The Great American Phonics Instruction Test, Part I

  • 10 August, 2019

Schools are so tied up with testing these days, and this being the season of “monitoring assessments,” maybe a back-to-school phonics quiz would be a good way to welcome you all back.

I was having so much fun writing these test questions that I considered either putting in for a job at ETS or including a Part II next week... I decided on the latter.

Admittedly, the length was a concern. Breaking it up into two parts seemed most politic: that way the Fair Testing people and Diane Ravitch may not come after me.

Let’s see how you do. The answers are all research-based!

 1.    The ability to decode print to speech is an essential reading skill. True or false.

Yes, indeed, in reading an alphabetic language like English, readers have to read an author’s words, not his or her ideas. Readers may “cheat” at times and try to get to the meaning without the words, such as looking at pictures or guessing from context, but despite such shortcuts and work arounds, an author’s words are of tantamount importance and good readers try to make sense of the words themselves. 

We gain access to their words by recognizing the letters and spelling patterns and conjuring up the pronunciations that they represent. That’s why every theory of reading – from Phil Gough’s “simple view” to Ken Goodman’s “psycholinguistic guessing game” – all include a role for orthographic-phonological processing. 

You can’t be a reader without it so this one is True.

2.    Phonics instruction is essential. True or false?

 This might seem like an overly easy question given the previous item but take a careful look and think about what the word “essential” means. According to my dictionary, something that is essential is “indispensable” or “necessary.”

In other words, the question asks whether kids can learn to read without the support of phonics instruction. And, the answer to that is, “yes, they can,” so that item should have been marked false.

Kids can definitely learn to read without phonics instruction. This has been documented in research studies (Barr, 1975; Biemiller, 1975; Bond & Dykstra, 1975) and there have been periods when popular instructional programs neglected phonics, and children taught with those programs have learned to read.

3.    Phonics istruction is valuable. True or false?

True, true, true! Although it is possible for kids to read without the help of phonics, the research is overwhelming that they do better in learning to read when they receive such teaching (Adams, 1991; Bond & Dykstra, 1965; Chall, 1968; NELP, 2008; NICHD, 2000).

For the life of me I cannot understand why this has ever been controversial or why anyone would be surprised that such teaching helps.

Everyone agrees that kids have to learn to use orthography and phonology in reading (they may disagree on the degree to which they must rely on these, but no one claims kids don’t need to recognize spelling patterns and their relationship to pronunciation).

So, there is this essential thing that everyone needs to learn, and the issue then is, would this be easier to learn on one’s own or would it help if someone showed you how to do it? Duh!

In such cases, teaching usually provides a boost—and according to dozens of experimental studies in this case, this boost improves students’ abilities to read words, to read fluently, to comprehend what they are reading, and so on.

And, while phonics may only be helpful rather than essential for most kids, there are a group of kids for whom phonics seems to be absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, we can’t easily identify who can thrive without phonics and who can’t—just like we can’t tell which kids will get the measles or other horrible diseases.

Phonics is essential to some, useful to most, and does no harm to anyone, and that’s why it is so valuable.

 4.    Systematic phonics is better than informal phonics. True or false?

Some reading gurus have conceded that phonics instruction can help but have claimed that students would be better served by "responsive" phonics teaching rather than by following some commercial or locally-developed program of instruction. They argue that teachers should be diagnostic, providing decoding instruction as kids show a need for it.

I must admit that the vison of such opportunistic, “just in time” teaching is an attractive one. A youngster falters in reading or spelling a word, and voila, an apt mini-lesson springs forth to save the day.

And, then I remember teaching first-grade that way, and what a mess it was.

No wonder the research reports that kids taught phonics systematically (that is, following a planned, sequential program) do better than those taught by those supposedly responsive and individualized approaches (NICHD, 2000).

The evidence is clear on this one: find a good phonics program and follow it diligently.

 5.    Research shows that synthetic phonics instruction beats analytic phonics instruction. True or false?

 “Synthetic phonics programs teach children to convert letters into sounds or phonemes and then blend the sounds to form recognizable words. Analytic phonics avoids having children pronounce sounds in isolation to figure out words. Rather children are taught to analyze letter sound relations once the word is identified” (NICHD, 2000, p. 289).  

Thus, in synthetic phonics, students would be taught to sound each letter in “cat” and then to blend or join together each of these sounds to form a pronunciation: /c/-/a/-/t/.

Alternately, analytic phonics might teach the student to try to use word analogies (like bat and can) to derive a pronunciation or to recognize larger sound units, like onsets and rimes (/c/- /at/).  

I’ve witnessed amazing arguments over this distinction. I’ve lost friends because I was too dense to recognize that synthetic or analytic phonics were clearly the easiest to learn or best to teach or most effective.

And, yet, the research is not quite so certain. For the most part, researchers haven’t conducted research studies that directly compare the effectiveness of these approaches, so we’re left to the correlational results of meta-analyses.

Those analyses find no statistically significant difference between the two. It is certainly possible that one of these would be more effective than the other, but at this point there is no scientific support for such claims.

To me, that means you can make either of these kinds of phonics work well for kids—but you ought not to claim that the reason for picking one over the other is proven effectiveness. That just is not the case.

Personally, I have taught phonics both ways and found both to have some drawbacks at times—making me want to combine them occasionally. I know that is heresy to some and will cost me even more friends but given that research can find no difference in effectiveness I think you should grant me some latitude on this one.

Both analytic and synthetic phonics instruction can be explicit, systematic, and effective. Use whichever one your group of teachers can agree on and teach it well.

I hope you did well on the first five questions, next week we'll see how you do when several other issues in phonics teaching are explored. In the meantime, you might want to bone up on decodable text, invented spelling, sight words, dialect, and any number of other issues. Who knows, maybe there'll be three parts.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Thomas E. Zurinskas Aug 10, 2019 09:28 PM

Better and simpler than phonics for kids and ESL's is the pronunciation guide first approach. Phonetics first has one spelling per phoneme. Truespel phonetics uses letters only and no special symbols. It can be learned in minutes by teachers and a few weeks of practice by k-1 kids. Previous phonetics first systems have shown good results. See But they were proprietary and before the internet. Truespel tutorials and converter are free on the internet. Also see youtube and google for more. Also see

Sara Aug 10, 2019 09:32 PM

I have no quibbles about anything you've said but I do have a question about teaching analytic phonics systematically. It seems to me to be *so* much harder than teaching synthetic phonics, that I can't get a good picture of how they are pretty much the same. Can you point me at an example of systematic analytic phonics? Is there a program that you would see as equivalent to the many systematic synthetic phonics programs that are availabe?

Helen Hoffman Aug 10, 2019 09:40 PM

Perhaps I'm being unfair, but this reads rather like a pitch for finding, and buying, a precanned phonics instruction program. One can teach phonics systematically without having to follow a preplanned program to do so. And "research shows" is hardly a definitive argument for teaching in a particular way. What the research that I've looked at shows is that kids who are taught phonics from a systematic program do better on phonics tests (especially the tests from that program). This is perhaps an important piece of information, but it does not necessarily mean that they are becoming or will become better readers--which is far more complicated that this. You don't like "informal" phonics programs, and provide your own sense of the "mess" this brings about. But perhaps there are teachers who can deal with this, who can provide phonics instruction that does not take all kids lock step through the same progression of skills, no matter what their skills are. Learning phonics is essential, sure. I'm not convinced that letting some "research-based" phonics program dictate how you enable kids to do so is always the best idea.

Steve Dykstra Aug 10, 2019 11:06 PM

I would dispute that anyone has ever learned to read English without phonics instruction. They all acquire and are able to use phonics (there are no skilled readers of English who cannot decode "blib", or "hink", for instance). Whether they learned that phonics at school, at home, or self-instructed via what Seidenberg calls "statistical learning", they all learned and used phonics. I wold count learning it on your own as a kind of instruction. People teach themselves all kinds of things and we refer to it in those terms.

Anne McDonald Aug 10, 2019 11:37 PM

In Australia we have the reading wars! Proponents of systematic synthetic phonics - who often have a program to sell are opposed to proponents of phonics in context who prefer teaching phonics systematically but using interesting and rich literature as the vehicle. “Wind” for example cannot be sounded out using phonics alone. It needs context such as ‘the wind blew my hat away’. Or ‘help me wind up the rope’
Decodable texts are boring and are never going to engender a love of reading so if applied to all students rather than just struggling readers -usually one or two students in each class - the vast majority are in danger of losing interest in reading all together.
To my mind there’s no need to choose. A good teacher knows all strategies and supports every student with what they need at their point of need. Anyone who is fanatical about phonics usually has something to sell!

Stephanie Martinez Aug 11, 2019 12:37 AM

Teaching systematic phonics doesn't mean that you can't teach students where they are. When in small groups you may have some groups or individual students who are further along in the program and some who lag behind. This still meets students where they are, but gives them a logical progression. While the topic here is phonics instruction, I doubt the intent is that this is the only aspect of reading taught. This is just a small focus compared to when students are doing listening comprehension and using context to determine how to pronunce a word. I've seen first hand how systematic phonics have been a support, but not the sole avenue, for students to learn how to read.

Timothy Shanahan Aug 11, 2019 01:36 AM

That's actually what I said. Everyone has to learn to decode, but not everyone is taught. The system can be figured out and has been often. But more kids get it when someone actually sets out to teach it.


Timothy E Shanahan Aug 11, 2019 01:40 AM


Actually following a program has been found to be better for kids than just having each teacher trying to figure out something themselves. Indeed, that other people have consistently made such programs work better for kids than your idea of informal phonics is exactly why we should do it that way. I'm sure when you are sick you don't seek out the oldest folk recipes that you can find, but instead try to follow a regime more likely to cure or relieve what you are suffering from. Children deserve no less. I'm glad that you are confident that you can do better than a program (just like many parents are confident that in a car accident they can successful hold their children and keep them safe). The problem is when someone actually puts those solutions to the test, kids lose.


Harriett Aug 11, 2019 03:46 PM

In the recently published Literacy Leadership Brief from the ILA, "Meeting the Challenges of Early Literacy Phonics Instruction," the following example of systematic instruction is given:

"In systematic instruction, teachers display a known word and compare it to the new to highlight this new concept, as in hop–hope or hat–hate. This side-by-side minimal contrast makes the learning of the new concept more obvious and easier to grasp. The discussion that teachers can have with students about the two words increases students’ word awareness and understanding of how words work. This exemplifies strong phonics instruction: active, engaging, and thought provoking."

Sam Bommarito Aug 11, 2019 04:13 PM

Really valuable insights. Once again will be using this in some PD work I'm doing with 1st-grade teachers this week. I'd be bold enough to add one more question. "Most teachers have enough of a background in their own knowledge of phonics to do an adequate job of teaching phonics." True or false. Unfortunately, I think the answer is false (currently). In part, this is because the background they have in phonics depended on what the "soup de jour" was for the era in which they earned their degree. Time to do a retro fix for those already through the system and a major over haul in how phonics is taught to preservice teachers. Teachers need to be aware of all the ways to teach phonics and have a working knowledge of sound-symbol relations and orthographic information.

Steve Dykstra Aug 11, 2019 08:02 PM


I'd like you to reconsider your assessment of whether teaching phonics is essential. Let me off this metaphor to help you see my point.

Surgeons scrub their hands and hospitals make sure surgical suites are as sterile as humanly possible. Is this essential? If they don't, surgery can still be successful and not all patients experiences infection. Not all who are infected suffer morbidity or mortality. It is possible to do successful surgery without sterile procedures. We can rely on the patient's own immune system, as we can rely on children to figure out phonics on their own. It sometimes works.

Are sterile procedures essential?

I think it is an apt metaphor, and I hope you consider your definition of essential as it applies to phonics instruction.


Sara Hjelm Aug 11, 2019 09:32 PM

To me the concept of analytic phonics seems to mean a number of things to different people and in different places. Which makes it hard to discuss.
When I think about it it has not as much to do with actual reading as leaning phonetical awareness as a first step - that is recognizing that words contain more than one phoneme when you hear them or say them, being able to hear specific phonemes that you don’t use in your everyday language (like the tuning s [z] in English for Swedes or trying to pronounce the Swedish tung twister “sju sjösjuka sjömän sjönk i sjön” (seven seasick seamen sank in the sea) for an Englishman, not to mention the Danish deep throat r ...
For those with certain idioms or a different language at home, or just bad hearing, this is a first important step that is easily missed. To me this is where this analytic phase fits in. Before learning the actual grapheme and blending the phoneme with others while decoding text.
I checked the old and new Swedish readers I have, And sure enough they do contain this step for the first taught and most common graphemes/letters in Swedish.

Maggie Kyper Aug 11, 2019 09:34 PM

You've found a friend in me! I agree both synthetic and analytic phonics are effective ways to teach literacy. We do subscribe to a "program to teach phonics" and I also use informal phonics techniques when I am working with individuals and/or small groups

Maggie Kyper Aug 11, 2019 09:35 PM

You've found a friend in me! I agree both synthetic and analytic phonics are effective ways to teach literacy. We do subscribe to a "program to teach phonics" and I also use informal phonics techniques when I am working with individuals and/or small groups

Sara Hjelm Aug 11, 2019 09:58 PM

Sorry about that spelling ... my autocorrect drives me crazy - “tongue twister” of course. And I should have added that such an initial phase also gives a splendid opportunity to talk about what a great invention an alphabet is for writing and reading.

Meredith W Schwartz Aug 12, 2019 02:30 AM

Thanks to Steve Dykstra for his comments on the need for the explicit teaching of phonics, comparing that need to the requirement for sterile conditions for each and every surgery. Most of the students I work with in my middle school reading support classroom have weak phonemic awareness (can't manipulate sounds) and, as a result, weak phonics skills. I would be out of a job as a reading specialist if school taught phonics explicitly in K-3.

Louise Flensted Rønberg Aug 12, 2019 08:52 AM

Thank you, for your quiz!
Regarding your question #5, I wonder why you don't mention the Scottish Clackmannanshire study (Johnston & Watson, 2005; Johnston, McGeown & Watson, 2011). This longitudinal study seems to show a clear advantage of synthetic phonics over analytic on word reading, spelling and reading comprehension. What are your thoughts about their conclusions?
Best, Louise

Timothy Shanahan Aug 12, 2019 10:46 PM

The reason I discount those studies is because when one does a comparative study of that type it is essential that the kids be equal at the beginning of the study. That is done either by randomly assigning students to the two instructional conditions or by testing intact groups, testing them to make sure that they are equivalent in key metrics (in this case, decoding ability or knowledge of letters, etc.). This work did neither of those things, so when one group does better than the other, I can't be certain that they didn't start out that way. It is still an open question.


Tim Shanahan Aug 13, 2019 02:58 AM

Louise— to conclude that synthetic phonics is more effective than analytic you have to compare them with 2 equivalent group. They used neither random assignment, nor any kind of pretesting to determine equivalence. The synthetic group may have done better because synthetic phonics is better or because that group included better students or teachers.


Kim Feller-Janus Aug 15, 2019 11:30 AM

I want to hear more about what the brain research says about how good readers are processing words. Isn't it true that although it appears that good readers are reading whole words they are actually decoding phonograms at lightning speed? Whether self taught or taught by a parent, teacher, big sister...? We all need to learn phonograms? So, it IS essential that at some point Iearning phonics was necessary based on brain research?

Harriett Aug 15, 2019 01:50 PM

In Reading in the Brain, neuroscientist Stanislaus Dehaene states:

"The goal of reading instruction becomes very clear. It must aim to lay down an efficient neuronal hierarchy so that a child can recognize letters and graphemes and easily turn them into speech sounds . . . Considerable research . . . converges on the fact that grapheme-phoneme conversion radically transforms the child's brain and the way in which it processes speech sounds. This process whereby written words are converted into strings of phonemes must be taught explicitly. It does not develop spontaneously and must be acquired."

Steve Dykstra Sep 01, 2019 09:35 PM


I just saw your reply to my first comment. Yes, children do pick up phonics without their teachers help, but we have no idea who else taught them. I taught all my children phonics because the school was dead set against it. I know children who learned phonics from their parents, siblings, tutors, and friends. I think the number of children who glean phonics from experience, entirely on their own, is quite small.

I hate to press you, but you know me. I'd like you to respond to my concerns about your definition of "essential". I don't think anyone uses such a narrow definition for anything else that bears so heavily on human health and well being. Your definition seems intended to make sure we can say phonics instruction isn't "essential", when we would never apply that definition to other decisions of similar importance where failure has such serious consequences.


Tim Shanahan Sep 02, 2019 12:56 PM

If something isn’t necessary to success it isn’t essential. I definitely agree that some parents teach phonics just like some have kids memorizing words. However from 1945-1965 phonics instruction was relatively rare in U.S. schools and most people learned to read. The argument is over whether they would do marginally better with phonics (they would) or whether some small minority of kids would learn to read who failed at that time (I suspect so).

The claim that kids can’t learn to read without phonics undermines our ability to get teachers to teach it. Teachers often recognize that it isn’t true (from personal experience), and given that they have no reason to trust the people making the claim.


Sarah Pape Hester Sep 11, 2019 06:17 PM

In the Montessori classroom (in addition to oral language skills) we teach writing before reading since encoding is an easier cognitive skill than decoding. We use a systematic phonics approach that introduces two sound/letter combinations at a time along with the kinesthetic activity of tracing the letter on the "sandpaper letters". Then we follow this with word building using a three dimensional alphabet. The student has the benefit of these kinesthetic activities to build letter/sound association, then the opportunity to build words that can be "read" after they are built. It is much easier to "read" a word that one has built (knowing the meaning ahead of time) than looking at a word "built" or written by someone else and not knowing the meaning. This mechanical reading of the moveable alphabet then leads to reading others "writing" and reading for meaning.
My question: Why is writing not being emphasized to help children learn to read? Writing allows the child to discover and use the letter/sound associations that have been introduced. My experience is that this leads to mechanical reading which leads to reading for meaning. Comments?

Laurette Whipps Jun 20, 2023 01:58 AM

I enjoyed testing my knowledge! I loved the question "Research shows that synthetic phonics instruction beats analytic phonics instruction. True or false?" My go to would have definitely been synthetic phonics instruction. Why? Because this is what I have always been taught. I loved your breakdown and explanation. It definitely has me researching analytic phonics instruction now.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

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The Great American Phonics Instruction Test, Part I


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