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Phonics Programs — November 2018


Could you provide information on research-based phonics programs?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and descriptive study articles on research-based phonics programs. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, and general Internet search engines (for details, see the Methods section at the end of this memo).

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your information. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist.

Research References

Cihon, T. M., Gardner III, R., Morrison, D., & Paul, P. V. (2008). Using visual phonics as a strategic intervention to increase literacy behaviors for kindergarten participants at-risk for reading failure. Journal of Early and Intensive Behavior Intervention, 5(3), 138. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The article presents a model of an effectively implemented visual phonics intervention program for kindergarten children at high risk for reading failure in a general education classroom. There is a growing body of professional literature documenting the effectiveness of visual phonics for children who are hard-of-hearing or deaf. There is little information on the benefits of visual phonics for hearing participants at high risk for reading failure. The preliminary findings of this study suggest that See the Sound/Visual Phonics (STS/VP) intervention in the classroom is appropriate for children who are falling behind using the regular curriculum. Post-intervention gains were noted on both the "Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills" (DIBELS) and the curriculum based assessment for participants who participated in the STS/VP intervention. The data also suggest that participants performed similarly to their grade level peers who were at benchmark based on DIBELS and who did not receive the STS/VP intervention. Results are discussed in terms of future research opportunities.”

Ehri, L. C. (2003). Systematic phonics instruction: Findings of the National Reading Panel. Review of educational research, 71(3), 393–447. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Instruction for beginning readers is thought to be needed on several fronts, including phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, reading comprehension, and vocabulary. The National Reading Panel reviewed the findings of many experiments to determine whether there was sufficient scientific evidence to indicate the effectiveness of these forms of instruction in helping students learn to read. This paper reviews one part of their report, that involving the evidence of systematic phonics instruction. The paper states that because the writing system in English is more complex and variable than in some languages, it is harder to learn, making systematic phonics instruction even more important to teach, because children will have difficulty figuring out the system on their own. It points out that a primary goal of phonics instruction is to teach students to read words in or out of text. It explains that phonics is a method of instruction that teaches students correspondence between graphemes in written language and phonemes in spoken language and how to use these correspondences to read and spell words. It notes that phonics instruction is systematic when the major grapheme-phoneme correspondences are taught and they are covered in a clearly defined sequence. According to the paper, the phonics review sought to determine whether there is experimental evidence showing that systematic phonics instruction helps children learn to read more effectively than unsystematic phonics instruction or instruction teaching little or no phonics and whether phonics instruction is more effective under some circumstances than others and for some students more than others. The paper discusses the 38 studies were reviewed in the meta analysis. Appended is a list of the 38 studies.”

Gamse, B. C., Jacob, R. T., Horst, M., Boulay, B., & Unlu, F. (2008). Reading First Impact Study: Final report. NCEE 2009-4038. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This report presents preliminary findings from the Reading First Impact Study, a congressionally mandated evaluation of the federal government initiative to help all children read at or above grade level by the end of third grade. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) established Reading First and mandated its evaluation. This document is the first of two reports: it examines the impact of Reading First funding in 2004-05 and 2005-06 in 18 sites across 12 states. The report examines program impacts on students' reading comprehension and teachers’' use of scientifically based reading instruction. Key findings are that: (1) On average, estimated impacts on student reading comprehension test scores were not statistically significant; (2) On average, Reading First increased instructional time spent on the five essential components of reading instruction promoted by the program (phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension); (3) Average impacts on reading comprehension and classroom instruction did not change systematically over time as sites gained experience with Reading First; and (4) Study sites that received their Reading First grants later in the federal funding process experienced positive and statistically significant impacts both on the time first and second grade teachers spent on the five essential components of reading instruction and on first and second grade reading comprehension, in contrast to study sites that received their Reading First grants earlier in the federal funding process, where there were no statistically significant impacts on either time spent on the five components of reading instruction or on reading comprehension scores at any grade level. The final report is due in early 2009, and will provide an additional year of follow-up data, and will examine whether the magnitude of impacts on the use of scientifically based reading instruction is associated with improvements in reading comprehension. Eight appendixes are included: (1) State and Site Award Data; (2) Methods; (3) Measures; (4) Additional Exhibits for Main Impact Analyses; (5) Confidence Intervals for Main Impact Estimates; (6) Graphs of Site-By-Site Impact Estimates; (7) Additional Exhibits for Subgroup Analyses; and (8) Alternative Moderators of Reading First Impacts.”

Gersten, R., Baker, S. K., Shanahan, T., Linan-Thompson, S., Collins, P., & Scarcella, R. (2007). Effective literacy and English language instruction for English learners in the elementary grades. IES Practice Guide. NCEE 2007-4011. What Works Clearinghouse. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This Practice Guide is the first in a series of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) guides in education that are developed by a panel of experts. The guides are intended to bring the best available evidence and expertise to bear on the types of systemic challenges that cannot currently be addressed by single intervention or programs. This first guide addresses the challenge of providing effective literacy instruction for English learners in the elementary grades. Although the target audience is a broad spectrum of school practitioners such as administrators, curriculum specialists, coaches, staff development specialists and teachers, the more specific objective is to reach district-level administrators with a Practice Guide that will help them develop practice and policy options for their schools. The Guide offers five specific recommendations for district administrators and indicates the quality of the evidence that supports these recommendations. The recommendations are: (1) Screen for reading problems and monitor progress; (2) Provide intensive small-group reading interventions; (3) Provide extensive and varied vocabulary instruction; (4) Develop academic English; and (5) Schedule regular peer-assisted learning opportunities. The following are appended: (1) Technical Information on the Studies; and (2) Levels of Evidence for the Recommendations in the Practice Guide.”

REL West note: Recommendations on improvement in reading and phonic programs made throughout (see pp. 6, 9, and 10).

Nicholas, M., McKenzie, S., & Wells, M. A. (2016). Using digital devices in a first year classroom: A focus on the design and use of phonics software applications. Journal of Education and Learning, 6(1), 267. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “When integrated within a holistic literacy program, phonics applications can be used in classrooms to facilitate students' self-directed learning of letter-sound knowledge; but are they designed to allow for such a purpose? With most phonics software applications making heavy use of image cues, this project has more specifically investigated whether the design of the images used in such applications may impact on the effectiveness of their self-directed use in classrooms. Using a quasi-experimental study, we compared two types of pictorial mnemonics used in tablet applications, along with teacher-led activity in three first-year classrooms from the one school. The difference between teacher-led activity and integrated picture cues was significant, with teacher-led activity proving more effective. The difference between teacher-led activity and form-taking picture cues, however, was not statistically significant. Given that the outcomes of this small-scale study suggest that image design may be a significant design feature contributing to the educational value of using phonics applications in the classroom, we recommend that the design features of phonics software applications attract further research.” 

Spencer, T. (2011). Learning to read in the wake of reform: Young children’s experiences with scientifically based reading curriculum. Penn GSE Perspectives on Urban Education, 8(2), 41–50. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “In recent years, researchers have called into question the efficacy of prescribed commercial curricula in early childhood classrooms (Genishi & Dyson, 2009). Despite these concerns, federally funded initiatives and such findings as those presented in the Report of the National Early Literacy Panel continue to promote scientifically based reading curricula and exclude the voices of those most affected by these policies, yet least likely to influence the policy agenda—young children. Using the qualitative data gathered in a year-long ethnographic study, the author analyzes three first-grade children's literacy practices over the course of an academic year in a New York City public school that had been mandated to use a scientifically based reading curriculum for children identified as struggling readers from kindergarten through the third grade. During the course of that year, the city launched a "coherent, system-wide curriculum for teaching reading and raise student performance across the board" (Bloomberg, 2003). From the vantage point of one school that experienced this sweeping reform, Public School (P.S.) 999, the author explores how young children both made sense of and negotiated the mandated curriculum and developed an understanding of what it meant to be users of language and literacy within a politicized curricular context.

REL West note: See p. 42 for information on “Voyager”—the state-mandated literacy curriculum that involves phonics.

What Works Clearinghouse Intervention Report. (2007). Earobics[R]. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from

From the abstract: "Earobics"[R] is interactive software that provides students in pre-K through third grade with individual, systematic instruction in early literacy skills as students interact with animated characters. "Earobics[R] Foundations" is a version for pre-Kindergarten, Kindergarten, and first graders. "Earobics[R] Connections" is for second and third graders and older struggling readers. The program builds skills in phonemic awareness, auditory processing, and phonics, as well as the cognitive and language skills required for comprehension. Each level of instruction addresses recognizing and blending sounds, rhyming, and discriminating phonemes within words, adjusting to individual student ability level. The software is supported by music, audiocassettes, and videotapes and includes picture/word cards, letter-sound decks, big books, little books, and leveled readers for reading independently or in groups. What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) reviewed 18 studies on "Earobics"[R]. One study met WWC evidence standards, and one met evidence standards with reservations; the others did not meet WWC evidence screens. Based on the two studies, WWC found positive effects on alphabetics and no discernible effects on fluency. The evidence presented in this report may change as new research emerges.”

What Works Clearinghouse Intervention Report. (2010). Sound Partners. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Sound Partners" (Vadasy et al., 2004) is a phonics-based tutoring program that provides supplemental reading instruction to elementary school students grades K–3 with below average reading skills. The program is designed specifically for use by tutors with minimal training and experience. Instruction emphasizes letter-sound correspondences, phoneme blending, decoding and encoding phonetically regular words, and reading irregular high-frequency words, with oral reading to practice applying phonics skills in text. The program consists of a set of scripted lessons in alphabetic and phonics skills and uses Bob Books[R] beginning reading series as one of the primary texts for oral reading practice. The tutoring can be provided as a pull-out or after-school program, as well as by parents who homeschool their children. The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) reviewed 18 studies of "Sound Partners" for beginning readers. Four of these studies meet WWC evidence standards; three studies meet WWC evidence standards with reservations; the remaining 11 studies do not meet either WWC evidence standards or eligibility screens. Based on the seven studies, the WWC found positive effects in alphabetics, fluency, and comprehension and no discernible effects in general reading achievement for beginning readers. The conclusions presented in this report may change as new research emerges. Appendices include: (1) Study characteristics; (2) Outcome measures; (3) Summary of study findings included in the ratings; (4) Summary of subscale findings; (5) “"Sound Partners”" ratings; and (6) Extent of evidence by domain.”.

What Works Clearinghouse Intervention Report. (2017). Success for All. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from

From the abstract: "Success for All (SFA®) is a whole-school reform model (that is, a model that integrates curriculum, school culture, family, and community supports) for students in prekindergarten through grade 8. SFA® includes a literacy program, quarterly assessments of student learning, a social-emotional development program, computer-assisted tutoring tools, family support teams for students’ parents, a facilitator who works with school personnel, and extensive training for all intervention teachers. The literacy program emphasizes phonics for beginning readers and comprehension for all students. Teachers provide reading instruction to students grouped by reading ability for 90 minutes a day, 5 days a week. In addition, certified teachers or paraprofessionals provide daily tutoring to students who have difficulty reading at the same level as their classmates. This review of the program for Beginning Reading focuses on students in grades K–4. The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) identified nine studies of SFA® that both fall within the scope of the Beginning Reading topic area and meet WWC group design standards. Two studies meet WWC group design standards without reservations, and seven studies meet WWC group design standards with reservations. Together, these studies included 10,908 beginning readers in grades K–4 in 155 schools in the United States and the United Kingdom. According to the WWC review, the extent of evidence for SFA® on the reading achievement test scores of beginning readers was medium to large for all four outcome domains—alphabetics, reading fluency, comprehension, and general reading achievement. This intervention report updated in March, 2017, presents findings from a systematic review of Success for All® conducted using the WWC Procedures and Standards Handbook, version 3.0, and the Beginning Reading review protocol, version 3.0. The following are appended: (1) Research details for Borman et al. (2007) (EJ782058); (2) Research details for Quint et al. (2015), (3) Research details for Madden et al. (1993) (EJ463408); (4) Research details for Ross et al. (1998); (5) Research details for Ross and Casey (1998a); (6) Research details for Ross and Casey (1998b); (7) Research details for Ross et al. (1995); (8) Research details for Skindrud and Gersten (2006) (EJ750504); and (9) Research details for Tracey et al. (2014); (10) Outcome measures for each domain; (11) Findings included in the rating for the alphabetics domain; (12) Findings included in the rating for the reading fluency domain; (13) Findings included in the rating for the comprehension domain; and (14) Findings included in the rating for the general reading achievement domain; (15) Description of supplemental findings for the alphabetics domain; (16) Description of supplemental findings for the comprehension domain; and (17) Description of supplemental findings for the general reading achievement domain. WWC rating Criteria and a Glossary of terms are also included. [For the 2012 report, "Success for All. What Works Clearinghouse Intervention Report," see ED535810.]”

What Works Clearinghouse Intervention Report. (2015). Successmaker®. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) has updated its 2009 intervention report for SuccessMaker®, a set of computer-based courses designed to supplement regular K–8 reading instruction. The program is designed to improve skills in areas such as concepts of print, phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, grammar, and spelling. Since the last WWC intervention report, there have been 34 new studies, one of which meets WWC group design standards without reservations. Based on the evidence now available, SuccessMaker® shows no discernible effects on comprehension and reading fluency for adolescent readers. Appended are: (1) Research details for Gatti (2011); (2) Outcome measures for each domain; (3) Findings included in the rating for the comprehension and reading fluency domains; and (4) Description of supplemental findings for the comprehension and fluency domains.”

Wilson, G. P., Martens, P., Arya, P., & Altwerger, B. (2004). Readers, instruction, and the NRP. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(3), 242–246. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Are programs that emphasize systematic phonics instruction truly superior to other types of programs for young readers, as the National Reading Panel claims? The authors conducted a study of three different programs to see what kinds of readers are actually emerging from them. Two were commercial programs that used explicit and systematic phonics instruction as a central piece in early reading learning: Direct Instruction (DI) 4 and Open Court (OC). The third was a literature-based program, labeled Guided Reading (GR), wherein students were taught to use multiple strategies to focus on the meaning of what they read. This program was an adaptation of work by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell. The 84 students in the study live in urban settings and are of low socioeconomic status, but they are not coded for special education or for receiving ESL (English as a Second Language) services. To study the reading processes of these students, second-graders were asked to read books to aloud. Their reading was studied using “miscue analysis,” an established research tool that analyzes oral reading “miscues” or divergences from the text to reveal a reader’s use of phonics cues, language structure cues, and meaning-based cues. Thus researchers learned about the students’ reading strategies, as well as their skill in comprehending as they read. To measure the students’ comprehension, they were asked to retell the story they had read. These retellings were analyzed for inclusion of characters, setting, plot episodes, inferences and connections, and general cohesion (smoothness and completeness of the retelling). From an interview with the students, which included questions such as “When you are reading and you come to something you don't know, what do you do?” Researchers determined their awareness of reading strategies and their perceptions of reading. In addition, the children took a phonics test from the Woodcock Johnson Psycho-Educational Battery, wherein they “read” a list of non-words. Researchers observed language arts instruction in the children’s classrooms and interviewed principals and teachers to learn their perceptions of the reading program in use. These observations of language arts instruction allowed us to compare what the students said with what they did while reading and with what was going on during their reading instruction. In this manner, the authors built a comprehensive picture of the students’ actual understanding and practice of reading. The instruction provided by DI and OC is similar in many ways. The DI program is heavily scripted, while the OC program provides teachers with detailed lessons. In contrast, at the third site of this study, phonics instruction was integrated into reading and writing. At the GR school, students learn phonics in the context of reading and writing. The profile that emerged from the GR school reveals that the students use phonics while reading in ways similar to the students at the DI and OC sites (no significant difference in measures of phonics use in and out of context), but with a definite concern for meaning. In addition to describing setting and characters, the GR students’ retellings are cohesive, and they reflect a tendency toward forming inferences and making connections. These findings run contrary to what would be expected given the NRP’s determinations.”

Vaden-Kiernan, M., Borman, G., Caverly, S., Bell, N., de Castilla, V. R., Sullivan, K., & Fleming, G. (2016). Findings from a multi-year scale-up effectiveness trial of Open-Court Reading (Imagine It!). Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This study addresses the effectiveness of a widely used core reading program that reflects the research-based practices recommended by the National Reading Panel. This and other similar programs are increasingly used to prevent reading difficulties and ensure that all children are reading at or above grade level by the end of third grade. Effective early reading instruction is critical for preventing later reading difficulties. With two thirds of 4th grade students failing to achieve proficiency in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2013, the need to implement and test effective early reading programs is relevant and pressing. The “Open Court Reading” (OCR) program published by SRA/McGraw-Hill and widely used for almost 40 years is a phonics-based core-reading program for students in kindergarten to 6th grade that incorporates many of the instructional practices related to phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension recommended by the National Reading Panel. In this study, an independent research team evaluated the effectiveness of the OCR program in a large national sample of elementary schools at scale, across diverse school populations and conditions, and with no more support than schools would have access to if they had selected OCR as their early reading curriculum apart from participation in a research project. The study participants included approximately 4,500 elementary school students and 1,200 teachers across 49 schools in 7 districts each year of the study. The evaluation of the OCR program involved two key elements: the multi-site cluster randomized trial (CRT) and the implementation study. Data from teachers and students in two cohorts (grades K-3 and grades 1-4) were gathered over two school years. Each year of data was collected as cross-sectional and each year is analyzed independently. This study provides preliminary evidence that the impacts of OCR are not significant on overall students’ reading performance when implemented at scale in a large sample of schools after one or two years relative to other core reading curricula. However, there were positive differential impacts for Kindergarten students as well as Hispanic students.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

[“Phonics program” OR “research-based phonics program”] AND [“early grades” OR “elementary school” OR “grades K–6”]

Databases and Resources

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and PsychInfo.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published in the last 15 years, from 2002 to present, were included in the search and review.
  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed or both by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, JSTOR database, PsychInfo, PsychArticle, and Google Scholar.
  • Methodology: The following methodological priorities and considerations were used in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized controlled trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, etc., generally in that order; (b) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected, etc.), study duration, etc.; and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, etc.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-00014524, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. government.