By @lit4pleasure – Why Children Should Be Encouraged To Only Ever Use Phonics As A Back-Up Strategy

A teacher’s approach to the task of 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 the definition, teachers can use almost any reading materials to help children develop productive reading strategies. The teacher is the key.

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).

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Children are fast becoming 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 also implies that total word identification is necessary in order to get meaning, which is ordinarily not so. It also doesn’t take into account what readers bring to a text. 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.

The Problems With Extreme Phonics Advocacy

Most proponents of a phonics based approach emphasise decoding rather than comprehension. They 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 phonetic 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

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 was a long

Now, the question is, in these and other sentences, how can a young phonetic-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, 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. In the first place, 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, 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 theI is silent and the e has a long sound 8 (field) 39 (friend)
When words end with silent e, the preceedinga 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 of a list taken from Weaver (2009, pp.70-74). 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)

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

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) 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; whereas 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 program 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.

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, 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?

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. The following sentence illustrates this fact:

I gss u cn rd ths txt:) wtht vwls.

Only by trying to read 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. Behaviourists believe that all behaviour, human and animal, 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 the 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)

Accordingly to Frank Smith, children really learn to read when they are engaged in activities that naturally involve and look like reading.

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.

Famed 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 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. 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 (1966). Unfortunately, as is often the case under phonetic rule, use of the one strategy ‘sounding the word out’, 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 simple to remember st sound and even ends with an nsound. 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.

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. However, much of the current phonics drive goes well beyond what is needed by children. 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 several 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 is 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 trialling 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.

Don’t Make Children Read Words In Isolation

Goodman’s (1965) scientific 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’.

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 phonic test of course! Back in the real-world of reading however, words typically occur in context and for purpose. If indeed, children do 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. 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 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 programs do.
  2. Spelling/sound correspondences are often very complex and not easily reducible to rules that can or should be taught.
  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, 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

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. 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) and the exam companies who received around £328m in the decade ending 2012.


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, but 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: do not need phonics to become good readers, children who become good readers despite phonics and children who are also unable to master phonics and so don’t become good readers. 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, that learning to read involves much more than learning to sound out letters and identify words. 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.

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.

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.


Artley, A. S. (1976) ‘Vowel Values in Early Reading Words’ In The Reading Teacher

Artley, A. S. (1977) ‘Phonics revisited’ In Language Arts, Vol. 54, No. 2, pp. 121-126

Carbo. M. (1987) ‘What Works’ Isn’t always phonics Phi Delta Kappan 68:431-35

Davis, A., (2014) Guardian Available Online []

The National Endowment Of The Arts, (2007) To Read Or Not To Read

National Union For Teachers (2016) Reading For Pleasure Available Online []

Weaver, C. (2002) (3rd Ed) The Reading Process USA: Heinemann

Additional References

Alitto, H.J. & Usrey, W.M. (2003). Corticothalamic feedback and sensory processing. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 13. 440-445.

Allington, R. mCgILL-Franzen, A., (1980) Word Identification Errors in Isolation and in Context: Apples vs Oranges The Reader Teacher. 

Anderson, R. (2013). Role of the reader’s schema in comprehension, learning, and memory. (476-488) In D. Alverman, N.J. Unrau, & R.B. Ruddell (Eds).Theoretical Models and Process of reading. Newark, DE: International Reading Association

Andersson, B.V. & Barnitz, A.G. (1984). Cross-cultural schema and reading comprehension instruction. Journal of Reading, 28 102-108.

Binder, K.S., Duffy, S. A., & Rayner, K. (2001). The effects of thematic fit and discourse context on syntactic ambiguity resolution. Journal of Memory and Language, 44: 297-324.

Chernove, G.V. (1979. Semantic aspects of psycholinguistic research in simultaneous interpretation. Language and Speech, 22, 277-295

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