In many English-speaking countries, people are not convinced that kids need phonics instruction. The media continues to promote stories that whole language—a method that encourages guessing, looking at pictures and memorizing—and incidental phonics is the answer. In teacher training programs, future teachers learn all about the glories of “student-centered” teaching, that the ability to read is inherently within the child, and phonics is not just a waste of time, but perhaps harmful.
Meanwhile, over the last 50 years, there’s been a growing body of research that shows the following:
Explicit, systematic phonics instruction is the best way to teach early reading skills. Phonics is NOT a mere superfluous add-on. Instead, phonics is essential. Phonics builds a strong reading foundation, and allows all children to read and spell independently.
Why teach phonics? The research on the benefits of phonics is rock-solid. You could even say it’s steel-solid.
At this point, the research is rock-solid. Mark Seidenberg, author of Language at the Speed of Sight, states:
“For reading scientists the evidence that the phonological pathway is used in reading and especially important in beginning reading is about as close to conclusive as research on complex human behavior can get” (Seidenberg, 2017, p. 124).
In other words, the science is clear: kids benefit from explicit, systematic phonics instruction. Reading scientists are often in Psychology and Cognitive Science departments. Unfortunately, many Education departments are oblivious to what reading scientists have discovered. Education departments don’t tend to focus on research and science: they like to focus on theory. The theory they inculcate in future educators is largely that reading is natural. Seidenberg states:
“The gulf between science and education has been harmful. A look at the science reveals that the methods commonly used to teach children are inconsistent with basic facts about human cognition and development and so make reading more difficult than it should be. They inadvertently place many children at risk for reading failure” (Seidenberg, 2017).
Stanislaus Dehaene, a neuroscientist and author of Reading in the Brain, explains that even expert readers use the phonological pathway. Our ability to read, however, is so automatic, that we hardly realize that we use phonics knowledge:
“Today, we know that the immediacy of reading is just an illusion engendered by the extreme automaticity of its component strategies, which operate outside our conscious awareness” (Dehaene, 2009, p. 225)
We read so rapidly we hardly realize that we still decode. Some have the idea (I used to) that even if a beginning reader first learns phonics, eventually she tosses out phonics for a more efficient method: reading by sight. However, this isn’t true. We never toss phonics aside. Instead, phonics becomes automatic.
How do we really know explicit, systematic phonics is research-based?
If we’re wondering, “Why teach phonics?” we need to look at a very broad body of research. This question points to a larger problem in human behavior studies. When we look at research, we can’t just look at one study or a handful of studies. It’s easy to cherry-pick research to argue for something we’re comfortable with.
However, reading is too important. When we look at the studies, we should not stay within our comfort zone. Instead, we have to look at a very broad view of the research. This has been done. The National Reading Panel (2000) consisted of several committees of scholars. They reviewed thousands of reading studies to aggregate statistical data. They wanted to find out what actually works.
Early reading achievement predicts later reading achievement
They found that explicit, systematic teaching of phonemic awareness and phonics improves reading scores. Many studies show that early reading scores correlate with later reading achievement. For example, Dykstra (1968) found in a study of 960 children that:
“Reading achievement at the end of second grade correlated with reading at the end of first grade at values ranging from .60 or higher, showing that reading achievement is the best predictor of reading achievement” (McGuiness, Diane, 2000, p. 103).
This makes sense because kids who learn the code early on tend to read more voluminously later. Stanovich and Cunningham (1997) did a unique 10-year longitudinal study. They found that 1st grade decoding skills predicted 11th grade reading volume. They teased out any differences due to intelligence. That is, intelligence does not determine 11th grade reading volume, but 1st grade decoding skills do. They write:
“This is a stunning finding because it means that students who get off to a fast start in reading are more likely to read more over the years” (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997).
This study and countless others that demonstrate the importance of early decoding skills have not seemed to penetrate school curricula. Currently, in many English-speaking classrooms, kids are expected to break the code on their own. Or they’re given incidental phonics lessons, which are sloppy and sporadic. The research has shown that incidental phonics, though better than no phonics, is not effective.
Most programs send contradictory messages to the student
Most districts don’t use explicit, systematic phonics programs. Instead, many use “balanced-literacy.” This means students are taught to guess, look at pictures, and decode. In theory, this sounds good. Balanced is good, right? We try to follow balanced diets, have balance in our daily lives…etc. But in this case, however, balanced means inserting unscientific practices into reading instruction. Kids get two messages at once. Let’s say the child has to read:
Frog was lonely. He walked down the path to visit his friend Toad.
In whole language, the child would look at a picture of Frog walking, then the teacher would say, “What makes sense there?” The child would proceed to guess. Frog went for a walk or Frog was going to see his friend. This guessing method breaks down quickly. How is the child supposed to guess lonely or visit for example? Furthermore, how is the child supposed to guess on more sophisticated texts: Photosynthesis is the process in which green plants use sunlight to synthesize food and water.
In contrast, phonics teaches kids to understand sound-symbol correlations. They are also taught the first 100 or so sight words systematically. With phonics, the child would be able to read the above sentences confidently. They wouldn’t need to guess. Furthermore, the child could read difficult texts with new content later on. They could read the news, their science and math books, more sophisticated literature and content that isn’t even guessable.
Reading Elephant systematic phonics books
If you’re interested in helping a struggling reader, Reading Elephant offers systematic phonics books. In Reading Elephant books, sounds are introduced one at a time. The child can practice each new phonics sound extensively.
Cunningham, Anne E. & Stanovich, Keith E. (1998) What Reading Does for the Mind. American Educator/American Federation of Teachers.
Dehaene, Stanislas. (2009). Reading in the Brain: the New Science of How We Read.
Seidenberg, Mark (2017) Language at the Speed of Sight.