How to Teach Phonics and Decoding Skills for Reading Fluency Using Explicit Instruction and Orthographic Mapping

by Andy Minshew

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Strengthen Literacy Curriculum with the Science of Reading


Join Waterford’s Science of Reading virtual summit to explore how the brain learns to read and get strategies for effective, research-based instruction from literacy expert and Vice President of Curriculum Julie Christensen. Guidance for teachers and administrators is included!

Plus, find upcoming and on-demand video series led by early education experts through the Webinar Library, featuring topics chosen with administrators in mind, like:

  • Impactful Family Engagement Made Easy
  • Understanding the Six Instructional Strands for Literacy
  • Improving Student Outcomes with Professional Services

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In this week of Waterford’s Fundamentals of the Science of Reading article series, let’s explore phonics and decoding!

Learn about research-based phonics instruction—with five free downloadable resources to share with teachers in your school!

What Role Does Phonics Play in Reading Development?

Neuroscience research tells us that the brain does not process words as whole visual images. Instead, as we read the brain processes individual letters or groups of letters and the sounds that they represent. This is true even for proficient readers. Explicit, systematic phonics instruction aligns with the way the brain’s reading network functions and supports the development of the neural pathways that make proficient reading possible.

Early in the literacy journey, phonics instruction includes helping students understand the alphabet principle—the idea that letters represent sounds in a systematic and predictable way. Students must also hone their letter recognition skills and learn basic letter-sound correspondences.

As soon as students have achieved proficiency with a small group of letter-sound correspondences, they should be guided to pair their phonics skills and their phonological awareness skills to start decoding and encoding words through a process called orthographic mapping. This process guides students to isolate the phonemes (individual sounds) in a word and link each phoneme to the letter(s) that represent it.

English spelling conventions are highly complex. Despite this, phonics rules are consistent enough to provide an essential foundation for students to develop word recognition skills.

According to a study, students who know the 64 most common letter-sound correspondences and the 100 most common words are able to identify 90% of the words they most commonly saw in texts.

How it Connects

The orthographic mapping process bonds the spelling, pronunciation, and meaning of a word together in long-term memory. As students’ orthographic mapping skills progress, they learn to work through the mapping process independently when they encounter new, unfamiliar words.

With strong orthographic mapping skills, students can build a large bank of sight words that they can recognize automatically, enabling them to read with fluency. This new fluency frees up cognitive load that is no longer needed for decoding, making reading comprehension possible.

Implementing Explicit Phonics Instruction: Science-Based Strategies

Beginning readers are unlikely to intuitively understand the relationships between letters and sounds, so teaching phonics should be explicit rather than implicit. “The principles of effective instruction [tell us] that it should be explicit—meaning that it’s direct and clear,” Julie Christensen explained in a Waterford.org video on phonics.

Phonics instruction should be multi-modal, teaching the name, sound, and shape of a letter together. Students see the shape of the letter, hear the sound the letter represents, and trace or write the letter as they say a chant that describes how to form it (for example, “Slant down, slant down, across” for capital A).

For multisensory learning, music is a powerful tool. Alphabet songs can be an engaging and effective way to teach letter recognition and letter-sound correspondences.

Word-building activities are particularly effective for young learners. These activities mirror the orthographic mapping process and support the development of the reading network in the brain.

Phonics instruction should always be paired with the reading of connected text. Decodable books that align with recently taught skills provide essential opportunities for students to apply their skills successfully. Also, reading of decodable books should always include a focus on comprehension, with meaning at the center.

Lastly, both teachers and administrators can keep up to date on phonics research and instructional methods through professional development offerings. Digital opportunities, like webinars or online courses, can be an accessible way to learn about helpful practices for teaching reading.

Register at no cost for Waterford’s Foundations of the Science of Reading virtual summit to learn more about the seven fundamental skills that lead to strong literacy development (including phonics and decoding), as well as how to teach them in the classroom and schoolwide. Both teachers and administrators are welcome and encouraged to bring their biggest questions about the science of reading!

Waterford.org recommends the following books for independent learning on the neuroscience behind how children learn to read, as well as instruction that aligns with the research:

  • Speech to Print (Third Edition) by Louisa Moats
  • Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties by David Kilpatrick
  • Reading in the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene

5 Classroom Resources to Support Phonics Instruction

Share these free resources to support literacy instruction in the classroom, with activities that provide examples of how teachers can strengthen phonics and orthographic mapping skills.

1. Download this phonics fact sheet as a handy reference, and share it out with educators in your school or district. Teachers can also send this family fact sheet (available in Spanish here) home with their students.

2. Encourage teachers to print out these capital letter and lowercase letter cards to practice letter recognition, letter sound, and word building.

3. Families are instrumental in helping their children develop strong literacy skills. Share this infographic (available in Spanish here) with families and caregivers to offer strategies for supporting learning at home.

4. Learning the ABCs can be silly fun! Encourage teachers to sing this Tongue Twister ABCs song with their students as they teach phonics skills.

5 This Map the Word activity can be used for orthographic mapping practice. Each “chip” at the top of the worksheet represents a phoneme, each box is a space to write the corresponding letter(s), and the lines provide a space to write whole words.

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Read Waterford’s full Foundations of the Science of Reading article series and learn how to support your teachers with research-driven strategies as they plan for classroom instruction. Continue learning with the next three articles:

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