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Navigating the Challenges of Teaching Phonics: A Comprehensive Guide

Teaching phonics is basic to literacy instruction.

It is a foundational strategy for learning how to read and spell. However, most educators and parents will attest that journey to efficient phonics instruction is a challenging one to master. Knowing the obstacles that lie ahead and how to overcome them will help teachers, parents and others to successfully pass along this knowledge to children. In this article, we’ll explore the phonics obstacle course and successful strategies for navigating it.

Remembering How You Learned

One of the first impediments to implementing phonics is that many adults can’t recall they were taught to read. It’s not so much forgetfulness born of poor teaching, but rather that memory and learning rear in related ways. Reading is learned so young that the process gets lost against the tapestry of childhood learning. Why It Matters It sets our subconscious expectations about reading and spelling, which then influence whether or not those struggling to read and spell can follow the guides we offer. It’s difficult to sympathise with the weaknesses of new readers if we have no memory of how we felt as we learned to read. It’s hard to choose teaching strategies that work if we can’t remember how we learned.

The Vast World of Phonics Instruction

Phonics instruction is not a homogeneous entity: there’s a wide range of approaches, each with its advocates and antagonists, from synthetic phonics (where the systematic linking of phonemes, or ‘sounds’, and graphemes, or ‘letters’ or groups of letters, is provided) to analytic phonics (where whole words are analysed to detect phonemic patterns).

Why It Matters

The linguistic diversity might confuse teachers and parents who are exposed to competing educational agendas about the ‘best’ way to teach phonics. Perhaps even worse, debate around ‘best practice’ in phonics teaching creates an atmosphere of ambiguity and misinformation that hampers the ability of teachers, parents, and children to choose the appropriate learning modality at the critical time.

A Lexicon of Phonics

The jargon surrounding phonics is daunting, with a lexicon as thick as a small dictionary: digraphs, blend, phoneme, grapheme – and there are many more. From the perspective of a beginner phonics teacher, the amount of technical vocabulary can be overwhelming.

Why It Matters

To get the most out of phonics instruction – and, for that matter, all of our instruction about reading and spelling – learning the terminology is a must. It’s too easy for specialists to converse among themselves about reading in complicated ways and to use the terminology interchangeably. Instead, we should aspire to accurate and precise usage. Spelling out each term clearly helps not only ourselves but all those who are invested in supporting children’s reading and spelling progress to learn about resources, discuss strategies and apply ideas.

Overcoming the Challenges

With this background, even though there are indeed several challenges to effective phonics teaching, these obstacles are negotiable if tackle in the right way. First, a strong theory will help. Second, you need a strategy. Here is what to do. If you follow this path, your students will also be able to do the same.

Learn How to Teach Phonics: Take some time to familiarize yourself with basic phonics instruction. You can find quite a few free online courses, as well as textbooks, to introduce you to basic methods of phonics instruction.

Learn the debates: phonics is not a monolith – learn the issues regarding phonics in order to make the best decisions for your child’s learning.

Learn the language of phonics: Take time to learn the terminology of phonics. A clear understanding of the vocabulary will improve your ability to research, implement and talk about what goes into phonics instruction.

Differentiate your teachings: Accept that teaching phonics is not an exact science, and be prepared to shift gears and tailor your instruction to the needs of each little learner as you go along, with a variety of strategies.

Ask for Help: We are not alone in homeschooling, share our experiences and develop strategies with those who have been in this field longer with us, join forums, and attend workshops.

Practice patience and persistence: Most importantly, bear in mind that teaching phonics – and all the other aspects of education – is a process that takes patience and persistence, and that often involves celebrating small victories as you embark on the journey to get your child reading.

Key Terms Guide

To help you start, here's a brief guide to some essential phonics terms: Phoneme: The smallest unit of sound in a language capable of distinguishing one word from another.

Grapheme: A letter or group of letters representing a sound.

Digraph: A combination of two letters representing one sound, like "sh" in "ship."

Consonant cluster: Two or more consonants that keep their sound when you put them together, such as bl in black.

Segmenting: Breaking a word down into its individual sounds.

Blending: Combining individual sounds to form a word.

Phonics instruction is challenging but it is also highly rewarding. With a clearer understanding of the stumbling blocks, teachers and parents can develop a foundation stone for their children’s journey as readers, and thus open the door to a lifetime of literacy and learning. Now, let’s dive deeper into some more practical strategies and considerations for developing your own phonics instruction.

Embrace Technology and Resources

Today’s students have the benefit of many resources and technologies that can be used to help them practise their phonics. There are websites, games and applications specifically designed for children to have fun while practising their phonics. Visuals as well as hearing sounds can benefit the learning experience, and help to engage students thoroughly.

Why It Matters

Using technology also adds variety to your methods of delivery, enabling you to deliver your lesson in different ways to accommodate different types of learners. Interactive tools offer immediate feedback on children’s mistakes, giving them the opportunity to learn from their errors while in a safe learning environment. On top of that, many of these resources are rooted in gamification techniques that can help to motivate and engage children in learning, in ways that might not be achieved by more traditional pedagogical approaches.

Foster a Love for Reading

A love of reading is the necessary ingredient to make phonics instruction create lifelong literacy – so really saturate your child’s environment with it, whether at home or in the classroom, expose them to as much print as you can (books, magazines, digital stuff) – the more they have around, the more likely the newly-forming reader is to get engaged with it.

Why It Matters

A love of reading can offer context for the phonics skills that pupils are learning, making them more likely to engage with phonics activities, and also use the skills they’re learning. Reading for enjoyment benefits vocabulary, comprehension and language development in other ways that build on what phonics is helping to establish.

Integrate Phonics with Other Literacy Skills

Phonics is essential, but it must be taught as part of a comprehensive literacy program, embedded within a broader scope and sequence. Then, the ‘big-picture’ events of what ‘readers do’, such as vocabulary building, comprehension strategies and writing, fill in a description of what the teacher and students will do.

Why It Matters

Many of us now know that blending all of these together – linking phonics with vocabulary, comprehension and grammar, for instance – makes things more meaningful and transferable to writing.

Continuous Assessment and Feedback

Feedback and reassessment also play important roles in quality session-by-session instruction with your child. This ensures that your child is responding to the teaching, that you are able to tweak your approach as necessary, and that you are aware if your child is stumbling with any phases.

Why It Matters

Assessment can identify what a learner has yet to learn, and provide the right instruction to address the gaps. Feedback can be positive to build confidence and constructive to help improve and learn. Celebrating success and achievement, even small steps, can help learners to feel motivated and achieve their goals.


There are real hurdles to teaching phonics and some of them might seem insurmountable. But when you remember what it was like to first learn to read, when you immerse yourself in a world of phonics instruction, when you master the lingo, and craft your own plan, you will be on your way. Your child will, too! Remember technology; hold on to passion; tie the skill of phonics to the joys of reading; blend in other literacy skills; and check back to uncover what isn’t working so that both you and your child will not only learn to read, but love to read. The path to phonics is a discovery path. It’s a road pockmarked with stumbling blocks but lined with emerging successes. And it will usher both you and your child into the rich world of reading and meaning that is learning and life.

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