The Five Myths of Phonics

This simple word, defined by Merriam Webster as a method of teaching people to read and pronounce words by learning the sounds of letters, letter groups, and syllables, has been at the center of an educational debate that has continued for over a century. The debate has been so fierce, some people have called it the Reading Wars. Yet despite billions of dollars in reading research and countless trainings and classes offered on how to teach reading, a great deal of confusion remains.

Much of this confusion is due to the persistence of five myths about phonics.

Myth 1:

In order to develop fluent readers, phonics must be supplemented with sight words memorized by rote.

This myth is prevalent in schools and is also found in many popular phonics curriculums. However, it is indeed a myth -- one that has often resulted in students being taught sight words before they are taught phonics, and one that has often conveyed to students that letters may or may not have a meaningful role in the word or anything to do with sounds. This has led to students being confused about whether reading at its most elementary level is about sounds or words.

The primary reason this myth is so widely accepted is because English has a complex phonetic code which remains largely unknown, not only to the average person, but to a vast majority of elementary school teachers and reading specialists. A vast majority of English speakers, including teachers, have been taught an oversimplified version of the phonetic code which results in hundreds of thousands of words appearing to be exceptions.

For example, many of us were taught:

A says /ă/ as in apple and /ā/ as in ape.

S says /s/ as in sad.

O says /ŏ/ as in top and /ō/ as in bone.

These three letters and their commonly taught sounds illustrate “the problem of phonics.” This is because A also says /ä/ as in all, ma, pa, and ball. S also says /z/ as in is, has, rise, and confuse. And O also say /ö/ as in to, move, lose, and approve. Notice that several of the words in this list are high-frequency words, which are found in even the most simple books.

The phonics rules most students are taught work for about 40-60% of English words. If students do not learn a linguistically accurate phonics code, then, they need to memorize the remaining 40-60% of all words as exceptions, by rote, to be able to read and spell them correctly. Since the average adult has a vocabulary of 60,000 words, that means the student will need to memorize about 30,000 words. No wonder only 35% of fourth graders in the United States are currently proficient in reading!

Yet when students learn a linguistically accurate phonics code, which includes 75 phonograms and all of their sounds, they are able to logically decode 98% of English words!

Myth 2

Students who sound out words sound-by-sound, using phonics, will not become fluent readers.

It is common for educators today to discourage students from sounding out words. This stems from the belief that sounding out words is a sign of lack of fluency and that it will interfere with reading comprehension, since strong readers seem to recognize familiar words "automatically" and immediately.

Yet this idea is based on a misunderstanding of the process by which students use phonics to become fluent readers. By sounding out words, the brain is developing pathways for understanding the letter-to-sound correspondence within words. Developing neural pathways requires practice. This is why a pianist must break down a piece of music and practice the individual phrases in order to play the whole piece fluently. It is why a figure skater must practice each of the skills and even subskills in isolation before the skater can combine them into a fluid routine. Developing the neural pathways for reading also requires practice. That practice in the beginning stages of learning to read looks like sounding out words. As a student practices reading the sounds of phonograms and blending those sounds with other sounds, he becomes more and more fluent at reading. As the neural pathways develop the student will be able to read with greater ease and speed and it will appear that he is reading "whole words" when indeed his brain has developed the pathways necessary to sound out words at lightening speed.

Teaching students the phonograms and how to blend them into words takes practice, and therefore time. However, teaching sight words also takes practice and time. And teaching phonograms and giving students the tools to sound out new words is far more efficient than teaching sight words because once students know the 75 phonograms, they can then apply the concepts to read ANY word in English! If a student memorizes a sight word, the student has gained only the ability to read one word.

Myth 3

Phonics is only beneficial for reading.

What is most frustrating about this myth is that it is propagated not only by people who do not support phonics education and have never learned accurate English phonics, but by many reading experts who know the 70 Orton phonograms. Yes, phonics is essential for reading; but phonics is also essential for spelling.

Though it is commonly believed that people who read a lot are good spellers, this is not always true. Countless strong readers struggle with spelling. Many struggle so deeply that spell check doesn’t even recognize their attempts. The solution is to know a linguistically accurate phonics system. With knowledge of the phonograms and spelling rules, writers can sound out words in order to spell them accurately. Since many sounds have more than one spelling in English, spell check still has a role, but knowing these options revolutionizes the ability to utilize the tool. Rather than throwing out the perfect word in frustration because spell check doesn't recognize her attempts, now the writer can use her knowledge of phonograms to figure out where the error lies and fix it with ease. And when a dictionary or spell check is not at hand, those who understand our phonetic code can easily consider the options for spelling an unfamiliar word and make an informed, logical guess.

Myth 4:

Phonics is beneficial only for struggling readers or students with dyslexia.

This may be the argument that has been the most detrimental to bringing linguistically accurate phonics to our nation's students. And sadly it is often the experts in reading instruction repeating this myth. Again and again I have heard people say that the phonograms and spelling rules are only necessary for kids with reading disabilities and that they are a waste of time for kids who are already reading. My reply to them is this: "Why does someone need to be diagnosed with a disability in order to have their questions about English words answered?"

Most kids have questions about English spelling. Why is there a silent final E in have? Why do we drop the E in tracing but not traceable? Why isn’t confusion spelled TION? Kids who are gifted with language tend to ask just as many questions about English spelling as kids who are struggling with written language. Yet the common answer to these questions is "that's an exception." In other words, "I don't know, memorize it." Phonograms and spelling rules are the critical thinking tools of language, and they benefit everyone! Learning why words are spelled the way they are makes the process of learning to read and spell new words far more efficient and engages students' critical thinking skills.

As a speaker, I have asked thousands of good spellers, including teachers, reading specialists, and parents, how they know if a word is spelled correctly. Virtually all of them say “because it looks right.” They also say they have no idea why a word is spelled correctly or incorrectly, they simply rely on visual memory. Yet when I show these same strong spellers the word garlicky, and I ask them if the K looks funny, a majority of these strong spellers agree that garlicky doesn't look quite right. But if they knew the rules, they would know the K is added to keep the C from softening to /s/ before the Y. Even strong, intuitive spellers who rely on visual memory benefit from knowing why! And the many other learners whose visual memory is not as strong - many of whom read well but struggle with spelling - are far more successful when taught how the written language works rather than being asked to memorize words like pictures.

There are over 1,000,000 words and counting in English. These words can be described with 106 tools. We would never dream of teaching kids to memorize math problems "by sight" without teaching them what the numbers mean. Math education places a great emphasis in understanding why. It is time language arts did the same, because phonograms and spelling rules are the critical thinking skills for language learning. They help students read, spell, and comprehend.

These tools are not only beneficial for reading and spelling in English. Knowing how to think critically about language helps us to learn other languages. This point was illustrated for me at the Education Minnesota Conference a few years ago. At the Logic of English®️ booth we had a sign that said, "Do you know why the C says two sounds in circus?" A native French speaker walked by and said, "Oh yes, that happens in French." A Spanish speaker read it and said, "Yes! That happens in Spanish!" An Italian speaker stopped and said, "Yes, I do! This occurs in Italian as well."

But American after American came by, read the question, and said, "I have no idea." They then flipped the page to read the answer:

C softens to /s/ before an E, I, or Y as in center, cinder, and cycle.

Time and time again, the Americans exclaimed, "That is amazing! I had no idea!" Notice the Spanish, French and Italian speakers knew this about their own languages. They were taught and they were able to apply this knowledge to another language - English - as well. When students understand how the building blocks of our written language work to express words through sounds, they have a far easier time learning the different tools of any alphabetic language, because they already have a strong framework within which to place this knowledge. Learning the tools to understand English will make us better language students.

While the benefits of complete phonics instruction extend far beyond basic reading skills, if reading were its only benefit that would be justification enough. According to the Nation’s Report Card, 65% of our students read below grade level. That is a MAJORITY. It is time we taught reading in a manner that has been scientifically shown, in hundreds of evidence-based studies, to work for a majority of students. If we wait for students to struggle for years rather than teaching them accurate information about their language, and then provide the information only to those who are diagnosed and placed in an exclusive program, we waste years of their time, leave hundreds of thousands of children behind, and require even those who read successfully to waste years of time memorizing spelling words by rote. If we teach accurate information from the beginning, the critical thinking skills about language, then the reading ability of all students will improve!

Myth 5

Phonics is boring.

I believe this is an excuse that adults who are intimidated by the idea of learning skills they should have learned as kids project onto children. In reality, children who learn linguistically accurate phonics become excited about applying their knowledge to words. We have teachers who tell us that students in their classrooms keep raising their hands to announce new discoveries about words in the middle of other subjects. This is reading across the curriculum! Parents tell us about how their children who were formerly frustrated and discouraged with reading exultantly exclaiming "I knew it! I knew that made more than one sound" when taught all the sounds of a phonogram. Students who learn phonics combined with morphology develop a passion for words. They are able to sound out ANY word. They have tools to know when a word is not a native English word and to develop knowledge about etymology. They are able to use roots to provide clues to meaning for advanced vocabulary. Students develop confidence because they are successful, and they are successful because they have tools that work.

It is true that any subject can be boring if it is taught in a boring manner! I believe the phonics rules should be discovered through carefully designed word experiments. This also teaches students how to analyze language and look for patterns, and it engages them in the learning process. Students should then develop mastery with the phonograms and spelling rules through fun, age-appropriate games. Homeschool parents and classroom teachers tell us their students beg to do Logic of English® because they find learning fun. These students are developing a passion for words and for reading!

The United States has been educationally hamstrung for a century. Two-thirds of our nation's students struggle with reading. Countless more struggle with spelling. These are the tools ALL our students need. It is time we dispel the myths and begin the hard work of teaching our nation so that EVERYONE knows why!

Learn More

The phonograms and spelling rules that explain 98% of English words are taught in Logic of English®️ Foundations (curriculum for ages 4-7) and Essentials (for ages 8 to adult), as well as Uncovering the Logic of English: A Common-Sense Approach to Reading, Spelling, and Literacy. You can also read more about why phonics is a better approach to high-frequency words than rote memorization of whole words on our High-Frequency Words page.

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