THE ROLE OF PHONICS IN READING

“Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Phonics, the sounds of the letters and their combinations, is an important component in learning to read, and schools are doing a good job of teaching phonics. However, because the English language is inconsistent and irregular, the rules of phonics don’t work at least 40% of the time. The result is that many students struggle with reading skills well below their grade level. Those who learn to read quickly are able to go beyond phonics to make sense. Some children do this as young as four years old, without any formal phonics instruction.

For most teaching and remediation programs, mastering the rules of phonics is considered to be the most important part of learning to read. It seems logical that if one knows the sounds of letters and their combinations, reading will be easy.

My experience tells me that this is not necessarily true. I meet people, young and old, who have been exposed to heavy doses of instruction and remediation in phonics and it has made them slow, ineffective readers. Those who help others to read need to understand the value and limitations of a phonics approach to reading.

For those who are unable to read well, the clues most often given are to ‘sound it out’ or ‘guess’. Many words can’t be sounded out and it is difficult to keep the sequence of letters in your head if it is a long word. The result is that readers ‘wild guess’ the word and carry on. If you are practicing with someone who is not progressing well, you know this is true.

When the tools they have learned don’t work, students get more and more frustrated and discouraged. Even though they can read many words, they read too slowly and can’t make sense much of the time. Reading becomes a chore that they’d rather avoid. When ‘sound it out’ doesn’t work and ‘wild guessing’ makes comprehension almost impossible, extensive work in phonics is a detriment rather than a help. You have to STOP and set them off in a new direction.

Here is an account from the Edmonton Journal, Sept 10, 2005, of a research project that investigated the results of a highly structured, strong basic skills, phonics program introduced by the Public School Board.

“From 2001 to 2004, a team of 25 researchers from University of Alberta and Concordia University College compared the progress of seven schools using the Meaningful Applied Phonics curriculum and a control group not using this program. The results were startling. Instead of doing better than their peers at reading and writing, the kids in the intensive phonics program were falling behind the students in the control group, generally doing worse every year they stayed with the M.A.P. program.”

“M.A.P. didn’t work well for kids in the middle of the academic program, but for the kids at either end, the effects were worst of all. The schools which fared most poorly were the high-needs school with the aboriginal population and the high-performing school in the affluent neighborhood.”

Effective readers must go beyond phonics and strategies to use their subconscious minds to help them read. All the struggling readers I’ve worked with know everything they need to know to read. They just can’t access it because they are too focused on using strategies and figuring out words.

Successful reading is finding a happy balance between phonics and experience. The Making Sense Approach, taught in my online reading course, teaches you how to quickly become a reading coach. You’ll show readers how to clear away the blocks keeping them from reading fluently and with comprehension.

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