Phonics: an essential early reading skill

Reading is an extremely complex skill. An alphabet, such as the Roman alphabet used for writing English, is a code which uses visual symbols (graphemes) to represent the sounds of speech (phonemes), and the process of learning to read is often compared to cracking a code. 

There are two contrasting approaches to teaching children how to master this difficult but vital skill.

The whole language or top-down approach focuses on meaning, and children who learn by this method recognize and memorize whole words by sight. As young children are able to memorize words rapidly, this method can enable them to learn to read very quickly. In the process, many children unconsciously acquire the rules of the code, and use them to decipher new words.

In contrast, phonics is a bottom-up approach. The beginning reader first learns the relationships between spoken sounds and written symbols. Then he or she learns how these symbols are put together to represent words on paper. This involves the teaching of spelling rules. Where hard and fast rules do not exist, the student learns groups of words that have similar spelling patterns.

Advocates of whole learning criticize phonics as an uncreative process of rote memorization.

However, whole language learners may fail to crack the code on their own. They then have no tools to decipher new words, and as their school reading increases in difficulty they begin to fall behind their classmates. On the other hand, by introducing early readers to explicit rules and patterns, a phonics based curriculum provides them with generalizable tools which they can then use to decipher unfamiliar words.

Proponents of the whole reading approach point out that by focusing on words and their parts, phonics prevents readers from understanding the overall meaning of what they read. However, research indicates that fluent readers do indeed process the individual letters of each word, but do this so rapidly and automatically that they are free to focus on the meaning of what they are reading. Thus, many educators believe that in the long run, by helping readers to develop these automatic processing skills, phonics is superior to whole language for the development of reading comprehension.

In addition, phonics may help to develop thinking skills. Project Follow Through, a huge educational experiment conducted by the U.S. Department of Education in the 1970s, found that phonics-trained students demonstrated superior performance in the area of critical thinking. Linguist Barbara Birch (English L2 Reading: Getting to the Bottom.  2nd Ed.  Malwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.  2007) believes that because English spelling does not always follow predictable rules, phonics training helps readers to develop the logical skills of probabilistic reasoning and reasoning by analogy.

Phonics can also benefit specific groups of students with particular challenges. Dr. Birch advocates phonics for children and adults who speak English as a second language to change reading strategies they learned for their first language. For example, languages such as Spanish have transparent writing systems, meaning that readers simply have to learn that one symbol consistently represents one sound. On the other hand, English is an opaque system in which one sound can be represented by several symbols, and one symbol may represent several sounds. Chinese speakers face even more of a challenge because Chinese uses ideograms to represent the meaning of words visually. Chinese readers therefore use the area of the brain associated with vision, but for the English alphabet, which encodes sound, they need to learn to use the area of the brain associated with hearing.

Some research indicates that phonics may also benefit hearing impaired children, and children with dyslexia. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) experiments have even demonstrated that phonics instruction can retrain the neural pathways of dyslexic adults.

The U.S. National Reading Panel advocates introducing phonics instruction in kindergarten or grade one, and believes it is most effective when taught explicitly and systematically, meaning that teachers are given precise teaching instructions, and that phonemes are introduced in a logically ordered sequence.

Of course, because children have a variety of learning styles, phonics should be only one part of a complete, well-rounded reading program. It is believed, for example, that phonics may be most beneficial for auditory learners, while visual learners may benefit best from the whole language approach.

In addition, home support is also extremely important. Parents can improve children’s success in reading before they begin school by helping them to develop essential pre-reading skills such as matching, shape recognition, and language awareness. They can also encourage a love of reading and language by teaching children to handle and explore picture books, and by reading them stories and rhymes.