Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction. Chapter 2: Alphabetics

NICHCY’s Structured Abstract 31 describes the following:

Title | Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction. Chapter 2: Alphabetics

Author | National Reading Panel

Source | National Reading Panel, Bethesda, MD. Reports of the Subgroups. Chapter 2: Alphabetics (NIH Publication No. 00-4754)

Year Published | 2000

This report presents the reports of the subgroups of the National Reading Panel, which was charged by Congress to assess the status of research-based knowledge, including the effectiveness of various approaches to teaching children to read. Each of the chapters 2 through 6 contains its own executive summary and appendices in addition to the report of the subgroup.

  • Chapter 1, Introduction and Methodology, discusses the processes applied to the s3l3ction, review, and analysis of research relevant to reading instruction.
  • Chapter 2, Alphabetics, contains sections on phonemic awareness instruction and phonics instruction.
  • Chapter 3 addresses reading fluency.
  • Chapter 4 addresses comprehension (containing sections on vocabulary instruction, text comprehension instruction, and teacher preparation and comprehension strategies instruction).
  • Chapter 5 presents the report of the subgroup on teacher education and reading instruction.
  • Chapter 6 addresses computer technology and reading instruction.

The report concludes with a minority view that argues the report of the panel neither responds to its charge nor meets the needs of America’s schools.

At the request of Congress, a national panel of experts in the field of reading was created in 1997, known as the National Reading Panel (NRP). The NRP held public hearings to help decide what topics would be addressed in its report to Congress on the state of reading research and instruction. The topics were: alphabetics (i.e., phonemic awareness instruction and phonics instruction); fluency; comprehension (vocabulary instruction, text comprehension instruction, teacher preparation, and comprehension strategies instruction); teacher education as it relates to reading instruction; and computer technology and reading instruction. Each of these topics was addressed by a subgroup of the NRP and became a chapter in the final NRP report.

This structured abstract covers the report’s chapter on Alphabetics. Alphabetics is split into two sections for the purposes of this report.

  1. The first section is phonemic awareness instruction. Phonemes are the smallest units of meaningful sound in spoken language. Sometimes a phoneme is a single letter, such as “t” or “s.” Other times a phoneme is a combination of letters that make a distinct sound, such as “th” or “sh.” Phonemic awareness refers to the ability to understand and manipulate the phonemes in spoken words.
  2. The second section of this chapter is on phonics* instruction. Phonics instruction is a way of teaching reading that focuses on letter-sound relationships. In phonics instruction children first acquire letter-sound relationships and then learn how they can be used to spell and read words.

Research Questions
This research study reports the effectiveness of various approaches on reading instruction. Chapter 2, the focus of this abstract, examines the role of alphabetics in reading instruction and specifically answers the following questions:

  1. Does instruction in phonemic awareness improve reading? If so, how is this instruction best provided?
  2. Does instruction in phonics instruction improve reading? If so, how is this instruction best provided?

Research Design

  • Number of Studies Included | Phonemic Awareness: 52 ; Phonics Instruction: 38
  • Number of Subjects | For individual studies the number of subject ranged from 9 to 383 for a total of 6255 across all studies.
  • Years Spanned | Phonemic Awareness: 1976-2000; Phonics Instruction: 1972-1999

Research Subjects
Participants ranged in grade level from pre-K to sixth. The students included in the study had an identified reading disability, were at risk of developing a reading problem, or were normally developing readers.

Age/Grade of Subjects
Pre-kindergarten to 6th grade.

Specified Disability
Reading Disabilities

Participants received instructional intervention that focused on phonemic awareness and/or phonics instruction.

Duration of Intervention

  • Phonemic Awareness: 1-75 hours
  • Phonics Instruction: 1-3 years


Phonemic Awareness (PA):

  1. Phonemic Awareness instruction improved children’s ability to understand and manipulate phonemes by isolating, blending, and removing them from words.
  2. PA instruction provided short- and long-term benefit on children’s reading and spelling.
  3. Students can benefit from PA instruction taught by by researchers, teachers, and computers.
  4. Effective PA instruction (a) used letters and print examples; (b) taught no more than two manipulations (e.g., blending and segmenting) at a time; (c) was between 5-18 hours in length; and (d) was implemented with small groups of students.

Phonics Instruction:

  1. Systematic phonics instruction, in which students were taught a set of specified letter-sound relations and practiced using these relationships to decode text, was more effective than either non-systematic phonics instruction or non-phonics reading programs such as whole language.
  2. Systematic phonics instruction was effective whether delivered to a whole class, a small group, or through one-on-one tutoring. Phonics programs were also effective whether they focused on converting individual letters into sounds or on reading larger word units such as spelling patterns.
  3. Phonics instruction significantly improved the decoding, word reading, comprehension, and spelling skills of children in kindergarten and 1st grade.

Combined Effects Size

Phonemic Awareness Instruction:

  • The overall effect size was large, 0.86.
  • The effect sizes for reading and spelling outcomes were both moderate (0.53 and 0.59, respectively).

Phonics Instruction:

  • The overall effect size was moderate, 0.44.
  • The effect size for synthetic programs, which emphasized teaching children to convert letters into sounds and to blend sounds into words, was 0.45.
  • For programs that focused on blending larger subparts of words the effect size was 0.34,
  • For programs that did not use either the synthetic or the larger-unit approach the effect size was 0.27.
  • Phonics instruction in kindergarten and 1st grade had a significant effect (0.56 and 0.54 respectively),
  • Phonics instruction in 2nd through 6th grade had a low effect size 0.27.

This meta-analysis shows that both phonemic awareness and phonics instruction are useful components of teaching young children to read. Phonemic awareness helps develop pre-reading and early reading skills related to understanding that separate sounds make up spoken language and those sounds can be manipulated. Phonics instruction builds on phonemic awareness by teaching children that sounds correspond to different letter combinations, and those letters combine to make words. Learning these skills not only helps children learn to decode and sound out words, but also improves children’s overall reading and spelling skills.

For Future Research
The National Reading Panel suggests that, while this meta-analysis displays the usefulness of teaching these skills to children from pre-kindergarten to 1st or 2nd grade, there has not been sufficient research to support the use of teaching phonemic awareness and phonics skills to older children. More research should be done to determine if these methods are appropriate for older struggling readers, and, if not, what methods should become the focus of reading instruction for older children.


* Meta-Analysis | A widely-used research method in which (1) a systematic and reproducible search strategy is used to find as many studies as possible that address a given topic; (2) clear criterion are presented for inclusion/exclusion of individual studies into a larger analysis; and (3) results of included studies are statistically combined to determine an overall effect (effect size) of one variable on another.

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