Direct Systematic Phonics IS the Most Effective Way to Teach Children to Read -- Just the Facts!


Below are facts concerning direct systematic phonics and teaching children to read. A few common misconceptions are followed by the actual facts. All facts are quoted directly from the National Reading Panel’s Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction. The facts are quoted directly from the either the Report of the National Reading Panel: Summary Report (NRP  Summary Report) or the Report of the National Reading Panel: Reports of the Subgroups (NRP Subgroup Report). *


Myth:  All reading programs are equally effective.  One reading program or approach to reading is not better than another. No one way of teaching children to read is better than another.


Fact: The meta-analysis indicated that systematic phonics instruction enhances children’s success in learning to read and that systematic phonics instruction is significantly more effective than instruction that teaches little or no phonics. (NRP Summary Report p.9)


Fact: The meta-analysis revealed that systematic phonics instruction produces significant benefits for students in kindergarten through 6th grade and for children having difficulty learning to read. (NRP Summary Report p.9)


Fact: Systematic synthetic phonics instruction had a positive and significant effect on disabled readers’ reading skills. (NRP Summary Report p.9)


Fact: Moreover, systematic synthetic phonics instruction was significantly more effective in improving low socioeconomic status (SES) children’s alphabetic knowledge and word reading skills than instructional approaches that were less focused on these initial reading skills. (NRP Summary Report p.9)


Fact: Findings provided solid support for the conclusion that systematic phonics instruction makes a bigger contribution to children’s growth in reading than alternative programs providing unsystematic or no phonics instruction.  (NRP Subgroup Report page 2-92)


Fact: This supports the conclusion that systematic phonics instruction is effective when delivered through tutoring, through small groups, and through teaching classes of students. (NRP Subgroup Report page 2-93)


Fact: The conclusion drawn from these findings is that systematic phonics instruction is significantly more effective than non-phonics instruction in helping to prevent reading difficulties among at risk students and in helping to remediate reading difficulties in disabled readers. (NRP Subgroup Report page 2-94)


Fact: Students taught phonics systematically outperformed students who were taught a variety of nonsystematic or non-phonics programs, including basal programs, whole language approaches and whole-word programs. (NRP Subgroup Report page 2-95)


Myth: Teaching children to ‘sound out’ words develops word callers and interferes with their ability to comprehend text. Pronouncing words is not reading. If you emphasize phonics you develop word callers who will not be reading for meaning.


Fact: The conclusion drawn is that growth in word-reading skills is strongly enhanced by systematic phonics instruction when compared to non-phonics instruction for kindergartners and 1st graders as well as for older struggling readers. Growth in comprehension is also boosted by systematic phonics instruction for younger students and reading disabled students. These findings should dispel any belief that teaching phonics systematically to young children interferes with their ability to read and comprehend text. Quite the opposite is the case. (NRP Subgroup Report page 2-94)


*The facts are all directly quoted from the National Reading Panel’s Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction. In 1997, Congress charged the Director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), in consultation with the Secretary of Education, to convene a national panel to assess the status of research-based knowledge, including the effectiveness of various approaches to teaching children to read. The National Reading Panel applied objective research review methodology and undertook a comprehensive, formal, evidence-based analysis of the research literature. In its most important action, the Panel adopted a set of rigorous research methodological standards. In other words, the NRP required the research to meet accepted scientifically valid methodological standards. Much ‘reading research’ did not meet scientific valid standards. The National Reading Panel assessed and presented the evidence from the reading research that met scientifically valid standards. Their results and conclusions are an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature. Complete information can be found at





The evidence-based facts from the scientifically valid research are clear. Direct systematic phonics programs are the most effective way to teach children to read. Direct systematic phonics programs provide the most effective (‘the best’) method of building the strong foundation of accurate phonologic decoding that is essential for the higher level skills. However, direct systematic phonics programs are not a complete/comprehensive reading program. Teaching a child with an effective direct systematic phonics program and then stopping all reading instruction is not sufficient. Of course you still need to specifically develop higher level skills in fluency and comprehension. Fluency develops with reading practice. But remember, fluency or ‘automatic’ word reading is built word by word and is first dependent on repeated, accurate phonological processing. That is why the child first needs that strong foundation of accurate phonological decoding that is most effectively developed by direct systematic phonics programs. Comprehension, “the essence of reading”, needs to be specifically developed. Vocabulary knowledge is obviously critical to comprehension. It is vital to include direct instruction in both comprehension and vocabulary. However, accurate decoding remains the essential foundation that allows these higher level skills to develop. Children who do not have a strong foundation of accurate phonologic decoding will struggle in the higher level skills simply because they can not proficiently convert print to the sounds/words of our language.  Direct systematic phonics programs effectively build the essential foundation for higher level proficient reading skills.


Yes, it is true that some children are able to learn to read proficiently, no matter how they are taught to read. However, the evidence clearly shows that direct systematic phonics is more effective than other approaches.  Proficient reading is complex; most children need direct systematic phonics instruction to insure they are literally on the right track! This is especially true for the children at greatest risk for reading failure. Remember the neural imaging research shows that all proficient readers are using ‘correct’ neural phonologic processing pathways to process the print. The reason WHY direct systematic phonics programs are most effective is they directly and intentionally help the child develop these phonological neural processing pathways that are essential for proficient reading.  When children are first learning to read, we can’t ‘see’ the neural processing pathways they are using. However, by teaching them with effective direct systematic phonics programs we can ensure they activate these proficient reader pathways. The downfall with other approaches to reading, while they may work for some children, is that they allow and even encourage many children to use incorrect alternate processing pathways. Don’t leave it to chance for your child to develop proficient reader pathways. Help insure your child succeeds by using an effective, direct systematic phonics program proven by validated research to be the most effective way of teaching children to read!  


To better understand WHY direct systematic phonics programs work in teaching children to read see the article How Reading Works: The Biologic Process of Proficient Reading and Exciting Scientific Proof - We Can Help Students Learn to Read.


When selecting a reading program, remember the National Reading Panel did NOT give a blanket endorsement to all so called ‘phonics’ programs. To be most effective the program must be a 1) a phonics approach where acquisition of letter=sound correspondence is emphasized in reading and spelling, 2) direct instruction or synthetic phonics where students explicitly covert letters to sound and blend sounds to form words and 3) systematic presentation  - taught in a deliberate, pre-set planned sequence. More information can be found in the article What Exactly is Direct Systematic Phonics? The National Right to Read Foundation has information and lists programs that meet the criteria of effective direct systematic phonics.


Remember, the facts clearly demonstrate direct systematic phonics programs are the most effective way to teach children to read!




This article was written by Miscese R. 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 Right Track Reading Lessons: A Highly Effective Step-by-Step direct Systematic Phonics Program. The purpose of this article is to provide general information on issues related to effectively teaching children how to read. More information is located at  Copyright 2005 Miscese R. Gagen