Commentary | Education

Lessons—There’s More to Reading Than Phonics

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


There’s More to Reading Than Phonics

By  Richard Rothstein

It seems to be common sense that reading instruction should emphasize phonics — how to combine letters into sounds and words. But because pupils’ backgrounds and learning styles differ, teaching too must vary.

Certainly, phonics is crucial. A National Academy of Sciences report in 1999 confirmed that most children won’t become good readers if they don’t very early learn alphabet sounds and how to combine them.

But there’s more to it. Nobody reads this newspaper letter by letter. Proficient readers recognize words and phrases without sounding them out. Beginners also need this skill.

There is a myth that “fuzzy” methods replaced phonics in recent decades and that reading suffered. But most adults with nostalgia for their own phonics-based instruction had no such thing. Fifty years ago, schools taught more whole word recognition than phonics. Texts repeated words so children would know them by sight. (“Run, Dick, run. Run, run, run.”)

Then, as now, there were battles. A 1955 best-seller, “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” complained that teachers were suddenly ignoring phonics. But the book lacked perspective. As far back as 1892, a study of New York City schools found word recognition, not phonics, was typical. If there was a golden age for reading, phonics drill wasn’t the key.

Literacy in some countries would be hard to explain if phonics were the only way to read. The Chinese and formal Japanese languages have no letters to sound out. Children memorize character meanings, much as Americans learn to recognize “run.”

A 1991 worldwide study of 9-year- olds found that Finnish students read best. One reason is that Finland produces few television programs of its own. Children learn from cartoon subtitles, flashing so quickly that word recognition, not sounding out, is the only way to read.

For Americans, a combination of phonics and other approaches works best. The optimal mix varies by child, so it is not helpful for politicians to dictate phonics or any method. What’s needed are skilled teachers to diagnose reading difficulties and prescribe appropriate solutions.

To move an exciting story along, good teachers sometimes use whole language methods that urge children to guess at unknown words from context or pictures. Teachers should urge pupils to sound out syllables, but learners shouldn’t have just one strategy.

The National Academy of Sciences report, noting that phonics has been too much ignored in recent years, also cited the importance of motivation for reading. Excessive phonics drills can be drudgery and destroy a desire to read. The report summarizes research that a phonics emphasis leads to earlier reading, but adds that whole language methods produce more positive attitudes and may better “enable students to sustain an interest in reading though the upper grades.”

That is why advocates of a balanced approach want children to have interesting books available. Teachers should read them aloud and schedule lots of free reading time. This contributes to proficiency along with direct instruction in letter sounds.

Recent reading wars were most bitter in California, where whole language methods were mandated in 1987. The state then switched to phonics when reading scores fell. But school funds had just suffered from a voter property-tax revolt, so whole language had probably not caused the low scores. More likely culprits were depleted school libraries, an influx of immigrants whose parents were illiterate, and classes so large that teachers could not vary instruction based on individual diagnoses.

In the past, sloganeering about phonics had minimal effect, as did the countervailing extremism of experts who urged only whole language. Ignoring ideological wars, good teachers usually blended whole language, whole word and phonics methods. In the 1920’s, when whole word pedagogies held sway, a national survey found teachers using more phonics than experts said they should.

But now, state and district authorities interfere more, sometimes requiring teachers to follow scripted phonics lessons. These programs may be of high quality, but if teachers can’t exercise judgment about when to use them, reading may suffer.

Some children read poorly if they have not learned phonics, others if they are not exposed to exciting stories that make reading fun. Some children enter school with poor vocabularies because they come from homes where parents rarely read aloud and spoken language is less complex. Teaching pupils to sound out words they never heard is rarely sensible.

Reading improvement can only come from balanced teaching, supplementing phonics with other methods as individual needs require.

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