The Role of Phonics

Phonics, another critical word-identification skill, is given more extensive treatment in this paper than other skills because of the controversy surrounding its use in programs for beginning reading instruction. Indeed, few topics in the field of education have engendered more emotional response. In 1955 Rudolph Flesch attracted national attention with the publication of Why Johnny Can't Read, which suggested that virtually all reading problems in the United States were the result of a conspiracy on the part of educators and publishers to withhold phonics instruction from students. Widespread debate again took place in educational circles after the publication of Learning to Read: The Great Debate (Chall, 1967), a scholarly attempt, by a very respected educator, to review all published research on the effects of various approaches to teaching beginning reading. A much more recent research review (Adams, 1990) created a similar tumult. Clearly, the debate has not ended (Stahl, 1992).

Unfortunately, much of the debate seems based on emotion, not on the available evidence. Much of the furor seems a reflection of the indefensible position that beginning reading must be either phonics-based or meaning-based, often expressed as the "phonics vs. whole language" debate. No convincing evidence exists to show that a meaning-based, literature-based reading program cannot teach word identification, including the use of phonics skills. On the contrary, it seems that a meaning-based program can and must include systematic instruction in phonics, combined with other word-identification skills that form an effective, efficient, and balanced word-recognition strategy.

The position that instruction in phonics and word-identification skills is unnecessary because children can learn to read naturally without such instruction, simply by being read to and by being encouraged to read good books, is indefensible. Unquestionably, some children come to school knowing how to read, and a few children seem to learn with little systematic instruction. However, such early readers constitute only about one percent of the population of beginning readers (Pikulski & Tobin, 1988); it is unreasonable to generalize from them to the other 99 percent. Major literature reviews on the topic -- such as those by Chall (1967); Johnson and Baumann (1984); Anderson et al. (1985); Adams (1990); Ehri (1991); and Mason, Herman, and Au (1991) -- consistently conclude that early and systematic instruction in phonics skills results in superior reading achievement. After a careful review of the research, Anderson et al. concluded, in Becoming a Nation of Readers (1985): "Thus, the issue is no longer, as it was several decades ago, whether children should be taught phonics. The issues now are specific ones of just how it should be done" (p. 37).

The conclusion that Adams (1990) reached after her extensive research review offers some suggestions as to how phonics instruction should be approached:

Adams is a cognitive psychologist, not a teacher of reading, so she sometimes uses terms, such as connected text, that seem a bit foreign. However, it seems reasonable to interpret the term connected text to mean "real books" or even "good literature." Her conclusions call for a balance, teaching phonics in a meaningful context so that students can see the value of phonics for learning to read, along with abundant opportunities to practice the skills and strategies they are learning in real reading and writing activities.

Based on large-scale reviews of research related to beginning reading instruction (Adams, 1990; Anderson et al., 1985; Chall, 1967; Johnson & Baumann, 1984), it appears that if phonics instruction is to be maximally effective, it should be early, systematic, clear and direct, frequently practiced and applied, meaningful, and integrated with other word-identification skills into an effective word-recognition strategy. (See Tractenburg, 1990, for many examples of how to teach phonics meaningfully through children's literature.)

As noted earlier, familiarity with print and phonological awareness are necessary foundations for success in reading and should be taught and developed in kindergarten. Children can also begin to learn letter-sound associations while in kindergarten. Most of the useful phonics skills can be taught in first grade and then reviewed, refined, and extended in second grade and beyond.

While there is no evidence to suggest a precise order in which letter-sound associations should be taught, a number of dimensions allow for systematic instruction. There should be a clear, logical progression from emerging literacy skills to actual phonics skills. When phonics skills are taught, consonant sounds should be taught first, since they are more reliable in their letter-sound associations. More complex consonant forms such as consonant clusters (br, gl, sw) and digraphs (sh, ch) can follow.

Vowel-sound associations are much more variable than consonants, so some stability can be achieved by introducing them as part of a phonogram or rime. Since words containing short vowel sounds are more frequent in beginning reading materials, it makes sense to introduce these first.

By second grade, much more attention can be focused on common, helpful prefixes and suffixes such as re-, un-, and -ful. At third grade and beyond, instruction should increasingly focus on decoding longer words and words whose meanings may be unknown.

Clear and Direct
While some precocious readers seem to become aware of letter-sound associations on their own as they read, most beginning readers do not. They need to be directly taught the sounds most frequently associated with letters. For example, after a shared reading of a Big Book version of Atsushi Komori's Animal Mothers, it might be appropriate to introduce children to the sound associated with the letter m. Some children, after being introduced to the words me, my, and mother, might on their own infer that the letter m stands for the m sound. But research indicates that most students become independent readers faster if the teacher refers them directly to the word mother, has them listen for the beginning sound, and then has them practice saying the sound. Research (Adams, 1990) also suggests that children's memory for letter-sound associations is enhanced if they are presented with a picture of an object in the shape of the letter (for example, a monster whose face is in the form of an m). Thus, beginning readers are given helpful information for learning to read rather than being expected to discover such information on their own.

Frequently Practiced and Applied
Most beginning readers need many opportunities to practice and apply the phonics skills they are learning to the reading and writing of words. They need to read stories that have words to which the phonics skills apply; they need to use the phonics skills as they write and spell words. They can also practice letter-sound associations in game-like activities after being taught the sound for a letter.

For the letter m, for instance, children might reread Animal Mothers, noting the sound at the beginning of words like mother and mouth. High-frequency words such as my and me might be pointed out as they are found in other selections that students read. Children can be reminded to think about the sound for m and other letter sounds as they label pictures or engage in beginning writing and use temporary spellings. They can work in pairs to sort pictures into those whose names do and do not begin with the sound for m.

The point was made earlier but bears repeating: If beginning readers have opportunities to apply their reading skills to many meaningful, informative, and enjoyable reading and writing experiences, they will see the utility of the phonics skills they are learning and grow as independent readers.

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