to those new words, to store.
The 30 minute session incorporates 3 main activities - utilising 'spaced repetition'. It is fully differentiated - so children who need more time on a code level get it, and others aren't held back. There is no front of the class 'whole class' teaching. They are also mapping around 400 'high frequency words' in reception (7 duck levels) - understanding the phoneme to grapheme mapping - and exploring the 300 - 400 phoneme to grapheme maps using the Speech Sound Clouds. This 30 minute session is to ensure they recognise the high frequency graphemes and can blend them - so they read more and more texts with fluency, and there is less working memory used to figure out the sentences - so they can comprehend more.

The other activities within the literacy block address the other elements - and when they have completed phase 2 there is more time to read, read, read and write, write, write! So 80% - 90% are out of this 'explicit' phonics stage well before the end of year 1, and that 30 minute session stops. Around 5% will have already have been identified as having something else going on that is creating learning challenges, and they are getting specific help.
80 - 90% are off 'decodable readers' before the end of year 1 - and have been independently reading other texts ('transition readers - bridging the gap between phonics focused books and authentic texts - for some time as well, so these just continue. This means they are off 'book band' type books / reading levels before the end of year 2 (other than around 5%)
The kids basically get what they need, when they need it.

As you said, around 30 minutes a day while working through the initial 100 or so high frequency graphemes used within most programs, as a foundation (so they understand mapping) means they can more easily move towards orthographic mapping.
The easier they move through this phase (so it must be differentiated, challenging but achievable etc) the better.

Timothy Shanahan Feb 05, 2022 09:16 PM


Spanish and English have a lot of overlap when it comes to initial decoding (sound-symbol relations). It usually makes the greatest sense to teach Spanish decoding first and then to follow this with the English (then especially focusing on the differences that do exist). Typically, students can learn Spanish decoding faster (Spanish is a more transparent language) and little additional tuition is needed on those patterns and relationships that are the same between the languages. English phonics will likely need to proceed beyond when you have stopped teaching Spanish decoding because of the additional complexity in English. At that point it might be a good idea to include the study of morphology with the decoding instruction since that can both improve the students' ability to decode and will increase the students' English vocabulary.


Timothy Shanahan Feb 05, 2022 09:21 PM


You and me both, Sister! Worksheets might play some small role in that kind of time, but I'd look more to project-based learning, writing, cooperative reading tasks, more extended reading assignments, some computerized games/activities around vocabulary and reading comprehension, and the like. You also might team up as teachers to have one teacher taking on the continued phonics and the other taking on the kids who don't really need that. Research has done little to identify the most effective seatwork activities -- and they all have practical problems and limitations under various circumstances.

I feel your pain.


Timothy Shanahan Feb 05, 2022 09:25 PM

There isn't a lot of research support for phonics instruction in the high school... though there is some and I think it can be beneficial for kids who are struggling with that. I suggest that these students be tested to see if they are really having a decoding problem or if, as their case workers suspect, the problem is more in the area of applying phonics (fluency instruction) or with language problems (like a serious vocabulary deficit). Certainly, if they are low in decoding ability, some daily instruction for them would make sense (and, yes, that would be pull out work or individual work -- such as on a computer -- to remedy that problem).

good luck.


Emma Feb 05, 2022 09:25 PM

'Lynda Feb 05, 2022 08:30 PM
Would love your thinking about ways to help kids learn to blend sounds when attempting to decode an unfamiliar word. Some of my first graders seem to have an innate ability to blend while others find this skill terribly difficult. What teaching strategies do you suggest?'

Incase also useful...
Blending relates to phonemic awareness - to blend graphemes they need to understand the sound value for each grapheme and also blend make sure you know which part they are struggling with. If you gave them the speech sounds would they blend into the word? In that case they are not identifying the graphemes. Within traditional phonics programs only around 100 are explicitly taught - there are around 400. Explicit phonics instruction plays an important role in helping to “kick start” the process by which beginning readers acquire untaught letter-sound relationships through implicit learning; but this is hindered if the children have poor phonemic awareness. So be clear about which elements your children are struggling with...especially if its the PA part.

Hope that helps!

Timothy Shanahan Feb 05, 2022 09:27 PM


That is fine. Spelling and phonics definitely should be linked. However, I would also encourage you to look at the role that morphology plays in this equation. In the search engine on my site (the magnifying glass), type in morphology and I think you'll find a very useful blog on the work of Jeff and Peter Bowers that I believe you (and your students) will find to be useful..


Timothy Shanahan Feb 05, 2022 09:34 PM

Yes, there is some useful work on the teaching of connected phonation or blending (Gonzalez-Frey & Ehri, 2021). Below are links that can be pasted into your web browser to find one of my blogs about this and a more specific one on connected phonation posted by my friends at Reading Rockets. Also, if you type connected phonation into Google or You Tube you can find some terrific videos of connected phonation lessons.


Allison Walker Feb 05, 2022 10:05 PM

I’m wondering if you have heard of any studies regarding the timing of phonics instruction (or the other components) when teaching in an immersion program. I happen to be in Canada and our French immersion program has the day split 50/50 with language, math and science taught in English in 150 minutes with 60 minutes required to be math daily. As an English teacher I’m struggling to fit everything in as I try to shift more toward more research based practices.

Timothy Shanahan Feb 05, 2022 10:13 PM


Sorry, I know of no such research. I doubt that's been done.


Maria Feb 06, 2022 12:21 AM

I totally agree with all that you have said and we are slowly making changes.
What does the research say or would your recommendation be for students in Year 3 and up?

Marianne Goodwin Feb 06, 2022 12:25 AM

I’m teaching Literacy to future teachers in an accelerated certification program. I’ve dedicated a chunk of time to phonic instruction. I’m not sure the students have a solid foundation of how they should teach to “crack the code”. I’ve used Moats but there is layers - layers - layers to cover. Any suggestions as to what I should prioritize?
PS- I remember having you as a presenter back in the Reading First days!

Suzanne Magee Feb 06, 2022 04:54 AM

Thanks for helping busy teachers like me keep up with best practices by reading your blog! I’ve been teaching reading to middle school students for 20 years and still enjoy learning more. I would appreciate your guidance concerning phonics instruction for ELLs.

I’m in the process of completing an OG practicum and have spent a lot of time analyzing their miscues trying to find patterns in their errors. For example, they all struggle to hear unvoiced consonant clusters in the final position of words which, I’ve learned through hours of researching online, do not occur in Spanish. I am having some success with daily explicit PA with these blends.

The area I am not finding success in is helping them differentiate vowel sounds in English. I believe Spanish only shares the sounds for long /e/, long /o/, short /o/, and /oo/. I have read conflicting information about whether there’s a short/e/ in Spanish. I have tried my best to explicitly explain mouth positions and have them use mirrors, but I am not having much success.

1. Is this something I should continue to focus on? Is it possible they won’t ever hear the difference? I feel like I’m spinning my wheels!

2. I have not found a source with comprehensive information about teaching reading to this population. I’ve had to search online and kind of put the puzzle pieces together. If you have any suggestions, that would be helpful, too!


Joyce Feb 06, 2022 05:09 AM

Dr Shanahan,
In your response to Danielle you wrote...". I suggest that these students be tested to see if they are really having a decoding problem or if, as their case workers suspect, the problem is more in the area of applying phonics (fluency instruction) or with language problems (like a serious vocabulary deficit). Would you say that if a student has automatic recall of the various letter-sound relationships (when reviewing sound cards), and has a rich language background , yet does not automatically apply this information to unfamiliar words (single or multisyllabic) should we consider fluency instruction? I have never thought that difficulty was due to fluency; I have questioned the student's processing speed. Thank you.

Liz Feb 07, 2022 01:20 AM

So then... the question is... what phonics program would you recommend?? And if you can't recommend one (though I hope you can), what's your recommendation for finding the best one?

Timothy Shanahan Feb 07, 2022 02:39 PM


I do not make recommendations of commercial programs because I work on various curricula. The National Reading Panel reviewed research on almost 20 different phonics curricula and they all seemed to provide an advantage. i would certainly make sure that the program included: enough instruction and materials to ensure 30 minute of instruction or more per day for 3 years (K-2); that integrated PA and phonics instruction; that included not just reading but word writing/spelling; that provided substantial amounts of practice (word decoding and word encoding); that included decodable text to facilitate practice; that provided students instruction in blending or continuous phonation, etc.; that provided mnemonic clues to particular sound/symbol relations (this is usually done through pictures); that introduced exceptions to patterns and that showed students how to choose among pronunciations for particular spelling patterns.
Good luck.


Timothy Shanahan Feb 07, 2022 02:49 PM


Yes, I definitely would prescribe fluency instruction in a situation in which students had mastered sound-symbol relations and still were struggling to read words or passages.


Timothy Shanahan Feb 07, 2022 03:01 PM


Research on phonics with older students (Grade 3 and up) finds that it can improve students' ability to decode words, but does not improve spelling ability or reading comprehension. That argues for (1) doing a really good job with decoding instruction in grades PreK-2; and (2) teaching phonics to older students who still need it -- but with a simultaneous emphasis on vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, spelling and the like. My approach at those grades would be very much in line with those who argue for a strongly analytical approach to morphology.


Timothy Shanahan Feb 07, 2022 03:02 PM

I don't know where you could find that kind of information. Sorry.


Kelly Feb 07, 2022 03:08 PM

I love this blog. Thank you! For the 30 minutes of direct and explicit phonics instruction, are you envisioning whole group or small group or a combination? My challenge is that my whole group is comprised of varying levels. I provide the needed instruction to homogenous small groups for 30 minutes; however, that is 2-3x per week. We have 10 minutes of our whole group time for the on-level phonics instruction.

Lisa Sonnega Feb 07, 2022 06:06 PM

I agree with explicit phonics instruction. I also feel some kids do not have their phonemic awareness mastered which has an impact on their phonics. Too many kids are taught to look at the picture and use context instead of decoding the words. I taught 20 years in the first and second grade classroom and now I teach only reading intervention for grades K-4. All of my struggling readers in 3rd and 4th guess the word based on the first letter and what they think will make sense. When I go back and look at their previous academic history, they had missed a lot of school or had a teacher that did not teach explicit phonics and instead did what you mentioned (worksheets and round robin reading). I enjoy your insight and listen to as many podcasts and read your blogs (especially on snow days when I have extra time).

Brenda Houck Feb 07, 2022 06:37 PM

I appreciate the conversations around phonics this week. We are fortunate to have recently acquired McGraw Hill Wonders curriculum that is aligned to the Science of Reading. To address the need for more explicit instruction and practice with phonemic awareness and phonics based on recent assessments, especially in K-1, we wanted to know your thoughts about adding Heggerty to supplement (not replace) instruction in this area. We currently have the 2015 edition of Heggerty and understand there is a 2021 edition. Are you familiar with the updates in this curriculum? If so, are the changes worth upgrading to the latest version?
I appreciate your expertise!

Robert Femiano Feb 08, 2022 01:18 AM

After 30 years in K-2, my suggestions: teaching phonetic encoding is the key to teaching reading. Since students bring the ability to speak with them to the classroom, that is where I start. Only after students are phonemically able to isolate beginning, medial and end sounds in familiar 3-letter words are they're ready to learn how to write (encode) these individual sounds into words. Once this system of encoding speech into print via the alphabet is understood by the student (including conventions such as left to right, caps make same sound as lower case but have a purpose, etc.) then reversing the process (i.e., decoding or reading) follows easily.

Next, they need to be taught the consonants names and sounds. The major stumbling block is in the 'plosive' or 'stop' consonants--such as 'b' , 'd', 'p' 't' and such. These require a burst of air and cannot be spoken in isolation, unlike nasal consonants such as 'm' or 'n'. When taught, students are sometimes mistakenly told "b says /buh/" or "d says /duh" but in reality, these stop consonants are influenced by the phoneme that follows. B says /bah/ in bath, not /buh/ /ah/ /th/. It says /beh/ in bed, /bih/ in bit, /boh/ in box, and yes /buh/ as in bus, bug, and bubble. Adding the phoneme /uh/ to these polosive consonants can confuse children. It is hard for some to hear 'dad' when sounding out: /duh/ /ah/ /duh/. For this reason, I taught students that each consonant sounds make 5 sounds (using short vowel sounds in order). Thus "f" says /fah/ as in fast, /feh/ as in feather, /fih/ as in fish, /foh/ as in fox and /fuh/ as in fuss. Using movable sandpaper letters, students can physically see the ''f' being combined with the 'a' as in fact, fad, fat, fasten. They would be reminded that if we wanted to write the word "faster" we would start with 'fa' for the /fah/ sound but if we wanted to write 'fix', we would use the /ih/ sound by moving the letter 'i' next to the 'f' and "the word would be spelled with 'fi' at the beginning". Having students use movable letters and writing words on their own lap chalkboards (or whiteboards) greatly speeds up this learning so that "automaticity" (instant recall) sets in.

When students can encode 3-letter words, they're ready for spelling patterns focused on the vowel sounds. For example, given the initial letter 'c' and ending letter 'p', the only difference in word pronunciation and meaning is in the vowel: cap, cop, cup, cope, cape, coop, etc. Using spelling patterns (e.g., ai says /ay/) students can learn to encode (then read) words such as: aim, air, pail, wait, paid, paint, grain, etc. while perhaps being introduced to a few new vocabulary words such as faint or plain.
Allowing students to see/write/read, (even draw) these patterns reinforces the regularity of phonics spelling and gives confidence to decode unfamiliar words such as strainer, ingrained, explain, etc.

There are less than 70 such spelling patterns, most of which are regular. Patterns such as "ai", "ay", "ee", and such quite stable. Sure, "ea" is used to represent different sounds such as: eat, bread, great and early but when each is approached separately, students are able to learn the more common ('ea' says /ee/, each, meat, treat...) to a level of automaticity before moving on to the less frequent: "ea says /eh/ sound in breath, sweat, treasure; or the /ay/ sound in great, break, steak; and the /er/ phoneme as in earth, pearl and search.

In my experience, students find the organization of studying words according to vowel spelling patterns to be quite helpful to their memory. In addition to encoding these words with the spelling pattern of the day, I often end lessons by writing a "mystery" word or two on my lap board, (same vowel pattern of course) that they read silently and draw the picture. Lessons are followed up the next day with connected text: students copy then illustrate sentences using those words studied the previous day. In the above example of "ai" words, they might see "Tom sat on the stairs, waiting for the mail." or "She paid for her haircut in cash." Rereading these aloud at home to their parents was part of the nightly homework, after reading them to me in the classroom and checking their drawings matched the comprehension.

cynthia graham Feb 08, 2022 03:53 PM

I am bridging the adoption process of Science of Reading between our primary grades and our junior high and high schools. Obviously, a gap will exist between the students currently enrolled in our district who are primary students benefitting from Science of Reading and explicit phonetic instruction and students who are currently enrolled in our middle school and high school. Do you have specific recommendations for teachers trying to fill in some of that gap?

Timothy Shanahan Feb 08, 2022 06:50 PM


The key is to not try to go back and fix what you assume the kids missed prior to this. You will need to evaluate each student individually. The orthographic-phonological aspects of the language are a system and as a system there is not necessarily one way that it can be figured out. It would have been easier for many of these kids had they received a systematic approach to instruction in these things, but even without that many/most of these kids have likely figured it out. Of course, there will those kids who did not and their problems will need to be addressed through some kind of additional intervention to what the students would normally get in their classes. For most kids, in that age group, the instruction should focus on vocabulary/morphology, oral reading fluency, reading comprehension, and writing.


Timothy Shanahan Feb 08, 2022 06:54 PM


I don't make those kinds of comments/recommendations on commercial programs because of my own involvement in the development of such programs. However, if you don't think your kids (or some of your kids) are getting enough phonics, it is very reasonable to either add a supplemental phonics program or a replacement phonics program for the lessons in your core program. The National Reading Panel reviewed studies of 18 different phonics curricula and they all seemed to work. The differences among them are likely to be in intensity (such as in how many lessons there might be or how many chances to respond each kid will get in a lesson, etc.) and that could matter for the boys and girls that you are concerned about. Sorry and good luck.


Gale Feb 15, 2022 09:28 PM

This sounds about right. My child with Dyslexia/ADHD only had a 10-15 minute attention span when I started homeschooling at age 6 (after a miserable year crying his way through public school KG and making no progress). More than that without a break was diminishing returns. But I broke it up with 15 minutes bits, going over phonics concepts, practicing with real and nonsense words, and reading decodables, and working on spelling and handwriting, so together that was 30-40 minutes, just broken into smaller parts with breaks in between.

Gale Feb 15, 2022 09:28 PM

This sounds about right. My child with Dyslexia/ADHD only had a 10-15 minute attention span when I started homeschooling at age 6 (after a miserable year crying his way through public school KG and making no progress). More than that without a break was diminishing returns. But I broke it up with 15 minutes bits, going over phonics concepts, practicing with real and nonsense words, and reading decodables, and working on spelling and handwriting, so together that was 30-40 minutes, just broken into smaller parts with breaks in between.

Timothy Shanahan Feb 15, 2022 11:43 PM

I often recommend that same division of time within the school day. Teachers do not need to stay on phonics for 30 minutes at a time, but 30 mins across the day.



Laura Mar 09, 2022 04:17 AM

Loved that you gave a guideline! I also find quite logical that this is not a one size fits all and that we need to adjust the time depending on the type of student we have. Some children need more time on explicit instruction, focussing on how phonics works and the rules. Others get how phonics works faster and benefit more from spending time practicing what they've learned!

Kristen Dec 25, 2022 01:40 PM

These are the components I’m using for phonics block:
1. Heggerty PA
2. Drills (visual, blending, auditory)
3. Lesson
4. Decoding practice
5. Encoding practice
6. Explicit Sight word instruction/practice
7. Dictation/sentence writing.

Obviously there’s not enough time for all of this every day, but my lesson block takes about an hour a day. Is this too long?

Timothy Shanahan Dec 30, 2022 04:06 PM


Most studies that have shown instruction in these skills to be beneficial examined instructional routines of 30 minutes in duration (one looked at 20 minutes and a couple considered 45 minutes). In my scheme, we teach reading and writing for 2-3 hours. In the 2 hour version, that would mean 30 minutes a day for these activities and in the 3 hour version it would be about 45 minutes. (Comparable amounts of time would be devoted to writing, reading comprehension, and reading fluency). In other words, I think you are probably overshooting a bit, though there is no research showing that 1 hour doesn't lead to more progress with these skills than 45 minutes. However, too much time devoted to these skills would mean you probably aren't devoting enough time to the other aspects of reading development. I'd shorten it a bit.



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