We need to step up our phonics game. Curriculum can help.

Step-Up-Phonics-ALLCAPS-Orange-1600x837I recently read Why aren’t kids being taught to read?, which has been all over social media in recent weeks, and it really hit home for me. In the article, Emily Hanford unpacks a major issue with literacy instruction: the research says daily, systematic phonics instruction is essential to support many students’ development as readers. However, for a bevy of reasons, many teachers don’t know how to teach phonics. So, in many classrooms, they just don’t.

Boy, did that sound heartbreakingly familiar. In my first two years of teaching, I was one of those teachers whose school took an imbalanced, phonics-free approach to literacy. In my fifth grade classroom, I had a program that focused on read alouds, a box of beautiful picture books, a sadly lacking classroom library, and a sea of eager faces sitting upon a rug in front of me with reading levels from pre-readers to high school readers. To this day, I believe I did not give those students the education they deserved. Not because I didn’t care, but because I didn’t know how, and I wasn’t equipped with a strong curriculum to show me the ropes.

My third year of teaching was game-changing. I moved to a different school where the literacy program included a structured, research-based approach to systematic phonics instruction. Every teacher in the school, whether they were the gym teacher or the science teacher, was expected to also be a reading teacher, and every morning all teachers had a small group of students to whom they provided explicit, differentiated phonics instruction for an hour.

We also had strong differentiation protocols, and comprehension-specific activities with grade-level complex texts for all students. Unsurprisingly, in that school, ALL students were learning to read—and it was because their teachers were given the tools to make it happen.

I adored this line from Hanford’s article: “When you know better, do better.”


Still an important theme in the article is that educators don’t know how to do better when it comes to phonics. So, what’s an educator to do if he or she wants to fill a phonics gap?

Esteemed researcher and Reading Hall of Famer Timothy Shanahan explains what is needed: “Make sure young children receive daily, explicit, systematic decoding instruction.” His blog unpacks the necessary ingredients really well, and I highly recommend giving it a read.

And the How? Without question, the easiest way to bring that kind of daily phonics instruction is to implement curriculum with these ingredients. Phonics supplements may sound like the right solution, yet I think it’s easier when phonics is clearly integrated. And it’s fair for districts to expect their core curriculum will have a strong systematic phonics element.

At Open Up Resources, we are proud to offer two curricula designed with daily, systematic phonics instruction.

The Bookworms K–5 Reading and Writing curriculum incorporates daily phonics instruction in grades K–5. Further, it was tailor-built for differentiation based on foundational skills gaps, which means that students with decoding issues get Tier 2 instruction in decoding during the Tier 1 block. How it works: Bookworms provides teachers with simple formative assessments to monitor progress every three weeks, a very easy grouping protocol, and complete lesson materials for each skill gap—including decoding—which teachers use to tackle the skill gap head-on. It’s designed to move students beyond their skill deficits as quickly as possible.

The EL Education K–5 Language Arts curriculum includes daily structured phonics instruction in the K–2 Skills Block, with both whole group instruction and differentiated small group instruction. The phonics approach is grounded in the Phase Theory of Dr. Linnea Ehri, which describes behaviors related to the types of letter-sound connections students are able to make as they learn to read and write. Teachers are provided with instructional practices such as Phonemic Blending and Segmentation as well as Chaining to help students understand letter-sound combinations and decoding. Regular assessments determine what each student needs in order to achieve phonemic mastery.

Both of these curricula have been developed as free open educational resources.

By using a curriculum with a structured phonics program, my third year of teaching became a pivotal moment in my career. Good curriculum elevated my practice, and I finally had the tools to propel my students as readers.

Hanford’s article brings home the Why: “Children don't crack the code naturally. They need to be taught how letters represent speech sounds.” It’s unfair to students to shortchange those components, made worse by the lack of phonics training for teachers that the piece captures brilliantly.

When you know better…and you can leverage free tools to do better...you do better. Let’s do better!


Jessica Reid Sliwerski, CEO of Open Up Resources, is a former elementary school teacher, literacy coach, and assistant principal. For more information about Bookworms K–5 Reading and Writing or EL Education K–5 Language Arts, please contact our team.