How to Select a Phonics Program: 5 Criteria

There are so many options for using phonics to teach reading. How does a parent make a wise selection, especially if they have limited knowledge about the reading process?

5 key components are needed for teaching kids to read. If a program is deficient in any one of these, you will need to supplement the program. So, if you want to rely entirely on the plan you select, choose wisely.

1  Order of Sounds Taught

You may not know this, but there is an optimal order to the sounds that are easiest to teach first. And the order is not A, B, C. Thus, if the program uses the ABC order, you know that it is not going to optimize your success. 

 The order of the sounds taught should resemble the group of sounds in this list:  s, a, t, i, p, n  –   c, k, e, h, r  –  m, d, g, o  –  l, f, b, q, u –   j, z, w  –  v, y, x.  Some phonics programs have modified the list but follow the order of the letters closely. 

2 A B C or a b c ?

When you read a passage of text, you soon understand that the lower case letters predominate. Therefore, any excellent teaching of reading should focus on using lower case letters. It is alarming when programs insist on capitalizing the beginning letters of words that are not even in a sentence.

An example of this would be exercises with pictures to help read the text, and “Horse” is spelled with a capital. There is no reason for the capital. The letter for remembering the “h” sound is a capital.

3 A Focus on Sounds – not Letters

The sounds of the letters are important, not the names of the letters. And there is no magic for alphabetical order for learning to read. It will become important later in the process if kids are using dictionaries, but other than that, the order is arbitrary and not significant in learning to read.

Since sounds are key, a multi-media and multi-activity approaches are favored over a worksheet approach. You can use many different techniques for highlighting the sounds of words, including songs, kid’s rhymes, finger play, poems, and activities that focus on the sound.

The activities could include searching the house for objects that begin with “s” such as scissors, soap, swing, spoon, etc.  Or you could make cookies when studying the “c” sound to pair the sound with an activity favored by your child. The pleasurable experience will help with remembering the connection between the sound of “c” and the letter. Cookie begins with “c”. 

4    Pairing with Appropriate Reading Levels 

Children learn to read best by reading. Phonics activities are essential, especially in the early stages of reading, to help children break the code, but phonics is not the end game. 

Reading is. 

In the very beginning stages of reading instruction, it is vital to practise phonics skills. In addition to exercises, an excellent phonics program will incorporate specific books to support the practice of phonics skills. There are specific readers at each level of phonics instruction. 

But not all words can be decoded using phonics. There are 2 types of words in the English language. Words that you can sound out by using phonics and words that do not follow the rules of phonics.

 Words such as “red, Sam, and mat” can be sounded out, but words such as “white, know, and brown” must be learned as sight words. Any program that suggests that it can teach your child to read must address the sight words as well. Often the sight words are taught as rhyming words. Teaching down, brown, and clown as rhyming families is a common practice.

Here are some samples the first readers in each category.

Books based on Words You Can Sound Out

First Little Readers

Books Based on Sight Words

Non-Fiction Sight Word Readers


 5 Just Part of the Process

All excellent “learn to read” programs do insist that parents continue to read excellent picture books and chapter books to their children. It is essential that children hear literature and not just contrived stories to practice skills.  

Children need to be introduced to all types of genres and authors to enjoy the process of reading. The inclusion of non-fiction books is important, too,  since many kids prefer to learn about the world around them.

A Preview of Popular Programs

1 Jolly Phonics

Jolly Phonics has an extensive array of activities if you purchase the full kits. It is also possible to purchase different parts of the program for specific use too. 



The Program: At the core of the program are 5 skills: learning the letter sounds (in the optimal order, not ABC), learning letter formation for writing, learning how to blend sounds, identifying the sounds in words, and tricky words (sight words). Grammar and spelling are also included in the program after the first part that emphasizes just the phonics skills.

Multi-Dimension Learning: There is an extensive array of materials that include finger phonics, specialized storybooks,  hand movements, songs, games CDs, posters, magnetic letters, and puppets.  

Case Study in England : The 2012 Phonics Screening Check showed that only 25% of the year 1 children were able to decode to the required standard. After a year of teaching with Jolly Phonics, the same cohort was re-tested, and the pass rate rose to 89%, reaching the required standard!

Case Study In USA: What I saw was remarkable. Using techniques learned from Jolly Phonics, these five- and six-year-olds could read at levels beyond what we normally expect of kindergartners.” 

Check out the many other case studies.

2   Hooked on Phonics   

This popular program has many components to engage your child. It stretches from the very beginning reading levels to early primary school. Select the right level for your kids.

The Program: The scope and sequence of skill introduction is built on research. Since the program directs parents when to use specified materials, many find it easy to use.  It appeals to differentiated learning styles through its multi-media approach.  There are 4 basic steps: learn, practice, read, and celebrate.

Multidimensional Learning: The many aspects include visual phonics lessons, 275 interactive games, more than 100 illustrated stories,  workbooks, 100 videos, songs, rhymes, celebration stickers for rewards, tips, and tricks to extend the experience.

Approvals: by the Children’s Reading Foundation

Awards:     Teacher’s Choice for Classroom. Teacher’s Choice for Family, National Parenting Seal of Approval, Dr. Toy’s Best Educational Products, IParenting Media Award, National Parenting Publications, Association of Educational Publishers, Creative Child Award (Product and Preferred Choice), Curriculum Administrator Districts’ Top 100 Products

3 Teach your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons   (DISTAR)   

This Distar  (Direct Instruction System for Teaching and Remediation) method of teaching reading has been used by schools as well as parents for decades. It works well with kids who are having difficulty with the process of learning to read.

The Program: Phonics is taught, starting with the letters that are easiest to learn. The instruction’s difficulty level increases little by little. The child starts with successfully reading  3-word sentences and progresses to a full page of text. The instructional method is simplified, and for some parents, it can be tedious. However, kids who are having difficulty take solace in the repetitive nature of the instruction. 

Multi-dimensional Learning: This program is heavily reliant on phonics and the printed word. There are no other accompanying songs, reading material, games, or rhymes.

Parents who need considerable support to teach reading will also enjoy the simplicity of the program. But many parents feel that they need to supplement the program with multimedia opportunities as well as suitable reading practice books.

4  4 Weeks to Read

This quick instruction program includes 53 full-color books, 34 songs, workbook, flashcards, rewards, & lesson manual. It was created for parents to use, so the lessons are structured and simple to deliver.

The Program: It starts with the sound of “m” and progresses through the first successful sounds. By the 5th lesson, you teach your child how to blend sounds to figure out words. By the 8th lesson, your child is reading short books. Over the 40 lessons, you will cover all of the basic sounds, including the short and long vowel sounds. There are some training videos online to help you with the early lessons.

Testimonial: “I love Learning Dynamics! I have used this with my 3 oldest children. All of my kids were able to sound out simple words when they were 3, and thanks to this program, one of my daughters could read on a 2nd-grade level by the time she started Kindergarten.” Kristina Eich

5 I Can Fly Reading Program  (blast off to reading)  

The complete “Learn to Read Program” consists of 2 parts: Book A and Book B.  It is very effective for kids with dyslexia, learning difficulties, or speech therapy due to its direct approach.

The Program: There are three components to this program. They are 1) the workbook,  2) the online games, and 3) online flashcards. However,  there are no subscriptions as you only need to purchase the books to gain online access. 

Multi-dimensional Learning: The process is simple. You teach the lesson. Your child completes the work pages. Then he or she can practice the skills using the online games. Your child’s progress is tracked while they are playing the games, so you know how they did while they were working on the games. The first lesson begins with the alphabet.

Testimonials:  Phattmatt on Amazon: After completing Volume A over the summer, his initial assessment at the start of second grade showed his reading level had gone up 5 levels, so he was finally at standard/grade level.  

I have 2 dyslexic children, and this set of books has been a big help. The color on the pages is really nice too. I purchased the 50 lesson plans as well to go along with the workbooks. Highly recommend.

Kimberly Myers: I homeschool my son, and I suspect he is dyslexic. He struggles to read. I bought the first book (book a) to work with him this year (first grade), and it is wonderful. He is catching on! The book moves slowly, and is repetitive, which is exactly what he needs!

As you can see, there is a wide range of materials available for teaching reading from just lessons and worksheets to a full complement of experiences to engage your child.  As a parent, you know how much support you will need to deliver the lessons and your child’s preferences.

Now you can select the program to suit your family’s needs. 

Recommended Blogs for More In-depth Information 

Use workbooks and activities effectively.  9 Tips and Tricks for using Phonics to Teach Reading  

Parents get some advice from an expert teacher to help your young child learn about reading. How Do I Teach Reading? Phonics, Worksheets, Picture Books, Games?   Testimonial: Hira Adnan –  thank u, its really considerable.

Reading Games   Are you trying to think of activities for the kids that they will both learn from and enjoy? Here are some games to promote reading skills. 

We'd like to hear from you.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s