Early Literacy Skills: the basics

What is the Science of Reading?

The science of reading is a framework based on Gough and Tunmer’s (1986)’s The Simple View of Reading, which states that there are two components when teaching a child to read. The first part of the “reading equation” is language comprehension, or understanding the meaning of words. The second part is decoding, understanding the sound of words. Many children tend to be better at one or the other, but a balanced skill is the key to a fluent reader. In EFL education, many curriculum designers and textbook authors focus on language comprehension, with little to no attention given to developing the decoding skill. This is what leads to many of the struggles early readers face, especially when learning to read in a second or third language.

The Decoding Skill

The decoding skill can be broken up into three “ph” words; phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and phonics.

Phonological Awareness: awareness of the sounds of the word on a whole-word level. Skills like rhyme production and identifying syllables are under phonological awareness

Phonemic Awareness: awareness of the individual sounds (phonemes) in words. These sounds can be produced by one or more graphemes (letters), but at the phonemic level, the student just recognizes the sounds and does not necessarily associate the sounds with a specific spelling pattern.

Phonics: Phonics is similar to phonological awareness and phonemic awareness, the main difference is the inclusion of graphemes (symbols). With phonics, students not only recognize the sounds and patterns but are able to connect those sounds or that pattern to a grapheme or a set of graphemes

Teaching Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness can be taught by going through a set of tasks with your students for each new phoneme they are working on.

Phonemic Awareness Tasks

From easiest to most difficultAdapted from Burkins and Yates, 2021

TaskWhat it isExample
BlendingTaking separate sounds (phonemes) and putting them together to create a word.Teacher: Listen while I say some sounds, /k/-/ă/-/t/ What word do these sounds make? Students: Cat
SegmentationBreaking a word into its individual sounds (phonemes)Teacher: Listen while I say this word, cat. What are the sounds in this word? Students: /k/-/ă/-/t/
IsolationLocating and separating one individual sound (phoneme) from the rest of the wordTeacher: Say cat. Now say just the first sound in cat. Students: /k/
DiscriminationHearing the similarities and/or differences between two or more phonemesTeacher: Which word doesn’t have the same ending sound? Cat, Can, Mat Students: Can
DeletionRemoving one phoneme from a word completely.Teacher: Say cat. Students: Cat Teacher: Now say cat without the /k/ Students: At
SubstitutionRemoving one phoneme from a word and replacing it with another phoneme.Teacher: Say cat Students: cat Teacher: Now instead of /k/. use /m/ Students: Mat

Phonics: The Basics


Phonics is the connection between the phonemes (sounds) in a language, and its graphemes (symbols that represent those sounds). In English, graphemes can be one letter like /k/ can be c or k, or a pair (sometimes more) of letters, like the phoneme / Ü/ can be oo or ew. And all of the letters and letter-pair spellings together make up a language’s orthography.   

  English language learners, and even native speakers, know that the orthography of English is particularly complicated, with its many rules and exceptions to those rules. But despite its complexity, there is a system that can be explicitly taught (Bowers & Bowers, 2017). Teaching this system to understand the orthography of English is what we call “Phonics instruction

Challenges to Teaching Phonics

Letters are Confusing!

Training the brain to recognize letters is not an easy task. This is because by the time students are learning their first letter, they have already had years of using what scientists call mirror invariance to make sense of the world. Mirror invariance is the term for how the brain helps us recognize objects no matter what angle we perceive them from. For example, an upside-down cat is still a cat. This needs to be “unlearned” when we start to make sense of the alphabet. An upside-down cat is still a cat but an upside-down “b” becomes a “p”.

This means it can be difficult in the early stages of learning letters to distinguish between similar letters. Here are a few tips for helping students “unlearn” mirror invariance.

  • Stock your classroom with 3-dimensional letters that students can manipulate. Physical representation of the difference between letters can help students to “lock” the knowledge in their brain
  • Avoid teaching visually similar letters close together. When first introducing certain letters (such as b, d, and p), it’s best to space the instruction out so that students can get familiar with each letter individually. Once students have mastered each letter, educators can address the similarities and help students manage differentiation with practice and tricks like the “thumb” trick for “b” and “d”.

Give students plenty of practice visually discriminating between letters. One way to help students practice is by guiding them to always look at the page with their eyes to find the differences, instead of trying to think of the differences by looking elsewhere

How do I know my students are really learning?

Just following a “one skill a week” curriculum, or following along with the minimal phonics instruction in the textbook, will lead to what experts call an “exposure” approach in which students are simply exposed to phonics like one might be exposed to music by attending a symphony. Alternatively, a better approach is a “mastery” approach (Blevins, 2017), in which the educator makes sure that students can use the skill and keep using it week-to-week, such as if one were to learn how to actually play an instrument in order to understand music. Some tips for using a mastery approach

  • Focus on the application of present and past skills
    • Students need to have practice applying not only the skill they are learning that week but also the skills they learned in the weeks prior
    • Some studies have shown that students may need up to 3 or 4 weeks to truly master each phonics skill (Blevins, 2017)
  • Track students’ mastery by paying attention to their writing
    • Writing is a great indicator of student progress, especially with phonics.
    • The ability to apply a phonics skill to writing is evidence of a deep understanding of that skill (Treiman and Kessler, 2014)
  • Reflect and respond to skills students are struggling with
    • Don’t be afraid to re-teach certain skills or give mini-lessons to groups of struggling readers
    • Reflect often on student progress, some skills are easier to master than others and each student will have their own progress timeline as they work to master them

My students think phonics is boring!

Phonics instruction doesn’t have to be boring. The brain is a natural puzzle solver and releases endorphins when we solve a problem (Tik et al., 2018), which means phonics instruction can be the most engaging part of the lesson if we frame it as solving the puzzle that is the English language. Some tips for engaging students in phonics instruction

  • Use media/technology
    • Phonics.com and other websites/apps can be useful ways to incorporate technology and media into your phonics instruction. Using games and media-driven activities can not only help engage students but break up the monotony of practicing phonics skills.         
  • Use Pattern Recognition
    • As mentioned above, the brain releases endorphins when we solve a puzzle. It also has an inclination to find patterns in everything. By giving students tasks that ask them to “find” the commonality between words or the “pattern” that represents the target skill, you are utilizing the brain’s natural inclinations to your advantage.
  • Use Manipulatives
    • Like with mirror invariance, sometimes phonics instruction goes against the brain’s natural inclinations. In those cases, it can be beneficial to allow students to play with manipulatives. Whether that is pop-it boards to represent syllables or sounds, or physical letters to differentiate between similar graphemes, physical representation can help students lock in tricky concepts.

Whatever way you choose to go, it’s important to remember that teaching early literacy skills is just as much about the sounds of the words as it is about learning the words themselves. Early reading can be tricky, but if we use brain-based approaches like the Science of Reading, reading can become your student’s favorite part of the day.

Works Cited

Blevins, W. (2017). A fresh look at phonics: Common causes of failure and 7 ingredients for Success. Corwin.

Bowers, J. S., & Bowers, P. N. (2017). Beyond phonics: The case for teaching children the logic of the English spelling system. Educational Psychologist, 52(2), 124–141. https://doi.org/10.1080/00461520.2017.1288571

Burkins, J. M., & Yates, K. (2021). Shifting the balance: 6 ways to bring the science of reading into the balanced literacy classroom. Stenhouse Publishers.

Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7(1), 6–10. https://doi.org/10.1177/074193258600700104

Tik, M., Sladky, R., Luft, C. D., Willinger, D., Hoffmann, A., Banissy, M. J., Bhattacharya, J., & Windischberger, C. (2018). Ultra-high-field fmri insights on Insight: Neural correlates of the aha!-moment. Human Brain Mapping, 39(8), 3241–3252. https://doi.org/10.1002/hbm.24073

Treiman, R., & Kessler, B. (2014). How children learn to write words. Oxford University Press

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