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Published in Print: February 14, 2001, as The Story of Phonics

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The Story of Phonics

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A good many public figures maintain that the way to raise reading scores is to require that all children learn reading by the method known as "phonics."

'He had frogtank where he had hidden it," reads Steven as we go around the table during the morning's reading lesson. Kevin, on his turn, reads correctly, "The bunny hid in the bushes." Then he stops. "That can't be 'bushes'," he says, crestfallen. "Why not?" I ask. "Because b-u is 'buh'," is his reply. Susan is equally helpless. She reads, "It was a nice day so they went on a picknice." When I ask her what a "picknice" is, she answers, "It has to be 'picknice' because a c with an i is pronounced like s." These children are bright, verbal, middle-class children, but none of them can get sense from a written sentence without help. In fact, they are all considered "learning disabled." They are students in a phonics program, and during the past two or three years in school, they have all completed hundreds of workbook pages on which they practiced their phonics skills on words in lists or sentences such as these: "The train stops on the treat." "The trap hangs on the nest." "Will a throne shave?" Or little stories, such as: "Tim spins. Tim dips. Tim tips his hat. Tim hits a pit and sits."

Are these children really learning-disabled? Or is this just the normal, bright student's reaction to years of reading about thrones that shave and trains stopping on treats and ice-skating elephants who dip and hit pits?

Education—reading scores in particular—has become a major political issue. A good many public figures maintain that the way to raise reading scores is to require that all children learn reading by the method known as "phonics." During the 2000 campaign, President Bush considered this so important that he referred to phonics in two of the presidential debates. He proposed in the campaign devoting as much as $5 billion over five years to a reading initiative, which presumably would stress this method.

Phonics has come back into vogue despite a rather dismal track record. During the 2½ decades between 1955 and the early 1980s, it was the major method of teaching reading in American schools, producing reading scores that were about the same as those reported today. Before we subject all our schoolchildren to a reading method that may be of as little practical value as its current alternative, whole language, wouldn't it be well for everyone who advocates it to have a clearer idea of what phonics actually is, and what role it might play in the reading difficulties of children like Steven, Kevin, and Susan?


Most people understand, correctly, that phonics has to do with letter sounds, and that a phonics-taught child is asked to "sound out" words, letter by letter. This seems eminently reasonable, but there is a catch to it in English. While English consonants give reliable clues to the sounds in written words, English vowels do not. Most other alphabetic languages have from five to 12 vowel sounds, each symbolized in print with one particular letter or letter combination that is always pronounced in the same way.

Phonics has come back into vogue despite a rather dismal track record.

English is completely different. No two dictionaries even agree about the number of vowel sounds in English. The Oxford English Dictionary finds 54; the American College Dictionary, 18. The Winston Dictionary for Schools falls somewhere in between, providing 28 different vowel-pronunciation symbols. Such symbols are a necessary aid to a person consulting a dictionary, because in English any vowel letter or letter combination may be pronounced in a variety of different ways. This means that there is no way to determine the pronunciation of any particular English word from the spelling alone. This is just as true for the beginning reader as for an adult consulting a dictionary.

Consider a simple children's story written in English:

Once upon a time, there was a mother pig who had three little pigs. The three little pigs grew so big that their mother said to them, "You are too big to live here any longer. You must go and build houses for yourselves. But take care that the wolf does not catch you."

In this 54-word paragraph, there are 33 different vowel-letter/vowel-sound associations: six pronunciations for "a" (a, had, are, any, take, care); seven for "e" (there, little, the, grew, them, here, mother); one for "i" (pig, live); eight for "o" (once, upon, mother, who, so, longer, for, wolf); one for "u" (must); and three for "ou" (you, houses, yourselves). The child reading this story would also encounter the two- vowel combinations in "three," "their," "said," "too," "build," and "does," only one of which (three), follows the basic phonics "rule" that when there are two vowels in a word, the first "says its name," and the second is not pronounced.

To complicate matters, not only will the child find each written vowel pronounced in a number of different ways, but in this story, as in all other English writing, a single vowel sound may be spelled differently in different words: "uh" (upon, a, mother, does, was, the, once); "oo" (grew, you, too, who); "eh" (said, them, any); "ih" (pigs, live, build); and "air" (their, care).

The point is that there is no way to teach a beginning reader of English to identify written words in normal reading by pronouncing them letter by letter—because there is no way to provide him with the letter-pronunciation principles necessary to ensure that he will pronounce the right sound for the vowel. Every word has a vowel. This means that the only way to teach a child to "sound out" English words letter by letter is to simplify—that is to say, falsify—the teaching of vowel sounds. Phonics teaches 10 vowel sounds (not 17 or 28): the "short" sounds in hat, set, hit, hot, and up, and the "long" sounds in rate, here, bite, note, and cute. A child armed with these vowel sounds will, of course, mispronounce—and thus fail to identify—the majority of words in any normally written text. This is why, for example, my student Kevin didn't believe he had read the word "bushes" correctly—he was led astray by his diligent and correct application of the sounds he had been taught.

Thus, the taught letter sounds must be separated from meaningful reading and practiced on words in lists or nonsense sentences and stories. The result is that good students learn that reading doesn't have to make sense. Why should a student like Steven balk at the phrase "frogtank where he had hidden it" after being taught to read gibberish like "Will a throne shave?" Many people consider it normal that beginning reading consist of nonsense, but this only happens in English phonics lessons. In all other alphabetic languages, the beginner is taught one sound for each vowel letter or letter combination, and he practices those sounds on meaningful stories written with normal vocabulary and using normal syntax.

Phonics has not served our schools well, leaving almost 40 percent of our students unable to read at even a basic level.

Many people consider it normal that beginning reading consist of nonsense, but this only happens in English phonics lessons.

It is true, of course, that if the child does not attend too closely to the "vowel-pronunciation rules," he will easily be able to figure out most of the words in the "Three Little Pigs" story above by using the consonant sounds along with his knowledge of normal syntax and usage, the subject of the story, and the meaning of the sentence. But this is just exactly what, during two or three years of reading instruction, he has been trained not to do. He has always encountered written words in lists or in sentences that made little or no sense, and has been given to understand that exact attention to the vowel- pronunciation rules must always override considerations of meaning.

The truth is that the only way he can learn to read is by doing the reverse of what he has been taught: by paying attention to the meaning of the sentence along with the consonant sounds, and avoiding any fixed ideas about the pronunciation of English vowels. Indeed, the average reader will have little problem figuring out from the context what word Steven was trying to read when he came up with the word "frogtank" above. Learning to read requires, above all, practice in identifying words within a sensible context by using the consonant sounds and an expectation of meaning. During two or three years, the phonics-taught child has had no such practice. Those three years of instruction were not only totally wasted, but also stand in the way of his learning to read. He must now undergo years of unteaching and reteaching if he is ever to be a successful reader.


Common sense suggests that instead of continuing to rely on a letter-by-letter sounding-out system, which is demonstrably useless when applied to English, or a "sight" system that requires of a child the impossible task of memorizing the 10,000 or so words in her spoken vocabulary simply by how they look, schools should adopt a teaching system for reading that asks the child to use the meaning of the sentence, the syntax, her knowledge of normal usage—and the consonant sounds—to learn to identify words in simple, normally written stories. No nonsense sentences are necessary, and nothing need be taught about vowel sounds beyond the existence of "silent e" and the truth: In English, the vowels serve as "variable-sound letters."

That proposed $5 billion in federal funding, spent teaching these simple truths in the classroom, might help make the path to reading smoother for many thousands of Stevens and Susans in our schools.


Helen Bardeen Andrejevic is a teacher living in New York City.

Vol. 20, Issue 22, Pages 45,48

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