Why Phonics?

You can probably picture the scene pretty clearly. You're reading a book with your young child, student, niece, nephew, grandchild—you’re patiently, ever-so-patiently encouraging them to keep going, keep reading. We know that reading is good for kids, and we simply want them to keep doing it.


It’s going swimmingly, and they proudly recite the words on the page aloud until---uh oh, a word they don’t know.


You pause and resist the urge to read the word to them, wanting to give them a chance to figure it out on their own. This is how they learn, after all. More than likely, your next piece of encouragement will sound something like:


"You've got this. Go ahead and sound it out!"


This is phonics: the idea that when a reader is looking at an unknown word, they identify and pronounce it by looking at the letters and putting them together as sounds. What is confounding, though, is that this approach has largely been tossed aside in schools. We rely heavily on this "sound it out" technique when children struggle with an unfamiliar word at home, and yet, teachers around the country are using vastly different approaches to formal reading instruction in the classroom.


Why is this? What are the other approaches? How should we be teaching reading, at home and in schools?


Let’s break it down into two separate methods: cueing and phonics. 


What: Formally known as "three cueing," this theory argues that readers use cues to figure out words as they read. It was first brought to light in 1967 by an education professor named Ken Goodman, and has since taken hold in American schools as the primary theory of reading curriculum. 


Why: Supporters of cueing argue that reading is not a precise process based on letters, but rather a function of making predictions about the words on a page with cues or hints, broken out into three categories:


"'graphic cues (what do the letters tell you about what the word might be?)
syntactic cues (what kind of word could it be, for example, a noun or a verb?)
semantic cues (what word would make sense here, based on the context?)'" (APM)


This approach leans heavily in the direction of text comprehension rather than ability to read words as written on the page. If a child understands the content on the page, Goodman argued, this is good enough.


"'The purpose is not to learn words,' he said. 'The purpose is to make sense.'" (APM)


Criticism: Due to the focus on comprehension and making predictions about words rather than reading the letters and words as they appear on a page, many argue that the three-cueing process just isn't reading. According to David Kilpatrick, a professor at SUNY Cortland and author of Equipped for Reading Success


"'The three-cueing system is how poor readers read...The minute you ask them just to pay attention to the first letter or look at the picture, look at the context, you're drawing their attention away from the very thing that they need to interact with in order for them to read the word [and] remember the word.'" (APM)


What: As mentioned above, phonics relies on the process of teaching the individual letter and letter group sounds, so that readers can sound out words on a page to construct meaning. The approach was made popular in the 1800s and remained the most common framework until the introduction of the three-cueing system.


Why: The important learning process in phonics is called orthographic mapping. In this process, a child already knows the meaning of the word "cat" and can pronounce the word. Then, with this background knowledge in place, when the child comes across the sounds /c/ /a/ /t/ in text and sounds the word out, this relationship gets "mapped" to their memory. Through phonics instruction, children use their understanding of the meaning of words coupled with sounding out the letters and letter groups. With successful orthographic mapping, students are able to both comprehend and sound out the text.


Criticism: The largest hurdle to teaching phonics is the assumed level of difficulty. Phonics can appear tedious to teach, and sometimes feels intimidating for teachers in comparison to three-cueing, which relies heavily on pictures and other clues. Many teachers believe that they lack the knowledge of the structure of language needed to teach phonics effectively.

Why Not Both?

You, like many, may be wondering "why not just use both?"


This best-of-both-worlds idea, combining phonics and cueing to optimize students' reading ability, is a type of balanced literacy. The balanced literacy approach pulls in many different techniques and approaches to best support beginning readers, and attempts to teach both phonics and cueing in conjunction.


Those who support balanced literacy laud it for its multifaceted construction. However, one major problem exists here: sounding it out (phonics) is harder work for most students than cueing, and if given both tools, many students will continually fall back on cueing as their primary tool. So, while phonics is the most valid way of determining what the word on a page actually says, if given the choice, many students will choose to use pictures and context clues and simply memorize the way words look (cueing strategies) to derive meaning rather than work on sounding out. 


So, in a learning environment using both cueing and phonics, phonics falls by the wayside more often than not.

The Case for Phonics

There are a few undeniable advantages to teaching reading with phonics rather than cueing:


Phonics skills are scalable. Inevitably, as students grow older and texts gain density, the cues available to students to decode a text become fewer and further between—pictures go away, and words get longer and will not be part of a visually-memorized bank. For a student who has relied solely on cueing techniques, the shift proves extremely difficult, if not impossible without experience sounding words out. For example, how does one three-cue “sedimentary” if it is a new word? Phonics will help a child to sound out that advanced vocabulary word, and they can use this to assign meaning.


Comprehension AND Reading/Decoding: if the goal is to have students engage in actually comprehending and reading text as it exists on a page, phonics clearly wins out. Cueing does not actually lead to the act of reading sounds and words in the most elementary, alphabetical sense. Here’s a snapshot illustrating the importance of both comprehension and phonetic reading from a wonderfully in-depth article by Emily Hanford


“‘Margaret Goldberg, a teacher and literacy coach in the Oakland Unified School District, remembers a moment when she realized what a problem the three-cueing approach was. She was with a first-grader named Rodney when he came to a page with a picture of a girl licking an ice cream cone and a dog licking a bone.

The text said: 'My little dog likes to eat with me.'

But Rodney said: 'My dog likes to lick his bone.' 

Rodney breezed right through it, unaware that he hadn't read the sentence on the page.

Goldberg realized lots of her students couldn't actually read the words in their books; instead, they were memorizing sentence patterns and using the pictures to guess. One little boy exclaimed, 'I can read this book with my eyes shut!' 

'Oh no,' Goldberg thought. 'That is not reading.'" (APM)


Here is a simple way to focus on the relationship between decoding (reading) and comprehension.

Decoding (D) x Language Comprehension (LC) = Reading Comprehension (RC)


According to this classic “multiplication problem” that reflects the “Simple View of Reading,” we see that reading comprehension will not be achieved without both accurate decoding and language comprehension. Simply put, a lack of decoding ability, or a 0, will result in a 0 for reading comprehension. In other words, phonics instruction that leads to accurate decoding is a critical component required on the road to strong reading comprehension, the ultimate goal when reading.


Scientific, anecdotal, and statistical data support phonics instruction. Scientific research has shown since the late 1980s that the first skill required for strong reading is the ability to sound out a word, and that the child knowing the meaning of the word comes second to this phonetic reading. Anecdotally, in classrooms where side-by-side testing has been completed (in which one group of students was taught with cueing while another group was taught with phonics), students taught with phonics quickly emerged as the stronger readers. In some cases, teachers who have engaged in this side-by-side analysis even felt guilt:


"She [Goldberg] thinks the students who learned three cueing were actually harmed by the approach. ‘I did lasting damage to these kids. It was so hard to ever get them to stop looking at a picture to guess what a word would be. It was so hard to ever get them to slow down and sound a word out because they had had this experience of knowing that you predict what you read before you read it.'" (APM)

Finally, phonics is statistically valid. The alphabetic principles of our written code are 85% regular, meaning the rules work 85% of the time. If the odds of winning at a casino were 85%, we’d be there every day.

So, parents and teachers, the next time your beginning reader stumbles over a word, go forth and confidently advise them to "sound it out"—it actually is best practice.

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