Literature-Based Phonics Instruction for Grades K-3
Timothy G. Weih, Ph.D.
University of Northern Iowa, USA
August 2015

Background: Phonics Defined

Phonics instruction involves teaching children to connect sounds with letters or groups of letters, e.g., that the sound /k/ can be represented by c, k, or ck spellings. Phonics is a pre reading ability that children learn prior to being able to cognitively read words. Phonics instruction guides children to acquire phonemic awareness or the ability to hear, identify, and speak the sounds within words, i.e., letter-sound relationships. The major concepts that children learn are that words are made of sounds, alphabetical letters and groupings of alphabetical letters stand for certain sounds, the letters and corresponding sounds they represent form patterns across multiple words.

The Role of Phonemic Awareness

Infants first begin to learn to speak by copying the sounds that parents make as they talk to them. Children first begin to read printed text, i.e., any printed book, by first mimicking the speech patterns that the parents make while reading the book aloud to them. Children usually want the same books read over and over, and many soon memorize the words on a page in connection to the picture on the page which serves to prompt their memory, and as they turn the page, each picture prompts their memory of the words. This is more than pretend reading, the process involves teaching children that words are made of letters and sounds and they go together with pictures to create memorable meanings. If children do not have these early childhood experiences with read aloud picture books, they will most likely struggle with learning to read on their own. These experiences form the basis of the role of phonemic awareness instruction.

Create a Safe Environment

Children need a safe environment in order to maximize their learning potential. Teachers can help to create a safe environment and safe practices that will help children feel more at ease and confident to speak aloud in front of the teacher and peers. The following sections will address how to accomplish this in conjunction with instructional strategies for teaching words, but first, teachers need to develop within themselves an attitude and practice of patience, understanding, love, and caring for their students and demonstrate this everyday in the words they say, tone of voice, and actions they take. Only then, will children feel comfortable to take risks in the classroom such as speaking aloud and expressing their thoughts about written words.

Patterned Books

To begin this phonemic awareness strategy called Patterned Books, the teacher first selects books that have the following characteristics: rhyme, pictures, repeated phrases, cumulative story, very little text, easy to read print, and the books should match with the teacher's theme or topic of instruction for the sake of building comprehension for the children. Books that have text patterns are easier for children to memorize therefore giving them a cognitive understanding of the story or the information being covered. Once children have the text mostly memorized or contextualized, then their cognitive abilities can be focused on identifying and manipulating the words, i.e., letters, sounds, and meanings. Therefore, it is best for the teacher to first read the whole book several times aloud to the children so they can see and hear how the text sounds and for building comprehension. All the children should be able to see the text either on the classroom screen or in print, and the children need to be able to see the teacher's face so that they can watch how her mouth forms the words, and how her facial expression conveys the meaning about the text. After the teacher has read the book several times aloud to the children, the teacher instructs the children in the following Shared Reading strategies for the sake of them learning how written language sounds when they read it aloud themselves.

• Choral Reading: the children and teacher read aloud the text together at the same time.
• Echo Reading: the children repeat the sentence after the teacher has read it.
• Alternate Reading: the teacher reads a sentence and then the children read the next, and this pattern continues.

Once the book has become known very well by the children, i.e., almost memorized, then the teacher instructs the children in ways to act out parts of the book, discuss it, and write or draw about it. These activities help the children to make more personal connections to the meanings of the book which will serve to activate children's cognitive thinking and enhance their enjoyment and comprehension. The following books are examples of the types of literature that would work well for teaching children phonemic awareness.

• Ape in a Cape
• Are You My Mother?
• Brown Bear, Brown Bear
• Catch a Little Fox
• Chicka Chicka Boom Boom
• Dr. Seuss books
• Five Little Penguins Slipping on the Ice
• Goodnight Moon
• I Can't Said the Ant
• Jake Baked the Cake
• Moose on the Loose
• Pretend You're the Cat
• The Hungry Thing
• The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything
• Things I Like

The teacher can further enhance children's phonemic awareness through singing and clapping the rhymes found in the literature. For teaching specific words, the teacher points to the words in the text and stretches out the sound of the word and the children echo after her.

Identifying the Letters

Once young children learn the sounds and rhythms of language in literature they learn to identify the letters that make those sounds. Teachers use alphabet books and books that emphasize letter recognition to build this component of phonemic awareness for children. The alphabet books selected by the teacher must have large, full page, colored illustrations that demonstrate word concept development through direct relationship between the letter of the alphabet, the word, and the illustrations that represent it. Quality alphabet books should have the same characteristics as addressed earlier in this article in regard to Patterned Books, for example: rhyme, pictures, repeated phrases, cumulative story, very little text, easy to read print, and the books need to match with the teacher's theme or topic of instruction for the sake of building comprehension for the children. In addition, the books should be amusing and have relatable characters or illustrations. The following books are examples of the types of literature that would work well for teaching children phonemic awareness through identification of the alphabetical letters and corresponding sounds that form words.

• ABC Insects (American Museum of Natural History)
• ABC Oceans (American Museum of Natural History)
• Alphabet Al's ABC Book of Words and Rhymes
• B is for Bear by Roger Priddy
• Dr. Seuss's ABC: An Amazing Alphabet Book!
• Eric Carle's ABC
• K is for Kissing a Cool Kangaroo

In addition to alphabet books, there are tongue twister books that use the literary device of alliteration, i.e., words in a sentence, passage, or poem that all start with the same letter or letters and sound, for the sake of instilling the concept of letter-sound relationships. The following are examples of tongue twister books that would serve to emphasize letter-sound identification.

• A Twister of Twists, A Tangler of Tongues and Busy Buzzing Bumblebees
• All About Arthur-an Absolutely Absurd Ape
• Alphabet Annie Announces an All-American Album
• Dr. Seuss's ABC: An Amazing Alphabet Book!
• Faint Frogs Feeling Feverish and Other Terrifically Tantalizing Tongue Twisters
• Six Sick Sheep
• The Biggest Tongue Twister Book in the World

For the sake of the best possible letter-sound-word learning, teachers need to read selected alphabet and tongue twister books several times to the children, and the children should be able to see the text either on the classroom screen or in print. Once children have almost memorized a book, then the teacher can teach them strategies connected to the words in the book that will lead them into letter-sound-word skills and abilities. The following are some strategy lesson titles to search for using online search engines.

• Alphabet Books
• Hangman (game)
• Making Words
• Quizno (game)
• Scrabble (game)
• UpWords (game)
• Wheel of Fortune (game)
• Word Ladders
• Word Searches
• Word Sorts
• Word Walls (with using the alphabet for categorizing the words)

Playing educational games such as some of the ones listed above, can be very engaging for children and helps them to not only learn the words, but also engages them in learning social skills.


Teaching children in the Kindergarten to third grades how to listen for, identify, speak, and cognitively manipulate spoken and written language is best accomplished within the context of a safe environment, and an enjoyable, well-written book or other forms of literature. Children are most drawn to a memorable story or important information that builds cognition of the words into meaningful information that they can use in their lives. Children are not computers or robots, we cannot expect to simply input data, i.e., letters, sounds, and words in isolation, and expect that they will remember them or learn them. Children need to form relationships to the words they are learning. The words must play a bigger part of something they are experiencing in their lives.

About Author / Additional Info:
Timothy G. Weih is an associate professor.