How to Teach Phonics and Decoding Skills to Elementary Students


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Check out Waterford’s Science of Reading series. Discover how the brain learns to read and get tips for effective, researched-based classroom instruction from Director of Curriculum Julie Christensen.

Let’s explore phonics! Phonics refers to the ability to match letters and letter-sounds, which can help your students “break the reading code.” In this article, you’ll learn more about why phonics skills are so important for literacy development, then discover helpful strategies for teaching elementary students—with five free downloadable teacher resources from!

Phonics and Orthographic Mapping: What You Need to Know

First graders in a classroomWhat role does phonics play in reading development? Neuroscience research tells us that the brain does not recognize 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 such instruction supports the development of the neural pathways that make proficient reading possible.

In early reading education, phonics instruction includes helping students understand the alphabet principle—the idea that letters represent sounds in a systematic and predictable way. Young students must also master letter recognition and learn basic letter-sound correspondences.[1]

As soon as students have mastered a small group of letter-sound correspondences, they should be guided to pair their phonics skills and their phonological awareness skills to start decoding words through a process called orthographic mapping.[1] This process guides students to isolate the phonemes (the distinct sounds) in a word and link each phoneme to the letter(s) that represent it. Orthographic mapping bonds the spelling, pronunciation, and meaning of a word in long term memory.[5] As students develop strong orthographic mapping skills, they build a bank of sight words that they can recognize automatically. This, in turn, supports the development of reading fluency.

As educators, we know that 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 one 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.[1] As students progress, they will learn about more complex spelling patterns, the six syllable types, and how to decode multisyllabic words.

Teaching Phonics in the Classroom: Strategies and Resources

Because beginning readers are unlikely to intuitively understand the relationships between letters and sounds, phonics instruction should be explicit rather than implicit.[4] “The principles of effective instruction,” Julie Christensen says in a recent video on phonics, “[tell us] that it should be explicit—meaning that it’s direct and clear.”

Because music is a powerful tool for learning, fun ABC songs are an effective way to teach letter recognition and letter-sound correspondences. Letter cards can also be used in activities and games designed to develop and reinforce these skills.

Word-building activities are particularly effective for young learners.[2] These activities mirror the orthographic mapping process and support the development of the reading network in the brain. As your students’ orthographic mapping skills progress, they learn to work through the mapping process independently when they encounter new, unfamiliar words.

Lastly, keep up to date on phonics research and instructional methods through professional development opportunities. Digital resources, like videos or online courses, can be an accessible way to learn about best practices for teaching reading.

If you would prefer a less time-bound and more in-depth option, Waterford recommends the following books for learning more about 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

Use these free resources to support your phonics and decoding instruction:

1. Download this phonics fact sheet as a handy reference.

2. Print out these capital letter and lowercase letter cards for a visual way to practice letter recognition, letter sounds, and word building with students.

3. Families are instrumental in helping their children develop strong literacy skills. Share this infographic with families to give them strategies for supporting learning at home.

4. Learning the ABCs can be fun! Listen to and sing this Tongue Twister ABCs song with your students to teach letter sounds.

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


  1. Christensen, J. The Science of Reading: From Research to Instruction., April 2021.
  2. Christensen, J., Persch, K., & Esser, L. Phonics: Breaking the Reading Code. Video from Nov. 2021.
  3. Waterford Curriculum Team. Phonics Fact Sheet.
  4. Blevins, W. Understanding Phonics. Scholastic.
  5. Ehri, L.C. Orthographic Mapping in the Acquisition of Sight Word Reading, Spelling Memory, and Vocabulary Learning. Scientific Studies of Reading, 2014, 18(1), pp. 5-21.

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