In Luminos classrooms, we use a systematic and explicit phonics-based approach to teach children to read. But what is phonics and why do we use it?
Phonics is a step-by-step way of teaching children to decode and recognize new words rather than just memorizing words by sight. At the start of a systematic phonics approach, children are taught the simplest relationships between letters and their corresponding sounds, such as the letters b, a, and t. Then children can begin decoding simple words by identifying the individual sounds represented by each letter and blending them together to pronounce a word. For example, children that have already learned the sounds for the corresponding letters b, a, and t, will be able to decode the word “bat” and pronounce it (/b/ /a/ /t/). Lessons then gradually progress to cover more complex relationships between letters and sounds, enabling students to read a wide range of new words.
The reason we use phonics is simple: it is proven to be the best way to teach children how to read.
Blending Sounds to Read Words
In a phonics-based approach to literacy, students practice identifying the individual sounds of letters and blending them together to read syllables and words. For example, they identify that the letters in the word “tin” represent the sounds /t/ /ɪ/ /n/, and then they blend those sounds together to read the word.
For more detailed information on phonics, visit this webpage to access the latest Luminos Method element: Phonics for First-Generation Readers >
“The reason we use phonics is simple: it is proven to be the best way to teach children how to read.”
While some children may be able to learn to read through a less structured approach, phonics is significantly more effective and inclusive. For example, research shows that phonics is particularly beneficial for children with learning differences such as dyslexia, and that it particularly benefits students from low-income backgrounds and those who do not speak the language of instruction as their first language. For first-generation readers who are growing up in a home without books or parents who can read to them, phonics instruction is equipping them with the tools they need to become independent, confident readers.
What strikes many people when they first see phonics instruction is that it involves a lot of repetition. The debate on how to teach children is fueled by such judgments, with some arguing that this repetition stifles creativity, but this is misguided. It is precisely because we want children to develop critical thinking skills and creativity that phonics approaches are so effective. Learning to read with phonics means that the process of decoding words becomes completely automatic, and children can focus on higher-order skills like comprehension, fluency, and yes, critical thinking and creativity.
A useful analogy, for those of us who perhaps cannot remember learning to read, is to think about how you learned to type.
“I learned in my early 20s using the Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing program,” shares Dr. Kirsty Newman, Vice President of Programs at Luminos. “It involved a lot of repetition, but now that I have developed the skills, I can type without even having to use my thinking brain at all – it feels completely automatic. This means that my conscious brain can be fully utilized to create and problem-solve.”
Teaching literacy with phonics enables a similar phenomenon for reading – children learn how to decode text automatically, leaving them with plenty of brain power left over for analysis, problem-solving, and so forth. Thus, the old adage really comes true – “first, you learn to read and then you read to learn.”
The Impact of Phonics in Liberia
In 2016, the Luminos Fund expanded our accelerated learning program from Ethiopia to Liberia. Liberia had one of the highest rates of out-of-school children in the world and our top priority was improving students’ reading skills. We began using an approach that has worked well in Ethiopia, supplementing the government curriculum with games and activities that encouraged student participation and joyful learning.
However, we soon found that students were not learning as expected; although they were engaged and having fun, they still were unable to read even simple words. With only 10 months in our program, we urgently needed to find a solution that would equip children with the necessary literacy and numeracy skills to be successful in government schools. After a deeper analysis of the government curriculum and a review of alternative approaches being used in the country, we decided to implement a phonics-based program created by a local non-governmental organization (NGO).
The impact of the new materials and methods was clear; students were soon reading with a level of fluency we had not seen before. Recent project evaluations continue to demonstrate the effectiveness of this approach: our students in Liberia typically start the program able to identify just a few letters of the alphabet, and after 10 months they can graduate reading at an average of 39 words per minute. By learning quickly and frequently experiencing success, students grow their self-belief, propelling them on their learning journey.
“At first it was a bit difficult, as it was a new way of teaching for our teachers, but they soon saw the progress that students were making. That was very motivating for them, they could see that children were actually reading for themselves.”
Alphanso G. Menyon, Liberia Program Coordinator, Luminos Fund
Learn more about our work in Liberia here.
Additional Resources and Reading on Phonics:
Washington Post: “Cut the politics. Phonics is the best way to teach reading.”
Reading Rockets: “Reading 101: A Guide to Teaching Reading and Writing.”
National Literacy Trust: “What is Phonics?”
Northern Illinois University. College of Education: “Raising Readers: Tips for Parents.”
 The National Reading Panel’s meta-analysis of literacy research, published by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development [NICHD] (2000), found “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.” Shanahan and August (2006) found that the research on second language learners also demonstrated the importance of a phonics-based approach.
 August D. & Shanahan T. (2006); NICHD, 2000; Machin, S., McNally, S. & Viarengo, M. (2018) Changing how literacy is taught: evidence on synthetic phonics. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 10(2), 217–241.