Exactly What is Direct Systematic Phonics?


The research tells us that the most effective way to teach children to read is with a direct systematic phonics. [1]  So what exactly is a direct systematic phonic program? When you are purchasing materials to teach your child at home, is the program any good? The marketing information makes all the programs appear wonderful.  As a parent, how do you know if your child’s school is actually teaching with these effective methods? If you ask if the school is teaching direct systematic phonics, you often will be told “yes, we do teach phonics”. But is it the effective direct systematic phonics?  How can a parent objectively determine if a specific program is using a direct-systematic-phonics approach that is proven by validated research to be the most effective way to teach children to read? 


All phonics programs are not the same. The research clearly does not give a blanket endorsement for all ‘phonics’ programs.  The information below gives you an understandable description and explanation of the criteria so you can tell if a specific program meets the necessary criteria of a direct systematic phonics program. 


PHONICS is generic term for reading programs that teach the sounds for the letters (from the Greek word ‘phone’ = sound.)  An effective ‘phonics’ program teaches children how to read by translating the printed letters (black squiggly lines) into the sounds that make up our spoken language. The first and strongest emphasis needs to be on teaching the children to decode the letters into sounds and then how to blend those sounds together into words.  The program needs to be based on teaching phonics first and foremost. If the program is teaching children to read by learning words as a whole it is NOT a phonics approach. In addition, all so called ‘phonics’ programs are NOT equal. Just putting the word “phonics” somewhere in the title of the program does not mean it is effective or that it even is a phonics approach. Inclusion of some token phonics instruction as a small part of an ‘integrated approach’ is not effective. Teaching a little ‘phonemic awareness’ does not qualify it a phonics program.  The overall focus needs to be teaching the child to approach reading by translating printed letters into sounds.  If the program does not primarily approach teaching the child to read by decoding the letters into sounds it is NOT a true phonics based program.


To be most effective the phonics program needs to be taught in a DIRECT or explicit manner. A direct approach is where the child is specifically and explicitly taught the letter=sound relationship and other necessary skills such as blending.  In other words, you explicitly show the child the printed letter and tell him the sound that those letters make and explicitly teach him how to link sounds to form words.   The necessary skills and knowledge is directly taught to the child instead of having the child infer or discover it for himself.   If your child is learning ‘phonics’ skills simply from reading text, having to figure it out from whole words, by circling a bunch of pictures that start with a certain sound (example circling dinosaurs and dragons and they need to isolate and determine the /d/ sound on their own), learning objects  that represent the letters instead of sounds (a=apple, b=ball,  d= dinosaur), if phonics skills are taught only by word family analogies, or  if the phonics skills are buried within text reading the program is using the less effective indirect, embedded or analogical phonics instructional methods that rely to a large extent on the incidental learning. To be most effective the program must directly teach the kids the printed letter=sound relationship and other skills that they need to know.


To be most effective the phonics program also needs to be SYSTEMATIC. Systematic programs teach the skills and sounds in a deliberate planned sequence.  The better programs start with the simple and build on this until the complete phonetic code has been taught.  This is contrasted to incidental or opportunistic phonics instruction where the teacher or program does not follow a planned sequence but rather teaches as the opportunity arises or as sounds are encountered in text. As could be expected the systematic programs are more effective than haphazard hit-or-miss instruction.  The other element of the direct and systematic requirement is that the program is ‘complete’. Some programs make a very good start at teaching children the simplest part of the code but stop before teaching all the necessary sounds. Often, students are left to figure out the most complex part of the code on their own. A good systematic program also needs to be complete and teach not only the basic alphabet but also the complexities of the vowel combinations and r-controlled vowel combinations. A carefully planned presentation and systematic format helps the child learn by presenting information slowly, allowing the child time to learn and practice and master newly acquired skills before additional complexities are added. The systematic programs are not designed to ‘control’ the teachers but rather to control the presentation of information in order to help children manage and master the complexities of our language. The purpose of a systematic program is to help the child learn.


In quick summary, to be most effective reading programs need to be strong phonics first (teach reading based on decoding the sounds that the letters make), use direct instruction (directly teach necessary knowledge instead of having kid pull information out on their own) and teach in a systematic (set, planned sequence) and complete (teach all the necessary sounds including the complexities) manner. 


To better understand WHY direct systematic phonics programs work see the article How Reading Works: The Biologic Process of Proficient Reading and Exciting Scientific Proof - We Can Help Students Learn to Read.


Additional information, articles and resources on teaching children to read proficiently can be found on the Free Reading Information page of the Right Track Reading website.



This article was written by Miscese R. Gagen a mother with a passion for teaching children to read proficiently by using effective methods. She is also a successful reading tutor and author of the reading instructional programs Right Track Reading Lessons and Back on the Right Track Reading Lessons. The purpose of this article is to empower parents and teachers with information on effectively teaching children how to read. We can improve reading proficiency, one student at a time! Additional information is located at www.righttrackreading.com.  Copyright 2005, 2007 Miscese R. Gagen


[1] National Reading Panel’s “Teaching Children to Read” Summary Report www.nationalreadingpanel.org/publications/summary.htm