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Teaching and Learning the Phonemic Code

Order of Presentation or Sequence for Introducing and Teaching Letters & Sounds

This article answers the question “What order of presentation or sequence should I use in teaching the letters and sounds of the phonemic code to my child or students?”.

Knowledge of the complete phonemic code is one of the essential foundational skills for reading success. Automatic knowledge of the phonemic code is not the end goal for reading instruction but rather an essential skill the students must acquire so they have the ability to process print phonetically and develop the proficient reading pathways that lead to skilled reading.   For additional information please see the article The Building Blocks of English: The Phonemic Code Explained. Children need to learn the print=sound relationships or for those who prefer technical terms, the child needs to learn the grapheme = phoneme relationships, that are the basis for written English.

A grapheme is the written symbol either an individual letter (s, m, a)  or sequence of letters (th, sh, ch, oy)  that are used to represent a single phoneme.

A phoneme is the smallest speech sound example the sound /s/ or /ch/

How we teach this code to our children makes a significant difference. A carefully preplanned, well organized, direct, systematic and complete presentation of the phonemic code is critically important to effective reading instruction. The order of presentation or sequence for introducing and teaching the letter(s) and their sounds is a key component of effective reading instruction. A preplanned systematic presentation of the phonemic code (letter(s)=sounds is critically important for two essential reasons:

  1. A preplanned, direct, and systematic presentation of the ‘letters and sounds’ or phonemic code is a crucial component of designing an effective direct systematic phonologic based reading program (SEE the article Direct Systematic Phonics Proven Effective – Why Parents and Teachers Need to Use Direct Systematic Phonics).  To develop proficient phonologic processing, students MUST practice reading decodable text. You must have a planned systematic sequencing of the letter(s)/phonemic code in order to develop decodable text. Please the article Decodable Text Explained.
  2. Our English phonemic code is complex and confusing. If you toss the entire alphabet soup at a child at one time or in a haphazard manner they will likely be confused and face difficulties. A carefully planned systematic sequence allows us to mange the complexities.  By controlling presentation you can start simple, add a few sounds a time, provide practice and allow the child to master knowledge and essential foundational skills before adding additional code complexities. Bottom line, a carefully planned, systematic presentation helps the child learn our complex phonemic code so they can develop the skills that lead to proficient reading!

Even when we recognize the importance of planned systematic instruction of the phonemic code, the questions remain: What order of presentation should I use in teaching the phonemic code to my child or students? What sequence should I use in teaching letters to children? What is the best order for teaching children their letters and sounds?  

Important Sequencing Strategies and Considerations for Teaching Letters and Sounds of the Phonemic Code:

While there is not an absolute mandatory sequence for teaching the phonemic code, there are some important sequencing strategies and considerations when determining order of presentation for effective reading programs. The following considerations are important in ensuring effective phonologic based reading instruction and importantly helping the child learn.

  1. A pre-planned sequence of letter=sound code presentation coordinated with the reading material:  You must have a known order of presentation so you can have the child practice reading decodable text.  The reading material, word lists, short decodable sentences and stories and other text the child is reading must be decodable and match the letters/phonemic code that has been directly taught to the child.  This is essential for ensuring the child develops proficient reader phonologic processing pathways. Carefully pre-planned sequencing helps the child learn our complex code and develop correct phonologic processing pathways.
  1. Introduce sounds simple to complex: Begin with the simple sounds and the basic code This is important because it allows the child to master and learn other essential beginning skills such as blending and tracking with ‘easier’ sounds.  The simple continuous sounds that can be ‘stretched out’ are easier to blend (/m/, /s/, /f/, /r/, /n/, /l/).  In general, the ‘basic code’ of the primary letters and short vowel sounds and common digraphs such as th, ch and sh  should be introduced and taught before the ‘advanced code’ of vowel combinations, r-controlled vowel combinations and (example teach m, t, s & short vowels before adding in the vowel combinations, r-controlled vowel combinations and complexities such as ‘igh’ and  ‘ph’).   Not only does this help the child learn, it makes teaching easier!
  2. Introduce a few letters/sounds at a time: Teach new sounds in small sets. Allow time for practice before adding new sounds. Be sure and include review of previous sounds until code knowledge is automatic.  
  3. Teach the complete code! Include direct instruction of all the code complexities. Start with the basic sounds but be sure and also include the alternate sounds, the vowel combinations, the r-controlled vowel combination, and other complexities. Don’t stop at the basic sounds and leave the most confusing part of our English language for the child to figure out on their own. You  must teach the complete phonemic code that is the foundation of our written English language!  A pre-planned systematic presentation ensures you cover the entire phonemic code. Don’t toss the entire alphabet soup of 70 to 80 phonograms at the child in one day but rather manage these complexities by planned, systematic and complete sequencing.
  4. Consider frequency of occurrence:  Introduce commonly encountered sounds before the infrequent sounds:  When determining order of presentation, consider the frequency of occurrence in English words and introduce the most commonly encountered letters/sounds before the infrequent letters.  For example, the letter ‘e’ occurs significantly more often than the letter ‘q’ or ‘v’. You want to teach the frequent letters early on so you can make more decodable words. Frequency lists vary depending on if they are derived from common words or all words but in general the high frequency letters include e, t, a, i, n, o, s, h, r, d, l, c)
  5. Introduce vowels early:  You MUST have vowels to make words therefore you need to include the vowels early on.  
  6. Include some of the ‘buddy letters’ (digraphs) early: The common digraphs ‘th’, ‘sh’ and ‘ch’ should be taught early in your sequence. This is important so that the student learns the important concept that 2 letters make 1 sound. In addition, these combinations are extremely common and you need them to make words for decodable text (Basically you need to teach the ‘th’ sound early in your sequence so you can include the words the word “the”, “this” or “that” in your decodable sentences and stories).  
  7. Separate similar letters and  similar sounds that are easily confused by children:  Separate instruction of similar looking letters that can be visually confused (b, d and p) and sounds that are phonemically similar (such as /i/ and /e/, /f/&/v/). In other words don’t introduce b and d on the same day.  Separate these letters in your preplanned sequence.
  8. Group certain letters together:. Sometimes it helps to group certain letters or graphemes together. For example, pairing  ‘k’ and ‘ck’  together in the same lesson, or pairing ‘ch’ and ‘tch’ together. This grouping allows you to design instruction to help the child learn. For example, by teaching  both representations of the /ch/ sound together, I can directly show the relationship of when ‘ch’ is used compared to the far less common ‘tch’.
  9. Alphabetic order is not ideal: The abc sequencing of letter presentation creates challenges for effective reading instruction because it fails to incorporate many of the key components listed above.
  10. Other information on sequencing for introducing letters from the University of Oregon’s Big Ideas in Reading can be found at .   

It is important to remember the order of presentation or sequence in which you teach the letters is just one part of effective instruction of the phonemic code. Key points essential to effective instruction of this phonemic code include:

For additional information see the articles:

What sequencing order do you use for teaching the letters and sounds in Right Track Reading Lessons?

Right Track Reading applies the sequencing strategies and considerations listed above and uses the following ordering sequence for the basic sounds:

m, t, a, s, d, i, f, r, th, l, o, n, p, e, h, v, sh, u, b, k, ck, c, g, j, w, ch, tch, x, z, qu, wh, y

The advaced code is then systematically introduced starting with vowel combinations (ee, ai, ay, a_e, ..) and then moving into r-controlled vowel combinations (ar, or, er, ur, ir…etc)  and then finally into some of the less common combinations such as wr and ph. Approximately 80 total phonograms are directly taught.  

Back on the Right Track Reading uses the same order of presentation for introducing sounds. However, since the program is designed for older students the pace of instruction is faster. The vast majority of older students tend to know their letters and just need to develop the automatic print=sound knowledge.  

For program details:

If you are ready to help your child or student, get The tools to achieve reading success!

Additional free information on teaching students to read using effective direct systematic phonics instruction is located at Reading Information and Information & Resources for Teaching Reading pages of the Right Track Reading website.

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This article was written by Miscese 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 teaching children how to read. We CAN improve reading proficiency, one student at a time!  More information is located at ~ Copyright 2010-2013 Miscese R. Gagen