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The National Reading Panel on Systematic Phonics Instruction

Phonics instruction is important - so important, in fact, that it is increasingly infiltrating mainstream media. Major organizations, such as The New York Times, have recently reported on this topic. (Click here to listen to a recent episode of The Daily, “The Fight Over Phonics”). Research demonstrates that systematic phonics instruction improves reading outcomes for children. Some school districts are replacing old curriculum in favor of new materials prioritizing phonics. For those familiar with reading research, this movement emphasizing foundational phonics skills comes as a welcome relief.


Yet there is more than one approach to phonics instruction, and there is certainly more than one curriculum emphasizing phonics. For those in positions of influence, the decision to select which phonics approach or curriculum to use can be daunting. Which approach is best? Today, we’ll turn to a helpful source - the National Reading Panel (NRP) - to remind us of the big picture. The National Reading Panel report was a massive undertaking analyzing the status of existing reading research. It resulted from the federal government’s effort to demystify the teaching of reading. Phonics was a key area studied within the report, and the report’s findings illuminate key considerations. To learn more about how the National Reading Panel took on such a large-scale project, check out our blog post, Facts You May Not Know About the National Reading Panel.

Red, orange, yellow, green, and blue unifix cubes spread out with black letters on each cube. A blue, orange, and yellow cube are connected together and spell "teeth." "Broke" and "chain" are also spelled in the background. In blurry focus behind the cubes are colorful rainbow markers and an organized tray of additional cubes.

NUMBER ONE TAKEAWAY

If we leave you with just one thing, let it be this. Students receiving systematic phonics instruction significantly outperformed students receiving nonsystematic phonics instruction, or no phonics instruction at all. There are also a number of reading outcomes where younger students benefit more from systematic phonics instruction than older students, highlighting the need for early intervention.


WHAT DID THE NATIONAL READING PANEL LEARN ABOUT PHONICS?

The National Reading Panel explored ten phonics questions. After defining the types of instruction, students involved, and the outcome measures examined, we list eight of these questions exactly as they appear within the report. We summarize the findings and conclude with our key takeaways. The eight variables explored within these questions are outlined below. Short on time? Click on a section of interest to skip the methodology and jump directly to the results.


METHOD

The National Reading Panel analyzed studies that:

  • Were an experiment or had a quasi-experimental design with a control group

  • Were published in a journal after 1970

  • Included data testing the hypothesis that systematic phonics instruction improved reading more than “less-phonics” or no phonics instruction

  • Measured reading as an outcome

  • Provided data allowing for the calculation of effect sizes

  • Reflected instructional interventions that could exist within schools (National Reading Panel, 2000, 2-91)

Thirty-eight total studies met these criteria.


TYPES OF INSTRUCTION

The National Reading Panel compared three kinds of instruction:

  • Systematic phonics instruction

  • Nonsystematic phonics instruction

  • No phonics instruction

Systematic phonics instruction involves explicitly teaching students the relationship between letters and sounds in a planned, sequential manner. Students use this knowledge to read and spell new words. Systematic phonics approaches possess key similarities but can differ in a number of ways, from the concepts covered to the procedures used to reinforce these concepts. The National Reading Panel analyzed three different types of systematic phonics programs:

  • Synthetic phonics programs: Converting letters (graphemes) to sounds (phonemes)

  • Larger-unit phonics programs: Blending larger subparts of words (onset-rime, phonograms, spelling patterns)

  • Miscellaneous phonics programs: Systematic phonics programs not entirely fitting into either of the previous categories

Nonsystematic phonics instruction involves teaching phonics in a way that is not planned or sequential. Oftentimes, meaning-based or whole-word activities are prioritized. Students may be given a large list of words to memorize prior to receiving instruction regarding letter-sound correspondences. Students may also be encouraged to use context, or the pictures within a story, to help "read" an unfamiliar word. Phonics might be sprinkled throughout instruction, but it is not done so in a structured, intentional way.


No phonics instruction involves instruction where the relationships between letters and sounds are omitted entirely.


TYPES OF STUDENTS

The studies included in the analysis examined three different kinds of readers:

  • Kindergarten and first grade students “at risk” of future reading problems

  • 2nd-6th grade students of average or above average intelligence with difficulty specifically in relation to reading

  • 2nd-6th grade students with difficulty in reading and other areas (National Reading Panel, 2000, p. 2-92)


EFFECT SIZE

In order to make comparisons amongst different groups, the National Reading panel selected effect size as the primary statistic for analysis. Effect size indicates “whether and by how much performance of the treatment group exceeded performance of the control group, with the difference expressed in standard deviation units” (National Reading Panel, 2000, p. 2-91).


Once a relationship between variables is determined to be significant, effect sizes can be considered as outlined in the report below.

Small Effect

d = 0.20

Moderate Effect

d = 0.50

Large Effect

d = 0.80

OUTCOME MEASURES

The following outcome measures were used to calculate effect sizes:

  1. Decoding regularly spelled real words

  2. Decoding regularly spelled pseudowords

  3. Reading a mix of words including words with irregular patterns

  4. Spelling words

  5. Comprehending texts read silently/orally

  6. Reading text accurately aloud (National Reading Panel, 2000, p. 2-92)

FINDINGS

1. PHONICS INSTRUCTION - SYSTEMATIC vs. NONSYSTEMATIC vs. NONEXISTENT


“Does systematic phonics instruction help children learn to read more effectively than nonsystematic phonics instruction or instruction teaching no phonics?”

(National Reading Panel, 2000, p. 2-92)


Yes! Overall, the effect of systematic phonics instruction (d = .44) was significant. Students receiving explicit, systematic phonics instruction experienced greater reading outcomes than students receiving nonsystematic phonics instruction or no phonics instruction.


Key Takeaway:

Systematic phonics instruction significantly impacts reading achievement, improving a number of reading outcomes. This supports the idea that phonics instruction should not be sprinkled into instruction incidentally, nor should it be omitted from instruction entirely. Systematic phonics instruction should play a key role in any reading program.


2. PHONICS INSTRUCTION & THE BEST APPROACHES/PROGRAMS


“Are some types of phonics instruction more effective than others? Are some specific phonics programs more effective than others?” (National Reading Panel, 2000, p. 2-93)


The National Reading Panel analyzed synthetic phonics programs, larger unit phonics programs, and miscellaneous phonics programs. Students receiving systematic phonics instruction involving any of these approaches all experienced greater reading growth than students receiving nonsystematic phonics instruction or no phonics instruction at all. There was no statistically significant difference regarding the efficacy of these unique approaches. Effect sizes are listed below.

  • Synthetic phonics programs (d = .45)

  • Larger-unit programs (d = .34)

  • Miscellaneous programs (d = .27)

Key Takeaway:

Systematic phonics instruction can take various forms and still be effective. These different approaches to instruction can all contribute to positive reading outcomes for students. This highlights how the most essential part of a systematic phonics program is having a planned, sequential approach to instruction. Other elements of the approach or program can vary.


3. PHONICS INSTRUCTION & INSTRUCTIONAL SETTING


“Is phonics instruction more effective when students are taught individually, in small groups, or as whole classes?” (National Reading Panel, 2000, p. 2-93)


Systematic phonics instruction improved reading outcomes for students across individual, small group, and whole group settings. There were no statistically significant differences amongst these varying instructional settings. Effect sizes are listed below.

  • Individual (d = 0.57)

  • Small Group (d = 0.43)

  • Whole Group (d = 0.39)

Key Takeaway:

Systematic phonics instruction can be adapted to fit a variety of contexts, with students showing improved reading outcomes across different settings. This should hopefully serve as a comfort to educators and specialists facing constraints within their schools. Students provided with systematic phonics instruction can demonstrate improved reading outcomes, regardless of instructional context.


4. PHONICS INSTRUCTION & GRADE LEVEL


“Is phonics instruction more effective when it is introduced in kindergarten or 1st grade to students not yet reading or in later grades after students have already begun to read?” (National Reading Panel, 2000, p. 2-93)


Phonics instruction beginning in kindergarten or first grade was significantly more effective than phonics instruction introduced following first grade. Mean effect sizes are listed below:

  • Kindergarten (d = 0.56)

  • First Grade (d = 0.54)

  • 2nd-6th Grade (d = 0.27)

Key Takeaway:

The earlier we can begin systematic phonics instruction, the better! Kindergarten and first grade students are capable of learning letter-sound connections and reading words, and systematic phonics instruction has a significantly greater impact on our younger students.


5. PHONICS INSTRUCTION & STRUGGLING READERS


“Is phonics instruction beneficial for children who are having difficulty learning to read? Is it effective in preventing reading failure among children who are at risk for developing reading problems in the future? Is it effective in remediating reading difficulties among children who have not made normal progress in learning to read?” (National Reading Panel, 2000, p. 2-94)


Systematic phonics instruction had a significant effect on reading outcomes of kindergarten and first grade students at risk of reading difficulties that nonsystematic or no phonics instruction. Systematic phonics instruction also significantly impacted reading outcomes for older learners (2nd-6th grade) with average/above average IQs experiencing reading difficulties. This effect was more modest than with younger students.

  • Kindergarteners at risk (d = .58)

  • First graders at risk (d = .74)

  • 2nd-6th graders with average/above average IQs and reading difficulties (d = .32)

Phonics instruction did not have a significant effect on reading outcomes for 2nd-6th grade students who experienced difficulties with reading and other areas. The report states that there is not enough evidence to determine why, but this result may be due to a number of factors:

  • An insufficient phonics intervention (in frequency/duration)

  • Reading difficulties stemming from a different area (e.g., comprehension)

  • Inadequate number of studies

Key Takeaway:

For the majority of students, systematic phonics instruction improves reading outcomes. The students with the largest gains in reading performance are students in kindergarten and first grade, highlighting the substantial impact early intervention can make. Systematic phonics instruction also improves reading outcomes for older students, though reading growth may be less substantial than if earlier intervention had occurred. In short, the best time to intervene with a systematic phonics program is as early as possible!


6. PHONICS INSTRUCTION & READING COMPREHENSION AND DECODING


“Does phonics instruction improve children’s reading comprehension ability as well as their decoding and word-reading skills?” (National Reading Panel, 2000, p. 2-94)


Across grade levels, systematic phonics instruction improved children’s decoding skills for regularly spelled real words and pseudowords. Systematic phonics instruction also improved children’s abilities to read irregular words, but the effect size of this was significantly lower than the effect sizes associated with the reading of real words and pseudowords.

  • Regularly spelled real words (d = 0.67)

  • Regularly spelled pseudowords (d = 0.60)

  • Irregularly spelled words (d = 0.40)

Systematic phonics instruction improved the reading comprehension ability of young readers. It also improved the reading comprehension ability of older students with average/above average IQs who experienced reading difficulties. However, systematic phonics instruction did not have a significant effect on reading comprehension for older students in general.

  • Comprehension ability - Kindergarteners and first graders (d = 0.51)

  • Comprehension ability - 2nd-6th graders with average/above average IQs and reading difficulties (d = 0.32)

  • Comprehension ability - 2nd-6th graders (d = 0.12)

Key Takeaway:

Systematic phonics instruction has a significant effect on younger students' abilities to read both regular and irregular words as well as comprehend text. It also significantly a

affects the comprehension abilities of older students who are specifically struggling in the area of reading, but not older students in general. This again highlights how we can have a significant impact on more reading outcomes for younger students than older students, so the sooner we can intervene, the better!


7. PHONICS INSTRUCTION & SPELLING


“Does phonics instruction have an impact on children’s growth in spelling?”

(National Reading Panel, 2000, pg. 2-94)


Systematic phonics instruction significantly impacted the spelling of kindergarten and first grade students. Interestingly, the effect of systematic phonics instruction on the spelling of older students was not significant. The NRP report suggests several reasons for this, noting that in the studies analyzed, younger students received credit for their use of phonics knowledge in spelling, but this was not the case for older students. It may also have to do with the complexity of the words involved in higher grades. Lastly, the majority of the older students within the sample were already experiencing difficulty reading.

  • Kindergarteners & first graders (d = 0.67)

  • 2nd-6th graders (d = 0.09)


Key Takeaway:

Systematic phonics instruction has a significant impact on the spelling of our younger students. It may be less impactful in older grades. Yet again, a need for early intervention is demonstrated.


8. PHONICS INSTRUCTION & SOCIOECONOMIC STATUS


“Is phonics instruction effective with students at different SES levels?"

(National Reading Panel, 2000, p. 2-94)


Systematic phonics instruction significantly improved the reading outcomes of both low SES and middle-class students. The effect sizes for these groups did not differ significantly from one another.

  • Low SES students (d = 0.66)

  • Middle-class students (d = 0.44)


Key Takeaway:

Systematic phonics instruction significantly affects reading outcomes for children, regardless of socioeconomic status.


ADDITIONAL RESEARCH


At its time of publication in 2000, the National Reading Panel outlined areas where additional research was needed. These areas included:

  • Duration of phonics programs

  • Whether phonics programs should continue in 2nd grade and beyond if already taught systematically in kindergarten and first grade

  • Duration of single instructional sessions

  • How much should be covered within a program

  • How many letter-sound relations to teach

  • How many ways using these letter-sound relations to read and write should be practiced (National Reading Panel, 2000, p. 2-97)

Are there any of these areas you are interested in learning more about? Comment on our post and let us know!

 

Written by: Taryn Quaytman & Rachel Draper

Copyright © 2023 SparkEd LLC

 

STAY TUNED FOR MORE!

If you are interested in learning more about what the National Reading Panel discovered, we will be breaking down additional areas through upcoming blog posts in our NRP series. Make sure to sign up for our biweekly newsletter so you never miss a new blog post! Click on a link below to read other posts in our series.

 

ADDITIONAL LEARNING

Interested in reading the full report from the National Reading Panel? Find it here!

 

REFERENCES

National Reading Panel (U.S.) & National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

(U.S.). (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read : An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.


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