Systematic Phonics Instruction Helps Students Learn to Read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel’s Meta-Analysis

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NICHCY’s Structured Abstract 58 describes the following:

Title | Systematic Phonics Instruction Helps Students Learn to Read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel’s Meta-Analysis

Authors | Ehri, L.C., Nunes, S.R., Stahl, S.A., & Willows, D.M.

Source Review of Educational Research, 71(3), 393–447.

Year Published | 2001

A quantitative meta-analysis evaluating the effects of systematic phonics instruction compared to unsystematic or no-phonics instruction on learning to read was conducted using 66 treatment-control comparisons derived from 38 experiments. The overall effect of phonics instruction on reading was moderate, d = 0.41. Effects persisted after instruction ended. Effects were larger when phonics instruction began early (d = 0.55) than after first grade (d = 0.27). Phonics benefited decoding, word reading, text comprehension, and spelling in many readers. Phonics helped low and middle SES readers, younger students at risk for reading disability (RD), and older students with RD, but it did not help low achieving readers that included students with cognitive limitations. Synthetic phonics and larger-unit systematic phonics programs produced a similar advantage in reading. Delivering instruction to small groups and classes was not less effective than tutoring. Systematic phonics instruction helped children learn to read better than all forms of control group instruction, including whole language. In sum, systematic phonics instruction proved effective and should be implemented as part of literacy programs to teach beginning reading as well as to prevent and remediate reading difficulties.

Phonics instruction is a way of teaching reading that focuses on letter-sound relationships. During phonics instruction children are taught letter-sound correspondences and how to use them to spell and read words. The National Reading Panel (NRP), a national panel of experts in the field of reading who came together at the request of Congress in 1997, performed a meta-analysis on phonics instruction as well as many other areas of reading. The results of the NRP are included and expanded upon in this meta-analysis.

Research Questions
The purpose of this review was to determine whether systematic phonics instruction helps children learn to read more effectively than unsystematic phonics instruction or instruction teaching little or no phonics. To that end, research questions were:

  1. Is phonics instruction more effective in some circumstances than others? For example, is phonics instruction more effective when taught one-on-one with a tutor than it is when taught in small groups or to a whole class? Is it more effective in beginning grades as opposed to later grades?
  2. Does phonics instruction help both children who are progressing normally in reading and children who have disabilities or who are at risk in their reading?
  3. Does phonics instruction improve children’s reading comprehension as well as their word reading and spelling skills?

Research Design

  • Number of Studies Included | 38
  • Number of Subjects | Not reported
  • Years Spanned | 1970-2000

Research Subjects
The participants’ reading abilities were rated as normal achieving, at risk, reading disabled, or low achieving.

Age/Grade of Subjects
Kindergarten to 6th grade

Specified Disability
Learning Disabilities (LD)

Participants received phonics-based interventions (e.g., Direct Instruction, Lovett Direct Instruction, Lovett Analogy, Lippincott, the New Primary Grades Reading System for an Individualized Classroom, the Orton-Gillingham approach, and the Sing, Spell, Read & Write program).

Duration of Intervention
Interventions varied in length from 6 weeks to 3 years.

Findings of the meta-analysis supported the conclusion that systematic phonics instruction helps children learn to read more effectively than non-systematic phonics instruction or programs without a phonics component.

Combined Effects Size
Effect sizes were greater among beginners (d = 0.55) than among older children (d = 0.27). At-risk and normally achieving readers in kindergarten and 1st grade had moderate to large mean effect sizes ranging from d = 0.48 to d = 0.74. Effect sizes were smaller for 2nd through 6th grade normally achieving readers (d = 0.27), students with learning disabilities in reading (d = 0.32), and low achieving readers (d = 0.15).

The effect of phonics instruction on other related skills in beginning readers (kindergarten and 1st grade) is shown through the following effect sizes: Decoding regularly spelled words (d = 0.98, large); decoding pseudowords (d = 0.67, moderately large); spelling outcome (d = 0.67, moderately large); reading comprehension (d = 0.51, moderate); and reading miscellaneous words (d = 0.45).

The effect of phonics instruction on other related skills in older readers (2nd through 6th grades) is shown through the following effect sizes: decoding regularly spelled words (d = 0.49, moderate); decoding pseudowords (d = 0.52, moderate) reading miscellaneous words (d = 0.33, low-moderate); reading text orally (d = 0.24, low); spelling (d = 0.09, not effective); teaching reading comprehension (d = 0.12, not effective).

This meta-analysis provides evidence that systematic phonics instruction is a more effective method of teaching children to read than non-systematic or no phonics instruction. And given the more significant impact of phonics instruction upon children’s reading in the early grades (kindergarten and 1st grade), this meta-analysis also provides evidence that teaching phonics early can be effective in preventing reading difficulties in at-risk students. Phonics instruction was not as effective for helping older students who had already become poor readers.

Fortunately, there are many successful and effective programs and delivery systems for teaching phonics systematically. When various programs to teach systematic phonics were compared in this meta-analysis, all were found to be effective. The same was true regarding different grouping practices (one-on-one, small group, whole class instruction); all were effective.

The authors suggest that there may be certain ingredients that compose effective phonics instruction. These ingredients need to be researched further, but examples include (a) covering particular content, such as major letter-sound correspondences and other English regularities; (b) using decodable texts (books that are written carefully to focus mainly on the letter-sound relations that children have been taught); and (c) increasing motivational characteristics of phonics programs.


* 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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