Digital Phonics Instruction

Digital Phonics Instruction

post by Lindsay Stoetzel, Associate member of The Educator Collaborative

Digital Phonics Instruction

As a teacher educator, I have spent the last year wrestling with how to teach literacy methods courses that will prepare my preservice teachers for both traditional face-to-face instruction and the virtual environments where most of their student teaching and internship experiences are currently taking place. While at first this undoubtedly left me riddled with doubt (I have no idea what I am doing!), I have found relief and inspiration by re-centering my instruction on purpose. By revisiting the research and interrogating the purpose behind instructional practices, I have been able to bridge this gap in a way that feels authentic to both students and teachers. 


My goal was to begin with literacy practices that are most foundational to my traditional methods courses, which made phonics an easy target. Traditionally, we practice developing phonics lessons that are highly interactive, personalized, and multimodal by nature. What should (or could) this practice look like in a virtual environment? How would we maintain or even enhance those features through the use of digital tools? Working alongside my students, we embarked on a mission to uncover the possibilities, pretty much building the plane as we tried to fly it.


What We Know About Research-informed Phonics Instruction

To begin to answer these questions, it was important to examine the research behind traditional practices for teaching phonics. In our program, we emphasize a balanced approach to literacy instruction that builds from what Mesmer (2019) describes as the need to teach word analysis skills in isolation and connect those skills back to authentic texts. In doing so, we also examine the importance of providing explicit and systematic instruction. Explicit instruction directly connects letter knowledge with phonemic awareness skills so that students are able to strengthen their understanding of the alphabetic principle (ILA, 2019). This might sound like, “the /d/ sound is represented by the letter d.” Systematic instruction follows a scope and sequence to ensure that phonics skills build upon each other. 

Additionally, we want to encourage children’s active engagement in word analysis and word play activities that integrate multiple literacy processes (i.e., reading, writing, speaking, listening) to deepen connections. To that end, my teachers traditionally design a phonics lesson meant to be taught in small groups. Recently, we began using a planning template (Mesmer, 2019) including five parts: Word Review, Hear It, Decode It, Spell It, and Read It. In her text, Mesmer provides multiple examples to illustrate what instruction might look like during each of these lesson segments. The table below provides a brief summary. The specifics of what activities should include will also be based on students’ developmental progress (based on the scope and sequence of instruction).

Lesson Segment Instructional Purpose
Word/Letter Review Activate prior knowledge relevant to the lesson focus (knowledge of letters or sight words) and build automaticity. 
Hear-It  Focus on phonemic awareness skills by orally analyzing language (initial sounds, blending, segmenting).
Decode-It Build and apply letter-sound knowledge by reading relevant words.
Spell-It Use letter-sound knowledge to practice spelling relevant words.
Read-It Transfer the isolated phonics focus to connected text (ie reading decodable text).


Sample Teacher Planning Template


Transferring Phonics Instruction to the Virtual Classroom

Just looking briefly at the sample lesson above illustrates the challenge of recreating this lesson in a virtual environment where a number of materials and tools would need to be digitally recreated. Cards, cubes, whiteboards–we wondered if this was even feasible, let alone preferable. I also worried that the added challenge of creating too many ‘tech pieces’ would overwhelm teachers and students, by focusing too much on the technology in lieu of the real focus on the literacy content. As a result, we realized that teaching phonics online would need to look different, but we still wanted to make it interactive, multimodal, and (if needed) personalized.

This led to the creation of a three-part framework we used for developing asynchronous virtual phonics lessons. While synchronous phonics lessons are more likely to capitalize on interactive elements, we took the asynchronous route, as it might allow for more flexible use and application in future settings. We also wondered if this would allow for greater differentiation through the facilitation of small group work around the materials (with more targeted focus areas for students).

The first step was for teachers to plan a brief (5-7 minute) video demonstration of the core phonics content. This would include practice with word review, hearing it and decoding it. Many teachers opted to use screencasting tools (such as Loom) to record their demonstration on slides (sometimes with a webcam included as well). Other teachers recorded themselves manipulating letter tiles (as pictured below) while they demonstrated the phonics skill.

This video teaches children to blend phonemes as the car drives across the letters.


This video illustrates how one teacher used letter tiles to practice building words by blending.


Following this lesson demonstration, teachers would then read a decodable text illustrating the phonics content. Since we were unable to access published material at this time, teachers created their own decodable texts using Book Creator. This allowed them to carefully craft decodable sentences, highlight language features in the text, and include narration as they read along.

Sample page from a decodable text created using BookCreator.

The final activity was to develop interactive slides (using Google Slides) that would allow children to practice applying the phonics skill. These slides were created as ‘drag and drop’ activities where students engaged by grouping images based on sound, organizing words based on features, or building Elkonin boxes. Teachers were also able to create activities where students could practice writing words at home and typing them on the screen. Some teachers (as pictured below) included audio narration on the slides to assist students. While none of these slides asked children to record themselves reading, this would be another potential step to capture how children are building letter-sound knowledge and decoding skills.

Sample interactive slide created using Google Slides.


Deepening Teacher Knowledge of Phonics and Digital Literacy Skills

Through this experience, I was surprised to see how much more I learned about my teachers’ knowledge and misconceptions. By asking them to engage in this new form of planning, I was able to better gauge the development of their pedagogical content knowledge and to target my instruction in response. For example, I had never thought of asking them to create their own decodable text, but doing so required them to integrate multiple forms of knowledge and revealed gaps in working knowledge of phonics development. In particular, this activity revealed confusion over the scope and sequence or flow of phonics skills. While I strongly believe that learning to teach phonics is best accomplished by actually working with children, I was still amazed by how much we were able to grow as a result of the pandemic pushing me to reevaluate my own instructional decision-making. 

Furthermore, by working through the design of these activities, my teachers were able to develop valuable and authentic practices using technology tools that helped them meet their pedagogical goals. Ideally, they will be able to continue using these materials even after we return to face-to-face teaching as meaningful ways to facilitate small group learning or offer resources for after-school instruction. 

Prior to the onset of the pandemic, one of my TheEdCollab colleagues asked me how I was integrating technology into my early literacy methods instruction. At the time, I didn’t have a good answer, and, I realized, hadn’t given it much thought. Now at this point, a year later, the evidence speaks for itself. This new approach to methods instruction enhances my ability to gauge my teachers’ development and builds meaningful literacy skills my teachers will carry into their future classrooms–whether they be face-to-face, virtual, or anywhere in between.


Resources for Creating Your Own Digital Phonics Lesson



Mesmer, H.A. (2019). Letter Lessons and First Words: Phonics Foundations that Work. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


International Literacy Association. (2019). Meeting the challenges of early literacy phonics instruction [Literacy leadership brief]. Newark, DE: Author.


Thank you to all of my teachers for inspiring us with your work! A special thanks to those who allowed me to share their work in this venue: Chelsie Galloway, Emily Oppenhuizen, Jane Stidolph, Sarah Drasiewski, and Alysha Chaney.


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