Phonics Phones

What a Phonics Phone Is, Why Phonics Phones Enhance Reading Instruction,

How Phonics Phones are Used in Reading Instruction

& How to Make Phonics Phones


What is a Phonics Phone?


A phonics phone is a simple tube shaped like a ‘telephone’ receiver, often made from plastic PVC pipe. There are several different versions of these phones, however most are simple hollow tubes that allow the student to speak quietly in one end and hear their own voice through the other.  Students use the ‘phone’ to listen to their own voice as the practice reading. This device allows students to better ‘hear’ themselves when they speak quietly.


These simple listening tools are called phonics phones, phonics telephones, PVC pipe phones, whisper telephones, reading phones, sound phones, reading pipes, reading telephones, reading cell phones and even personal reading devices. One library site named them a descriptive “quiet as a mouse telephone”.  For the purpose of this general informational article, these tools will be referred to as ‘phonics phones’ or ‘phones’.


Why Can Simple Plastic Phonics Phones Enhance Reading Instruction?


Phonics phones can be a useful tool for various reading instruction activities.  These simple devices are a fabulous tool for reading instruction because:


1. The phone helps the student ‘hear’ their own voice. The pipe funnels the child’s voice directly to their ear. This intentional focus on hearing sounds helps the students acquire phonemic awareness, a critical element to developing necessary proficient reader phonologic processing pathways. 

2. The phone compels the student to speak in a whisper or very quiet voice. In fact, if the student talks into the phone in a normal volume it is uncomfortably loud. By funneling their voice directly to the ear, the device itself dictates the student speak quietly. It works! (Almost all students automatically correct themselves to a whisper but a few with exceptionally loud voices may need a demonstration.)

3. The phone improves the student’s focus and attention because they are intentionally listening to their own voice.  Both the physical presence of the phone and the sound funneling attributes help the student pay attention and listen carefully to what they are saying when they read. The phones improve the students focus on their own task and are less apt to be distracted by what their neighbor is saying/reading.

4. The phones help maintain classroom ‘quiet’ by reducing the overall noise level. Students must speak softly, or else they blast their own ears. This allows an entire classroom of students to quietly read orally without disturbing each other. The phones keep ‘noisy’ readers quiet so they do not disturb their neighbors. This ‘noise management’ aspect of the phones provides a fantastic tool for classroom teachers.

5. As an added bonus, it appears most students like using these effective tools. Feedback from many teachers across a wide range of grade levels indicates their students “love the phones”, “thought they were the neatest things”, “reach for the phones”, “voluntarily use the phones” and even “went bonkers for the phones”. 

6. The phones may function as a tool to provide a level of privacy that is particularly important for struggling and adolescent students. This privacy may help struggling readers overcome their reluctance to read out loud. Many times older students who struggle with reading avoid out loud reading because they are self conscious and embarrassed to have their peers hear them read. This creates a catch-22 situation where the students who absolutely need to practice to build reading skills avoid practice for social reasons. The phones allow the students to practice necessary out loud reading without others hearing them.  In a mixed level classroom, be sure ALL the students use the phones for all reading practice so struggling readers are not singled out. Avoid the situation where students perceive only the ‘slow’ readers use the phones.


How can I acquire phonics phones for my class?


Phonics phones can either be made for low cost with common materials or can be ordered commercially. Detailed instructions on how to make phonics phones and information on where you can order phones are located at the end of this article. 



How are phonics phones used in reading instruction? What phonics phone activities are effective in teaching reading skills?


Phonics phones can be an effective tool to use as part of a strong direct systematic phonics instructional approach to directly help students develop proficient reader phonologic processing pathways. For additional information on the importance and proven effectiveness of direct systematic phonics instruction see the article Proven Effective– Direct Systematic Phonics Instruction. The phones can also be used to help students develop necessary higher level skills in vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. Feedback indicates these phones are an effective tool for both regular and special education classrooms.


The activities listed below describe effective ways to use this simple, yet highly beneficial tool. These activities are all consistent with direct systematic phonics instruction.  The following information, tips, activities, suggestions and ideas were compiled from comments and feedback from teachers who are using these phones in reading instruction. 


Phonemic Awareness (PA) Activities:

The phones are an ideal tool for phonemic awareness activities. The tube design funnels sound directly to the ear and tends to block out other background noise. Not only do the phones likely boost physical hearing they also directly focus the child on listening to and hearing sounds. When a child holds a phone, they intentionally listen to the sound coming out the earpiece. This direct focus on sound is vital to developing necessary phonemic awareness, the ability to hear, recognize and distinguish the sound structure of our language. For additional information on phonemic awareness including the seven specific skills students need to develop see the article Phonemic Awareness Explained.


The students say the sounds or words into the phones when conducting a wide variety of phonemic awareness activities to identify, distinguish, segment, blend or manipulate sounds. Most phonemic awareness activities can be conducted with these phones in both individual, group and class situations.  A detailed description of specific PA activities are listed in the article  Free Activities to Directly Develop Phonemic Awareness Skills.


It is essential to link phonemic awareness to print. For reading development, auditory phonemic awareness alone is not sufficient. PA must be linked to print.

· “Phonemic awareness instruction is most effective when children are taught to manipulate phonemes by using the letters of the alphabet. Such instruction makes a stronger contribution to the improvement of reading and spelling when children are taught to use letters as they manipulate phonemes rather than when instruction is limited to phonemes alone.” (Highlights from the evidence-based research on phonemic awareness instruction - listed in National Institute for Literacy’s (NIFL) Summary on Phonemic Awareness Instruction 


Activities that teach direct print to sound knowledge of the phonemic code (the alphabetic principle) are listed next. The PA skills need to be linked and integrated with the direct knowledge of the printed code. The phone is a terrific tool in establishing this essential link between sound and print because the phone helps the child focus on the ‘sound’ of the print/letters.


Activities for Introducing, Teaching and Practicing Direct Print to Sound Knowledge (Phonemic Code):

Students need to learn the phonemic code because this phonemic code is the basis for written English and the foundation for proficient reading. To read proficiently, the student must process print phonetically. Phonetic processing requires converting and linking printed letter(s) directly to correct sound. The student needs direct print=sound knowledge of the printed code. For a more detailed explanation see the article The Phonemic Code - The Building Blocks of Written English


The phone is a fantastic tool to use when teaching the direct print=sound relationship. The phone enhances hearing and intentionally focuses the student on the sound, thereby developing and strengthening the necessary print=sound relationship. Numerous activities can be conducted to teach the direct print = sound relationship. For specific activities see the article Activities to Teach, Practice Direct Print to Sound Knowledge.  Use the phonics phones in these activities to help the student strengthen the necessary sound link.


Teacher Guided Reading


Guided reading is where the student reads out loud to the teacher and receives immediate correction/feedback. This is NOT independent silent reading or students reading out loud without correction. The key requirement to achieve the effectiveness in developing skills is to provide ‘guidance’ to the student. “The validated research shows that guided out loud reading has significant beneficial impact on word recognition, fluency and comprehension across a range of grade levels.”  The correction and instruction is the essential criteria of guided reading that is PROVEN to help the student learn and improve skills. Guided reading is particularly important in the learning and remediation stages. See the article The Importance of Guided Reading for further information.


The phones are exceptionally useful for guided reading in the classroom setting. The phones help teachers manage the challenge of providing one-on-one reading feedback to multiple students. The teacher can conduct guided reading with small groups of students (input indicates up to 6 students). The students read text into their phonics phones. The teacher can listen to one student at a time while the other students continue reading into their phonics phones. The teacher rotates through the group, providing the needed individual attention, correction and feedback proven to build skills. The guided reading can be used to build foundational skills in correct phonologic processing including (decoding words accurately, smooth blending, proper tracking, and attention to detail). The guided reading can also be used to directly work on and build higher level skills in fluency, vocabulary development, handling multisyllable words, and developing strategies for reading comprehension.


Guided reading is essential in remediation. However, one of the challenges of working with older students in a classroom setting is overcoming their reluctance to read out loud. The phones provide a level of privacy that allows older students to read out loud without their classmates hearing them. 


Independent Reading Practice:


Students can use these phones anytime they practice reading independently.  Daily reading is critical to building reading skills. Practicing correct reading skills is essential to developing proficiency. The phones are an effective tool for managing out loud reading in classroom student and focusing the student more closely on exactly what they are reading.  Students should read a minimum of 20-30 minutes a day. At the beginning level and in remediation situations the majority of this reading time should be guided reading (out loud with feedback). The research indicates independent reading at the beginning/learning stages and for struggling readers has limited effectiveness. In contrast, research proves guided reading improves skills. As the student’s skills develop, their reading will shift to primarily independent reading.


It is important to have the student to read level appropriate material when reading independently. Obviously, ‘appropriate’ is a relative term and the student’s reading level will change and advance as the student gets older and as their skills advance. In general, independent reading is a time for the student to practice known skills.  In contrast, guided reading is the time for learning new skills or complexities and tackling challenging material. (Independent reading = practice; Guided Reading = learning new skills). Because they are not receiving feedback, it is important students practice independent reading with appropriate level material. A simple rule of thumb for independent reading is to use material the student can read with few errors. If the student is making only a few errors per page the material is suitable for the independent level. More difficult material (> 4 or 5 errors per page) is ‘instructional level’ and is better suited for guided reading. Please see the article Selecting Level Appropriate Books/Material for Your Child or Student for additional information. 


In independent reading, the phones are beneficial in:


Improving Self Correction: Feedback from teachers’ observations indicates students may make fewer errors and correct themselves a higher rate when they are using the phones than when they read without the phones. Several teachers conducted informal measurements and found both fewer misreads and increased self correction of errors when students used the phones. One teacher measured a 60-200% increase in the amount of text that was self corrected when using the phones. The student’s increase in focus and attention when using the phone may very well contribute to this observed improvement in self correction.  While I could find no scientific data, intuitively if a student is ‘paying closer attention’ and ‘listening better’ they will not only read more accurately but they will catch more of their errors themselves. If this is true, the phones should have a definite positive impact on the effectiveness of independent out loud reading time.


Developing Fluency: Students can use out loud reading practice to develop fluency. Students can read out loud into their phones in both guided and independent reading practice. Remember, after the base foundation of phonologic processing is established, the student MUST practice to develop fluency.  Fluency is established word by word and requires repeated correct phonologic processing. The only way to build this fluency is with practice. See the article Reading Fluency Explained for further information on fluency.


Practicing Expression:  Students can use independent reading to practice expression. When the students listen to themselves in the phonics phones, they tend to be more aware and better recognize the need to increase expression. (In the same way a student might fail notice their own monotone voice but quickly pick up lack of expression when listening to another student read). The phonics phones encourage the student to pay attention to what their reading sounds like. In addition, they can practice reading passages ‘expressively’ without disturbing their neighbors.


Advancing Intermediate Level Students: Independent out loud reading practice is especially useful for advancing students from the intermediate stage (beyond beginner but not yet to skilled - often 2nd through 4th grade). Students at this level often have the foundation of phonologic processing yet are not experienced enough to have developed the fluency and expression of skilled readers. They simply need practice reading and lots of it. Out loud reading helps them advance.      


Providing ‘privacy’ for older and struggling readers: The phones can be used as a tool to provide a level of privacy that is important particularly for adolescent students.  Struggling and adolescent students can practice reading out loud in ‘privacy’ without their peers hearing them. In a mixed level classroom be sure all the students use the phones for all out loud reading practice so struggling readers don’t perceive only the ‘slow’ readers use phones. 



Activities to Expand Vocabulary:

Students can use the phones to practice vocabulary words out loud without disturbing classmates. The students can learn and practice definitions of new words, practice using words in sentences or practice the definitions of common prefixes, suffixed and root words. For some vocabulary development activities see the article Expanding Vocabulary Knowledge: How to Help Your Child or Student Expand Their Vocabulary Knowledge



*****Important Reminder for All Reading Activities with the Phone:*****

The phone is only a plastic PVC tube. It is not the phone itself but effective instruction with this useful tool that helps students acquire specific skills and develop into proficient readers. The focus of instructional activities, including phone use, needs to be on the development of the specific reading skills necessary for proficient reading. Thanks to scientific advances, we now know much about the process of proficient reading and the importance of developing phonologic processing pathways. For additional information, see the article  How Reading Works: The Biologic Process of Proficient Reading and Exciting Scientific Proof - We Can Help Students Learn to Read Proficiently!


Target and design all activities to develop specific skills necessary for the development of proficient reading. An article that discusses the specific skills necessary for proficient reading is found at Skills Necessary for Proficient Reading: Explanation of Foundational Skills to Develop Phonologic Processing and Higher Level Skills to Advance to Proficient Reading Keep in mind, reading English is a complex learned skill that does not come naturally or easily for many students.  The most effective and efficient way to ensure a student learns all these necessary skills is to directly teach these skills to the individual. The phones can be an effective tool in this direct instruction.


How can these ‘phones’ be used for other activities and subjects?


The phones are also useful for other subjects and activities. The phones are a terrific tool to use anytime the student needs to ‘say’ something out loud with minimal disturbance to other classmates or when the student needs to focus on listening to their own voice.  While many teachers started using phones for reading, they expanded use to other activities. Teachers continue to report many uses for these phones in both regular and special education classes.


Suggestions, comments and tips indicate the phones can also be used as an effective tool for:


Learning Math Facts: Students can repeat math facts into their ‘phones’.  This provides a terrific method of orally repeating addition, subtraction, multiplication and division facts. Mastering basic math facts is an essential foundation to math success. Students master the facts through repetition. Younger students can even quietly ‘sing’ math facts into the phones.


Learning Other Facts: The phones are terrific tools for students to orally practice facts or information that needs to be memorized in many subject areas. Oral repetition helps students learn and master specific facts or knowledge. The phones allow the student to orally practice facts or information out loud without disturbing others. A few examples include; state capitals (ie… chanting “Helena-Montana”), parts of speech (chant- “a noun is a person, place or thing”), learning element names and symbols in the periodic table (chanting “Carbon = C”), practicing definitions and numerous other applications.


Some Speech Activities: The phone helps the child ‘hear’ the sound in speech development activities. One teacher combined speech awareness activities such as using hand mirrors, shape of mouth and tongue placement with listening to how the sound changed. An article that provides general information and tips to help a student say specific sounds is found at Tips for Helping Children Pronounce Specific Sounds


Spelling Practice: Students can ‘say the sounds’ into the phones as they practice writing their spelling words. This focus on ‘writing the sounds’ when spelling strengthens the phonologic processing foundation. 


Editing/Proofreading Papers, Improving Writing Skills:  The phones allow the students to review their writing, ‘hear’ exactly what they wrote and make necessary corrections and improvements. Feedback indicates students find more corrections/improvements when they use the phone than when they only read through their work silently. Once again, this is likely related to the benefit of increased focus/attention and intentionally ‘listening’ to their work.  An article that discusses the benefits of the phones in proofreading is found at “Can You Hear Me?/Learning is Messy Blog


English as a Second Language (ESL): The phones appear to be helpful with students who are learning English. The feedback indicates the phones may enhance the ability of students to discriminate sounds and hear/distinguish words.


Phone skills and manners: Some teachers use the phones to teach and practice actual telephone skills such as politely answering the phone, getting an adult, taking a message and for safety lessons in how to call 911 in emergencies.


Practicing for a Play, Presentation, or Speech: Students can practice their lines or presentation with minimal disturbance to the others in the class. 


Special Education Applications: One teacher reported the phones were a breakthrough with her autistic children. These children would not talk directly to the teacher but would talk to themselves in the phones. The phones may also be a tool to help manage distractions and benefit children who are challenged with attention issues.


How can I make phonics phones? 


Phonics phones are easily made with PVC pipe.


General Background information about PVC pipe materials for phone construction:

· PVC is an inexpensive durable and rigid white plastic pipe commonly used for household plumbing.

· The PVC pipe and elbows used to construct these phones is commonly available at most builder supply, home improvement, and hardware stores. (For example, Home Depot, Lowes, and most local hardware stores)

· PVC straight pipe is typically is found in 10’ lengths. It is available in various diameters. For making reading phones, most teachers select diameters ½”, ¾”, 1” or 1 ½”.

· Be sure the elbows and connectors match the diameter of the pipe you selected

· The 90 degree elbows are commonly found in bags of 10

· The construction process is simple and fast. Most teachers either made their own or had a spouse assist them. This honestly is an easy do-it-yourself project.


Information on size of the phones:

· The size of the phones can vary.

· Diameter: Many use the ¾” inch diameter. However, some prefer the larger 1” or 1.5” size for larger phones and some teachers favor the  ½” diameter for smaller phones. The comments indicate preference for different size phones varies among the teachers and with student age. Some prefer larger phones and some thought the smaller phones were easier for small hands to hold.

· Length: The suggested length for the straight connecting pipe also varied from 3-6”. How well the phone ‘fit’ the students face (ear to mouth distance) influenced the preferred length. For smaller/younger students notes indicated preference for 3” to 4”. Some notes said the  3”-3.5” seemed to reach right to the mouth with the 4” and longer extending past their mouths. For older students (3rd and older) the longer 4-5” seemed to be preferred. 


Directions/Instructions for Making the Phones: There are several design variations for the phones. This article provides directions for making the most common designs.


1) Standard elbow-straight pipe-elbow version:

Materials: For each phone you will need a section of straight PVC pipe and two corresponding diameter elbows

-Cut the PVC straight pipe ( ½”, ¾” or 1” in diameter) into the desired 3” to 5” length

-Place a 90 degree elbow on each end and push together


2) The larger connecting elbow phone:

Materials: For this larger size version of the phone you will need two 1.5” connecting 90 degree elbows.

-Purchase the female and male end and slip the two elbows together. (Connect the 1 ½" PVC 90 degree elbow to a 1 ½" PVC 90 degree street elbow). It cost just under $2/phone for this option. Some teachers prefer this larger size and ease of construction (no cutting).


3) Partner Phones: In this version you make two of the single phones and then connect two phones together for use in partner reading. Most instructions made the standard elbow-straight pipe-elbow version (#1) and then inserted a ‘T’ connector into the straight section (cut phone in half and insert the “T”). Then use a section of ‘bilge’ hose to connect the two ‘T’s. 

Additional Construction Information:

· How do I cut the PVC straight pipe into the proper length? You can cut the plastic pipe with a saw. A PVC pipe cutter can be purchased for around $10 and provides a cleaner cut than using a hacksaw. In addition, many home improvement stores such as Home Depot are willing to cut the PVC pipe for you. Just ask! You may need to come back later to pick up the pieces but it saves time and effort especially if you do not have the tools to cut the pipe yourself. 

· Glue or No Glue? Most instructions described pushing the pieces together without glue. However, some of the teachers used PVC glue to attach the pieces. If you use glue, allow the phones time to dry (directions on glue container).

· How about color? Some of the teachers painted the phones. Check with your hardware store to determine an appropriate non-toxic paint that would adhere to the plastic PVC pipe. 


Information on Cost:

Cost varies depending on the exact size and design used to make the phone. The bottom line is these types of plastic PVC phones are inexpensive. Information described costs ranging from about 30 cents per phone for the smaller models to a cost of $2 dollars per phone for larger phones made only with connectors.  Additionally, home improvement stores are sometimes willing to donate materials to teachers to make these phones (only required written request) or were willing to provide discounts when teachers explained what they were using the materials for. It never hurts to ask!


Can anyone help me make the phones?

If you don’t have the time or tools to make phones, sometimes you can probably find someone who would be more than willing to make them for you. Many opportunities exist from helpful parents, local retirees, service clubs, youth organizations, churches, local businesses and more! Look at the article “Phonics Phones for School Children by a Grand Junction Colorado volunteer organization. There was also an article about a boy scout who make 1,500 phones for his Eagle Scout project and a few Rotary clubs who provided phones for schools. Once again, if you need help just ask!



Where can I order ready-made phones?


Not everyone has the time to run down to the hardware store, buy supplies and make phones or coordinate volunteers. This list provides a few options for ordering phonic phones. (Note: If anyone is aware of other sources, please forward the information and I will gladly add the website to this list.)

**This organization provides a wonderful low cost opportunity for teachers and schools to acquire phonics phones for their class. Phones are sold 1 for $2.50 or 24 for $48 (These are the larger PVC pipe version.)

**This organization also has a form where teachers new to phonics phones can request 6 free sample phones for their school. 

This company provides a headset version.

This company offers lightweight colorful models called toobaloos for just under $5. The toobaloo was designed by a teacher and is manufactured in Wisconsin.


How can I keep the ‘telephones’ clean?  (phonic phone sanitation)


· Each child should have their ‘own’ phone to use (to prevent sharing germs).

· Frequent, regularly scheduled sanitation is advised.

· The PVC pipe versions of these phones can be washed in a dishwasher. Check the instructions if you purchase a commercial phone model.  

· Some teachers use anti-bacterial wipes to clean the phones and have the students wipe them down before use.

· To help keep the phones clean, students can store their individual phones in a ziplock bag labeled with their name.



THANK YOU! A special thanks to Jean, a teacher in Arizona, who described her effective use of phonics phones and shared many ideas. Also thanks to all the other teachers who have shared their effective ideas with others! 



Enjoy reading with your students!  If you have any questions or input please contact Miscese Gagen.



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


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 2008 Miscese R. Gagen