Will straight phonics work? Phonics is an old concept, not a new idea. Phonics education was first introduced in schools in 1690 with the New England Primer. The effectiveness of phonics depends on how you teach phonics. At present, phonics instruction is so entangled and the term so over-generalized that I do not use it. If you read a study or teaching technique, you must first know exactly what kind of phonics is being advocated before you can tell whether it is likely to be effective or not.
Some studies overstate the case for phonics. One such article is “Ending the Reading Wars” by Anne Castles and her colleagues (Castles, Rastle, & Nation, 2018). They state: “We present a comprehensive tutorial review of the science of learning to read….” (p. 5) That sounds excellent, just what we need, but they completely ignore all of the neuroimaging studies -- the latest scientific research on reading, such as (Keller & Just, 2009; Meyler, Keller, Cherkassky, Gabrieli, & Just, 2008; Shaywitz and Shaywitz, 2004; Yoncheva, Wise, & McCandliss, 2015). So, be careful, yes, it is normal to place your theory in the best possible light, but it will not help children learn to read if we overstate the case. Another research piece coming out of Australia is from Kerry Hempenstall, “Read About It: Scientific Evidence for Effective Teaching of Reading (2016). This gives a more comprehensive and accurate description of phonics than the Castles article. If you want a good reference on phonics, I recommend reading Hempenstall’s work. Still, Hempenstall does not discuss neuroimaging research on reading. If phonics enthusiasts want to lead the way in reading, using scientific research, they must stop ignoring neuroimaging research in reading.
Being able to watch children’s brains as they learn to read offers a whole new wealth of knowledge to the reading wars. Phonics is better than whole language. Unfortunately, even at best, phonics education will still leave most struggling, at-risk students in the failing category (Kilpatrick, 2016). Why? Phonics does not teach letter-sound relationships in the same way that the brain processes letter-sound associations. This is what the neuroimaging research is showing us. Phonics focuses on the letter; the brain focuses on sounds.
Today’s struggling students deserve the very best we can offer in the classroom. It is not enough to trade whole language for phonics. Students need more. In his book Equipped for Reading Success, David A. Kilpatrick (2016) gives one of the clearest and easiest to understand explanations for how the brain processes and learns letter-sounds. Kilpatrick explains that the brain does not recognize and store words through visual memory—seeing the same word over and over or “look say.” The brain recognizes and stores new words in memory by sound. The brain creates an “oral filing system.” The brain does not file words by letter. Sound sequences are the way that the brain stores and matches sounds. The brain strings letter sounds together, especially vowel sounds. The brain does not store “whole words” (Kilpatrick, 2016). Whole language stresses whole words not letter sounds. We do not have the ability to store whole words by memory in the brain. The brain stores words phonologically by sound.
This is why whole language and all of its various varieties remain useless for teaching students to read; whole language works against the brain. Students fail. Yes, some students learn to read under the whole language system. Some students will learn to read regardless of the method that you use, but 63% or 64% (depending upon the age group), according to the Nation’s Report Card (2017) have not learned to read at their respective grade level. This tells us that whole language is a failure, not the children, not the teachers, it is clearly whole language and any school that uses whole language or any publisher who publishes and distributes whole language curriculum that is the failure. It needs to stop—now. Whole language has hurt enough students. We must get rid of it. Whole language causes students to fail in reading. We’ve known this for years (Foorman, 1995).
Neuroimaging research directly compared whole language and phonemic awareness; whole language failed; phonemic awareness techniques were successful (Yoncheva, Wise, & McCandliss, 2015). The proof is in the neuroimaging pictures (Shaywitz and Shaywitz, 2004). The superiority of phonological awareness has been proven study after study (Keller & Just, 2009). Neuroimaging research showed that intensive training in phonemes (letter sounds) changed the “brain and the way it functions.” This change through phonemic awareness training allowed even struggling at-risk students to make significant improvement in reading (Meyler, Keller, Cherkassky, Gabrieli, & Just, 2008).
How much proof do the schools need? No, tacking on phonics this fall will not make whole language education work. Students will continue to fail as long as schools continue using whole language.
Switching to phonics is also not the answer. Schools absolutely must teach letter sound relationships—phonemic awareness. Phonics, like whole language, still focuses on whole words. Phonics, unlike whole language, does teach letter sound relationships, but the emphasis is on the letter and the word—not the oral letter sounds. I learned to read in the 50’s with phonics, and some children will learn with phonics who did not learn through whole language. The students need more. Children need a system that will allow all students to learn.
Vowel clustering teaches both phonemic and phonological awareness by teaching children to decode and encode letter sounds in order to read words (Clanton Harpine, 2008). All of my reading programs teach phonemic awareness (learning letter sounds) and phonological awareness (learning to work with letter sounds). Phonemic awareness teaches children to recognize that letters of the alphabet represent sounds. Phonological awareness teaches children to work with letter sounds to build multisyllable and compound words. Vowel clustering teaches students to decode or break words down into letter sounds and then to encode or reassemble those sounds back into pronounceable words. Vowel clustering has been tested and proven to work with all students, including struggling, at-risk, and failing students.
In my reading clinic, I have worked with children who had failed multiple years and had even been retained.
- Students who failed under whole language in the classroom came to the reading clinic and succeeded. The same children came to my program and studied vowel clustering and returned to the classroom successfully reading at their age level. Even if a student has been retained, we stress sending the child back to the classroom reading at their actual age level. Some children have moved up 4 grade levels in reading in one year.
- Failing at-risk children placed in Reading Recovery by the schools learned with vowel clustering. Reading Recovery failed, but the same students succeeded with vowel clustering. They returned to the classroom reading at age level.
- Even failing special needs students placed in one-on-one pull out programs in phonics who couldn’t learn to read came to the reading clinic. These same students came to the reading clinic and with vowel clustering they succeeded. They learned to read.
- Balanced literacy failed as well, combining whole language and phonics, but vowel clustering taught the children who failed in the schools under “balanced literacy” to read at their respective age levels. Yes, some children moved up 4 grade levels in reading in one year through vowel clustering. We have the data to prove it, and the data will be presented in a new book coming out in 2019.
Unfortunately, most students return to the classroom this fall to whole language. Yes, each fall, most schools tack on something new. The change that is coming for most schools this year is adding phonics onto whole language—“balanced literacy.” Phonics is not a new teaching method and neither is “balanced literacy.” Some schools have already made the switch to “balanced literacy.” Balanced literacy is also a failure. So, the schools that are saying, “we’ve added phonics” are still going to fail. Schools cannot and will not be able to teach struggling at-risk students to read by merely tacking on phonics. Students need a complete and total change in teaching methods.
In Part 3 of this discussion on phonics, I’ll look at what we could do if we focused teaching reading with methods grounded on phonemic awareness principles.