Let’s define terms:
- Phonics from Foorman and colleagues: “Most [standard phonics] programs teach from the traditional perspective of grapheme-to-phoneme correspondence rules…. phonic lessons consist of instruction in initial and final sounds of consonants; short and long vowel sounds; consonant blends (e.g., cr-, srp-,-nd); consonant digraphs (e.g., ch, th, ng); silent consonants (e.g., wr, kn, -mb); and syllabication.” (Foorman et al., 2003, p. 619).
- Decoding: From Reading Horizons: “Decoding is the process of translating print into speech by rapidly matching a letter or combination of letters (graphemes) to their sounds (phonemes) and recognizing the patterns that make syllables and words.”
- Encoding: Louisa Moates shows that encoding is the exact opposite of decoding. Encoding uses individual sounds or phonemes to build words. Decoding and encoding are important because they are the foundation upon which reading is based. (Louisa Moates, 1998).
The methods that we use to teach children to decode and encode can determine whether a child succeeds or fails in learning to read. The question then is: what is the best way to teach decoding and encoding? As Reading Rockets explains:
“Phonics is the understanding that there is a predictable relationship between the sounds of spoken language, and the letters and spellings that represent those sounds in written language. Successful decoding occurs when a student uses his or her knowledge of letter-sound relationships to accurately read a word.”
Phonics teaches letter-sound relationships, but phonics teaches that letter sound relationships are predictable; therefore; phonics produces a rule to predict when this letter-sound relationship will evolve. Unfortunately, letter-sound relationships are not always predictable and do not adhere to phonics rules; therefore, we end up with a long list of exceptions to the rules.
- I recently had the pleasure of speaking with a person who is nearing retirement. This is a very successful person. While discussing retirement plans, my husband offered to loan a book that he had found particularly helpful. This very successful craftsman said, “I can’t read; I can only read very easy-to-read books.” He then went on to explain that he had been in a pullout program at school from third grade to ninth grade that taught phonics. Obviously, it failed.
- A 15-year-old student was brought to my reading clinic because the school had said, “she could never learn to read.” In middle school, she was given coloring book pages and shuffled off to the corner of the classroom. The school was using “balanced literacy” in the classroom, and the student had received one-on-one tutoring in systematic phonics from early elementary school to middle school. Again, obviously, phonics failed. I taught the student to read in 3 ½ years using vowel clustering.
- A very smart third grader was brought to my reading clinic. The student could not even read at the beginning kindergarten level. The student’s parents were college-educated and had even paid for private systematic phonics tutoring. Balanced literacy from the classroom, pullout small group phonics instruction during school, and even private one-on-one systematic phonics instruction failed to teach this student how to read. Again, I taught the student to read in one year with vowel clustering.
Phonics works against the brain instead of with the brain. Louisa Moates (1998) explained that the manner in which phonics teaches decoding is one of its primary failings:
"One of the most fundamental flaws found in almost all phonics programs, including traditional ones, is that they teach the code backwards. That is, they go from letter to sound instead of from sound to letter…. The print-to-sound (conventional phonics) approach leaves gaps, invites confusion, and creates inefficiencies." (pp. 44–45)
As Dr. Sally Shaywitz (see Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, 2003) explains, “Children do not learn to read by memorizing a word list. Most children, especially those who struggle in reading, do not learn to read by memorizing phonics rules” (p. 78). Some will say, “but she talks about systematic phonics in her book.” Yes, she does, but she also clearly states that systematic phonics will not meet the needs of all struggling students.
Let’s look at what the experts say:
- Jeanne Sternlicht Chall (1967) an advocate for systematic phonics, visited over 300 classrooms. While she concluded that systematic phonics was superior to “look say” whole language in 90% of the classrooms, she also clearly stated and warned that a purely phonics approach would leave many students failing.
- Linnea C. Ehri studied 66 phonics vs. whole language groups and again found systematic phonics to be superior to whole language but also found that systematic phonics “did not help low achieving readers that included students with cognitive limitations” (Ehri 2001).
- As the National Reading Panel (National Reading Panel, 2000) clearly stated, “…systematic phonics approaches are significantly more effective than non-phonics [whole language]…. However, phonics instruction failed to exert a significant impact on the reading performance of low-achieving readers in 2nd through 6th grades….” (p. 94). Phonics simply does not work for many students.
- In 2013, Tunmer and associates also stated from their research that Reading Recovery (often used to teach struggling students from the classroom) was also not effective with failing, struggling students. As they stated, “Students with phonological difficulties did poorly [in Reading Recovery].”
- Sebastian P. Suggate’s 2016 study compared 71 phonemic and phonics intervention groups and found that “… phonemic awareness interventions showed good maintenance of effect…. phonics and fluency interventions … phonics tended not to.”
In the past and in the present, many experts, even those who recommend systematic phonics, clearly state from their research that they are finding problems with systematic phonics. I am not denying that phonics is better than whole language, but if we go back to phonics, even systematic phonics, it will sentence many struggling students to failure in reading.
Struggling, at-risk students who are failing need more, and we have the ability to offer them more. Phonics will not solve reading failure; a 63% nationwide failure rate should prove that. Neuroimaging research in reading opens a whole new chapter in reading instruction. No matter how enthusiastic you are about phonics, you can no longer cling to an outdated phonics system that allows students to fail when there are teaching methods available that can teach those same students how to read.
Let’s do more than just swap opinions. Let’s go straight to the actual research.
- Neuroimaging research has changed how we view reading: “Today scientists can actually watch the brain as it works to read; scientist can actually track the printed word as it is perceived as a visual icon and then transformed into the sounds (phonemes) of language and simultaneously interpreted from the meaning that is stored within the brain” (David A. Kilpatrick in Equipped for Reading Success, pp. 59-68).
- Reading is more than merely associating letters and sounds: “In order to read, a child must ‘enter the language system;’ this means that the child must activate and use the brain circuits that are already in place for oral language…. Tens of thousands of neurons carrying the final phonological messages necessary for language…. Connect to form the resonating networks that make skilled reading possible…. “ (Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, 2003, pp. 59-68).
- The new scientific understanding -- orthographic mapping: “Until recently, almost everyone thought that we store words by having some type of visual image of every word we know…. Many teaching approaches presume this. We assume that if students see the words enough, they will learn them. This is not true…. I believe this assumption that we store words based on visual memory is a major reason why we have widespread reading difficulties in our country…. The big discovery regarding orthographic mapping is that this oral “filing system” is the foundation of the “filing system” we use for reading words. We have no “visual dictionary” for reading that runs alongside our oral dictionary. I suspect that the reason this idea was not obvious to researchers for the last 100 years is simple: speech is auditory and reading is visual. Because reading involves visual input, everyone presumed that it also involved visual storage. However, input and storage are not the same thing…. There are several types of research findings that disproved the “visual memory” theory of word storage…. Having a good understanding of how words are stored will determine what we teach, and how we teach it…. But how do words or parts of words become familiar if not visually? Here is where phoneme awareness comes into play…. The letters of our printed language are supposed to represent the sounds of our spoken language…. We use our oral-linguistic filing system as the basis for word recognition…. orthographic mapping will only occur if the student has adequate phonemic awareness/analysis. If he cannot pull apart the sounds in words, he cannot align those sounds to the order of the letters…. Mapping must not be confused with phonics. Mapping and phonics differ in some very important ways…. All of the classical methods (phonics, whole word, whole language) were developed before the discovery of orthographic mapping, so they cannot be faulted for missing some or all of the components of permanent word storage. Given the research findings about permanent word storage, we can now make the training and support of these components a central part of early reading instruction and reading remediation. If we do this, we can make substantial reductions in the percentage of struggling readers…. Students were trained in phoneme awareness, letter-sound skills, and word study skills. This allowed them to map words efficiently to permanent memory. As a result, they became good readers and no longer required extra reading help. Other studies have shown similar results.” (David Kilpatrick in Equipped for Reading Success, pp. 27-43).
Vowel clustering works with the brain and the way the brain processes phonemes or letter sounds. Vowel clustering uses visual, auditory, and hands-on teaching techniques. Vowel clustering teaches students to match consonant and vowel sounds with their corresponding letter symbols. This emphasizes the oral letter-sound relationship. Remember, we are training the brain, building “pathways” in the brain. When these neural “pathways” are developed, reading can take less than half a second. Therefore, it is important to organize how we teach so students can organize how they learn. We want to work with the brain, not against it. The vowel clustering teaching approach presents a visual and oral picture that struggling students can immediately identify with. Visually, students match words by how they sound not by how they are spelled. This teaches children that words can be pronounced one way but spelled another. This visual-auditory learning technique allows students to both see and hear letter sounds (phonemes). Vowel clustering also teaches handwriting because it is very important for students to write words correctly as they practice reading, spelling, and matching written letters to oral sounds.
For more information on how vowel clustering works, watch for my new book, “Why Can’t We Teach Children to Read? Oh but Wait, We Can.”