Why Phonics alone Doesn’t Work for Teaching Reading

Reading must be taught using a balanced approach. Neglecting to provide instruction and practice in even one component of reading development will adversely affect a child’s abilities. Phonics, while very important, is just one skill necessary for decoding or sounding out words. It is important to teach additional decoding strategies along with phonics. And while decoding is a very important part of the process, it must be combined with learning other reading skills. The best instruction works to strengthen all areas of reading.

Phonics is the study of letter-sound relationships. Before children can be successful with phonics, they must have achieved phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness, the ability to hear and manipulate sounds in words, does not involve associating the sounds with specific letters. Children should be given ample opportunity to play with spoken words and sounds before phonics is introduced. Kindergarten and first grade students need to be involved in hearing, singing, and participating in word play.

Decoding is an essential part of reading. As reading becomes more challenging, it is impossible to learn every word by sight. Phonics needs to be taught so that readers can sound out new words by matching the letters to sounds. However, if a child tries to use only their phonics skills when reading an unfamiliar word, they can run into difficulties. The English language has many phonetic rules to follow about how to pronounce a letter or group of letters. The problem is there are so many exceptions to the rules. Good readers will use strategies such as using pictures clues, context clues, and thinking of rhyming words with similar vowel patterns when pure phonics does not work in decoding. To help check their accuracy in pronunciation, children should also be taught to think about whether or not the word they sound out makes sense in the sentence.

The goal for reading success should be comprehension. There are children who have excellent phonetic and other decoding skills and can read anything but have little or no understanding of what they are reading. This is a case where a strong phonics background is not enough to make a good reader. Comprehension strategies such as inferring, using background knowledge, visualizing, and making connections need to be taught so that students gain understanding from their reading. Vocabulary development is also very important for comprehension.

Fluency, another key element of good reading, is improved with good decoding skills. Again, phonics is a necessary component of fluency but is not the only factor. Voice intonation, expression, and reading chunks of words instead of word by word are also important parts of fluency.

The best reading instruction will include phonics. However, phonics cannot stand alone as the only method of teaching reading.