Why children should be encouraged to only ever use phonics as a helpful friend.

A Teacher’s Philosophy

I should start out by stating quite clearly that this is not an article advocating for the removal of phonics from classrooms. However, a teacher’s approach to the task of teaching reading is guided by what they think reading actually is. If armed with a viable definition of reading and an understanding of some of the instructional implications of their definition, teachers can use almost any reading materials to help children develop productive reading strategies.

According to Weaver, (2009, p.15) the following is a good perspective of what reading could be: ‘learning to read means learning to bring meaning to a text in order to get meaning from it.’

This has meaning at its heart. It involves the use of all three language cue systems which are discussed and referenced in detail later. Namely: syntactic, semantic and grapho/phonemic.

However, you only need to read the news, walk into any classroom or peruse the children’s book shelves in your local book shop to know that phonics is currently king. Unfortunately, phonics is only further authenticated by high-stakes testing and governmental learning objectives (Davis, 2014).

Vygotsky (1978) stated that children “grow into the intellectual environment around them.” In becoming literate, children acquire a set of cultural practices, values, and beliefs, within which they construct an identity.

Let’s consider what evidence young children must gather from their classrooms to inform what they believe reading to be. They will observe isolated letters of the alphabet,  ‘alien words’, fragmented words, and a few bits of sentences, none of which seem to serve any purpose. Letters and words are festooned all over classroom walls, mostly in the form of lists. They may also find a few things called stories in some of the classrooms, but most of these will be short and dull, and almost invariably accompanied by lists of questions designed to make a test out of the book. Every child is an unprejudiced explorer. Children learn from the artefacts they find in their environment and from the behaviour of the people around them. What must young readers be currently concluding reading to be?

Children are growing up to believe that to learn to read is to identify and pronounce words correctly. This is because in school they have learnt that correct word pronunciation is what reading is. However, one hopes that, if reading for pleasure, at home, the child may read for meaning. Whether a teacher is aware of it or not, Weaver (2009, p.15) believes it is perfectly reasonable to assume that teachers who focus intensely on a phonetic strategy for reading are leading children to believe that the following definition of reading is true, that: ‘learning to read means learning to pronounce words’.

I think we can all agree that reading would be both inefficient and ineffective if this statement was true – if we only ever relied on grapho/phonemic cues. It implies that 100% word identification is necessary in order to get meaning, which is ordinarily not so. It doesn’t take into account what readers bring to a text. It assumes that children can only ever read what they have been taught. Finally, it erroneously implies that meaning resides in the text alone. It implies that readers are passive and that reading is entirely a one-way process. The impact of this, of course, is that some children are learning that reading is a ‘school activity’, punitive, pointless and boring, not to be engaged in unless teachers require it. Much phonic instruction then is irrelevant and misleading to children. Watch this video to see exactly what I mean.

The Problems With Extreme Phonics Advocacy

Most proponents of a systematic synthetic phonics based approach emphasise decoding rather than comprehension. They will argue that this is not the case. However, research (Dockrell et al, 2015) indicates  otherwise.  Of all the reading activities that could currently occur in the classroom, the only one that is to be done daily is ‘sounding out phonemes‘. Not reading and not book discussion.

Extreme phonic advocates seem to think that once words are identified, meaning will take care of itself. You can understand why some people believe the emphasis on phonics to be logical. Language is oral and writing is a graphic representation of language. Is reading then the act of turning writing into its oral counterpart? If letters and letter combinations (graphemes) simply represent spoken sounds, (phonemes) we simply need to teach a child to pronounce the word and they will be readers. If you teach a child what each letter stands for – they can read. They will then be able to immediately go on to the works of Shakespeare and War & Peace without any problems.


For example, you are likely to be a fluent reader who knows all their grapheme / phonemes combinations. As a result, according to a phonics fundamentalist, you should be able to read the following passage:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power. Professor Butler’s first-prize sentence appears in “Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time,” an article in the scholarly journal Diacritics (1997)

I’m sure after reading this passage you’d be unable to provide an adequate summary; not because you couldn’t read the passage ‘correctly’ but because you couldn’t place the text in a context that made sense to you. This is the same for children who develop only a ‘phonic philosophy’ to reading. Sure, they read the passage accurately, but they will recall relatively little. This is because:

  1. Within about half a second or less, children begin to forget some of the details of a sentence (Weaver, p.133, 2009).
  2. In isolation, most words do not have a single meaning but rather a range of possible meanings – thus phonics will only be of limited use to the reader.
  3. Words take on specific meanings as they transact with one another on the page together – thus phonics will certainly not help in this transaction and indeed due to its time consuming nature, can damage this process.
  4. Meaning is not in the text or words themselves but in the reader’s interpretations – phonics makes no contribution to this.
  5. Readers make sense of texts by bringing to bear their life experiences, knowledge and feelings – phonics plays no part in this.
  6. Meaning emerges as a child engages with a whole text in context. – phonics can only ever be a helpful friend to this process.

Single Words – Multiple Meanings

70% of commonly used English words have more than one meaning (Tennent et al, 2016, Aitchision, 2003, Bromley, 2007). Take the simple word ‘run’. According to phonics-based philosophy of reading, once you can decode and pronounce the word, meaning should take care of itself. Consider what you think the word run is to mean and then read the following examples and see if your meaning works in the context of the whole sentence:

  1. Can you run the shop for an hour?
  2. Can you run the printing press?
  3. Can you do the run for charity?
  4. Can you run in the next election?
  5. Can you help with the school run?
  6. They’ll print 500 copies in the first
  7. Jenny has a run in her tights.
  8. There was a run on BBQs this weekend.
  9. It had a long run at the theatre.

Now, the question is, in these and other sentences, how can a young phonics-based reader know what run means? They are at a disadvantage. I’m sure the strategy of decoding and word recognition was not all that was required for you to take the full meaning from the sentences. It is clear then that we do not simply add together the meanings of individual words in a sentence to get the meaning of the whole. This is because we cannot know what a word means until we see it in context as a whole. Thus many phonic activities fail children in their pursuit of reading for meaning because they are not engaging in whole text, but rather, are making individual sounds or sounding out individual words in isolation. This leaves children at a serious disadvantage when they approach real texts. Take for example these examples:

  1. Get Sally to chair the meeting.
  2. Separate the white from the yolk
  3. That was a close call

Also, there are many words we do not know how to pronounce until we know something about their meaning: wound, lead and tears.

Though these examples provide a common sense view that decoding does not take care of meaning in reading, phonics is still the primary method of word identification instead of one of several cue systems that a young reader has available to them. Therefore it’s incorrect and unethical for teachers and children to believe that reading comes down to the following:

printed symbol = a spoken symbol =meaning.

Phonic Rules Aren’t Rules

As the primary means for identifying unfamiliar words, phonics has certain unavoidable and unquestionable limitations. This has recently been exposed by The British Educational Research Association (2016) where they state:

‘Children actually have to rely on their vocabulary knowledge to know how a word sounds, rather than only following phonic rules. Schools are wasting time on teaching [phonic rules] which are of little use to children in reading for real.’.

Additionally, phonic rules and application of them are difficult for many children to understand (Artley, 1977, Weaver, 2009). An early children’s text can have anything up to 21 regular consonants, 25 consonant blends and 13 silent consonants. As for vowels, you have single vowels, diagraphs, blends, plus rules which apply to multi-syllabic words. This is a massive load.

The fact is, even if this kind of content can be taught, and as The British Educational Research Association acknowledge, the sound-symbol relationships in English are not sufficiently consistent to make it possible to use phonic generalisations with any degree of regularity.

Note, just as two common examples: the ea diagraph in – break, bread, near and beach. Not to mention the ng in – longer, singer, finger and ranger.

Another example is ‘paws’, which phonetically could produce something that also fits, pause, pours and pores. So if ‘paws’ is encountered out of context, you cannot identify the sound with a real word unless you already recognise the word ‘paws,’ in the context of the text, however children fed on a phonics based diet are at a disadvantage when bringing context of this kind to their reading (Davis, 2014).

If you are beginning to think that spelling/sound correspondences are very complicated, you are absolutely right. There are just too many exceptions. Just look at this small selection of examples:

Rule Idea Words Conforming From Common Word Lists Exceptions
When there are two vowels side by side, the long sound of the first one is heard and the second is usually silent. 309 (bead) 377 (chief)
When a vowel is in the middle of a one-syllable word, the vowel is short. 408 249
When there are two vowels, one of which is final e, the first vowel is long and this e is silent 180 (bone) 108 (done)
The first vowel is usually long and the second silent in the diagraphs ai, ea, oa, ui 179 (nail) 92 (said)
In the phonogram ie the I is silent and the e has a long sound 8 (field) 39 (friend)
When words end with silent e, the preceeding a or i is long. 164 (cake) 108 (have)
When a follows w in a word, it usually has the sound a as in was. 15 (watch) 32 (swam)
The two letters ow make the long o sound 50 (own) 35 (down)
W is sometimes a vowel and follows the vowel diagraph rule 50 (crow) 75 (threw)
When y is used as a vowel in words, it sometimes has the sound of long i. 29 (fly) 170 (funny)
One vowel letter in an accented syllable has its short sound 547 (city) 356 (lady)
If the first vowel sound in a word is followed by a single consonant, that consonant usually begins the second syllable. 190 (over) 237 (oven)
When a word has only one vowel letter, the vowel sound is likely to be short 433 (hid) 322 (kind)

This is just a small sample. For the full list see here. Here we can see how even children’s common words lists regularly don’t follow phonetic rules consistently enough to be useful, and so, according to Tovery, giving children phonics as their go-to reading strategy leaves them at an incredible disadvantage.

‘The instruction required for children to deal constantly with these often abstract rules simply does not warrant the time and effort often expended. This time might be better spent actually reading.’ (Tovery, 1980, p.437)

It should also be noted that teaching reading in this way is so complicated that even the producers and advocates for phonics programmes can’t get it right (Beard et al 2019)!

Additionally, according to the CLPE (2000) and Stubbs (1980), it takes children longer to learn to read in English than it takes them to learn to read in other European languages because of this lack of regular and predictable system.

Phonics Is Damaging Reading-For-Pleasure & Life-Long Reading

Reading makes you good at phonics, rather than phonics makes you good at reading. (Frank Smith, 1988, p.14)      

We have to also consider the damage that phonics instruction is causing. We are seeing a decline in life-long reading by children (The National Endowment Of The Arts, 2007, DfE, 2012, UKLA, 2012Egmont, 2013, Armistead, 2015, The Reading Agency, 2015) and the eroding away of time in which children could be reading for pleasure at school (NUT, 2016). Unfortunately, we are denying children satisfying experiences with books if we assume that first and foremost, reading means pronouncing words and painstakingly gauging their meaning on an individual basis. It is all too common to assume that word identification precedes comprehension. In fact, it is clear that comprehension is the other way around. Because we are getting the meaning of the whole, we can then grasp the meaning of the individual words. Words have meaning only as they transact with one another, within the context of a whole text, as the earlier examples have demonstrated.

Under an extreme phonics programme of study, books and stories for ‘meaningful reading’ are always supplementary to the repetitive skills instruction and accompanied by questions so that the students ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers can be counted. Under such conditions, what is to be learned is rigorously and restrictively predetermined. You can see evidence of that in this video.

According the the world renowned & three time winner of New York ‘Teacher Of The Year’ Educationalist John Taylor Gatto:

‘To learn to read and to like it takes about thirty contact hours under the right circumstances, sometimes a few more, sometimes a few less. It’s a fairly easy skill for anyone to pick up if good reasons to do so are provided. Exhortation isn’t sufficient, however, nor intimidation…or humiliation. The only way you can stop a child from learning to read and liking it – in the densely verbal culture which surrounds us all with printed language anywhere we turn – is to teach it the way we currently teach it’. Under the current system ‘by the time a seemingly ‘slow reader’ approaches adulthood, he or she will display indifference to reading, or hatred of it, because of our methods.’ (John Taylor Gatto, Weapons Of Mass Instruction, p.152-153)

The Obsession With Vowels

It is worth noting too that most phonics instruction is based around ‘vowel rules’. Yet vowels are the least important element to be concerned with in the identification of words. It has existed in terms of shorthand in journalism, for years, and remains perfect readable. The following sentence illustrates this fact:

I gss u cn rd ths txt 🙂 wtht vwls.

Only by trying to read the text as a whole can you, or indeed children, understand the meaning of it. Not by reading each letter, word, or sometimes even whole sentences in a text.

Reading is not the process of identifying the pronunciation and meaning of individual words, which phonics instruction could wrongly lead you to believe – particularly if you’re a young child. I think the examples above prove that meaning is more than the product of word pronunciation or identification. Reading is, in fact, a complicated act of processing large pieces of information which transcends individual words.

A Brief History Of Phonics

Extreme and relentless phonics instruction, as an idea, was born out of a simplistic approach to language learning which owes its origins to Verbal Behaviour by B.F. Skinner, a behaviourist, from the early 20th Century. Behaviourists believe that all behaviour, human or animal, it does not matter, can be explained in terms of habits established when instinctive or accidental responses to environmental stimulation are ‘reinforced’ by some kind of reward. Behaviourists have no use for terms like mind, thought or feelings, which they regard as unobservable and unscientific fictions. Skinner argued that children learning to read should follow in precisely the same way that pigeons can be taught to peck at colour lights, by having appropriate responses reinforced.

However, famed and highly regarded linguist, Noam Chomsky published a scathing review of Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour. He rightly ridiculed Skinner’s belief that the laboratory study of animal behaviour could cast any light on the nature of language or on how it is learned. Language, even the language of children, is too rich, too complex, to be regarded as ‘habit-learning’. Under Skinner’s views, children are expected to progress from one meaningless chunk of learning to another. Chomsky demolished Skinner’s arguments, asserting that a behaviouristic approach to reading trivialised both language and learning. It is difficult to study meaningful learning under laboratory conditions. Chomsky’s theory turned conventional views of reading upside down and went on to influence the current theory of how children learn to read, produced by the world-renowned linguistic, Michael Halliday. Halliday currently asserts that sentences grow from entire meanings and that children should learn through the three cueing systems as articulated in this article. He believes that learning to read is a meaning exchange between the text and the reader and that a reader can use a variety of interesting cues to read successfully for meaning, this current view of learning to read is otherwise known as psycholinguistics.

Unfortunately, highly-concentrated phonic schemes represent the world turned upside down. They are based on learning that is essentially nonsensical, determined by the experiment rather than by the learner, and rely on data collected in controlled experimental conditions. (Paraphrased from Insult to Intelligence – Frank Smith) 

According to Frank Smith, children really learn to read when they are engaged in activities that naturally involve and look like reading. This is confirmed in a report commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE) in May 2014:

‘One of the key messages to emerge from the evaluation so far is that… a phonics approach to teaching reading should be used alongside other methods.’

So what are these other methods?

Innate Grammatical Knowledge & Using Experience (Schemas)

Children have difficulty in learning anything that, to them, seems to have no purpose. So meaning has to come first. The process of understanding written language starts with understanding entire stories or statements and then goes on to understanding sentences, words, and finally letters, the reverse of the way most children are taught to read through a militant phonics based system. Ironically, it is not until children get to school that they are confronted with examples of written language and with reading activities that are sheer nonsense.

Professor Roger Shuy famously conducted research into the how children learn to read, he reported:

Research shows that good language learners begin with a function, a need to get something done with language, and move gradually toward acquiring the forms which revel that function. they learn holistically, not by isolated skills. Such learners worry more about getting things done with language…they experiment freely and try things unashamedly’ (cited in Insult To Intelligence – Frank Smith p.71)

Children learn, from the earliest age, before they can even begin to talk themselves, to become unconcerned with individual spoken words but rather quickly become concerned by complete utterances, which they are not only quick to comprehend but look to reproduce in sophisticated grammatical order. For example speaking in either subject, verb, object, subject verb or verb subject order. This is called syntactic cueing and it’s interested in the typical grammatical order words often come in. Babies learn that words must fit together to make a logical construction and so even the youngest of children can bring this knowledge to reading. Indeed, Holdaway (1979) has shown that children as young as 2 1/2 can make self-corrections while they reconstruct texts, page by page, from familiar books. Soderberh’s (1971) study documents this in detail. Children can learn to read at the same age and in the same ways as they have learnt to talk, by being exposed to written language for pleasure.

This process of grammatically delimitating a word’s possible meaning is so automatic that children are often not aware of it, but it nevertheless occurs – and is made possible by grammatical schemas identified as innate by Noam Chomsky who describes it as our deep structures and innate grammar  (1966).

Unfortunately, as is often the case under phonetic rule, there is use of only one strategy ‘sounding the word out’. By doing this, children are denied the opportunity to apply this far quicker and natural strategy to their reading. With this said however, if a child does fail to apply syntactic reasoning to a potential word then of course use of a sound-symbol can be a very helpful cue indeed!

Take for example:

The train went into the station.

If a child can’t recognise the word station immediately as a sight word, the reader will be aware that the train went somewhere and this somewhere must begin with the easy to remember ‘st’ sound and even ends with an n sound. A reader who has been taught to use a combination of cues will reconstruct this writer’s message quickly and without the pain and time-consuming ‘sounding it out’. This is because they use only the most productive visual cues. This use of syntactic cueing is further evidenced in Bissex’s (1986) study where she notes a child, at the age of two, practising substitutions in his own sentence frames.

Phonics Can Lend A Helping Hand Towards Comprehension Or Sabotage It

Taking the above into account, it can follow that children must be taught basic phonics rules to make decoding problem words easier. The issue is not whether children should be taught phonics. The issue now is how it should be done.

Much of the current phonics drive goes well beyond what is needed by children or indeed adults. Basic phonics can be a useful tool for the identification of unfamiliar words – just not as the primary means. Rather it should act as a supportive partner to other cueing systems described above. If we want children to read for meaning, which I’m sure all of us do, children using all their knowledge of the world (schemas) and language – and the fact  that words must ‘fit’ together – and make sense (syntactic), is usually all that is required to enable them to read unidentified words.

But basic phonetic knowledge is helpful when a child needs to make a choice from among possible plausible words. For example:

The postman put a l______ through the door.

The unknown word of course could be package, letter or box. Noting, however, that the word begins with l tells the reader it is ‘letter’. However, if the child has only been taught the phonetic cueing system that of sounding out of the word this simple task could soon become an incredibly boring, time-consuming and above all unnecessary task. Remember too that each time a child has to stop to decode the individual letters in a word, they are losing their connection to the context of the piece and by the end are unlikely to have any clue what the text was about as a whole.

So with this being true, what should be included in a phonics program to make it a useful aid to word identification? Well, consonant symbol-sounds, including consonant-diagraphs and blends (ch, th, sh, bl etc..), are important as most words begin or end with them. This knowledge alone should give a child enough leverage over unfamiliar words to quickly become a competent reader.

Teaching the 27 vowel generalisations is unlikely to be helpful or necessary. Analysis of the 650 most common words (Artley, 1976) showed that 68% of them conform to simple long and short vowel sounds and so these certainly could be taught. In polysyllabic words the percentage was 80%. This means that 4 in every 5 words could be read if children were taught the long and short vowel symbol-sound relations. On coming to a problem word they could simply pronounce both to see which would make logical sense. Take for example the following:

The smoke is coming th-r-oo the window. This works in context a lot better than th-r-ow.

Such a procedure is often already done by children anyway. Take for example when they are exposed to words like troop, boot and foot, where there is no rule. Yet another example could be trialing the difference between the pronounced e and the silent e. Take for example:

I had a good ______ at the party. This will need only to try time and tim-e.

Context Is The Quickest Way To Word Identification (With Some Help From Its Friend Phonics). 

Remember that syntactic context consists of the innate signals that very young children learn which include grammatical understanding of word endings, function words and typical grammatical word order (what Chomsky calls deep structures). We also have semantic context which consists of the meaningful relationships between amongst words. If you’d like to see how grammar as well as meaning can aid in the identification of words, look at the example below:

  1. Furry wild-dogs fight furious battles.
  2. Furry teachers create distressed stains.
  3. Furry fights furious wild-dog battles.
  4. Furry create distressed teacher stains.

The first sentence is the easiest to process, because it has both grammar and meaning, normal word order and it makes reasonable sense. The hardest to process has neither grammar nor meaning.

Various studies (see references below) indicate that both grammar and meaning aid in the identification and recall of words. Both syntactic and semantic context are important, as you have probably concluded from all the examples above so far.

Children can use contexts (schemas) that they have outside or beyond the text as well as within the text to identify words quickly and easily. For example they will use context from the sentence before the one being read as well as context before the word currently being identified. All readers will also sometimes read after – to gain context. I know I do, particularly in academic reading.

This next example really does bring this all into perspective. Using syntactic and semantic context you will quickly figure out what the missing words are in this passage. To further aid you, you have been given some basic grapho/phonic clues to confirm your informed guesses.

The Beaver

Native-Americans call beavers the ‘little men of the woods.’

But a__ they really so very little? S___ beavers grow to be ____ or four feet long _____ weigh from 30 to 50 p_____.

These ‘little men __ the woods’ are busy a___ of the time. That __ why we sometimes say ‘b____ as a beaver’. B___ know how to build d___ that can hold water. Th____ use their two front t____ to do some of ___ work.

The various kinds of contexts within the sentence will have helped you to narrow the alternatives to such a point that we need to use only a small amount of grapho/phonic information to identify the word in question. Sometimes you will notice you didn’t need that visual information at all. The benefit of this approach to reading is that it much closer to the real purpose of reading, that of the exchange of meaning between the text and the reader and that is is much faster and more efficient. When children are exposed to this type of reading approach not only are they taking part in the authentic purpose of reading from the very off, they grow up not normally having to rely just on grapho/phonics. Rather, they can use context to reduce their reliance and so become fluent and engaged readers of whole texts.

  1. Context: Children use their store of knowledge, experience plus syntactic knowledge of preceding context (both words and sentences) in order to make an informed guess of what might come next.
  2. The Word Itself: Using only the simplest of visual cues as necessary to confirm their informed guess, they identify the word.
  3. Context: Use this new found context to confirm or correct their informed guess.
  4. If necessary, they can make an informed guess using their grapho/phonic knowledge.

Don’t Make Children Read Words In Isolation

Goodman’s (1965) study concluded that a group of 5/6 year olds could read 62% of words they couldn’t read in isolation, when they were read in context.6/7 year olds were able to read 75% in context and 7/8 year olds were able to read 82%. Murphy’s (1982) & Allington’s (1980) study provided very similar results. With this said, it is right that children be exposed to high-quality texts and reading-for-pleasure opportunities as possible, rather than activities which treat reading as ‘learning to read to pronounce words’, as seen in this video.

This may mean that children who read words in sentences rather than study them in lists or on flash cards may be slower to learn to recognise words in isolation. But when will children need to recognise words in isolation? Oh for the phonics test of course! Back in the real-world of reading however, words typically occur in context and for purpose. If indeed children learn to develop a stock of sight words somewhat more slowly through reading itself, so be it. The compensation is that children typically have a much greater understanding of what the words actually mean and is far closer to the actual purpose behind reading. Children are reading for meaning, not to identify sounds or single words. They are using and further refining the strategies characteristic of proficient readers (see references) for more details.

Phonic-Book Sets

We also need to consider the impact of phonic-book sets. Amazingly, these are often incredibly hard to read. They are often obligated to simplify and restrict the language in them to such a degree that they often get to the point where the selections are more difficult or boring to read precisely because the language is so unnatural and warped.

Artful writing entails the creation of truly rhythmic language, and rhythmic structures are easier to anticipate than the choppy and stilted prose typical of [phonic book sets]. Reader In The Writer, CLPE (2012) – p.37

When reading these phonic sets, you often have to ask yourself: who ever uttered a sentence like that? No one places deliberate and artificial letter/sound restrictions on themselves so why should these books? This makes it nearly impossible for children to use them in order to develop their own understanding about real print and how it really works. They are left at a disadvantage. Virtually all phonic-book sets focus at the outset on skills for identifying sounds or words rather than on strategies for constructing meaning from the text as a whole.

We should be encouraging children to recognise significant words so that they can see how learning the sounds of letters as meaningful and easy, rather than the other way round. For example, Frank Smith, states that learning long but meaningful sentences is much easier to understand and remember than elliptical telegraphic sequences often offered up by the phonic-book-sets. When language is normally used, the richness of detail in longer sentences helps the reader to understand the theme. Short sentences however, are a strain on both memory and patience. Real stories written by experienced authors, rich with plot, narrative interest, and character development, are easier to comprehend than a few truncated sentences put together by instructional phonic programs. Artificial language is required only to make these nonsensical texts look good at what they do.

There is a constant battle for control of classrooms between educational publishers, governmental ‘authority-stamping’ and test producers who want to hold teachers accountable for delivering instruction in the misguided wisdom that they think they know best how children are taught; then you have the teachers who know there is a better way.

Children should be asked to read every-day – and should avoid having to read artificially ‘simplified’ or contrived language, which doesn’t represent real books or the real world. There is no need to have a division between ‘learning to read’ and ‘reading to learn’, like a sole phonic approach does. From the very beginning, children can be presented with and encouraged to read real texts with real purpose.

Phonics In Review

  1. Since vowels are relatively unimportant in identifying words, it seems unnecessary to teach numerous vowel rules, as most phonics programmes do.
  2. Spelling/sound correspondences are often very complex and not easily reducible to rules that can or should be taught. So complex in fact that even phonics programmes can’t get it right (Beard et al 2019).
  3. Only a few of the frequently taught rules are both consistent and comprehensive – that is, applicable to a considerable number of words.
  4. Even most of these rules probably do not need to be explicitly taught to whole classes of children, since most children can and will internalize spelling/sound patterns just by reading a lot and/or with minimal guidance in observing correspondences and patterns.
  5. Thus most children probably do not need nearly a much phonics instruction as they are typically receiving in today’s phonics programs and phonic-book-sets. (Weaver, 2009, pp.778)

Extreme phonic instruction then is a foolish, impudent and odious endeavour. Today’s phonics teaching  drills have pizzazz but what I find foolish is the basic premise – that reading can be achieved by drilling students on discrete skills. What are these skills good for? What should the child actually do with them? Unfortunately, it seems, acquisition is the only goal. It’s merely there to encourage the foul bureaucratic impulse for collection, storage and retrieval of data and so called ‘progress’. Instead of assuming that children can only read what they have been taught, we must assume that they can only read what they understand and can interact with, and that the teaching of sounds has some but not a great deal of influence on this process.

As teachers we must help children to select the most productive reading skills: to use their knowledge of language structure, to draw on their experiences and concepts. I hope teachers are looking to nurture their students in an environment that convinces them they might want to read a book. I’ve seen too many proficient decoders, children who perform extremely well on standardised tests but are never willingly pick up a book. This is because they have mastered an incomplete system, one they find lacking in marvel or mystery.

Phonics Screening Tests & Commercial Interests In Phonics Research 

There is an irony surrounding the endeavour to remove the personal and possibly prejudicial from education evaluation. Supposedly, phonic screening tests are looking to assess children’s progress in learning to ‘read’. The reality though is that it results in the totally arbitrary and distorted procedure of teaching only those things that can be cleanly scored right or wrong, and counted. The cost of removing human error for the sake of testing has been the removal of all humanity and the reduction of reading education to trivia. Warwick Mansell published a damning account of [over testing] in education.

[He] sets out in comprehensive and sometimes shocking detail, the pressure on teachers to deliver the improving test statistics by which the outside world judges them is proving counter-productive. Schools have been turning increasingly into exam factories… Intellectual curiosity is stifled. And young people’s deeper cultural, moral sporting social and spiritual faculties are marginalised by a system in which all must come second to delivering improving test and exam numbers.

It’s important to remember too what Frank Smith articulates, which is: ‘in an evidence oriented enterprise, those who control the evidence-gathering, control the entire enterprise’ (Insult To Intelligence, p.130). Presently, that would be major publishing houses  (producing largely phonics material for schools – please click this link, it is illuminating), phonics companies and the exam companies who received around £328m in the decade ending 2012. Respected Doctor of Language Reading Ken Goodman states clearly that: ‘it’s a political campaign, tightly controlled, carefully manipulated, and [that] most of the players don’t even know they’re being used’.

You’ll also find it interesting perhaps to find that Ruth Miskin, who has huge commercial interest in phonics, proposed phonics be placed into the curriculum in a heavyhanded way despite all the other members of the advisory panel as well as the English Association, the United Kingdom Literacy Association and the National Association for the Teaching of English raising serious doubts. This year, she has received additional government money.

According to Grainger (2012), when one examines the authorship, sponsorship and recommendations of these reports (for example), it begins to look as if, far from being a well-balanced and informed discussion of the issues of reading, they are biased in the direction of certain pre-existing views and interests. It would be overly cynical to suggest that they were written with the sole aim of promoting the interests of certain professional groups, charities and companies. Nevertheless, it is a
worrying feature of these reports that their arguments for intervening in educational practice rely heavily on evidence produced by bodies that stand to gain.

We also have this research summary of the screening test from The British Educational Research Association (2016). ‘[teachers are] wrongly spending time teaching elements of phonic knowledge which will not be very useful either in the tests themselves or to the pupils in reading real books’. They go on to say… ‘The content of the [phonics screening] check correctly reflects the reality that only a small number of GPCs dominate the English language. Pupils should therefore spend time learning this small number quickly, and then move on to reading “real books”. This is further endorsed by The UK Literacy Association.

In heavily prescriptive phonics classrooms, there are two types of learner-reader:

  • One kind do well on the skill drills because they have enough control and experience of the reading process I have described throughout this article – therefore they don’t actually need much of this skill instruction.
  • The second kind have great difficulty with the sequenced skills presented to them because they are dealing with them as abstractions…such learner rarely profit from such skill instruction and often will receive even more as a result of their failure to acquire these said skills – which leads them even further away from the act of reading.

Further to this is Stephen Krashen’s assessment of phonics and reading:

‘Of great interest is the consistent finding that heavy phonics training only helps children do better on phonics tests. It has no impact on reading tests. Research also tells us that the best way to get better on reading tests is reading: The best predictor of reading achievement, in study after study, is the amount of recreational reading children have done. The problem is not insufficient phonics teaching, as some claim. It is insufficient access to books. For many children of poverty, their only source of books is the library. Research also tells us that better libraries are associated with better reading test scores. The implication is obvious: Invest in libraries and librarians, not in phonics tests.’

Fundamentalist Phonics Hasn’t Worked So Far

Michael Rosen, in this article, rightly asks the question why, after four years or more of phonics teaching, over 1 in every 4 seven-year-olds still can’t read at the expected level? Why hasn’t phonics solved the problem like many promise it will? Largely because of what has been outlined in this article is being ignored. ‘It may well be that in four years’ time those children will all reach the expected level, but by then they will have experienced many other influences on their reading (like the ones described in this article) and so it would be dodgy logic to assume phonics achieved this. Let’s stay in touch and see when we can say “phonics has eradicated illiteracy…”’


In conclusion, it is reasonable to conclude that phonetic cueing can only act as an aid to word identification and can’t be judged as a sound method for learning to read. Meaning is the beginning and the end of reading, – and the means as well. The fact children who have been exposed to a militant phonics approach learn to read does not necessarily mean that they learned to read because of the approach, though people unaware of the nature of the reading process and what is involved in learning to read are of course inclined to make this assumption.

‘What works is not always phonics, and, in fact, for young children, what works best in reading may seldom be intensive phonic instruction’ (Carbo, 1987).

The reality is that we have children who:

The reason that most children are able – perhaps best able to learn to read without intensive phonics instruction is, as we have begun to see, learning to read involves much more than learning to sound out letters and identify words. This is further endorsed by The UK Literacy Association. It involves learning to bring one’s own experiences, feelings and knowledge to the task of transacting with a text, and it involves learning to use and coordinate all three language curing systems: syntactic, semantic and grapho/phonemic. For more information on this, you might want to read my post here.

Researcher Stephen Krashen (2004) identifies 51-studies that prove that children who are allowed to read freely perform better than or equal to students in phonic-reading programmes. However, Krashen (2004) also found that students’ motivation and interest in reading was higher.

It’s amazing then to think that children can learn to read with, or perhaps in spite of, an approach that focuses mainly on phonics. Luckily, children have a natural, innate tendency to create meaning by transacting with their environment. Children can translate print to their daily lives because many of them can naturally translate their reading to what they have learnt about spoken language as a baby and because they have a tremendous capacity for forming their own ways of thinking about how language works -again, a capacity clearly exemplified in their toddler years -where they learn to speak more and more like adults.

A child’s mind asks questions, seeks order, and monitors and corrects its own learning. These are natural functions of human mind. However, these are also functions that teachers have regarded as their own special domain, functions that teachers have so preempted that children often abandon them when in classrooms. Such distrust of a child’s mind in the classroom is but one manifestation of a militant phonics advocate’s distrust of the learning ability inherent in human mind.

‘Children are small; their minds are not.’ – Glenda Bissex

Children demonstrate their power to abstract, hypothesise, construct and revise all the time. Given this view of children, surely one role of reading instruction is to affirm each child’s inner teacher.

Finally then, when reading is taught with emphasis on meaning – context cues can become the dominant force and are the closest cues related to the actual purpose of reading, that of comprehending. This approach encourages rather than thwarts the acquisition of good reading strategies.  After all, it is comprehending that makes an independent and life-long reader.


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12 thoughts on “Why children should be encouraged to only ever use phonics as a helpful friend.”

  1. This blog is riddled with misconceptions and attributions to SSP advocates that simply are not true. At no point does anyone advocating for SSP suggest that the meaning will take care of itself, no matter how you learn to read, the meaning of words has to taught.

    Secondly, we can read the text without vowels because we can take a good stab at what should be there that is not the same as a child who does not have this capacity doing the same.

    The rules are consistent. Irregularity exists in all languages that incorporate words from other languages. Yet this does not stop the language from being phonetic.

    You have no evidence that phonics is harming reading for pleasure – it is your opinion but you are going to use these words anyway to peddle your own version of what should be taught.

    This is a dishonest blog, riddled with inaccuracies and if you have your way we will be left with millions more who will lead a life of illiteracy. Shame on you.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I’m afraid, through their epistemological position, militant SSP supporters are in fact suggesting that ‘meaning will take care of itself’, whether implicitly or explicitly. Though the suggestion that meaning of words needs to be taught is welcomed, one can’t see where this fits in effectively within militant SSP instruction. Nor why it should have to ‘fit in’ at all, when we consider the real purpose of reading.

      For example, you have misinterpreted my section about vowel use as equating to ‘taking a good stab’ at a word. You are failing to consider the other experiences children can bring to this informed guessing (schema, semantic and syntactic), which, if required, can also be confirmed through basic grapho/phonemic knowledge.

      The benefit of such an approach, of course, should be obvious. It allows children to engage in what we can all agree is the real purpose of reading that of: ‘learning to read means learning to bring meaning to a text in order to get meaning from it.’

      I provide to two contemporary studies which provide evidence that phonics is harming reading for pleasure, additionally I have over 55-years’ experience teaching reading. I suspect that unlike many who will read this article, I have seen and taught a number of differing methods in the teaching of reading, including phonics, whole-word identification and the whole language approach over the course of my career. Lastly, on an intellectual level, it is clear to see that if your epistemology towards ‘reading’ is that it is primarily ‘learning to read means learning to pronounce words’ then children’s reading-for-pleasure will suffer, that much is obvious.

      Incidentally, I have no shame about the tens-of-thousands of children I have successfully aided to become motivated, fluent, critical & life-long readers.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. You claim to have taught reading successfully for 55 years and the best you can do in response to my points is make irrelevant points about epistomology and militant SSP instruction. You repeat the same mistake by making yet another assumption that those advocating for SSP believe that meaning will take care of itself. Where is you evidence for this? I have not encountered any such suggestion. If a child does not understand the meaning of a word it needs to be explained, not guessed at. So:
        a) Do you have any evidence for your assertion that SSP advocates state that it will help children to know the meaning of the word?
        b) Do you have any evidence for your claim that SSP advocates think that meaning will take care of itself?
        c) I am happy to look at the extra citations about damage but that does not address the initial points.

        You reference to the idea of SSP militants is a smear on those who advocate it. It’s a sly tactic to undermine without any evidence. It’s a shame that you are not better than that.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I guess the issue is I don’t feel that the epistemology of teachers to be an irrelevant point. I make the case for this in my article.

        It makes sense that if children are largely consuming a diet of phonics as opposed to applying all three of the cueing systems (context – phonics – context – as I explained and referenced for in my article) and are not regularly reading purposeful literature for meaning, then children have no choice but to come to the conclusion that reading is about word pronunciation and identification.

        At no point do I talk about guessing. I talk about a strategy of ‘context – phonics (if required) – context’. This, again, is all fully explained with examples and references to evidence-based research in the article.

        I ask that you consider the following:
        1. When phonics advocates claim that a substantial amount of phonics instruction enables children to read ‘independently,’ what do they mean?
        2. When phonics advocates claim that early emphasis on phonics facilities comprehension, what do they really mean?
        3. What is really being tested, for example, in the tests that purport to assess reading? To what extent are such reading tests merely tests of a reader’s ability to identify words or to largely locate the answers to recall questions in a paragraph they may not even understand?

        Given that my article shows how sole-phonics teaching is out of line with what is known about the reading process (see references), why is it so popular? One reason has to be its ease of construction and ease of use. There has been a boom in instructional program developers who have wanted to decompose complex tasks into series of discrete and simple steps so that teaching can be standardised and made amenable to governmental ideology. To achieve this simplification, phonic based reading programs have been produced, relieving the teacher of anxiety about the reading process of which phonics is just a part. Such programs lend themselves easily to measurement, manipulation and control.

        In addition, they are extremely successful – within their own limited range of objectives and by testing only what has been directly taught.

        It also reflects the commonsense view of the person-on-the-street, someone who has never given much thought to how people actually read. Most people – including many educators, simply take it for granted that of course you have to identify all the sounds in a word in order to read well. In short, most people are unaware that reading is not simply a bottom-up process of extracting meaning that is ‘in’ the text – as my article explains, provides examples of and references for.

        In the late 90s there was a movement toward performance objectives, followed by an emphasis on ‘accountability’. If you’re going to hold teachers accountable, it is easier to use standardised tests that can be machine scored. Clearly it is easier with such tests to assess children’s ability to identify words or to master phonics rules than it is to assess their ability to comprehend what they have read.

        Unfortunately, it’s this means of accountability rather than accountability itself that has determined what and how children will be taught to read. Naturally, everyone wants children to do well on the tests by which they, their teachers and their school will be evaluated.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Brilliant blog. Thank you. I agree with all of it. It is a shame you had to write it.

    I am very concerned about the current focus on word word word that ignores phrases, sentences, books. Children need to learn to read books, not just words.

    I teach 1:1 catch up reading in year 1. I am seeing a growing number of children who read word by word by word but cannot tell me what just happened in a page of a simple text about a topic that ought to be familiar to them and which they have read accurately several times already. These children have been learning phonics for 2 years and have had very little experience of being read to or sharing real books at home or at school. Their teachers’ main focus has been on getting them to pass the phonics screening check. They have developed reading skills which take no account of the meaning of the text. Nobody has asked them or expected them to think about the story. It is the PSC that is the abomination here, not phonics themselves, not even SSP if that’s what floats your boat. If it were not for the PSC Sword of Damocles swinging continually over their heads from September to June, year 1 teachers might be able to think for themselves about what their children need; they might feel free to teach phonics (which is more useful for spelling than reading) AND book reading.

    A clue that children are reading in this word word word way is in their use of expression. Their voices will go up as for asking a question – “Am I doing it right?” – on words they work out and at every full stop. They can ‘decode’ the words fine, but the question voice seems to show that they are not using meaning or understanding of the text as a whole to confirm their attempts. This voice says to me, “I am not fully sure that I am right but I have no way of checking for myself so I offer you the opportunity to correct me.”

    Finding a way to alter these children’s mindset as they read, so that they focus on taking in the story, gathering up the story, reading for meaning, monitoring meaning independently, understanding what reading books is actually for, as well as working out words is proving very difficult.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your comment and you are absolutely correct. As I’ve said in my article, people are losing sight of what reading actually is. Children should be picking up books knowing that they are about to engage in something as a meaningful whole. They quickly lose sight of this if they are painstakingly and time-consumingly focusing on single word identification after another. This is because they have internalised the philosophy that reading is about ‘learning to pronounce words.’ How can children conclude anything different when this is the daily diet they are fed on and tested on? They must think ‘you are listening to me read because you are interested in how well I can decode this list of individual words which happen to be next to each other – and at the end you may ask me a prearranged question about the text which doesn’t stimulate either of us or bring either of us round to talking about anything profound that we might have gauged from the text.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Such an excellent article!
    I find it interesting that the UK has MANY of the same issues we have in the US.
    As a trained Reading Recovery teacher, I truly appreciate how thoroughly your article covered all the cueing systems and why that balance is important.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A great article. I have taught reading for 27 years. The current over reliance on phonics is damaging. Where is the joy! Where is the understanding of how we read. Decoding is only one part. However this is rather difficult to share with parents. Could you Post the main points in a more succinct way.


      1. This is SOOOOOOO useful and SOOOOOOO well done. Thanks!!! Am I remembering correctly that a while back you shared information on the success rate of the synthetic phonics program in England demoing that it is not working for everyone? If so link to that blog entry? If I’m misremembering please ignore. Thanks again. I’m sharing this current post with many friends.


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