Emily Hanford’s October 26 New York Times column claims that scientific research recommends using phonics-based teaching methods in reading education. She is correct that scientific reading research shows that whole language teaching methods are ineffective, but she is incorrect that scientific research supports explicit, systematic phonics instruction. What the research supports is teaching children to decode or break words down into letter sounds and then encode or put those sounds back together and pronounce or read the word. The question remaining is: What is the best way to teach children this letter-sound relationship?
One of the leading reading scientists, Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a member of the 2000 National Reading Panel, explains in Overcoming Dyslexia that, “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).
Whole language, in all of its many forms, “balanced literacy,” Reading Recovery, and all “look say” approaches has been proven to be ineffective or as Louisa Moates, a scientist that Hanford mentions, says: “…it's harmful. So it's not just an argument about philosophy.” Whole language, which is indeed ineffective, is why the 2017 Nation’s Report Card found that 63% of 4th grade students were unable to read at grade level.
Yet, to return to phonics ignores the knowledge that scientists have discovered about how we learn to read. Phonics is not new; it has been around since 1690. The National Reading Panel agrees that “systematic phonics approaches are significantly more effective than non-phonics [whole language].” They still found that “phonics instruction failed to exert a significant impact on the reading performance of low-achieving readers in 2nd through 6th grades” (p. 94).
As David A. Kilpatrick explains in Equipped for Reading Success, neuroimaging research shows that phonics does not teach letter-sound relationships in the same way that the brain processes them. Phonics focuses on the letters; the brain focuses on sounds. Shaywitz explains: “Today scientists can actually watch the brain as it works to read; scientists 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” (pp. 59-68).
David Moreau’s study in Educational Psychology Review showed that the brain focuses on letter sounds. There are 26 letters in the alphabet and 40 different letter sounds (phonemes). Two hundred fifty letter combinations or spellings make these sounds. For example, the letter a uses seven different letter sounds but 22 different letter combinations to make those sounds. Phonics focuses on learning rules to predict these letter sounds. Phonemic awareness focuses on learning letter-sound relationships without rules. Sebastian P. Suggate’s 2016 study in the Journal of Reading Disabilities compared 71 phonemic awareness and phonics intervention groups. He showed that phonemic awareness had more long-term staying power than phonics, especially if the phonemic awareness training used letter-sound training.
Kilpatrick explains that the brain does not recognize and store words through visual memory—seeing the same word over and over or “look-say.” Instead, the brain creates an oral filing system. The brain does not file words by letter. Neither whole language or phonics works with the brain’s oral filing system. Students who cannot memorize whole language word lists cannot memorize phonics rules, especially rules for irregular letter sounds. If we go back to a phonics approach, we will leave many students failing in reading when we have the scientific knowledge to teach every student to read. Struggling students need educators to move forward, to read and understand what scientists are saying, and to use new scientific methods to help struggling students learn to read.
Phonics instruction usually starts by teaching the short vowel sounds for a, e, i, o, and u. Then, teaching the long vowel sounds for vowels by adding silent e, as with cake, tree, ice, tone, use. Yet, this causes an immediate problem. Seven different letter combinations can make the long a vowel sound: ea, ai, ay, ei, ey, eigh, and silent e—break, sail, pay, rein, they, eight, take. Of course, the letter a can also make the long a vowel sound standing alone, as with “apron.” When we teach students the long a sound using only silent e, then later introduce irregular vowel sounds, struggling students become confused.
Scientific research shows us how to teach children to read, but schools are not using those methods.