First, we do need to get rid of whole language now and forever more. Sceintific research has completely proven that whole language education is a failure, (Chessman et al., 2009; de Graaf et al., 2009; Foorman et al., 2015; Foorman, Breier, and Fletcher, 2003; Kuppen et al., 2011; Lyon, 1998; Oakhill and Cain, 2012; Rayner et al., 2001; Torgesen et al., 2001) and numerous neuroimaging studies (Keller & Just, 2009, Meyler, Keller, Cherkassky, Gabrieli, & Just, 2008; Yoncheva, Wise, & McCandliss, 2015).
Second, we need to remember that phonics is not a new teaching method. Phonics has been around since 1690. The reason that whole language enthusiasts were able to embed the whole language concept into literacy education was that phonics was leaving many students still failing in reading. Let’s look at some examples—then and now.
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, skilled and intelligent man 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 came 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, pull-out small group phonics instruction during school, and even private one-on-one systematic phonics instruction failed to teach this student how to read. Again, using vowel clustering, I taught the student to read in one year.
These are just three examples; I have many others, but I selected these three examples because they tell how phonics failed across an approximately 60-year period. Two of the methods used “systematic phonics.” These are real people, and we owe these people and thousands more a teaching method that will not fail them. Systematic phonics is not that method.
Before we go further, let’s define phonics. The word “phonics” is used to describe many different teaching methods. First, I turn to a noted expert, Richard Nordquist, Ph. D. Nordquist defines phonics as: “A method of teaching reading based on the sounds of letters, groups of letters, and syllables is known as phonics.” Linnea C. Ehri (2003) adds to this definition by specifically defining systematic phonics:
“What is Systematic Phonics Instruction? Phonics is a method of instruction that teaches students correspondences between graphemes in written language and phonemes in spoken language and how to use these correspondences to read and spell words. Phonics instruction is systematic when all the major grapheme-phoneme correspondences are taught and they are covered in a clearly defined sequence. This includes short and long vowels as well as vowel and consonant digraphs such as oi, ea, sh, th. Also it may include blends of letter-sounds that form larger subunits in words such as onsets and rimes.…
It is important that we all work from a common definition. I chose a definition from Ehri because she is a systematic phonics advocate. From examples of failure under phonics, to definition, to scientific research and findings from evidence-based research, let’s see what scientific research tells us. 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 clearly stated from their research that Reading Recovery (frequently 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].” https://www.ldaustralia.org/BULLETIN_NOV13-RR.pdf
- 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. Struggling, at-risk students who are failing need more.
- Sebastian Suggate (2016) compared 71 phonemic and phonics intervention groups and found that “… phonemic awareness interventions showed good maintenance of effect…. phonics and fluency interventions … tended not to.”
I use vowel clustering, and it has worked for me. I just talked with two parents yesterday; they asked, “Do you really think he can learn to read? We’ve tried everything.” I smiled and said yes, “With vowel clustering, I can teach him to read, and with your permission, I will.”