Education Commentary

Systematic Phonics Alone Won’t Help Johnny’s Reading Problem

By Peter Rynders — September 04, 1985 6 min read

Since 1955, Rudolf Flesch has been peddling his theory that all the problems in America’s schools can be attributed to our failure to teach phonics. The recent flurry of concern over the level of illiteracy in our country has given new impetus to Mr. Flesch’s campaign for his simple solution to a complex problem. Though it has been clear for a long time that he does not understand the causes of illiteracy, his recent Commentary is the most blatant example I’ve seen of his lack of understanding (''Why Can’t Johnny Read? We Taught Him Incorrectly,” Education Week, June 12, 1985.)

As an elementary-school teacher of reading, I taught phonics. As a consultant who has worked closely with teachers of reading for the past 15 years, I have continued to support the teaching of phonics. But, unlike Mr. Flesch, I do not believe that all reading instruction can be reduced to the teaching of systematic phonics.

Mr. Flesch’s understanding of the process of learning to read is seriously flawed. Basic to his misunderstanding is the common belief that all words are learned with equal amounts of effort. because they can all be reduced to letters, and all letters represent sounds. Because the letter sounds lead the beginning reader to the familiar sounds of oral language, there is a direct hookup, in Mr. Flesch’s theory, from the graphic symbols to the meanings conveyed through oral language. Mr. Flesch believes children can learn to make this hookup between September and Christmas of their first year in school. From then on, every child will be able to read any book he wants.

If there were any truth to this gross oversimplification, illiteracy would disappear in a short time. Mr. Flesch attribute the fact that illiteracy isn’t rapidly disappearing to our unwillingness to follow his simple prescription. It may not have occurred to him that the reason more reading teachers don’t rely solely on systematic phonics is that this attitude completely disregards reality.

The truth is that all words are not alike, and this fact has important implications for how we approach the task of teaching reading.

This reality can be demonstrated by using the following sentence: “The boy went over to see the hippopotamus.” If I ask parents which word in this sentence would be the most difficult to teach, they usually pick hippopotamus. Actually, as many teachers know, the difficult words are went and the. Hippopotamus is probably the easiest.

Words tend to fall into one of two categories: content words and function words. Content words have concrete meanings. Pictures can be drawn to help children visualize what the graphic symbols represent. Hippopotamus is a content word.

Function words--such as to, of, and, for, and the--are the words we use to make the language flow. It is difficult to conjure up concrete representations of such words. In addition, most function words are made up of only a few letters, so there is less to differentiate them from other words.

As well as being abstract and difficult to recognize, function words are the most frequently used words in our language. Students of word frequency estimate that function words make up 30 to 50 percent of everything we read.

Without function words you cannot write even the simplest story. Mr. Flesch can talk about children learning mom and chimp and sleigh and bang, but he can’t write a story about any of these without using words such as was, have, what, which, and where.

In addition to being the most frequently used words, the function words are the most consistent violators of all the phonic generalizations. For example, consonants tend to cluster in group of two or three. The most common clusters are blends. Blends are relatively easy to teach because the sounds of the consonants are quite consistent and are clearly heard in the blends. In function words, however, most of the consonant clusters are digraphs-pairs of letters representing single sounds. Digraphs are more difficult to teach because the sounds of the consonants change; compare, for instance, the sound of wh (the most common digraph) in which and who.

What is more, function words often begin with vowels (are, one, on, of). Most words begin with the more consistent consonant sounds. Also, the silent e that normally affects the vowel sound in words such as rate does not affect the vowel sound in high-frequency words such as have and some.

So a big part of the problem in learning to read is the language itself, not our alleged failure to teach phonics. Beginning readers’ first experiences with the printed language introduce them to some of the most difficult English words. These words continue to plague children who fail to learn them and serve to undermine their self-confidence.

Children cannot be made to “attack” all words in the same way. Nor do children apply a single strategy as they read. Phonics is just one strategy for bringing meaning to graphic symbols. Once meaning begins to flow, a dependence on phonics, even by the beginning reader, gives way to various shortcuts to comprehension of whole words.

In making the case for systematic phonics, Mr. Flesch fails to consider the research evidence that says skilled readers are most clearly differentiated from unskilled readers by their ability to comprehend words as wholes. Some readers depend more heavily on phonics and some less, but most rely on phonics only part of the time and only with some of the words.

What I must also emphasize is that teaching children to read involves meaning. Children who are learning to read are adding a graphic dimension to their language. All the rich meaning of the language and all the mental images stimulated by language must come to be associated with graphic symbols. If this doesn’t happen, reading will never have the richness that oral storytelling has. If teaching reading is equivalent to teaching shorthand, learning to read may never get hooked up with language in the child’s mind.

Contrary to Mr. Flesch’s perception, teachers do teach phonics in most early-elementary classrooms today. The phonics instruction I observe has several weaknesses. One is that the names and sounds of the letters of the alphabet are presented as though this information exists in its own right and represents the key to language. In fact, the sound-symbol relationship are, at best, generalizations that help the reader relate to the graphic symbols.

Another weakness in phonics instruction is that the phonic generalizations are too often taught as rules. This creates a false sense of confidence in the system.

A third weakness is that the phonic-analysis system is presented at a time when young children are confronting the high frequency words. Opportunities for them to apply what they are being taught are minimal.

Phonics must cease to be the province of 1st- and 2nd-grade teachers, and it must cease to be treated as the backbone of the reading programs in those grades. Rather, all teachers must be proficient in strategies that help children apply phonic analysis as they develop a large written-language base for reading.

For too long, we’ve flip-flopped between no phonics and all phonics. It is time to reaffirm the relationship between reading and the larger process of communicating meaning. Phonics, in that context, becomes a useful tool that is applied wherever it is helpful. As we attack the huge problem of illiteracy, we must keep these realities in mind.

A version of this article appeared in the September 04, 1985 edition of Education Week