Common Objections to Phonics

Phonics is popular but there are critics who challenge its benefits.  Find out the most common concerns about phonics and see our evaluations of them.

As we’ve mentioned in a previous article, there have been several independent reviews of the research done on reading instruction. 

Every one of these major reviews has concluded that teaching phonics should be a central part of reading instruction for beginners.

Yet, in spite of these conclusions, there are still a number of vocal critics of phonics instruction.  We’ve provided an evaluation of some of the common objections below…

Click here for a summary of this article, or browse the contents of the main article below…

Contents:

Summary…

Common objections to phonics and the counterarguments to these objections include:

  • Learning phonics prevents children from reading real books
    Phonics teachers ask children to practise reading easily decodable books when they are first learning to read. However, they also encourage parents to read a wide variety of popular books to their children to improve their comprehension and stimulate their interest in reading for pleasure.
  • Phonics doesn’t help reading comprehension
    Word recognition is essential for comprehension and phonics is the most reliable method of identifying words. Research shows that children given systematic phonics instruction understand texts better than children taught using alternative strategies.
  • The “Drill and Skill” in phonics puts kids off reading
    Drilling is just another name for practising basic skills and this is an essential part of learning. Children become more competent readers the more they practise phonics and this makes them enjoy reading more.  Practice can be done in fun and engaging ways.
  • Most children don’t need phonics instruction
    Research shows that phonics instruction benefits all beginning readers and a significant proportion of children struggle with reading unless they are given systematic phonics instruction.
  • Phonics is no use because there are too many irregular words in English
    Most words in English can be read either completely or in part by using the knowledge and skills gained from phonics instruction. Children with good phonics skills are better at reading all types of words, including irregular ones.
  • One size doesn’t fit all / children have different learning styles
    Research shows that children learn to read more quickly and learn to spell more accurately when they are taught phonics systematically and explicitly. Methods based on individual learning styles are not supported by experimental evidence.
  • There’s more to reading than decoding
    Most teachers of phonics wouldn’t dispute this. Although they focus more on phonics in the very early stages they devote more time to comprehension strategies once children can decode words accurately and fluently.
     

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Learning Phonics Prevents Children From Reading Real Books

Supporters of whole-language methods often criticise phonics instruction because they say it limits the variety of books children are allowed to read. 

They believe that phonics teachers only allow children access to books with easily decodable words and sentences such as ‘the fox sat on the box’ or ‘Pat had a hat’ etc. 

This would be a fair criticism if it was true, but it isn’t. 

Phonics teachers only ask children to read simple, decodable books when they are beginning readers because that’s all they are capable of reading.  But this doesn’t mean they deny children access to other types of literature. 

Good phonics teachers still read stories to the class and encourage parents to read a variety of books to their children.  However, they don’t expect kids to attempt to decode the irregular and complicated words in these books themselves before they’ve developed the knowledge and skills to read them accurately.

Evidence that phonics programmes don’t exclude normal children’s literature can be found in this excerpt from the UK government’s guidance for teachers of phonics:

“Experience shows that children benefit hugely by exposure to books from an early age.

Right from the start, lots of opportunities should be provided for children to engage with books that fire their imagination and interest. They should be encouraged to choose and peruse books freely as well as sharing them when read by an adult. 

Enjoying and sharing books leads to children seeing them as a source of pleasure and interest and motivates them to value reading.”  1

If you want to learn more about the best books for beginning readers you might want to read our article on the subject.

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Phonics Doesn’t Help Reading Comprehension

Another common criticism of phonics instruction is that it does nothing to help reading comprehension, as this passage illustrates:

“A child filled full of phonics rules may be able to pronounce a word flawlessly without having any idea what it means, much less what its relation is to the words sitting next to it.” 2

The author of this article has failed to recognise that whether or not a child understands the meaning of a word depends mainly on their comprehension of spoken language.  The way they were taught to read has little to do with it.

A variety of educational studies have shown that phonics instruction is actually beneficial for reading comprehension because it’s the most reliable strategy for identifying words in a piece of text.  Children with a poor knowledge of phonics find it difficult to identify words and this makes it very difficult for them to understand what they are trying to read.

See our articles ‘Reading Comprehension Basics’ and ‘Does Phonics Help With Reading Comprehension?’ for more information about this point.

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The “Drill and Skill” in Phonics Puts Kids Off Reading

Some Whole Language enthusiasts appear to have an aversion to drills…

“Nor is there any basis for insisting that such direct instruction has to take the form of repetitive drilling of isolated phonemes.” 2

However, cognitive scientists tell us that the repetition of basic skills is an essential part of learning.3 

It’s important to remember that drills are just a form of practice. 

Practising basic skills is necessary for learning just about anything, from playing a musical instrument to mastering a competitive sport. 

If we want kids to become good tennis players, basketball players or soccer players we don’t just herd them onto a court and leave them to it without explaining the rules or practising the skills.  For absolute beginners, the situation would be chaotic and very little learning would take place. 

Sure, if we repeated this often enough some kids would gradually improve and a few might even become good players.  But many would also become disheartened and eventually give up. 

Alternatively, if we break a sport down into a series of skills and teach them explicitly, albeit, in a fun and engaging way, everyone learns faster regardless of their potential.  The same is true for reading.

Rather than putting kids off reading, the more they practise phonics skills the more proficient they become and this increases their confidence and allows them to get more pleasure out of reading.

Of course, if children were expected to simply parrot back endless facts after they’ve been spouted by the teacher, this could be demoralising.  The overuse of rote-learning and uninspiring worksheets could put children off any subject.  But, this doesn’t have to be the case with a well-structured phonics programme.

Phonics drills can be done in fun and engaging ways.  For example, some teachers use puppets to sound out words and others have fun actions and songs that they learn alongside particular letter sounds. 

There are also a number of excellent video and electronic programmes available that teach phonics principles using fun animated songs and games.  There are a wide variety of different scenarios used in these games to keep children engaged.  

Phonics activities can also make kids think.  For example, children might be encouraged to use magnetic letters and alphabet cards to spell words after thinking about the sounds in them.  They could also be asked to swap and rearrange some of the letters so they have to think about how this would affect the pronunciation of the word. 

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Most Children Don’t Need Phonics Instruction

It’s true that many children can learn to read without explicit phonics instruction.  However, research shows that most children learn to read more quickly and learn to spell more accurately when they are taught phonics. 

Also, a significant proportion of children struggle with reading unless they are given phonics instruction. 

It’s not always possible to identify in advance who is likely to experience difficulties, so it makes sense to start with phonics instruction rather than wait until some children fall behind.  As with combating disease, prevention is better than cure.

Phonics Is No Use Because There Are Too Many Irregular Words in English

It’s true that the English spelling system is more complex than most, and that many words contain groups of letters that don’t follow the patterns taught at the beginning of popular phonics programmes.  These are sometimes called “irregular words”, “sight words” or “tricky words”. 

All the same, this doesn’t mean that the English spelling system is completely random. 

Detailed analysis has shown that the spellings of nearly 50 percent of English words are predictable based on letter-sound correspondences that can be taught, and another 34 percent of words are predictable except for one sound.4, 5 

This means that most words in English can be read either completely or in part by using the knowledge and skills gained from phonics instruction. 

There’s also good research that shows phonics knowledge helps children to read all types of words, not just the regular ones.  Dr Sarah McGeown made the following comment after carrying out two separate studies at Edinburgh University:

 “In my own research, I have found no evidence that relying on a phonological reading strategy impairs children’s ability to read irregular words.  In fact, I have found the opposite.”  6

In one study involving 6 – 8 year-olds, the children who relied most heavily on using phonics rules when they read performed the best on assessments of irregular word reading. 

A follow-up study also showed that children’s phonics skills were a very strong and significant predictor of their ability to read irregular words.  

Some teachers encourage children to rote learn irregular words by focussing on their appearance rather than their letters.  However, this can be a mistake because ultimately children will have to learn to write these words and they won’t be able to spell them without being familiar with the letter patterns that make them up. 

Also, most irregular words contain some sounds that are represented by regular letters or regular groups of letters, and often these can give a clue as to what the word might be. 

For example, the word ‘friend’ has 5 sounds: [f],[r],[ie],[n],[d], and only one of the sounds, [ie] has an irregular spelling for the sound it represents, so it spelling is 80% regular.  The actual word can be worked out fairly easily once this anomaly is pointed out.

The UK government’s original synthetic phonics programme, ‘Letter and Sounds’ made the following recommendation for dealing with irregular/tricky words:

“Rather than approach these words as though they were unique entities, it is advisable to start from what is known and register the ‘tricky bit’ in the word.  Even the word yacht, often considered one of the most irregular of English words, has two of the three phonemes (sounds) represented with regular graphemes (letters)” (L&S Notes of Guidance p16).

Alison Clarke from the excellent ‘Spelfabet’ website has written a very good article about tricky/irregular words.

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One size doesn’t fit all / children have different learning styles

The idea behind this argument is that while a phonics approach to teaching reading might benefit some children, others might learn more successfully with an alternative method.  Consequently, the argument goes, it’s wrong to give all children the same type of instruction.

However, research shows that most children learn to read more quickly and learn to spell more accurately when they are taught phonics systematically and explicitly. 

Also, alternative ways of identifying words, such as rote learning sight words, and the so-called multi-cueing strategies, have been shown to be inefficient, unreliable and inconsistent with what science has discovered about the reading processes.

Nevertheless, some people persist with their objections and talk about the importance of teaching according to children’s preferred learning styles.

Learning styles
There is no evidence that teaching a child according to their preferred learning style actually improves their learning.

Various learning style theories have been proposed over the years.  The most popular being the ‘VAK’ model which suggests that some people learn better from visual cues, while others benefit more by listening (auditory) or doing some kind of physical activity (kinaesthetic). 

Another popular idea is that everyone has one side of their brain which is more dominant than the other, and since the different hemispheres have specialist functions, teaching should be individually tailored to suit people who have dominant right or left brains.

These arguments do sound plausible, but Mike Lloyd-Jones, co-author of the ‘Sounds Together’ phonics programme, dismisses the learning styles argument as irrelevant:

“The simplest response to this line of attack is that phonics is not a teaching style but a body of specific knowledge …  Learning styles, to borrow a phrase from W S Gilbert, “have nothing to do with the case”.” 7

The ‘body of knowledge’ he refers to is the central idea in phonics that letters in the alphabet represent the sounds used in spoken language.  This knowledge is fundamental to learning to read; just as understanding what digits represent is fundamental to learning mathematics. 

We think that Mr Lloyd-Jones’s makes a valid point, although he doesn’t counter the argument completely because some supporters of learning styles theories actually agree that phonics knowledge is vital.  But they suggest that it should be taught in different ways to different children according to their individual learning styles.

This sounds reasonable enough, but there is little evidence that teaching children according to their preferred learning styles is beneficial. 

Researchers have conducted a variety of experiments where some children are taught according to their preferred learning styles while others get a different type of instruction.  The results of these experiments show that it makes no difference to learning. 

Cognitive Scientist, Professor Dan Willingham, explains some of the problems with learning styles theories in his video:

Susan Godsland thoroughly debunks the learning styles argument in her article, Learning Styles / Multiple Intelligences / Left v Right Brain Learning.

The distinguished Professor of Psychology, Keith Stanovich, has made the following point with reference to the VAK learning styles model:

”Excluding students identified as “visual/kinesthetic” learners from effective phonics instruction is a bad instructional practice—bad because it is not only not research based, it is actually contradicted by research”. 8

What seems to be more important than the preferences of individual children is tailoring the type of instruction to the topic being taught.  So, for example, everyone will benefit from a visual display of a map if children are learning about the physical features of a country.  And it seems better to adopt a multi-sensory approach to learning whatever the topic. 9

The idea of right brain vs left brain learning has also been shown to have little relevance when planning effective instruction methods.

Neurologist John Mazziotta at the UCLA school of medicine has stated: 

“Even on the most trivial tasks our studies showed that everything in the brain was in flux both sides, the front and back, the top and bottom. It was tremendously complicated. To think that you could reduce this to a simple left-right dichotomy would be misleading and oversimplified.” 10

And Dr Jerre Levy PhD, one of the foremost authorities on the functions of the left and right cerebral hemispheres has said:

“The two-brain myth was founded on an erroneous premise: that since each hemisphere was specialized, each must function as an independent brain.  But in fact, just the opposite is true… Thus, since the central premise of the mythmakers is wrong, so are all the inferences derived from it”. 10

What’s more, brain imaging studies have shown that regions in the left hemisphere are engaged the most by skilled readers and these regions are stimulated more by phonics than other methods of instruction.  This means that focussing on so-called ‘right brain’ strategies could actually be counterproductive. 11

In summary, research indicates that phonics instruction is beneficial for all beginning readers and it’s essential for the significant proportion of children who struggle to learn the letter-sound relationships without explicit and systematic phonics instruction. 

These findings should be a far more important consideration than worrying about methods catering to individual learning styles which are not supported by experimental evidence.

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There’s More to Reading Than Decoding

This objection implies that teachers of phonics aren’t interested in developing children’s comprehension or interest in books.  This simply isn’t the case. 

Even the most ardent phonics supporters recognise that although phonics is a necessary part of reading instruction it isn’t sufficient on its own. 

It’s true that phonics programmes encourage teachers to focus almost exclusively on phonics in the very early stages.  But this is because it’s impossible for children to read independently if they can’t decode words accurately. 

There is generally an increased focus on comprehension strategies when children’s phonics skills increase. 

See our article ‘Reading Comprehension Basics’ for more information on this and the links below for further information about teaching phonics.

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Further Information…

If you would like to learn more about research on the effectiveness of phonics, see our article ‘Is Phonics the Best Way to Teach a Child to Read?’

Click on this link if you would like to know how to teach phonics to your child.

Click on this link if you would like to know more about teaching spelling.

References:

  1. Letters and Sounds: Principles and Practice of High Quality Phonics, page 2, Department for Education and Skills, Primary National Strategy (2007).
  2. Kohn, A., On Teaching Reading, Spelling, and Related Subjects. Half Truths About Whole Language: http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/reading/#_edn5
  3. Willingham, D. (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School?
  4. Hanna, P.R., Hanna, J.S., Hodges, R.E., and Rudorf, E.H., Jr. (1966). Phoneme-grapheme correspondences as cues to spelling improvement
  5. See also figures quoted here: http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Moats.pdf
  6. Synthetic phonics and irregular word reading: Cause for concern?: http://www.drsarahmcgeown.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/synthetic-phonics-and-irregular-word.html
  7. Substance not style, The Phonics Blog (Oct. 2012)
  8. Stanovich, P.J and Stanovich, K.E (p30) Using Research and Reason in Education, , University of Toronto (2003): https://lincs.ed.gov/publications/pdf/Stanovich_Color.pdf
  9. Ladan Shams and Aaron R. Seitz., Benefits of multisensory learning., Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Vol.xxx No.x
  10. Left Brain, Right Brain. Training Zone (2004):https://www.trainingzone.co.uk/community/discuss/left-brain-right-brain
  11. Stanford study on brain waves shows how different teaching methods affect reading development: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2015/may/reading-brain-phonics-052815.html

Further links about learning styles and left/right brain learning: