Teaching phonics builds balanced literacy

Phonics makes a comeback as reading teachers strive for a more comprehensive approach

Let’s start with this: In teaching phonics, phonemes are the smallest unit of sound in the English language, such as the sound the letter “A” makes or the sound of the “sh” in “share.”

A grapheme is simply a way of writing a phoneme. That’s enough vocab for now because this is what you really need to know: these have been fighting words.

You’ve heard the phrase “reading wars”—the so-called battle between teaching phonics and whole language instruction—but you might not know that reports of the battle are greatly exaggerated.

Decades of research have established the relationship between reading ability and phonological awareness—that is, having the ability to hear, identify and manipulate phonemes. Furthermore, brain researchers, such as the French cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, have demonstrated that tapping into the brain’s left hemisphere is the optimal way to learn to read—through phonics instruction that connects sounds with written words.

A whole language approach—surrounding kids with words, sentences and books without explicit letter-sound instruction—forces them to learn to read using the right hemisphere of the brain, which poses a far more difficult challenge for most humans, according to Dehaene.

Kids should therefore be trained in a systematic, phonics-based approach for early reading, says Rachael Gabriel, associate professor of literacy education at the University of Connecticut. Yet, she adds, the framing of the issue has lacked nuance, which makes it hard to spark productive conversations.

“Some people have painted a ridiculous picture that one piece of information—Did you know phonics exists and you should use it?—is going to come and save all the children,” says Gabriel.

The ‘a-c-h-t’ in ‘yacht’ rule

It bears repeating: Evidence shows that the more knowledge children have about the constituent sounds of words, the better they tend to read. That said, many pre-service teachers resist a focus on phonics, says William Rupley, a professor in The College of Education and Human Development at Texas A&M University.

Sidebar: Overblown reading wars hide real literacy gap

Rupley watches his student teachers grow frustrated with the vocabulary and tenets of phonics. And he hears working teachers say students find the process arduous and stultifying. This may be because some people want reading to be like spoken language, a natural act, which it’s not. “It’s hard work to learn to read,” he says. “But unless you put in that hard work, a love of reading will never happen down the road.”

Let’s pause. You may now think the solution is to jump on the phonics bandwagon. But Anne Castles, a researcher and professor of cognitive science at Macquarie University in Australia, advocates moderation. She warns that there are some extreme reading evangelists who think schools should teach phonics explicitly from the start and continue for many years. They want all the rules of the phonics system covered, including obscure ones—such as the “acht” combination in “yacht.” Castles doesn’t think this is necessary.

“It makes complete sense to introduce children to the alphabetic code because that is the structure of our writing system,” says Castles, a co-author of the 2018 study “Ending the Reading Wars,” which appears in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. “If you teach them this basic code very early on, you have the best chance of getting them to read independently as quickly as possible.”

But Castles says balanced literacy—which at times has become a misconstrued punching bag—is a sound, evidence-based approach. It may look something like Columbia University’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project used at Madison Public Schools in Connecticut.

Gail Dahling-Hench, assistant superintendent, says kindergartners and first-graders receive explicit instruction in phonics, which then becomes an intervention in second grade. Teachers lead word work with an aim toward complete literacy—meaning reading fluency and critical thinking. “If we want students to be able to pursue knowledge, analyze text, identify a bias and synthesize to build their thinking, then we really have to aspire after comprehension as much as any other skill set,” Dahling-Hench says.

Give teachers what they need

Castles and Rupley point to the What Works Clearinghouse as a good resource for solid evidence-based programs. Teachers need to understand how the English language system works. Along with a grounding in phonemic awareness, teachers need to master a range of other evidence-based literacy strategies, such as:

  • reading aloud
  • allowing kids to read about what matters to them and to even help shape curriculum
  • showing students how to discuss and analyze written text
  • creating communities of readers

Teachers also need the assistance of literacy professionals to grow as experts at reading instruction and to implement effective methods in the classroom. Madison district leaders no longer believe in the one-and-done approach of sending individual teachers to workshops and conferences, and then expecting them to share what they’ve learned with colleagues, Dahling-Hench says.

Sidebar: On the literacy horizon—morphology

“This does not lead to a systematic application of professional development,” she says. It also doesn’t communicate a commitment to an instructional shift.

Now, when district leaders want a learning approach to become foundational in all schools, they offer on-site PD and bring in coaches to work with teachers over the long haul—think years, not days.

Beyond teaching phonics

Research also shows differences in how children come to the task of reading, says Gabriel, of UConn. “We can absolutely teach the majority of children—something like 96% or 97%—to read with the right instruction,” she says. “But we can’t end the sentence there. It’s really ‘with the right instruction for them.’”

Educators should start by teaching grapheme-phoneme correspondences. Teachers need access to a lot of resources and tools—such as coaches, reading intervention specialists and culturally inclusive teaching materials—to match the needs of linguistically, racially and culturally diverse students.

The Madison district retained professional trainers to help craft a districtwide series of five PD modules, Dahling-Hench says. The training, taught by administrators, follows the tenets found in the books The Skillful Teacher and High Expectations Teaching.

Read moreLanguage adds up for ELLs in K12 math instruction

Ultimately, teaching phonics may get the largest number of students reading words, but teaching literacy means getting all students to understand words and to think critically about written text. It takes a toolkit of skills.

Even researcher Louisa Moats, vice president of the board of directors of the pro-phonics International Dyslexia Association, acknowledges this: “Phonics is necessary, but it’s not sufficient.”

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer in Southern California.

Most Popular