Key to Literacy: Phonics and Phonemes

Published June 1, 2000

After reviewing more than 30 years of research on how children learn to read, a national panel recently concluded that, to be effective, reading instruction must include teaching word sounds, phonics, reading for fluency, and reading for comprehension.

Significantly, the report did not even mention “whole language” instruction–learning to read by recognizing words, rather than using phonics–which the California Board of Regents in 1995 blamed for a dramatic decline in reading skills among students in California.

The 14-member National Reading Panel, established by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in response to a directive from Congress in 1997, was made up of scientists, educators, teachers, administrators, and parents. After conducting hearings and identifying more than 100,000 reading research studies completed since 1966, the Panel concluded that children must be taught the following skills to become good readers:

  • Phonemic awareness: the ability to manipulate the sounds that make up spoken language;
  • Phonics: understanding the relationships between letters and sounds;
  • Reading fluency: the ability to read with speed, accuracy, and expression;
  • Reading comprehension: applying strategies to understand and enjoy what is read.

“This is not a report that will sit on the shelf,” noted Dr. Duane Alexander, director of NICHD, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. “We will send it to parents, teachers, administrators, schools of education, and policymakers.”

For more information . . .

The National Reading Panel’s report is available on the Internet at A comprehensive explanation of phonemic awareness and phonics is available in the NICHD publication, Understanding Why Children Succeed or Fail at Reading, at