We are all familiar with phonics. However, parents often can’t identify research-based instruction. Phonics is not enough. In fact, most phonics lessons are so butchered, they are far from science-based practices. If your child is having reading difficulties, he needs phonics that is: explicit, systematic, includes interleaving, uses mixed lists, includes phonemic awareness, limits teacher talk, uses delayed review, repetition (old sounds are not dropped from instruction too early), and retrieval practice. There are so many essential components of research-based phonics lessons, and so few educators are trained in these methods, that most children who struggle with reading today are instructional casualties.
Yes, kids who struggle may have a learning disability. However, even dyslexic children can learn to read well with research-based phonics practices. Thus, the current climate of reading failure is largely due to misinformed reading instruction.
Why is phonics important?
Whenever I refer to phonics in this post, I am talking about research-based phonics that includes all the components outlined above. This sort of researched-based phonics instruction is essential. It should be in every school. These lessons would nearly eradicate reading failure. They would also give dyslexic kids a chance to learn at a similar rate as their peers.
Decades of research prove that research-based reading instruction significantly improves reading outcomes, and virtually eliminates reading failure. With research-based phonics lessons, those cases of the child “who learned nothing in reading in kindergarten and first grade” would be nonexistent. Kids would no longer feel the shame and embarrassment from being one of the kids in the class who can’t read. Kids don’t understand that the teacher simply didn’t know how to teach them. They internalize their failure and begin to think they’re stupid.
Many parents are confused over phonics. They believe their child is being taught phonics at school. They see the school worksheets and lessons center on phonics. They’ve no idea that phonics is much too broad a term, and that real research-based instruction encompasses many other cognitive strategies aside from phonics: explicit, systematic lessons, interleaving, delayed review, retrieval practice, limited teacher talk, phonemic awareness… etc.
The research on the benefits of phonics is conclusive. Research-based phonics works.
In his excellent book Language at the Speed of Sight, cognitive science professor and reading researcher Mark Seidenberg writes:
“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).
The research is clear: many kids simply will not learn to read or will experience reading difficulties without explicit, systematic phonics instruction. Reading scientists are often in departments of Psychology and Cognitive Science. Unfortunately, Education professors tend to focus solely on education theory: they don’t look at the science. Education professors become inculcated in these flowery, political, educational theories that promise equity, yet continually fail children in real classrooms. The real world does not align with their theories.
Education professors still, to this day, after 50 years of conclusive research in strong favor of explicit, systematic phonics instruction, insist that mere “language exposure” and “balanced literacy” with quack methods like looking at pictures, can somehow help kids. Education professors insist that teaching kids to memorize books and guess at words is effective.
Departments of Education are responsible for teaching future teachers. Yet, they are woefully ill-equipping future teachers to teach reading. Education departments do not just neglect the reading science, they are giving pure unadulterated praise of methods that DON’T WORK and CAUSE reading failure.
Seidenberg rightfully lambasts education departments when he writes:
“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).
University teacher training programs are willfully teaching the OPPOSITE of what works. This would be like a doctor telling a celiac disease patient that their cure is a gluten diet. Or telling someone allergic to eggs that to avoid a reaction they must eat eggs. In the medical field, this would be considered medical malpractice. In education, this insistence on bunk “balanced literacy” guess and look at the picture reading methods, should be labeled what it is: educational malpractice.
Research based reading instruction is important, because 50 years of research prove its effectiveness.
In addition, early reading achievement predicts later reading outcomes. Thus, when a child struggles early on, they are likely to enter a vicious cycle of reading failure.
Many studies show the importance of research-based systematic phonics instruction. Early reading achievement is critical because it puts children on a virtuous cycle: they start learning to read in kindergarten so they read more and thus, become better readers.
Dykstra (1968) found in a study of 960 kids that:
“Reading achievement at the end of second grade correlated with reading at the end of first grade at values ranging from 0.60 or higher, showing that reading achievement is the best predictor of reading achievement” (McGuiness, Diane, 2000, p. 103).
Why is phonics important? Research-based phonics instruction ensures that kids learn to read in k-2.
In addition, as McGuiness highlights, early reading achievement is the best predictor of later reading achievement.
In other words, once a reading gap emerges, it’s very difficult to close. Kids need to learn to read right the first time. This gives them the best chance to be good readers later in life.
This makes sense because kids who learn to read early on, start working on fluency (reading speed) sooner. Reading speed is difficult to develop. The only way to become a fluent reader is to read voluminously. Kids who learn to read early on, develop better fluency. Thus, over time, they read even more.
Stanovich and Cunningham (1997), in a 10-year longitudinal study, found that first grade decoding skills predicted 11th grade reading volume. They corrected any differences due to intelligence. That is, they found that intelligence does not predict 11th grade reading volume, but 1st grade decoding skills do. That is a monumental finding. Thus, why is phonics important? Systematic phonics allows kids to develop a solid decoding foundation.
“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).
Phonics gives kids tools to decode words they’ve never seen before.
Unfortunately, many districts choose “balanced literacy” reading programs that teach sloppy, unsystematic phonics with “What makes sense there?” guessing methods. The student receives contradictory messages: the student thinks he’s supposed to use some phonics, but then, he ultimately guesses. The teacher pushes him to guess by asking, “What makes sense there?” and by saying, “Look at the picture.”
Let’s say the child has to read:
At the zoo, Rose the guide dog comforted the cheetah and helped the wild animal cope with human interactions.
Whole language teaches the child to look at the picture. Then, the teacher would ask, “What makes sense there?” The child would proceed to guess: “The dog helps the cheetah.” or “The dog and cheetah are friends.” Neither guess would be correct. The guessing method breaks down quickly. It is incredibly difficult, especially as texts become less predictable, to guess what the author will write next. If we always knew what the author would write next, why would we even read books? Whole language and balanced literacy do not work.
In contrast, systematic phonics instruction teaches kids to decode words sound-by-sound. They are also taught the first 100 sight words systematically. With science-based phonics, kids can decode any word no matter it’s predictability. They can read street signs, their science text books, novels or that one book about fungi they picked up at the library. And isn’t this goal?
Reading Elephant offers printable phonics books for k-1 students in our shop.
Reading Elephant printable phonics books introduce phonics sounds gradually. Kids can learn to read one phonics sound accurately and fluently before they learn another.
Cunningham, Anne E. & Stanovich, Keith E. (1998) What Reading Does for the Mind. American Educator/American Federation of Teachers.
Dehaene, Stanislaus. (2009). Reading in the Brain: the New Science of How We Read.
Seidenberg, Mark (2017) Language at the Speed of Sight.