Whole-to-Parts Phonics Instruction


Margaret Moustafa

California State University Los Angeles


Three important counter-intuitive discoveries in education, linguistics, and psychology have led to a new way of teaching letter-sound correspondences to children learning to read. Here I will briefly review these discoveries and describe the new way of teaching children letter-sound correspondences based on these discoveries.


The first discovery is the discovery that early readers read print better in familiar context than outside of such context (e.g., Goodman, 1965; Kucer, 1985; Nicholson, 1991; Rhodes, 1979; Ruddell, 1965; Stanovich, 1991). For example, early readers may see the print word horse in a list of words and say house but see the same word in a story about cowboys and say horse. They also read stories with familiar language better than stories with unfamiliar language such as the language in “decodable” texts (e.g., The fat cat sat on the mat).


The second discovery is the discovery that young children are competent at analyzing spoken words into onsets and rimes but not into phonemes when onsets or rimes consist of more than one phoneme (Calfee, 1977; Goswami & Bryant, 1990; Liberman, et al., 1974; Treiman, 1983, 1985). Onsets are any consonants before a vowel in a spoken syllable; rimes are the vowel and any consonants after it. The one-syllable word smiles, for example, consists of an onset, /sm/, and a rime, /ilz/.  The onset /sm/ consists of the phonemes /s/ and /m/; the rime /ilz/ consists of the phonemes /i/, /l/, and /z/. Young children can mentally analyze smiles into /sm/ and /ilz/ without being taught to do so but have difficulty analyzing it into /s/, /m/, /i/, /l/, and /z/, even with instruction.


            The third discovery is the discovery that young children who are beginning to read make analogies between familiar and unfamiliar print words to pronounce unfamiliar print words and that they make these analogies at the onset-rime level rather than at the phonemic level (Goswami, 1986, 1988).  That is, by learning to recognize the print words small and smile, children figure out that sm- is pronounced /sm/ and use that knowledge to pronounce sm- in other words with sm-. The more print words children recognize, the better position they are in to make analogies between familiar and unfamiliar words to pronounce unfamiliar words (Goswami, 1986, 1988; Moustafa, 1995).


A new instructional strategy in reading education that capitalizes on all these discoveries is whole-to-parts phonics instruction.  The discovery that children make analogies between familiar and unfamiliar print words to pronounce unfamiliar words informs us that we should begin phonics instruction by first helping children learn to recognize a lot of print words. The discovery that early readers read better in context informs us that the most effective way to help children learn to recognize a lot of print words is to help them read stories with familiar language. One way to do this is through shared reading with predictable, engaging stories.

In shared reading, the teacher reads a story first to and then with early readers while pointing to the print. This both demonstrates the reading process to the children and establishes a basis for the phonics lessons to come. Once the children have memorized the language of the story through repeated readings of the story, the teacher gives the children copies of the story to read to partners. This helps the children to see themselves as readers. During the first story that the children learn to read via shared reading, the teacher needs to check that each child can match spoken words to print words and teach to one-to-one matching if needed.


After the children can read the story with one-to-one matching of spoken and print words, the teacher then shows the children the parts of the whole print words. The discovery that children are more competent at analyzing spoken syllables into onsets and rimes than into phonemes informs us that instruction in letters and letter-strings which represent onsets, rimes, and syllables will be more comprehensible to children than instruction in letters and letter strings that represent phonemes. One way to teach children letter-onset, letter-rime, and letter-syllable correspondences is for the teacher to ask the children to choose their favorite words in the story and write each word on a separate piece of paper using paper which has a picture from the story photocopied on it. The teacher then highlights letters representing an onset (e.g. sm-), a rime (e.g. –iles), or a syllable (e.g., un in unlock, ly in lovely) in each word and tells the children “These letters say /sm/”, “These letters say /ilz/”, or “These letters say /un/” and puts the words in a pocket chart or tapes them on a plastic surface to make a moveable word wall. Then the teacher and children collaboratively group words with similar letters or letter strings. This helps children make phonic generalities based on words they have learned to recognize in context. When multiple pronunciations of given letters or letter strings come up, the teacher uses a different color for each pronunciation of identical letters (e.g., the g- in girl and go would be highlighted one color and the g- in giant and George would be highlighted another color). As more and more stories are read to, with and by children, they learn more and more parts of words as well as multiple ways to pronounce given letters and letter strings. 


Whole-to-parts phonics instruction differs from traditional phonics instruction in that  (1) it teaches the parts of the words after a story has been read to, with, and by children rather than before the story is read by children and (2) it teaches letter-onset, letter-rime, and letter-syllable correspondences rather than letter-phoneme correspondences. Yet, like traditional phonics instruction, it is explicit, systematic, and extensive. More importantly, it is psycholinguistically appropriate. It is an instructional method that may finally resolve “the great debate” that has plagued the history of reading instruction for centuries.


For more information on whole-to-parts phonics instruction, see “Phonics instruction” by Moustafa in Beginning Reading and Writing, K-2, edited by D. Strickland and L. Morrow (Teachers College Press, 2000; International Reading Association, 2000); “Whole-to-Parts Phonics” by Moustafa and Maldonado-Colon in The Reading Teacher, Feb., 1999; and Beyond Traditional Phonics: Research discoveries and Reading Instruction by Moustafa (Heinemann, 1997).




Calfee, R. (1977). Assessment of individual reading skills: Basic research and practical applications. In A. S. Reber & D. L. Scarborough (Eds.), Toward a psychology of reading (pp. 289-323). New York: Erlbaum.

Goodman, K. (l965). A linguistic study of cues and miscues in reading. Elementary English, 42, 639-643.

Goswami, U. (1986). Children’s use of analogy in learning to read: A developmental study. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 42, 73-83.

Goswami, U. (1988). Orthographic analogies and reading development. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 40A, 239-268.

Goswami, U. and Bryant, P. (1990). Phonological skills and learning to read. Hillsdale, NJ: Earlbaum.

Kucer, S. (1985). Predictability and readability: The same rose with different names? In M. Douglas (Ed.), Claremont reading conference forty-ninth yearbook (pp. 229-246). Claremont, CA: Claremont Graduate School.

Liberman, I. Shankweiler, D., Fischer, F. & Carter, B. (1974). Explicit syllable and phonemes segmentation in the young child. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 18, 201-212.

Moustafa, M. (1995). Children’s productive phonological recoding. Reading Research Quarterly, 30, 3, 464-476.

Nicholson,  T. (1991). Do children read words better in context or in lists? A classic study revisited. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83, 444-450.

Rhodes,  L. K. (1979). Comprehension and predictability: An analysis of beginning reading materials. In J. Harste & R. Carey (Eds.), New perspectives on comprehension (pp. 100-130). Bloomington, IN: School of Education, Indiana University.

Ruddell, R.B. (1965). The effect of oral and written patterns of language structure on reading comprehension. The Reading Teacher 18: 270-275.

Stanovich, K. E. (1991). Word recognition: changing perspectives. In R. Barr, M. L. Kamil, P. Mosenthal, & P. D. Person (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (Vol. 2, pp. 418-452). Hillsdale, NJ: Earlbaum.

Treiman, R. (1983). The structure of spoken syllables: Evidence from novel word games. Cognition, 15, 49-74.

Treiman, R. (1985). Onsets and rimes as units of spoken syllables: Evidence from children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 39, 161-181.