Phonics for First-Generation Readers

I. Systematic & Explicit

II. Realistically Paced with Plentiful Practice

III. Scaffolded & Guided by Clear Goals

IV. Part of Comprehensive Approach

V. Contextually Relevant & Multi-Modal

VI. The Essentials

Why Is Phonics Needed?

Imagine growing up in a home without books or parents who can read with you. In many low-income contexts, including where the Luminos Fund works, this is an unfortunately common reality. In Ghana, for example, 77% of our students’ parents never attended school themselves. As a result, entering a classroom can be a daunting task for first-generation readers, and catching up with their peers can feel like an insurmountable hurdle. Phonics instruction is a proven method to help children overcome these obstacles and become confident, independent readers – a crucial ability for first-generation readers in low-resource contexts.


of our students’ parents in Ghana never attended school themselves

By explicitly teaching children the relationship between sounds and letters, phonics enables them to decode new words rather than relying on memorizing words previously taught by their teacher. This is a crucial step in the journey from learning to read to reading to learn. This explicit approach to literacy instruction is especially important for children who are the first in their families to learn to read, or are learning to read in a language they do not speak at home – one or both of these conditions is the norm in the communities where we work.

Despite very robust evidence indicating that phonics is effective for teaching children to read, there is an often-cited critique that it is too rigid, repetitive, or dull; yet, in Luminos classrooms, we have found an explicit phonics approach empowers students, enabling them to learn quickly and see evidence of their progress. For example, our students in Liberia typically start the program identifying only a few letters of the alphabet, and after one school year, they can graduate reading at an average of 39 words per minute.

While phonics is not the only aspect of our lessons that contributes to our students’ strong progress with reading and writing, we believe phonics is an essential component of any literacy program.

Key Messages

While phonics lessons look different in each of the countries where we work, we have found that students learn to read best when phonics instruction is:

  • Systematic and explicit
  • Realistically paced and inclusive of plentiful practice
  • Carefully scaffolded and guided by clear goals 
  • Part of a comprehensive approach to literacy 
  • Contextually relevant and multi-modal

This webpage includes an overview of our approach to phonics. For more detailed information, recommendations based on our experiences, and a discussion of the challenges related to this element of the Luminos Method, you can download this document.

Our Approach

I. Systematic and Explicit

There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that students learn to read best when phonics instruction is systematic and explicit.  This means that students need to be systematically taught the most important relationships between letters and sounds in the language and how to use this knowledge to decode words. Lessons are carefully planned to teach the simplest relationships between letters and sounds before moving onto ones that are more complex and less frequent.

Effective phonics instruction is also explicit. It does not rely on students inferring the letter-sounds relationships for themselves. Students learn better when they are taught these relationships directly. In explicit approaches, the teacher explains clearly what is being taught and they model how this skill is applied by a skilled reader.[1]  

An Example of Explicit Phonics Instruction:

A teacher using an explicit phonics approach to literacy would, for example, explain that the sound /sh/ is represented by the two letters s and h together. They would show how to read words with these letters and provide plenty of practice.

When students have a strong knowledge of how letters and sounds relate to each other, they can decode a new word when they encounter it, whereas approaches that focus on students memorizing whole words limits them to only those presented by the teacher.

Meet a Parent: Sangay

First-Generation Readers in Focus

In many countries, if the government’s education system is inadequate, parents will often fill that gap at home, supporting children to learn essential skills like reading. However, if parents have not attended school themselves, they are often unable to do this. This means it is even more essential that disadvantaged communities have access to quality education. For many Luminos students, our program is the first time they have set foot in a classroom, and they are often the first in their families to do so.


In Ghana, 77% of our students’ parents never attended school themselves.

To learn more about our approach to phonics, the methods and materials used in our classrooms, recommendations based on our experience, as well as a discussion of the challenges in this work, you can download the full PDF!

II. Realistically Paced and Inclusive of Plentiful Practice

Pacing for Mastery

In our programs, we aim to establish a realistic pace to ensure that students master foundational skills. In several of the countries where we work, students in government schools are introduced to the whole alphabet very quickly, and are then expected to read words, sentences, and passages using any combination of those letters. This often leads students to struggle to decode new words. Teachers then resort to approaches that rely on students memorizing rather than decoding the texts they are using, meaning that students are not in fact reading at all.

Plentiful Practice of New Skills

Alongside a realistic pace of instruction, we provide copious opportunities for students to apply and practice their new phonics skills. The methods and materials we use are different in each country, the graphics below shows some examples.

ALL COUNTRIES: Blending Sounds to Read Words

LIBERIA: Blending Ladders

LIBERIA: Sound Boxes


We build in plenty of opportunities for reviewing phonics skills, typically including:

  • a quick review of the previous day’s lesson each morning
  • some kind of formative assessment activity at the end of the lesson
  • a review day at least once per week 

To learn more about our approach to phonics, the methods and materials used in our classrooms, recommendations based on our experience, as well as a discussion of the challenges in this work, you can download the full PDF!

III. Carefully Scaffolded and Guided by Clear Goals

Supportive Scaffolding

Luminos teachers use a gradual release of responsibility model to help “scaffold” or support learning.[2] This typically follows the steps below:

  • The teacher provides a clear explanation and demonstration of a new skill 
  • The whole class practices the skill with guidance from the teacher
  • Students practice the skill independently while the teacher monitors and provides support if needed. 

An example of the gradual release of responsibility model from our program in Ghana:

Clear Goals

An important aspect of our phonics instruction is that teachers are clear on what should be achieved at different milestones throughout the year.  They are also given the tools and skills to assess against these milestones, and provide additional support as needed.

To learn more about how we set goals and assess progress, see the Teacher-Led Assessment element of the Luminos Method!

IV. Part of a Comprehensive Approach to Literacy

Oral Language Skills

While we believe a strong focus on phonics is a key factor that makes the Luminos programs successful, it is only one part of our foundational literacy curriculum. For students to become strong readers they also need understanding of the spoken language; just being able to decode words is not useful if you do not know what these words mean. All of our accelerated education programs provide opportunities for students to develop their speaking and listening skills, recognizing that this is an essential part of foundational literacy. In contexts where students are learning to read in a language that is different from the one they speak at home, we devote additional time to building students’ oral language knowledge.

The Five Components of Effective Reading Instruction

Alongside oral language skills, students need instruction in all of the components of reading, not just phonics. This includes phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. In the Luminos program we address each of these skill areas to ensure students receive comprehensive literacy instruction.

To learn more about our approach to phonics, the methods and materials used in our classrooms, recommendations based on our experience, as well as a discussion of the challenges in this work, you can download the full PDF!

“In the first year of implementing the phonics program we got great fluency scores, with children reading close to 40 words per minute, but we still needed to work on their comprehension, to make sure they were really understanding what they were reading. We added a regular ‘read alouds,’ where students listened to the teacher read a story, and practiced comprehension strategies, which they later apply when they are reading.”

Nikita Kholsa, former Senior Director of Programs, the Luminos Fund

V. Contextually Relevant & Multi-Modal

In all of our programs, we seek to use reading materials that are locally created to ensure they are culturally relevant, as well as appropriate for the language that is being taught.

Many of our activities involve physical movement or touch in some way, alongside more traditional visual and auditory teaching methods. These activities support student participation and may help to support the development of skills like phonemic awareness and phonics. 

Multi-Modal Example:

Luminos Liberia student Jessica breaks the word “help” into its four distinct sounds, using her arms to note each phoneme.

For more information about how we aim to reflect students’ identities and cultures in the classroom, see the Identity and Self-Belief element of the Luminos Method!

VI. Phonics for First-Generation Readers Essentials

In the Luminos programs we have found that students learn best when phonics instruction is:

  • Systematic: teaching all of the important letter-sound relationships in the language in a logical order (e.g., from simple to more complex, most frequent to less common).
  • Explicit: clearly explaining the rules of the language and modeling the skills necessary for reading.
  • Realistically paced: ensuring students master foundational skills.
  • Inclusive of plentiful practice: using a range of methods and materials.
  • Scaffolded: supporting students to gradually become more independent.
  • Guided by clear goals: outlining the specific skills that students need to acquire and regular assessment of progress towards these goals. 
  • Part of a comprehensive approach: addressing the five components of reading (phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension) along with oral language development.
  • Contextually relevant: written for the language that students are learning, and reflecting their culture and daily lives.
  • Multi-modal: engaging students through movement and touch, alongside auditory and visual methods.

This approach equips our students with the skills they need to flourish in government schools. We firmly believe that increasing access to effective phonics instruction has the potential to dramatically increase the number of confident readers in low-income countries.

Our recommendations for effective phonics instruction:

Ensure the pace of the curriculum is achievable, one letter per day maximum has been suggested but keep track of whether this seems to work for your students.

Provide lots of opportunities for practice of both new and previously taught skills.

Make sure materials are available to support the key skills of blending letter sounds to read syllables and words.

Source decodable stories or create them.

Develop lesson plans/activity examples that move from teacher modeling, to guided practice, and then independent exercises. Then model this approach during teacher training.

Encourage instructional coaches to observe whether teachers are using a gradual release model, or are they skipping steps?

Set clear goals for each phase of the curriculum and ensure teachers know what they are. A one-page overview of the letters/letter combinations taught each day/week can be helpful.

Provide teachers with training and support on how to assess students’ progress towards goals and what to do when students struggle.

Ensure that the program includes phonological awareness practice (and phonemic awareness is appropriate to the language).

Make phonological awareness activities quick, fun, and physical.

Provide opportunities for students to read short stories multiple times to build fluency.

Provide direct and indirect opportunities for students to learn vocabulary.

Teach simple strategies to support comprehension, for example re-reading to find the answer to a question, or asking yourself as you read, “Do I understand?”

Make activities physical where possible, but consider the impact on instructional time.

Footnotes & References

[1] Moats, L. (2020) Speech to print: Language essentials for teachers, Third Edition. Brookes Publishing.  

[2] Pearson, P. D. & Gallagher, M. C. (1983). The instruction of reading comprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8, 317‒344

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