The Value of Phonics

Phonemic awareness is a helpful tool in any language. If you know how letter and letter combinations are supposed to sound, you can easily work out unfamiliar words – not that this will help you understand the word, but it will help you sound it out, and that has some intrinsic value. So, phonics, as a tool to decipher the building blocks of a language, that is ‘words’, is worth teaching and should be included as part of a general reading curriculum.

The fundamental principle behind phonics is wonderful: How nice it is to be able to decode the phonetic element of a word and actually ‘sound it out’ without ever having heard it. This is the joy of the written form of a language like English, for example – fairly secure rules of engagement. So, knowing the rules, you’re pretty well set. Furthermore, developed modern languages such as English are particularly well-suited to adapt and grow as social, economic, and technological paradigms shift. It’s also nice that it comes complete with a growing vocabulary of more than 100 000 words. (That is, according to Wikipedia and a 2010 a joint Harvard/Google study that found the English language to contain 1,022,000 words and to expand at the rate of 8,500 words per year.) By comparison, the vocabulary and syntax of cave paintings is more open to interpretation, and as such, it appeals to a greater number of people. Of course it helps that you don’t need a tremendous vocabulary when experiences and ideas are rudimentary: Eat, Sleep, Procreate, Survive.

So, intuitively, phonics instruction can be beneficial in that it provides children some tools for decoding graphemes and representing them as their phonemic equivalents. Is it possible, though, to have too much of a good thing? Observations show that that an over-emphasis on phonemic processing of language can also have disadvantages, and paradoxically, even become a hindrance to higher-level language processing and learning.

In phonics instruction, there is a vanishing return on investment that, for most kids at any rate, provide minimal or marginal benefit if provided as a ‘class’ where phonetic analysis of language is the subject. Phonics is best integrated as an occasional subject as part of a general reading and writing program: The rules of language are intended to structure things, but they are not meant to be memorized. A review of the building blocks of English, for example, will reveal that there are multiple possibilities for the sound associated with each letter in the alphabet, with each diphthong, and every other letter grouping in the English phonology. And so, in principle, to apply the rules of phonics to reading means that a student must move through each word, laboriously plodding through even simple text, just to be able to ensure the rules of phonics are being correctly applied.

Consider the goal: Knowing what a word on a page means. There are two ways of getting there: First, look at the word and recognize it as an entity, a gestalt, as though you might look at a peace sign or a shape of a heart with an arrow through it and understand the meaning; Or, study the symbol and break it down to it’s constituent parts, consider the many possibilities of the various ‘sounds’ the individual parts might represent, and how these might affect or be affected by the other parts, and finally, which parts should have emphasis when speaking. The first method of course is the preferred one: Instantaneous, requiring next to no effort. In real, biological, homeostatic terms, this is the preferred method as it extends a person’s cognitive reach (that is, you can simply process more information more quickly), but it also requires less energy  (that is, ATP).

The second method is suitable for the occasional need to decipher the symbol, if it’s unknown to the viewer – and that’s about it. Problems arise when there is an over emphasis on phonics and the child comes to believe that she must approach language this way. Careless teaching can take a child who has learned a word by sight and impede progress by forcing her to work out each word phonetically, grapheme by grapheme, phoneme by phoneme, until the point of language is utterly lost. It’s truly odd to hear the reading of children who have learned to read with an overemphasis on phonics: They tend speak in a ratcheting manner, and find it difficult to pay attention to the content, spending so much energy on simply creating phonemes from deconstructed words on the page. The only way to benefit from fluid reading using the full extent of a language like English is to learn the symbols in an automated fashion, that is, instant recognition. Occasionally, a child will have to stop to work out a new word, and it helps to encourage them to spell it out. It is a mistake, however, to force a child to force a child to deconstruct the words as a higher priority to paying attention to what the words mean.

There are better ways of training children to get the ‘trick’ of reading. Most of these activities look nothing like phonics. Language will come to those who are exposed to it. Some instruction is helpful, but simple exposure to a live reader to demonstrate the behaviour is extremely valuable. It also helps when the child has a strong foundation in visual-spatial awareness, good body sense and balance, experience manipulating objects and moving in three dimensions, and other non-text coding activities. It’s amazing what a child can do when you remove obstacles to learning.

Forcing phonics as a subject is a mistake. It is better to ensure a strong developmental foundation, and many good things will grow from that fertile ground. Spontaneously.

Watch this video by Dr. Lynn Hellerstein to learn more about vision in learning:

Her website also offers some excellent training solutions for young children that targets fundamental (core) brain and body processes to strengthen the cognitive foundation and enable learning, as opposed to emulate it. See: