S3 Ep22 - How to Choose a Phonics Program

Phonics Program Evaluation

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Hello, hello and welcome to the Structured Literacy Podcast. My name is Jocelyn, I'm so very pleased to bring you this episode direct from Pataway Burnie, the home of the Palawa people in gorgeous Tasmania.

In last week's episode of the podcast, I shared some thoughts on ways that you can get ready for changes that are coming in the early years reading space. If your school already has a systematic, structured approach to early reading in place, well you're all set. However, if you aren't quite there, there is some work ahead of you.

In last week's episode, I discussed that one of the first things it's tempting to do is rush out and buy a program. I also discussed why this isn't a great idea. However, at some point, you'll likely be looking for resources or a program to lighten your cognitive load, to make your teacher's lives more certain in the classroom, and to help practice be consistent across classrooms. When that time comes, you'll have some decisions to make.

So, in this episode, I'd like to share some thoughts on how you can do that.

Two of the most common questions asked in Facebook groups about literacy instruction are:

Is program XYZ aligned with the science of reading?


Does anyone have experience in using program ABC?

These questions usually result in a variety of responses, ranging from "No, don't touch it; it's awful" to "Oh, we love that at our school."

Neither of these answers is very helpful if you are a leader trying to wade your way through complex decision-making to get the best outcomes for your students.

This week on the podcast, I'd like to provide a little information with some ideas to consider when making decisions about whether a resource or program is evidence-aligned. I understand why people reach out for the opinions of others. It's scary to sit in the space of uncertainty of evaluating practices and resources when we don't feel like we have the answers we need, or the knowledge we need, to choose wisely. But it's not an answer to have to stumble along on your own. It's also not an answer to hand over decision-making for your school to someone else or a group of people on social media.

Instead, I'd like to help you learn about what makes resources and programs great and give you a set of criteria for decision-making so that you can get the very best out of the resources you choose.

Before we get into the criteria for strong structured literacy resources, we need to think a little bit about the language we use. It's very common for the developers of resources and programs to label their offerings as evidence-based. This label implies that their resource or program has been the subject of rigorous formal study that has not been conducted by the developers of the program or their associates. It implies that the study has been published in a peer-reviewed journal and that that study has been replicated.

To my knowledge, there aren't any specific programs or resources that have been subjected to that kind of evaluation.

Of course, developers evaluate their own resources. They work with schools and gather data, but that does not mean that what they offer is evidence-based.

There are, however, plenty of resources and programs, including ours, that are evidence-informed. Evidence-informed approaches and resources draw on evidence-based general practices. They utilise the findings of rigorous studies where specific instructional elements have been shown to be effective. Ideally, the research referred to includes meta-analysis, where many studies are examined to determine which instructional practices are most likely to yield positive results for students. Evidence-informed approaches don't only rely on research, however. They can't just do that, because the research about exactly what to do in the classroom or exactly about that program or resource doesn't exist. To be a great evidence-informed program or approach, the developer must also draw on their knowledge of classroom practice and use feedback from the end user to refine and develop what they offer. The classroom practice part here is important because context matters. You can have a set of practices that work great in an intervention or small group setting but don't work wonderfully when you try to extend that out to teaching a larger group of children in a regular mainstream classroom. If the person developing the resource or program doesn't have enough runs on the boards in the classroom to know this, the end product may not get you the results you are looking for.

When developing both Reading Success in Action and Spelling Success in Action, I read widely to ensure that the design of these programs reflected research evidence, including meta-analysis published in peer-reviewed journals. I reflected on my own classroom and school experience and what I knew to be successful from my own teaching and leadership work. I also had schools road test the lessons and resources as they were being developed to provide feedback, and I continue to gather feedback about the programs from real teachers in the classroom to ensure that any updates and developments continue to improve outcomes for students. And, of course, I keep an eye on emerging research to make sure that we are up to date.

And that's all well and good, but what does it mean in practice, as you make decisions for your own school?

Well, here is a case where caveat emptor applies. Caveat emptor is Latin for 'let the buyer beware'.

Under the law, a buyer must inspect a product and assess its quality before purchase. The seller is under no obligation to disclose issues with it. This doesn't mean that they're allowed to deliberately mislead a buyer or commit fraud, but you are responsible for ensuring that a program or resource meets your school's needs and is evidence-informed.

Many of us, myself included, feel that there's an ethical obligation for providers of resources and programs to make sure that what's offered will provide a school with the best chance possible of student success. This doesn't always happen. I also think that it's important for providers to accurately label their resources and programs. If something hasn't had rigorous testing as described earlier, you shouldn't be able to label it evidence-based. It shouldn't be allowed, but, as we know, plenty of people do. So, you need to be on the lookout for such claims.

Any resource providers using this term likely don't quite understand about standards of evidence.

When evaluating resources and programs there are two things to consider:

What does research tell us about elements of instruction that need to be included?


What are the classroom elements that will impact the effectiveness of teaching?

Just about every phonics program out there contains the same elements that reflect research. In that we will directly introduce new concepts, the students will have an opportunity to connect the phoneme grapheme correspondences with words: we're going to read some words, we're going to write some words, we're going to practice some things and then we might put some things in sentences. They all contain these elements.

Where they vary is in the classroom elements and the pedagogical considerations. So I've got a bit of a checklist here to help you reflect, and you'll be able to download this resource reflection or evaluation so that you can think deeply about what you are considering for your school.

Number 1

Instruction focuses student attention on the internal structure of words. It doesn't ask them to start at the word or text level. Over time, students will come to internalise the patterns of words and recall them automatically. However, the path to this automaticity is knowledge of the alphabetic code.

Linnea Ehri (2014) describes this knowledge and there are three parts

  • what a word looks like,
  • what a word sounds like, 
  • and what a word means.

She describes that as the glue that binds word recognition: it's what makes it stick in our heads. So all of that has to be explicitly taught.

Stanislas Dehaene's (2021) research shows that even as proficient readers, we process words via sounds or phonemes, but we process every sound in the word at once instead of one at a time. It takes two to three years for most children to develop this automatic reading, and to fully develop this knowledge we need to include blending and segmenting with graphemes in our decoding lessons right from the start. So essentially, our lesson is a decoding and encoding lesson right from the beginning of instruction in the Foundation year.

So we want children focusing on the internal structure of words.

We want them both reading and writing in a way that's adult led (we'll get to that).

Number 2

The next point to consider is that we're only asking novice readers to read things that contain phoneme grapheme correspondences and irregular high frequency words they actually know. Students are novice readers until they know most of the complex code and are building fluency. And when I say the complex code, I'm talking about roughly 60 to 65 graphemes, not 250. So once they've got the most common phoneme/grapheme correspondences, and they're beginning to build fluency, they're moving on from sounding out words sound by sound into recognising those words and lifting them from the page with ease: that's when they're building fluency.

You may need to apply this particular guideline for longer for at-risk readers. So this is why I'm not talking about grade, I'm talking about knowledge and skill.

Now, while there has not been yet enough research into the use of decodable text to say that they're recommended by research, we can reflect on what we know about reading instruction. Students develop sight recognition of words when they repeatedly read all through the word. In order to read all through the word, you need to pay attention to the phoneme grapheme correspondences and other structural elements in the word.

In order to pay attention to this, you need to have knowledge. Guessing using picture and meaning cues has been shown to lead to inefficient reading with a high number of errors. It therefore stands to reason that decodable text should be used to help younger students or less experienced students onto the road to reading. Anne Castles  ,and her colleagues certainly seem to think so too, and I've referenced a paper in the post view (Colenbrander et al., 2022).

Number 3

The next element to consider is that you're working from simple to complex concepts and skills.

Cognitive Load Theory tells us that it's important to optimise student intrinsic load. We do this by carefully considering how many elements we are including and not increasing the complexity before the students are ready. In reading, this takes the form of learning the simple alphabetic code before the complex one, and we read text with simpler vocabulary and sentence structure before diving into rich text.

So we read these texts to students until they can read for themselves.

When it comes to other concepts like morphology, we really don't want to overload Foundation and Year One students with all of the knowledge in the universe. Let's just give them what they need to tackle the words that they're expected to decode and encode for themselves based on the books they're practicing with. So, while there will be an element of orthography, as in the spelling rules, children can learn that this is /ai/ that we never use at the end of a word, when they're in Year One, that's not a problem. They can also learn about the suffix -y, creating adjectives and that it's connected to /e/, like in tiny.

But we don't have to bombard them.

We want the early years to be the time where they're really concentrating on building out their knowledge of the alphabetic principle. The other elements they help them to move into fluency for reading and spelling, and we know that we're going to spend more time on those as children get older.

Number 4

Next, make sure that the approach that you are using includes only what could be called pure sounds, not blends or consonant clusters.

We're also not looking for word families delivered as units, and that "as units" there is the important part.

So of course children are going to practice reading words with 'sple' and 'tr' and 'mt' at the end, but that doesn't mean we're going to flash a card up that has those patterns. Same goes with the word family. You may give students some repeated practice in reading words that have that rhyme (r-i-m-e) 'at' 'in' and 'ip', but you're not going to flash up a card that says what's this, what's this, what's this? That's the difference there.

Students with speech difficulties may need extra practice in reading with those consonant clusters, but again, they're blending them, they're not just learning them as a unit. Teaching blends and word families add significant amounts of content for students to have to learn and really misrepresents how the alphabetic code works. Over time they will commit these patterns into long-term memory. But, as with point two, this occurs through great phonics teaching that includes explicit instruction in phoneme-grapheme correspondence and blending and segmenting with graphemes in every lesson. So that's kind of the what.

Actually, I just also want to touch on that the decodable texts need to match what the students are learning. We're not providing random decodables in a lesson and then giving them leveled text to take home. There needs to be alignment, and remember the purpose of decodable text is to practice decoding. It's not rich language.

Number 5

The next elements are about the how of instruction, and my first point here is that you're looking for something where the instruction provides the most direct path to learning.

All too often, the activities we give students to do are not bad in and of themselves, but they might not necessarily provide the most direct path to learning. An example of this is cutting up sentences, putting them back together and then copying them. Well, sure, a student might be decoding the words and placing them in the correct order, which would seem like a good thing, but is this the most direct path to learning? I'd suggest that simply reading and writing sentences as part of a systematic lesson would be a better use of instructional time and help students consolidate skills much more effectively. There are loads of these practices.

We've got a podcast episode called Phonics Without the Frou Frou that you might like to have a listen to. Make sure that lessons include both reading and spelling of words in equal measure, and I said this just before, the research indicates that phonics learning is most effective when reading and spelling happen within the same lesson and in equal amounts.

Number 6

The other element that fits in here is handwriting. Link your handwriting to your phonics and again, research indicates that that makes both the handwriting and the phonics learning much more strong. We're not looking for worksheets to trace. We're not looking for handwriting textbooks. We're looking for you to just lead the students in forming letters that connect with the phonics that they're learning.

Make sure your instruction meets students at their point of need, providing sufficient practice and review to enable mastery learning. This comes from Rosenshine's Principles (Rosenshine, 2012). Targeted, data-informed instruction is critical for strong student outcomes. You can't just pop a program into Year One without considering student point of development and expect strong results.

And please, nobody does these things because they're not clever or they don't care about children, they do them because perhaps the tools they have aren't really providing them with the data that they need and maybe they need a bit more support to help them understand how this all comes together.

Number 7

There is a growing view, based in evidence, that phonics and word level instruction in early reading is best delivered in targeted groupings. There's a bit of a narrative out there that all good explicit instruction only happens at whole class level. Now let's just have a think about that for a second. Whole class implies it's your whole class, as in, you're their teacher and you've got all of them with that full range in front of you. Well, there's research to indicate not quite so much (Diamond, L.,2023; Valiandes, S.,2015). The grouping doesn't mean that you need to split students into small groups within your class and lose masses of instructional time. You can group across classrooms and achieve great results. The maximum size of the group well, it's just a class size.

Some students with difficulties and behaviour challenges and trauma and all of the things, maybe that's too many kids for them, maybe they need a smaller group. But I'm not suggesting that we go back to small group rotations because of the loss of instructional time that that brings.

Number 8

So, the point here is that there's a few different ways you can achieve this, but instruction must meet students at their point of need. Stanislas Dehaene's Four Pillars of Learning provide a framework for strong outcomes (Dehaene, 2021). Students need the opportunity for consolidation, and that is a critical factor. Without it, learning is never transferred to long-term memory where it can be retrieved automatically, freeing up our attention to focus on new things.

So there's two elements of this: provide instruction at point of need, and that comes back to your Information Processing Theory, which says that we need to be able to specifically attend to the new learning in front of us, we have to be able to think about it, we have to be able to rehearse it and practice it. That's the point of need bit.

The second part is we need sufficient review and consolidation. Tying very closely into that is my next point.

Number 9

Your program should support decisions about content to respond to assessment data, rather than the timing of a program. I'll say that again.

Your program should support your teachers to make decisions about when it's time to move on, based in data, not the program.

Any program is simply a tool with strengths and limitation, and no program replaces your skill as a teacher. Part of that skill is tuning in to your students' learning needs, as revealed through targeted assessment, and that doesn't have to be the three times a year we sit every child down and give them a comprehensive assessment. You can be having a weekly check-in where you simply check back in on the concepts you taught last week to see if they stuck.

So the data collection can be formal or informal, but it must be regular, reliable and it has to inform future teaching. Make sure that any program you choose for early reading comes with a simple-to-use monitoring tool that enables you to find out where students are up to before you start teaching and then helps you monitor their progress.

The program should also enable the teacher to be the driver of decision-making about when to move on. No program developer knows your students the way you do. You need to be supported to evaluate student learning and make the decision about when to move on and about how much complexity to include in each lesson, because different students may have different need for consideration of cognitive load. Not a different style of teaching or learning, but when it comes to cognitive load, we need to meet our kids where they're up to.

Make sure that learning is delivered via fully guided instruction rather than providing activities for students to do on their own. This guideline comes back to Dehaene's Four Pillars. Our role as teachers is to direct student attention, ensure full engagement, provide error correction and facilitate consolidation. Those are Dehaene's Four Pillars.

I'll say them again:

  • direct student attention,
  • ensure full engagement,
  • provide error correction
  • and facilitate consolidation.

You can read more about how we can view phonics instruction through the lens of the pillar here

There is simply no way that we can do this if we're not directly teaching our students. When we sit students in small groups and give them activities to do, we just don't know what they're thinking about, we don't know where their focus is or what's going on. The very best instruction is adult-led the whole time. And I'm not saying students won't work with partners, they will. I'm not saying that they won't work with a small group sometimes, they will. But all of that must be directly led and guided by an adult. Make sure that instruction takes the form of explicit, gradual release of responsibility and includes I do, we do, you do. But here's where we can get into a little bit of trouble. As I mentioned earlier, we can say the word explicit to many teachers and have that many different versions of what explicit means. Explicit teaching following Rosenshine's Principles and the work of many others, is supported by a vast body of research.

Far from being a boring, disengaged method of teaching, explicit instruction ensures that students are supported and that learning is scaffolded so that students may focus on the most important content. The I do, we do, you do framework protects students from cognitive overload while helping them to remain focused on continual growth in learning.

A program that starts instruction with exploring texts in a picture book, or reading a passage to search for words, is simply not explicit enough to meet the needs of all students. It might be okay for high-flying students, but it simply won't be rigorous enough for all of our kids to learn well. So what you're looking for is something that says today we are learning about one of the ways to write A, and one of the ways to write A is with this diagraph <ai>, say that after me. That's the sort of direction you're looking for, not to say again that there won't be partner work, that there won't be other activities, but the first thing that happens needs to be very direct introduction of the concepts.

Number 10

Finally, we come to this idea that every student will be actively engaged in learning, with their attention focused on the skill or knowledge being developed. So it's not enough for the teacher actions to be explicit. We need the student action to be them being actively engaged with their attention focused. Now, if we put points six, seven, eight and nine into action. Well, this last one will just happen, so you don't have to do anything special, but you do need to make sure that all of your ducks are in a row.

The above 10 guidelines are not meant to be an exhaustive list of elements of evidence-informed practice in reading instruction, but I hope that they provide you with a quick and simple reference for when you are making decisions.

There are other considerations when choosing resources or a program outside of research-driven ones, and those relate to the day-to-day practical elements. One of the big considerations is cost. We all know that there are many options to choose from, from free to extremely pricey, when it comes to a phonics and early reading program. This isn't the only factor to consider, but it is important. So when creating Reading Success in Action, I purposely made the books cost effective at $80 each.

The initial purchase cost isn't the only thing to consider, though. After that, ongoing training is a concern for many Principals. Choosing a program that comes with large ongoing training costs means that you are unlikely to continue to provide your team with quality training into the future. Instead, what most schools do is partner a new teacher with an existing teacher to show them how to do it. This inevitably waters down the impact of instruction over time. So you can find that you start really strong, but then, as focus and money dwindle, you see your results drop off.

In considering a program or resource, look for something that has training either built in or that is sustainable for your budget into the long term.

There's been a lot of information and a lot of things to consider in this podcast episode, so I've created a checklist or an evaluation tool for you that you can print out and use as you evaluate the options available to you in choosing an approach for your phonics and decoding in your school. Hopefully that helps take some of the angst out of things and will enable you to feel more confident in your choice.

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Now, there's always a risk, isn't there? So I suggest that you start small, that you take an easy path, and I don't mean easy as in don't do things well, but that you have a gentle start where you can trial some things that doesn't involve you having to spend a billion-ty dollars all up front before you know what's going to happen. So you might start in one classroom or you might choose a low cost offering, such as The Resource Room to help you on your way. Whatever your choice is, if you follow these guidelines, your kids will be in good shape.

And remember, it's not just about having a program, it's also about how it's used.

But the first step is you need to get something for your teachers to be able to utilise in the classroom, because it's no good just pulling the rug out from under them and saying, well, we're not doing these other things anymore without having something to replace it with.

These aren't easy decisions, but you're going to be okay.

I look forward to bringing you the next episode of the Structured Literacy Podcast next week. Thanks everyone, bye.


Colenbrander, D., Kohnen, S., Beyersmann, E., Robidoux, S., Wegener, S., Arrow, T., … Castles, A. (2022). Teaching Children to Read Irregular Words: A Comparison of Three Instructional Methods. Scientific Studies of Reading26(6), 545–564. https://doi.org/10.1080/10888438.2022.2077653

Diamond, L. (2023) Small group reading instruction and mastery learning: The missing practices for effective and equitable foundational skills instruction [White paper]. Collaborative Classroom. https://cdn.collaborativeclassroom.org/white-paper/small-group-reading-instruction-and-mastery-learning.pdf

Dehaene, S. (2021). How we learn: Why brains learn better than any machine…for now. Penguin Books.

Ehri, L. C. (2014) Orthographic Mapping in the Acquisition of Sight Word Reading, Spelling Memory, and Vocabulary Learning, Scientific Studies of Reading, 18:1, 5-21, DOI: 10.1080/10888438.2013.819356

Sweller, J. (2011). Cognitive load theory. In J. P. Mestre & B. H. Ross (Eds.), The psychology of learning and motivation: Cognition in education (pp. 37–76). Elsevier Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-387691-1.00002-8

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 36(1), 12–39.

Valiandes, S. (2015). Evaluating the impact of differentiated instruction on literacy and reading in mixed ability classrooms: Quality and equity dimensions of education effectiveness. Studies in Educational Evaluation45, 17–26. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.stueduc.2015.02.005 

Looking for resources and training to help make your spelling instruction explicit? Join us inside The Resource Room!  

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