Reading Resources October 25th, 2021

When Literacy Rates Fall Short, Accessible and Personalized Phonics Education Can Help Bridge the Gaps

Hi Educators,

For many of us, in-person schooling is back in full swing, and we are adapting to a new pace of life after months of lockdown and virtual education. We have reentered the classroom with energy, enthusiasm, and firm belief in our students’ potential. Even so, many researchers are pointing toward the continued impact of the pandemic on students’ reading success and the importance of phonics in helping our youngest readers grow and thrive. Read on to understand how accessible, child-centered phonics education may help us bridge some of the most glaring gaps in elementary literacy.

One of the key gaps illuminated by educators and researchers is the inaccessibility of affordable phonics education. Katie Spurlock, a longtime literacy tutor and parent of a young reader with dyslexia, maintains that many families whose children have reading problems would benefit from free sequential phonics program books. These books have entertaining stories that gradually increase in complexity and help students practice decoding skills essential for long-term reading comprehension, especially if they are among the many – like Spurlock’s daughter – who do not easily pick up reading. The best phonics books are hundreds of pages long and cost upwards of $100. Increasing educators’ and parents’ access to these materials, Spurlock argues, is essential: research shows that it is crucial for children to sound out words properly so they can connect those words to spoken language, as opposed to encouraging them to look for context clues in standard books if they don’t immediately know the correct sounds.

Ultimately, children who do not learn phonics to decode do not even “get the chance to like or dislike reading,” states Spurlock. But learning to decode from quality phonics books is not the only requirement for holistic reading instruction: frequently, there is also a gap between phonics-based reading and its application to other subjects and reading in the “real world.” To maintain their interest in reading, children need opportunities for application across academic disciplines, setting the foundation for reading a wide variety of content as older adolescents and adults. Based on an analysis of 6,829 children, “social studies is the only subject with a clear, positive, and statistically significant effect on reading improvement”: yet on average, children in the U.S. devote only half-an-hour a day to social studies in elementary school, compared to two hours for English language arts and 90 minutes for math. The decoding skills developed from phonics are an essential but preliminary step in what teachers hope will become a lifelong reading journey for children. More social studies and, in general, “more background information” are needed to stretch young readers’ comprehension and critical thinking skills.

Here, it is also critical to note that young students who are learning English as a second language will likely need additional, personalized support alongside phonics education. In recognition of this gap, California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond announced a new statewide literacy campaign this September, setting a goal to help all third grade students in the state learn to read by the year 2026. For those learning English, educators acknowledge that their pathway may look very different: while learning to sound out words is crucial, researchers and educators also point out the need for ESL students to read aloud, learn a variety of vocabulary and practice speaking frequently. As Kathy Escamilla, Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of Colorado, Boulder, states: “it doesn’t do you any good to sound out a word if you don’t know what it means.” Students who are still learning English may need more oral language education, emphasizing new vocabulary and speaking to other students and teachers. Many CA school districts are also implementing more rigorous instruction in other subjects, such as social studies and science, encouraging students to read varied texts and literature in addition to phonics instruction.

The current gaps in phonics education are not merely limited to accessibility, application to other subjects, and relevance for students learning English as a second language. However, these three gaps are prevalent across state lines and therefore crucial to consider when presenting phonics to a classroom of children with unique backgrounds, goals, and needs. In light of these factors, the science and long-term outcomes of phonics education illuminate its role as a foundation of lifelong literacy, and its success can only expand with continued efforts to bridge these gaps.


  • While phonics education remains essential to long-term literacy and reading enjoyment, educators will benefit from better understanding current gaps in phonics education, particularly as we recover from the pandemic.
  • Based on current research, we identify three main gaps, or needs, in phonics education: access to affordable phonics material, consistent application of phonics-based reading to other subjects, and personalization of phonics-based reading for students learning English as a second language.
  • In light of these gaps, phonics remains the preferred method of teaching our youngest readers. These gaps are simply reminders of the nuances of literacy education and the interconnectedness of reading, students’ unique backgrounds, and the quality of education in other subjects.

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