I am surprised that you are such a staunch advocate of phonics. English is a very complex language and teaching young children the sounds and letters won’t change that. Most letters and spelling patterns in English are not regular (not only the Dolch words, but lots of other words, too). It is just discouraging having to spend so much time teaching skills that can’t possibly work. I’ve taught for a long time, and I feel so sorry for these children given what I am required to teach now. I am so discouraged that I want to retire. This makes no sense. You could help teachers if you would just speak out against this silliness.
Take a breath.
Your observations aren’t crazy, but your conclusion is way off. Maybe I can help with that.
I recognize the complexities of English – that’s what you are right about. But there is also a great deal of systematicity or regularity to the language as well. So much regularity, in fact, that phonics can be quite useful – if you (and your students) grasp how phonics works or its raison d’être.
That’s why so many studies have found that teaching phonics boosts reading ability, which is why I promote it.
Many observers, like you, recognize that even in the best of situations readers trying to sound out words are going to make a lot of mistakes. There are many irregularities, exceptions, and conditionalities in the English spelling system, and a good deal of its regularity is not due to phonology.
For instance, think of a spelling pattern like ea (in words like beat, great, and bread). How is a student supposed to know which sound to use when he/she comes across a pattern like that? Of course, they’ll err sometimes, trying out the wrong sounds, making the wrong choices.
That isn’t a problem though.
The point of phonics isn’t to provide readers with exactly correct pronunciations of words, but only close approximations (Cunningham, 1975-1976). Its aim is to get readers to look at all the letters in a word (Venezky, no date)– not the word’s shape or first letter or the pictures on the page. Phonics instruction should tip students off to some of the more frequent and useful orthographic patterns, but it never attempts to impart them all. An ambitious phonics program usually introduces no more than 60-70 patterns over 2-3 years, not a 10th of all the patterns linguists have identified.
The patterns that are taught are ones that are consistent enough to be useful and that come up frequently enough that they can provide reading support.
Additionally, introducing frequent and somewhat consistent patterns awakens an awareness of the existence of such patterns. Humans have amazing pattern recognition capabilities (that’s why some can learn to read simply by memorizing a bunch of words), but more kids will become sensitive to patterns if instruction tips them off that they are there.
You may have noticed that proficient readers don’t usually sound out words, and every first-grade teacher has observed students who struggle to remember words early in the year, but who later master new words without effort. Again, the point of phonics isn’t to enable overt sounding out, though that is unavoidable early on. No, the point is to reshape memory so that students remember words easily.
Finally, phonics should sensitize students to alternative sound-symbol relations and spelling patterns. That way when misreading a word like bread as “breed,” the student has available some other pronunciation choices for that ea.
Proficient decoders must be flexible, sensitive to orthographic patterns, comfortable with approximate results, and self-correcting. This has long been understood by researchers (e.g., Gibson & Levin, 1975). Critics of phonics expect too much of it and, consequently, reject it as being too primitive to overcome the limits and meet the expectations that they themselves have supposed.
Likewise, some educators and phonics promoters make the same mistake. They confuse phonics – a relatively simple and effective way for getting reading started – with phonetics, the complex science of speech sounds. This may result in curriculum and instruction that is overly consistent – ignoring, nay denying, irregularities in the system. That approach may deter some children from accomplishing the real purposes of phonics.
Though the need to deal with these complexities in a flexible manner has long been recognized, it has generated very little research – until the past few years. Recently, there has been a great deal of correlational investigation into the importance of cognitive flexibility in decoding. Enough convincing, high-quality work to conclude flexibility to be an essential property of proficient decoding ability. Kids who lack that kind of flexibility are at a disadvantage.
I wish I could say that the instructional research offers a discrete and specific instructional prescription for transforming all kids into flexible decoders. We’re not there yet. But several appear promising – at least under some conditions, and none appear to be either sufficient in and of themselves nor mutually exclusive of the others (Colenbrander, Wang, Arrow, & Castles, 2020).
How can we develop proficient decoding ability without engendering a too-rigid response from our students? How can we teach the systematic nature of the spelling system while fostering the cognitive flexibility needed to take full advantage of it? Certainly, a program of explicit phonics instruction is central to that goal, but some additional supports may help with the flexibility part of that.
Have kids memorize high frequency words, particularly those that are spelled irregularly. I know some critics claim such memorization is harmful, but Colenbrander and company rightfully challenge those claims. Their well-researched conclusions: “Instruction of a small set of frequent, functionally useful irregular words, in addition to instruction in regular grapheme-phoneme correspondences, has been shown to be effective for typical readers and children with reading difficulties. There is no evidence that teaching irregular sight words alongside regular grapheme-phoneme correspondences is harmful for children or results in ‘unlearning’ of existing grapheme-phoneme correspondences. There is also some evidence that sight word instruction can result in generalization to words that are similarly spelled” (Colenbrander, et al., 2020, p. 98). Building a stock of irregularly spelled words in memory may help students to recognize some of the complications of the spelling system. (Don’t go crazy with this. Five minutes a day is probably more than enough time to ensure that all first graders know the 100 most frequent words and that second graders know the 300 most frequent words).
Several recent studies have focused on guiding students to correct mispronunciations in reading. Oral reading creates opportunities for such correction, but the lessons in these studies have been more explicit and specific, focusing only on irregular words. Basically, students are taught how to correct their mistakes. “If what is first produced does not sound like something already known from listening, a child has to change one or more of the sound associations (most probably a vowel) and try again” (Venezky, 1999). Approaches that have been tried include having students correct puppets’ reading errors, guided analysis of the mispronounced words to connect their spellings with their pronunciations (my favorite), and strategic steps in which students question themselves as to whether a word is correct or not and what other words sound like that.
Cartwright and colleagues have found that engaging students in word reading tasks that require sorting based on multiple criteria improves cognitive flexibility and reading fluency. For instance, students must sort four words into a 2X2 matrix, grouping the words simultaneously based on their initial consonant and semantic category. Thus, fish and face would be grouped together in the same row since they both begin with f but would go in different columns since face goes with tooth and fish with toad in terms of meaning. I can’t really figure out why this has worked so well or so consistently, but what the heck, it apparently helps.
Don Bear and colleagues have long proposed word categorizing activities that both emphasize consistency and generalization as well as the exceptions (Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, & Johnston, 2020). As they put it, “compare words that ‘do’ with words that ‘don’t’.” Thus, when kids are studying: she, he, we, and me, it makes sense to include exceptions to the pattern if there are any, in this case: the. Or, sometimes it is less about the exceptions or what they call “oddballs,” and more about introducing alternatives pronunciations bow, cow, how, now, pow, sow, vow, wow, chow versus bow, crow, flow, low, mow, row, sow, tow, show. That kind of lesson complicates things in a useful way for young readers.
One of the complicating factors in English orthography is that its regularity is based on more than phonology. Our spelling system represent sounds, but also meanings. The words themselves, of course, convey meaning, but the spelling does too. Think of how we usually indicate plurality. In oral language we add a sibilant sound at the end of a noun (/s/ or /z/). But we don’t do that in our spelling system. English spelling doesn’t attempt to represent the two different sounds, but instead to preserve the consistency of the plural meaning across words like cats and dogs. Many supposedly irregular words represent that consistency of meaning. Research shows that supplementing phonics instruction with explicit teaching of those kinds of semantic patterns can be beneficial (Bowers, Kirby, & Deacon, 2010). Here I like best structured word inquiry.
The purpose of decodable text is to provide practice in the application of phonics skills. To provide such practice, decodable texts tend to present a heavy dose of words with regular spelling patterns; a greater concentration is common in regular texts. We don’t want to mislead students into thinking that reading is quite that consistent and that sounding out words guarantees accuracy. I’m not recommending foregoing any potential practice benefits that may be derived from decodables (though research has not found them to improve learning), but I do suggest not limiting student reading to these texts. Those who claim it is harmful for children to try to read any texts that may include words tha may not yet be able to fully decode should provide evidence either that this is a problem or that a steady diet of decodables helps students to learn to read. Until then, let’s hedge our bets and cast the reading net a bit wider from the start – not necessarily to make the reading any harder (we are talking young children), but to expose them to more of the complicating features of how phonics works. Irregularly spelled words, if repeated frequently, are easy enough to learn. Structured word inquiry is great for this.
I know you think phonics can’t help students given the complexity of English. Research on learning says that is a baseless concern. However, research also indicates that phonics works best for readers when they recognize the need for flexible responses to words – recognizing the complexity and conditionality of spelling, monitoring their reading for errors, and considering alternative pronunciations.
I think it would be wise for you to embrace phonics instruction, but complicate a bit, so your students don’t miss the point. I think you’ll see that it really can help and I hope you can make some combination of these instructional approaches to flexibility work for your students as well.
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