“Questions regarding the nature, extent, and role of phonics instruction in beginning reading programs are not a modern phenomenon. These concerns have existed in public education for over three hundred years. Throughout the history of reading instruction, phonics, like other methods, has had its high moments and its low moments—from being essential to being ignored.”
The quote above is an excerpt from Dr. Edmund V. Starrett’s book on the role of phonics in reading instruction. His book offers an informative look into the history of phonics in American education, from The New England Primer to Horace Mann’s dismissal of this old method of teaching.
Following Mann’s support of the whole-word method of reading instruction, McGuffey’s First Eclectic Reader was published. This book propelled American education into a new era of teaching that lasted until the 1950s when critics turned opinion back toward the old way of reading instruction.
Today, American educators still debate the value and drawbacks of various methods of teaching students how to read. While seemingly old-fashioned, the foundational aspects of phonics have lasted the centuries because they work so well. The popularity of phonics-based reading may ebb and flow, but the method always seems to make a comeback as one alternative after another fails to adequately succeed.
A child’s reading comprehension level is a huge predictor of their future success or failure in life—which means the stakes are high when it comes to choosing the best reading instruction method. Despite decades of debate, phonics remains one of the most useful literacy and reading comprehension tools available to teachers. Why? Let’s take a closer look…
The Basics of Phonics
What exactly is phonics?
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, phonics is “the science of sound,” or “a method of teaching beginners to read and pronounce words by learning the phonetic value of letters, letter groups, and especially syllables.”
The National Literacy Trust explains it this way: “Phonics is a way of teaching children how to read and write. It helps children hear, identify and use different sounds that distinguish one word from another in the English language … Phonics involves matching the sounds of spoken English with individual letters or groups of letters.”
As a method of teaching students how to read, phonics starts with the basics and then builds on that foundation. Children Learning Reading explains the basic process for phonics-based reading: “It is through phonics that a child just beginning to read learns to first identify the letters, then associate each letter or groups of letters with its correct sounds, and soon after, through the process of blending they learn how to merge the sounds together to form a complete word. This step, when mastered, will help beginners to become proficient readers.”
Eventually, the new reader’s fluency and reading comprehension expand, and their reading journey has begun!
Why Is Phonics Important
Struggling readers often rely on a single reading strategy that may include pictures or rely on the context of the word within its paragraph. Pictures and context can offer the reader clues, helping them to read the word based on deductive reasoning instead of actually linking the letters together to form the correct word. Poor readers often have an insufficient grasp of phonics and other foundational concepts, leaving them perpetually guessing at the next word.
Scholastic suggests that “to become skilled, fluent readers, children need to have a repertoire of strategies to draw on. These strategies include using a knowledge of sound-spelling relationships — in other words, an understanding of phonics. In addition, research has shown that skilled readers attend to almost every word in a sentence and process the letters that compose each of these words.”
Scholastic goes on to explain that phonics plays a key role in helping students comprehend text. Phonics-based reading enables the student to decode words using a map of sounds and spelling.
“Decoding words aids in the development of word recognition, which in turn increases reading fluency.” Scholastic states, “Reading fluency improves reading comprehension because as students are no longer struggling with decoding words, they can concentrate on making meaning from the text.”
Phonics-based reading strategies offer students a solid foundation for their reading career. Reading fluency and comprehension enrich the child’s experience with books of all types, from textbooks to fantastic adventure novels. Not only will their childhood benefit, but a solid grasp of reading foundational principles will ultimately further their adult endeavors. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the ability to read competently.
What the Research Says
After decades of the “reading wars” between phonics-based teaching and other methods, it became clear that more research was required.
Congress convened the National Reading Panel in 1997. The Panel’s goal was to identify the best way to teach students to read and to assess the most important factors that affect a child’s ability to learn this important skill.
Below is a summary of a few of the Panel’s findings:
- Parents and other important influencers have a crucial role in providing children with age-appropriate reading experiences, beginning at an early age. This strategy can encourage long-term reading development.
- It’s important to identify early on which children are likely to struggle with reading. Early intervention can be extremely beneficial for these students.
- Phonemic awareness is extremely important.
According to The National Reading Panel, “Scientific evidence shows that teaching children to manipulate the sounds in language (phonemes) helps them learn to read. This remains true under a variety of teaching conditions and with a variety of learners across a range of grade and age levels. The NRP concluded that teaching phonemic awareness to children significantly improves their reading when compared to instruction without any attention to phonemic awareness. Specifically, the results of experimental studies led the Panel to conclude that PA [phonemic awareness] training led to improvement in students’ phonemic awareness, reading, and spelling.”
While the National Reading Panel continues to research and further the success of readers in America, their initial findings strongly support the use of phonetics-based teaching for reading.
Effect on Education Policy in the US
When Congress became involved in the “reading wars,” it became apparent that the issue was a serious one. Research and scientific data began to shape education policy at a legislative level. This surge in studies highlighted the incredible importance of phonics-based reading strategies.
The National Council on Teacher Quality explains the significant effect that the National Reading Panel’s findings had on American education policy. “The findings of the National Reading Panel were so conclusive and clear that they became the foundation for federal legislation. Under the Clinton administration, the NICHD research findings formed the basis of the National Reading Excellence Act of 1998, a small program that promoted research-based methods but contained no follow-up monitoring. Replacing it was the Reading First (RF) and Early Reading First (ERF) initiatives, heralded as the academic cornerstones of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which greatly expanded President Clinton’s earlier effort.”
The importance of teaching phonics-based reading is still shaping policy today. For instance, NC Policy Watch notes that in April of this year, Governor Roy Cooper signed into law a new bill requiring a phonics-based approach to teaching students to read.
Teaching phonics-based reading should be a crucial aspect of American education. Everyone— from parents and students to teachers and politicians—should be involved in advocating this evidence-based strategy.
Other Benefits to A Phonics-Based Approach
There is a distinct correlation between reading and writing—and it’s undeniably beneficial for a child to be skilled in both. A child who reads well will likely have an easier time learning to write. Along with its many other advantages, phonics helps prepare a student for better writing skills.
LiteracyIdeas states, “Initially, phonics reaps rich rewards for students in terms of the passive skill of reading. This is also known as decoding. Later, the student’s knowledge of phonics can help them develop the active skill of writing or encoding. For this reason, teachers will often weave emergent writing skills, such as letter formation, into their phonics lessons to take advantage of the opportunity to bridge this gap between the skills of reading and writing.”
In addition to a reading-spelling correlation for the average student, a recent study by ScienceDirect indicates that phonics-based reading strategies can specifically aid students with intellectual disabilities.
The study concludes, “Students from the treatment group made significantly more progress in word and nonword reading measured by a researcher-designed test with a medium effect size … These findings suggest that students with ID [intellectual disability] benefit from phonics-based programs integrating research-based approaches and techniques.”
Teaching phonics-based reading is an important tool in the hands of American educators. Studies and data have presented a strong case for phonics-based learning. However, the debate continues. As more research becomes available, students will continue to benefit from the latest science on reading instruction methods.
For now, the short-term and long-term benefits of teaching phonics-based reading continue to show promising fruit. Centuries of avid readers and competent writers offer convincing proof of the method’s success.
Educators and parents should endeavor to work together to make informed, evidence-based decisions for the well-being of each student. Phonics-based reading is a viable and time-tested option that should be considered.