How to Knock Down Five Strawman Arguments Against Phonics

  • 15 February, 2020
  • 34 Comments

Recently, the Washington Post published an article about the latest hostilities in the “reading wars.” Washington Post Article.

I noticed it because the columnist, Jay Matthews, quoted from this blog.

The column did a good job of surfacing the disagreements, but what really caught my eye was the comments section. More than 50 readers had weighed in – defending phonics or trying to clothesline it.

As a longtime phonics advocate, I was especially sensitive to the illogical arguments against decoding instruction. They were mostly the same arguments I’ve heard for the last 50 years of my career.

I might think these to be illogical arguments, but they appear to be persuasive to someone or they wouldn’t keep getting repeated. That’s the thing about logically fallacious arguments – they sound a lot like logically reasonable ones. That’s particularly true for people who may not have a depth of knowledge on the topic, like a first-time mom whose kids are just reaching phonics age, or the experienced high school teacher who knows education, but is not well-versed on decoding.

This posting considers five of these claims.

 1.     Phonics is inherently boring.   

This argument against teaching phonics is both wrong and inane. The inane part is that it suggests that we shouldn’t teach whatever students might not like.

“In my experience, kids don’t like long division so let’s not bother with that anymore in math class.” Musicians no longer need to play scales, and basketball players no longer need to shoot free throws, and… well, you get the idea. The argument is: don’t teach anything that kids might find boring, no matter what the implications.

I have no problem with teachers and curriculum designers who fear phonics might be dull, so they try to juice it up a bit – making the it more energetic and fun in some way. But omitting an important part of the curriculum because it might not be fun? That’s silly.

Of course, phonics instruction can be dull. But, so can fluency instruction, vocabulary, guided reading, workshop conferencing… and, there goes literacy.

Kobe Bryant wrote, “Why do you think I’m the best player in the world? Because I never ever get bored with the basics.”

Great musicians will tell you the same thing about playing scales. They became great because they learned to manage or overcome their boredom, and teachers and coaches should try both to instill a respect for foundational skills and to make an effort to keep it interesting.

This advice is especially important for teachers who, themselves, may find phonics to be boring. Don’t communicate that to your students about phonics or anything else that you teach. Enthusiasm is contagious, so buck it up.

In any event, there is nothing inherently boring in phonics, phonics isn’t boring to everyone, and good teachers find ways to liven up what may be, for some, dull ground to cover.

2.     English spelling is too inconsistent for phonics to make sense.

I’m surprised that this claim continues to be made. Extensive computer analysis has shown that English, while being complex, is not nearly as inconsistent as is often claimed (Hannah, Hodges, & Rudorf, 1966; Kessler & Treiman, 2003; Venezky, 1967, 1970). One must pay attention to syllable boundaries, letter positions, and morphological information, but English spelling and its relationship to pronunciation is systematic and quite consistent overall.

The argument that it is pointless to teach decoding because of the chaotic nature of English spelling loses its persuasiveness when the language turns out to be not particularly chaotic. It may have made sense for the George Bernard Shaws and Theodore Roosevelts to seek English spelling reform, but in the 2020s to ignore the consistency identified in extensive empirical analyses of the language is foolish.

3.     I learned to read without phonics.

Some of the complaints against phonics were based on personal experience. It is not uncommon that a parent or teacher remembers learning to read without phonics, so any insistence on phonics seems them narrow and pig-headed (“just like an educator to insist things be done in a particular way even if it makes no difference”). This argument is also put forth this week by Barbara Murchison, the director of the educator excellence and equity division of the California department education in Education Week (https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2020/01/30/advocates-for-science-based-reading-instruction-worry-california.html).

I’ve written about this before. There is no question that it is possible to learn to read without explicit phonics instruction. I’ll concede that.

The problem with this argument is that it proceeds on the assumption that the outcomes are discrete rather continuous. It isn’t that phonics leads to learning and other approaches do not. The differences are at the margins. They are statistical. The groups of kids taught with phonics score higher in reading on average or have fewer out-and-out failures.

In such cases, the anti-phonics person points out the kids who learned with little or no phonics, and the pro-phonics person points out the higher achievement and lowered incidence of failure. They’re both right, but that it is possible to learn to read without phonics ignores the value that such instruction adds for the overall population and the kids on the margins. Writing them off because some kids can learn without phonics is illogical (and a little mean, too).

4.     We all learn in different ways.

In some ways this is a corollary of the previous argument. The folks proposing this recognize the complexity and individuality of human beings. There’s a reason Baskin & Robbins doesn’t tout one flavor. We’re all different, we all like different things, different strokes for different folks, you say potato and I say… well, you get it.

This is a very appealing argument. You learn one way, I learn another, and if schools would simply vary their instruction to address the learning needs, styles, and tastes of everybody, we’d all be happier. Hell, that’s democracy! Viva, diversity!

And, we poor phonics idiots only have phonics to offer.

While that might seem like a bad trade, again, I turn to the research. Studies of reading show that anyone who learns to read English – no matter how they are taught – must master decoding (Barr, 1972; Biemiller, 1974), and brain studies show an incredible consistency in how this takes place in proficient readers (Dehaene, 2009).

Basically, research says that as readers, we aren’t that diverse. We all process text in pretty much the same way. It makes greater sense to teach someone something they need to learn, rather than teaching them something else hoping they’ll figure it out.  

What that means is that, whether or not we teach phonics, is not a matter of learning style or taste, but effectiveness.

5.     There is more to reading than phonics.

Great argument. I used to try this one with my father when as a boy I didn’t want to eat my vegetables. “Dad, there is more to nutrition than just veggies. I’m eating my meat and drinking my milk.”

Dad wasn’t impressed with that tactic, and you shouldn’t be either.

My claim correct, you won’t be healthy if you only eat vegetables, but it was a distraction more than a real argument. Afterall, Dad was pro-protein and pro-calcium, too. The only reason he was so stridently insistent on the vegetables, was because I was hiding them under the edge of my plate instead of eating them – and when he challenged that practice, I made it sound like the argument was about who was most committed to a balanced diet, not whether I needed to eat my green beans.

I fear that we are engaged in that same dance step today. Someone isn’t including phonics instruction, and when anyone challenges that omission, the response emphasizes the importance of teaching reading comprehension or writing. “Please don’t notice the good things that we aren’t giving kids, just notice the other good things we are.”

As you can see, those five arguments against phonics, when considered carefully, hold no water.

And, what of the arguments for phonics?

I can think of only one: the only reason that I can think of for teaching phonics explicitly in the primary grades is because a large number of independent studies with a variety of approaches and methods have consistently found that providing such instruction to children gives them a clear advantage in learning to read. They, as a group, do better; we lose fewer kids off the lower end.

That’s the only reason, and it ain’t made of straw.

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Luqman Michel
Feb 14, 2020 07:28 PM

Tim, I have shared with you what I have learned from teaching more than 50 so-called dyslexic kids on a one on one basis as of 2017. You had said that teaching 50 kids cannot apply universally.

As of now I have taught more than 70 such kids and still maintain, by having observed them and 'interviewing them, that they shut-down from learning to read because phonemes of letters are taught wrongly.

The main reason why the 'Reading wars' have been going on for decades is that phonemes of letters are taught wrongly.

Kids shut-down when they get confused. Many kids interviewed on Children of the Code 15 years ago had clearly said that they were confused.

Why were they confused? They were confused because they could not connect the sounds of letters taught to the words they heard.

After writing about this since 2010 and commenting on blogs such as yours I have now produced YouTube videos on this and you are welcome to listen to them and decide.

There are corroborative evdence in my blog to back up my findings.

Here is my first video on why kids shut down from learning to read.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGGr4uyFdn4

Patricia Blauch
Feb 15, 2020 06:06 PM

I believe explicit phonics should be taught...at the K-1 level. I teach 3rd grade and my district has started a big push this year for explicit phonics instruction at every grade level K-5. I have six ESE students who receive push-in services for reading. Their ESE instructor has been trained in a specific phonics program and that is all she does with the six students. In order for them to receive additional meaning based reading instruction (where I've always tried to incorporate reading, word work and writing with students reading two grade levels below), I have to pull them in two small groups (they are on such different levels) meaning I neglect my on level and above level kids. Or, I have to pull them during another content area and give everybody else something they can do on their own. This has been very frustrating for me this year. I feel like I'm drowning...and doing all the work by myself. Perhaps a wiser solution would have been to train all the K-1 teachers in explicit phonics instruction this year so those students would be successful as they moved through the grade levels. Will the older students be successful if we ONLY give them phonics instruction?

Sarah Hromada
Feb 15, 2020 06:46 PM

Thank you Dr. Shanahan for your phonics advocacy! It will be fantastic when all our K-1 students receive appropriate systematic phonics and they have the necessary foundation for reading. In the meantime, there are K-12 students and high school graduates who, undetected, are missing the foundational phonics and phonemic awareness skills. How do we address the needs of those students (& graduates)?

Timothy Shanahan
Feb 15, 2020 07:09 PM

Patricia--

Some older students will be successful only with phonics instruction, and many more will gain smaller benefits from it -- but generally, phonics is one (of several) things that if taught will give our children a real advantage. Thanks for your efforts, but you shouldn't be all alone out there.

tim

Timothy Shanahan
Feb 15, 2020 07:11 PM

Sarah and Patricia--

Just a reminder... research studies show clear learning benefits from phonics for kids in grades PreK-2 (older, remedial students may benefit, too, but for regular classrooms PreK-2).

Nancy Rose Steinbock, M.A., CCC-SLP
Feb 15, 2020 07:18 PM

I am a speech-language pathologist who has worked with under-diagnosed or misdiagnosed children with reading disorders for 40 years. Under the tutelage of language specialists in the field from City University of New York (CUNY) in the late 1970's, as older child language disorders began to be seen as, often, a part of the continuum of language-learning difficulties begun during the emergent speech/language years, I learned about Orton-Gillingham (before Wilson and before balanced literacy programs). Along with other language development strategies, I deployed systematic phonics utilizing a classic program which is rarely mentioned,
Explode the Code. I still use it to this day and used it for years in my bilingual language lab, Inglese Dinamic, Venice, Italy and here now in America with EL adult students. It is a staple of my intervention with challenged learners in my current practice and as part of our intervention methodology (www.mvllp.org). The 8 books cover all of the essentials and with the later books, even teaching active reading strategies before reading text, can be covered.

Teachers are burdened with curriculum demands and the programs that purportedly drive them. Students are burdened with too much technology, losing basic skills along the way because often, they have not been taught in the last number of years. Phonics is not boring if taught dynamically, systematically and with the knowledge and understanding that it drives mastery of 'the code'. Teaching programs have often focused on whole language approaches, and have not insisted upon teachers knowing intimately the language they mostly teach in -- English and English language structures (and the history of them!). Liberal arts teaching has declined in the face of all of this.

Teach phonics in an orderly, systematic manner. Combine it, particularly in the k-1 years with syllable segmentation, with print awareness and rhythm. Later, focus on onset-rime schemes, morphology and the aesthetics of language -- rhyme, rhythm, roots -- to build knowledge and rapid recognition. Pair these concepts with cursive writing instruction to build personal identity and yes, the art of language.

Nancy Rose Steinbock, M.A., CCC-SLP
Feb 15, 2020 07:18 PM

I am a speech-language pathologist who has worked with under-diagnosed or misdiagnosed children with reading disorders for 40 years. Under the tutelage of language specialists in the field from City University of New York (CUNY) in the late 1970's, as older child language disorders began to be seen as, often, a part of the continuum of language-learning difficulties begun during the emergent speech/language years, I learned about Orton-Gillingham (before Wilson and before balanced literacy programs). Along with other language development strategies, I deployed systematic phonics utilizing a classic program which is rarely mentioned,
Explode the Code. I still use it to this day and used it for years in my bilingual language lab, Inglese Dinamic, Venice, Italy and here now in America with EL adult students. It is a staple of my intervention with challenged learners in my current practice and as part of our intervention methodology (www.mvllp.org). The 8 books cover all of the essentials and with the later books, even teaching active reading strategies before reading text, can be covered.

Teachers are burdened with curriculum demands and the programs that purportedly drive them. Students are burdened with too much technology, losing basic skills along the way because often, they have not been taught in the last number of years. Phonics is not boring if taught dynamically, systematically and with the knowledge and understanding that it drives mastery of 'the code'. Teaching programs have often focused on whole language approaches, and have not insisted upon teachers knowing intimately the language they mostly teach in -- English and English language structures (and the history of them!). Liberal arts teaching has declined in the face of all of this.

Teach phonics in an orderly, systematic manner. Combine it, particularly in the k-1 years with syllable segmentation, with print awareness and rhythm. Later, focus on onset-rime schemes, morphology and the aesthetics of language -- rhyme, rhythm, roots -- to build knowledge and rapid recognition. Pair these concepts with cursive writing instruction to build personal identity and yes, the art of language.

Meg
Feb 15, 2020 08:38 PM

Thank you for continue to advocate for foundational reading skills, including phonics! Do you have a recommendation as far as a resource that should be used systematically within a school and/or district?

Sam Bommarito
Feb 15, 2020 08:59 PM

I've long believed that phonics are necessary but not sufficient for learning to read. While a few folks do learn to read without systematic phonics instruction I would never in a million years count on that to work on a district level. It is getting harder to find folks absolutely against teaching phonics. I've brought up to you before the research around analytic vs synthentic phonics. As you well know, the key is systematic phonics. Since I am not aware of any phonics program that is 100% effective (or any other education program that is 100% effective) and I spent several decades meeting the needs of kids for whom the mainstream program wasn't working, it is important that teachers be schooled in all the various ways to teach phonics. If one approach fails to work then the other is waiting in the wings. One point that you have convinced me of over the years is that many teachers are not spending enough time on phonics instruction. The other point that I think all agree on is that teachers need more instruction on the teaching of phonics, with the provisio that that includes all approches that lend themselves to systematic instruction. Thanks for listening. Thanks for the post.

Harriett
Feb 15, 2020 09:15 PM

You make too much sense, Tim! And here's more support for your arguments:

British Educational Research Journal Vol. 45, No. 6, December 2019, pp. 1220–1234
DOI: 10.1002/berj.3559
The importance of early phonics improvements for predicting later reading comprehension
Kit S. Double* , Joshua A. McGrane, Jamie C. Stiff and Therese N. Hopfenbeck Department of Education, University of Oxford, UK

The role of phonics instruction in early reading development has been the subject of significant conjecture. Recently, England implemented a phonics screening check to assess the phonetic decoding of 6-year-old students, to ensure that all students master this foundational literacy skill and attain adequate phonemic awareness in the early years of primary schooling. Students who fail this check are obliged to retake the assessment the following year. In this article, we compare the performance of students who initially pass this check (pass) and students who fail the original assessment but pass the retaken assessment (fail–pass), with students who fail both the original and retaken assessments (fail–fail). Using data from the Key Stage 1 assessment of reading and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), we examined the reading comprehension performance of these students approximately 1 and 4 years after their first phonics screening. The results suggested that fail–pass students performed substantially better than fail–fail students, even after performance on the initial phonics check was controlled for. While fail–pass students do not appear to entirely catch up with pass students in reading comprehension, their relatively better performance underscores the importance of intervening for those students who are identified as having problems with phonetic decoding to increase their likelihood of success at reading comprehension in later schooling.

Diane
Feb 15, 2020 09:31 PM

Hi
I teach adults to read and write using phonics ( City Phonics at City of Glasgow College Scotland). I have been an adult literacy tutor for 20 years and this programme’s logic and structure has offered my students a calmness, helping to erase their lack of confidence and allowing them to progress and achieve. Phonics isn’t just for kids ???? https://www.tes.com/news/phonics-isnt-just-kids-it-works-adults-too?amp

Debbie
Feb 15, 2020 09:53 PM

Dear Tim,

Phonics instruction is necessary k-2. It can also be beneficial for some students with reading difficulties who lack foundational understanding. What I am worried about is the “effective educators” who are following this recent call to action and are throwing out other instructional practices to primarily focus on phonics. We have K teachers doing an hour of phonics based on an orton approach with no real scope and sequence and including questionable practices like crossing the midline and eye tracking. Then we have teachers at higher grades spending a week learning phonics instruction from
IMSE and taking 20 minutes of an 8th grade ELA lesson to do a whole class cat/kite rule. While the renewed emphasis on the importance of phonics is welcome, how do we get these bandwagon educators from taking solid approaches and interpreting them in a superficial manner that will cause damage down the road? What makes it even harder some of these supporters have limited classroom experience and training but are in administrative positions.

Paul Chamberlain
Feb 15, 2020 11:37 PM

As a retired educator, I was a firm believer in phonics from grades K-2 (my district actually went up to grade 3 if needed. That said, there was so much information put out there the last couple of decades that phonics didn’t work past that age level. In your opinion, should phonics be taught at any grade level deemed necessary? If yes, boy did I blow it!

Jane Grsovenor
Feb 16, 2020 02:43 AM

As an Orton Gillingham trained Dyslexia tutor I have witnessed many students experiencing success with systematic phonics instruction. Some of these students have been diagnosed with Dyslexia, but we also get students that have not been taught systematic phonics and are not reading in upper elementary school. I also know that most teachers do not have any experience in phonics instruction and they are very resistant because of what they have learned in University and what is promoted in their school systems. I recently worked in a city school system for three semesters and when I tried to encourage the other teachers to teach phonics they were not at all receptive. It seems like we still have a long way to go.

Jane Grosvenor
Feb 16, 2020 02:46 AM

As an Orton Gillingham trained Dyslexia tutor I have witnessed many students experiencing success with systematic phonics instruction. Some of these students have been diagnosed with Dyslexia, but we also get students that have not been taught systematic phonics and are not reading in upper elementary school. I also know that most teachers do not have any experience in phonics instruction and they are very resistant because of what they have learned in University and what is promoted in their school systems. I recently worked in a city school system for three semesters and when I tried to encourage the other teachers to teach phonics they were not at all receptive. It seems like we still have a long way to go.

Tim Shanahan
Feb 16, 2020 03:50 AM

Debbie-
It would be as terrible for teachers to leave out any feature of research proven to be beneficial to kids’ reading... often however teachers do a lot of activities that they just like or that someone told them were beneficial without any proof. Those kinds of activities can’t be at the same priority level as those research proven practices.

Tim

Tim Shanahan
Feb 16, 2020 03:52 AM

Paul

Research supports phonics in PreK through grade 2 and with older readers who are particularly low in decoding.

Tim

Lisa
Feb 16, 2020 10:47 AM

Learning the code and patterns of our language is thrilling to most students. We tell our teacher trainees that "phonics is as boring as you make it." Once you understand the history and science behind English, it is fascinating. And any child who struggles will gladly learn multisensory and systematic phonics instruction over guessing, memorizing words, or looking at the pictures as a "reading" strategy.

Jamie Fries
Feb 16, 2020 11:31 AM

This is great, Tim. One argument (which is not against phonics, but rather against skewing teaching exlusively to phonics) is outlined in this TES article I wrote a while back: https://www.tes.com/news/phonics-essential-alone-it-not-enough

In short, if the levers of government are deployed to ensure phonics is taught in every school (as per England), then we must be careful that other areas of reading - reading for pleasure, comprehension, vocabulary development - are not sidelined. Which is what many teachers feel has happened in England.

Debbie Hepplewhite
Feb 16, 2020 01:32 PM

Many thanks, Tim, for this post. It's very useful so I've added it to the 'Research and Recommended Reading' forum at the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction here:

https://iferi.org/iferi_forum/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=1344&p=2752#p2752

Best wishes,

Debbie

Ana Pazos
Feb 16, 2020 02:12 PM

Thank you for your blog and for bringing clarity by relying on empirical evidence. I agree that directly and explicitly teaching phonics within a balanced reading model serves most kids. Yes, some kids learn to read through osmosis, but most don’t. Interesting that many who do may find spelling multisyllabic words to be challenging when they hit the upper elementary grades, because they do not have a phonics toolbox to rely on. The work of my colleague Judy Cohen is an example of how phonics can be taught in a consistent and engaging way to all learners.

The curriculum is the path followed by the student and therefore a consistent approach to phonics across grade levels seems to yield more success. For example, if R-controlled is called bossy r, r-controlled or something else in every grade, the student may take longer to internalize the rule. However, if across grades we refer to the pattern in the same way it may be easier for students. In my practice I find that silent e is more consistently taught and students seems to know it best. Is that the reason, or is it it’s simplicity that makes it easier to learn. Would you agree that a consistent pedagogical approach is preferable?

Bruce Howlett
Feb 16, 2020 02:22 PM

The complexities of phonics are a reflection of the complexities of English phonology. As every second language learner knows, English’s sound structure is very complex with many confusing phonemes (44 vs. 28 in Spanish), hard-to-discriminate vowel sounds (16 vs. five in Spanish), and an exceptional array of consonant clusters. This makes English not only hard to speak but results in high rates of reading disabilities.
Since reading problems are phonological in nature developing phonemic awareness, not just phonics, is necessary to grasp sound structure of English. It is phonemic awareness when coupled with letters that is effective remediation for post-primary students.
I know you aren't a fan of David Kilpatrick's concept of phoneme proficiency but having older students perform phoneme analysis, substitution and other manipulation tasks moves learning disabled students quickly from decoding to word recognition/ orthographic mapping -- with the side benefit of fluency gains and self-confidence.

Mel Fann
Feb 16, 2020 02:46 PM

Thank you for crafting this clear and concise post. In the district I’m working with as a consultant, there is a huge percentage (70%) of secondary students who are reading four to five grade levels below a typical student. Nothing is being done to address this deficit. I realize that this stems from Tier 1 issue in the elementary grades, but this group of students will move along without the fundamental skills if something is not being done to improve foundational skills. It is too late to go back and teach phonics to thousands of secondary students. What would you suggest?

Joan Sedita
Feb 16, 2020 06:13 PM

Thanks Tim as always for connecting research to instruction in a way that is easy for teachers to understand. And so glad you addressed the 5th argument -- that there is more to reading than just phonics instruction. Too often when someone tries to explain the benefits of phonics (as you are with your first to fourth bullets) there is an incorrect assumption that this person means "only phonics". By including your fifth bullet you addressed that possible criticism. I'm also glad that several folks asked about phonics for older struggling readers, and that you responded by saying it can be helpful for students who still struggle with decoding skills. I'd like to add a bit more to the conversation about older struggling readers, having worked with thousands of them from 1975-1999 at the Landmark School and more recently in my work with public schools. First point - about phonics: Part of appropriate intervention instruction for many older students, especially those with dyslexia, should include phonics instruction, but that instruction needs to be modified to address their needs as older students. The instructional principles are the same as for young children (i.e., multisensory, systematic and explicit, gradual release of responsibility), but the materials used (including the decodable text for developing automaticity) need to be age-appropriate. When older students are asked to use "babyish" materials from phonics programs designed for primary grades, it makes them feel foolish. Also, it is often the case that these students have "swiss cheese holes" in their phonics instruction. That is, teachers need to be careful to not assume that more basic phonics concepts have been learned simply because the student has mastered some more advanced patterns. Second point - about other components of reading: Just as Tim has pointed out that beginning reading instruction for young ones must include vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, etc., intervention educators who work with older struggling readers needs to address these other components of reading AT THE SAME TIME as they provide remedial support for phonics. Unfortunately, I sometimes see schools where special education or reading specialists become trained in a quality phonics intervention program (a good thing!), but because this is what they have been trained to do, they only focus on decoding for intervention instruction. If older students have been struggling for years with decoding, then it is highly likely that their vocabularies are low and they have limited comprehension strategies for tackling complex text. This is because their lack of decoding skills has prohibited them from doing significant reading. What I want to emphasize is that schools need to be sure that an intervention plan for older struggling readers includes explicit instruction in any and all reading components that are weak. Furthermore, research finds that this intervention instruction must be intensive and provided by trained specialists. See Kamil et al., 2008, I.E.S. report "Improving Adolescent Literacy" https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/docs/practiceguide/adlit_pg_082608.pdf The final point I want to make is that it is important for teachers of older struggling readers to continue to teach them reading skills because these kids can make significant progress if they are just given the right instruction. Sadly, too often in middle and high schools any time that is found for intervention is used to give students untimed tests or help them with their homework and organization skills. Intervention time is precious time that can be used to help grow literacy skills!

Dr. Lora Lepisto Brown
Feb 16, 2020 09:37 PM

Hello Tim and others~
I agree... explicit, systematic phonics instruction is critical in nurturing successful life-time readers! I serve as a consutant for Minnesota Reading Corps. The past two years I also served as a master coach for the Family Child Care pilot project... where we put well trained early literacy tutors into family child-care settings. We worked with all the children ... even toddlers were singing the songs and doing the letter names/letter sounds, rhyming, alliteration and even syllables with us. We used the 'repeated reading' model for literacy and did expliscit instruction on vocabulary development. The children in all of the sites flourished... and were delightfully eager to 'do it again' each morning! There are ways to make early phonemic awareness enjoyable... and effective. We, as a team~ gave each child a 'gift of a life-time'!
Lora

Tim Shanahan
Feb 17, 2020 03:28 AM

Mel-
If high school students are reading at fifth grade and above, I would suggest two things specifically (not phonics). One would be fluency work (repeated reading, paired reading, etc.). Another would be to work with grade level texts and to scaffold success (check my website on teaching with complex text).

Tim

David Boulton
Feb 17, 2020 12:39 PM

Item 2 (your push back on "English spelling is too inconsistent for phonics to make sense") reminds me of Venezky* and others who, already literate and using sophisticated computer pattern analysis, say "look there are patterns, it's not so irregular". The issue isn't what adult abstract analysis says about the regularity it's about how the complexity within the regularity (and irregularity) exacerbates the challenge of learning to read for children's minds.

Note: Click on any word on this page to experience Interactive Orthography.
How Do Kids Learn to Read? What the Science DOESN’T Say!
by Learning-Activist on October 14, 2019 in Capital Value Case, Children of the Code, Comments on other sites, Technology for Learning

In this excerpt from his lecture on “How the Brain Learns to Read”, (https://www.learningstewards.org/how-do-kids-learn-to-read-what-the-science-doesnt-say/) Professor Dehaene (starting at 1:24) discusses the effects of orthographic irregularity on the difficulty of learning to read. WHY can children learn Italian in 3 months but require 2-3 years to learn to read English?

*See Paradigm Inertia in Reading Science and Policy: https://www.learningstewards.org/paradigm-inertia-part3/

Rachel Owen
Feb 18, 2020 04:58 PM

Thank you for mentioning right away that we have to teach with enthusiasm, even if we are teaching basic phonics instruction. I was inspired to teach with pep and enthusiasm early in my career after attending a workshop with Anita Archer, PhD of Explicit Instruction. I know from experience that you can get buy-in from older kids for phonics instruction if you keep it moving and you help them recognize when they are improving.

Emily
Feb 20, 2020 03:59 PM

Thank you! I appreciate the format of this article and the concise, thoughtful answers. I hear these arguments often and I am now better equipped to have a meaningful discussion with those that argue against explicit phonics instruction.

Sharon England
Feb 21, 2020 07:20 PM

Hi.
I agree with almost everything you say, but:

When a systematic phonics teaching programme is policy in schools, in my experience many teachers teach it exclusively. Often this results in:
Many other reading opportunities being abandoned.
Rigid teaching practices adopted, moving swiftly through the programme with "Sound of the day/ week" etc.and many children ( particularly those with additional needs, specific literacy difficulties etc.) are constantly moved on before they have secure grasp.
Comprehension skills are not rigorously taught.
Reading for enjoyment disappears from the classroom.
Commonly, many children "voice" breath sounds and as a result have huge difficulty coping with blends, digraphs and then longer words.
Teaching of long vowel sounds doesn't work in some accents. (e.g. here in Northern Ireland).

I currently work privately with children aged 8 to 14, all poor or non readers who have been through the "synthetic phonics" programme. Not one of them could clearly voice even the short vowel sounds.
I take them through a systematic programme based on phonics, spelling, reading and writing, story comprehension, grammar and punctuation, overlearning, constant revision and practice.
This works...it has elements of the old Alpha to Omega programme.
These kids are learning to read, smoothly, quickly and are enjoying it. Their confidence and self esteem is hugely improved after years of "failing" with a diet of phonics only teaching.
I am a retired teacher. I taught in primary schools in England and N. Ireland, SEN schools, as Literacy curriculum leader, Outreach learning support and SEBD teacher.

Christy Corbett
Feb 22, 2020 02:56 PM

Kids must have phonics instruction BUT they can’t learn phonics without phonemic awareness first!! Up to 20% lack phonemic awareness: the ability to detect the individual sounds within words. If a child can’t tell what sounds are in a word, how except by memorizing, could they recognize it? Or know what letters to assign to spell it? I have used PA and symbol imaging direct one-on-one instruction with 45 dyslexic students once a week, parents practicing at home, I use a combination of Lindamood Bell’s Seeing Stars and LiPS . Students come up multiple grade levels in six months to one year. I also start them with decodable readers. Kids want to read, but shut down quickly without early success. Students must develop phonemic awareness and the ability to image symbols before they can learn phonics and become fluent readers.

Marc Ford
Mar 19, 2020 03:06 PM

I am a ESL teacher in Hong Kong, and run a phonics website, I completely agree and in fact it is almost a daily battle to prove its worth. The issue I face most often is that it has to be the ''NET'' who teaches it rather than the local teachers, i push for it to be curriculum wide but so far with limited results. I agree with all of your points, and have used some of them to try to combat this. Unfortunately until its part of the testing culture or at least a major part of the curriculum I cant see it happening just yet. If you get a chance feel free to popover to mine and see what you think.

Maryjo Flamm-Miller
Apr 05, 2020 10:31 PM

My teaching experience has shown me that a child knowing how to encode (spell) is a more powerful use of phoneme knowledge than decoding (reading). Encoding requires an active application of letter sounds and rime patterns. Encoding focuses on constructing words, rather than dismantling them, an enjoyable activity for most children.

monika jeanie
Jul 12, 2020 01:00 PM

Thank you to drlawrencespelltemple @ g m a i l . c o m for stopping our divorce and reuniting me and my husband back together. You can contact Dr Lawrence via his email or via whats-app+ (1) 64-6974-0969 hope this helps someone out here

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *
Name*
Email*
Website
Comments

How to Knock Down Five Strawman Arguments Against Phonics

34 comments

One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.