Why You Should be Teaching Phonics: Common Phonics Myths Debunked!

 Phonics is NOT a Dirty Word

Scientific, brain-based research supports explicit, sequential, and cumulative phonics instruction in the early grades.  According to Louisa Moats, “[Phonics instruction] is so accepted in the scientific world that if you just write another paper about these fundamental facts and submit it to a journal they won’t accept it because it’s considered settled science.”  In addition, The National Reading Panel reviewed over 100,000 scientific reading studies and drew the same conclusion: systematic phonics instruction is one of five vital components for the most effective reading instruction.

Myth #1 Phonics is Boring

Some teachers might say, “I don’t want my students to be bogged down by ‘boring’ word work.  Isn’t inquiry-based learning best?

Inquiry-based learning has its place.  Learners who benefit most from inquiry-based learning are those who already possess an expert level of understanding.  In fact, inquiry-based learning can lead to misunderstandings with novice learners.

“Unguided or minimally-guided inquiry may not work for students who have less previous knowledge or ability in the subject area. When the demands of the learning activities exceed students’ abilities, their learning is blocked and they may develop misunderstandings about the topic.”  Click here for the link to this research.

Phonics is not boring if it’s done correctly.  Phonics helps to unlock the reading code.  When a phonics lesson is followed with decodable text that aligns with the skill(s) being taught, students make sense of code.  When something makes sense and the light bulb clicks on, excitement and enthusiasm is generated.

Recently, a first grade reader exclaimed about a decodable book, “I’m so happy I can read this book!”  That’s not boring, folks!

Myth #2 Teaching Phonics is Too Time Consuming

Some teachers feel the pressure of curriculum demands and say, “I don’t have time to spend teaching phonics.”

Teachers don’t have time NOT to teach phonics.  The common practice of using meaning first to solve for unknown words (i.e. using context clues) only works approximately 10% of the time.  (Source:  Cognitive Processes in Early Reading Development: Accommodating Individual Differences into a Model of Acquisition by David L. Share/University of Haifa & Keith E. Stanovich/Ontario Institute for Studies in Education)

That is not an efficient or effective use of an instructor’s time or the students’ time.

Word study lessons can be designed to last approximately 20-30 minutes.  Teachers are actually saving time when they teach phonics explicitly, sequentially, and cumulatively.

Myth #3 Some Populations of Students Don’t Need Phonics Instruction

It is true that some students seem to be able to read with seemingly little effort.  Those students can give teachers a false sense of security.

We are sure that by now you have heard of the ‘Third Grade Wall” or the “Fourth Grade Slump”.  These terms arose because when those ‘spontaneous readers’ reached third and fourth grade, their extensive background knowledge and large vocabulary were no longer enough to solve unfamiliar words.

If their go-to strategy has been using meaning first (i.e. using context clues or guessing and checking) to tackle unfamiliar words, sooner or later it’s going to become a problem.  As we stated previously, research suggests that guessing and checking works only approximately 10% of the time.  If there are no picture clues (because most chapter books contain very few pictures) and the readers have little background knowledge or vocabulary (because students are reading in a content area where they may have little previous exposure) the only strategy left to help word solve is phonics.

In fact, proficient readers use the visual cue first by segmenting the word.  Once the word is decoded, the reader can then apply meaning.

Myth #4 Comprehension is the Ultimate Goal of Reading So Instructional Time Must Focus on Comprehension

It is not a myth that comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading, but it is a myth that little or no time should be spent on systematic and explicit word decoding instruction.

Furthermore phonics and comprehension are NOT mutually exclusive.  As the National Reading Panel concluded, phonics AND comprehension are both essential parts of comprehensive reading instruction.

We’ve written before about cognitive energy. Cognitive energy is the amount of working memory that is available to a reader.  If 100% of the reader’s energy is being used to solve an unknown word, there is 0% left to derive meaning from the passage.  If 50% of the reader’s energy is being used to ‘guess and check’ a word, then only 50% is available for comprehension.  The more efficient a reader is at decoding, the more energy is left for comprehension.

Furthermore, the ‘Simple View of Reading’ as explained by Gough and Tunmer is illustrated with a basic multiplication equation:  Language Comprehension X Decoding = The Ability to Gain Meaning from Written Text.  If a student has 0 ability to decode the text, then there is 0 comprehension.

When a reader becomes proficient at word solving they have more cognitive energy available for comprehension: THE ULTIMATE GOAL OF READING!

What is the Conclusion?

Thousands of scientific, brain-based research studies support the fact that explicit, systematic phonics instruction is critical for developing proficient readers.  Accurate and automatic decoding leads to fluency.  Fluency leads to comprehension.  Strong comprehension is based on a solid foundation of phonics.


Wiring the Brain for Reading by Marilee B. Sprenger

Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can’t and What Can Be Done About It by Mark Seidenberg

Hard Words: Why Aren’t Kids Being Taught to Read? by Emily Hanford

A Fresh Look at Phonics: Common Causes of FAILURE and 7 Ingredients for SUCCESS by Wiley Blevins



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