A seven-letter word that can cause a ruckus in any room. This simple word has been at the center of an educational debate that has continued for over a century.
The debate has been so fierce that some people have called it the Reading Wars. Despite billions of dollars in reading research, a great deal of confusion remains.
Much of this confusion is due to the persistence of five myths about phonics.
Myth #1: In order to develop fluent readers, phonics must be supplemented with sight words memorized by rote.
This myth is prevalent in schools and is also found in many popular phonics curriculums. However, it is indeed a myth that has led to students being confused about whether reading is about sounds or words.
This myth is so widely accepted because English has a complex phonetic code that remains largely unknown. A vast majority of English speakers have been taught an oversimplified version of the phonetic code, which results in hundreds of thousands of words appearing to be exceptions.
For example, many of us were taught:
A says /ă/ as in apple and /ā/ as in ape.
S says /s/ as in sad.
These two letters and their commonly taught sounds illustrate the “problem” of phonics. This is because A also says /ä/ as in all, ma, pa, and ball. S also says /z/ as in is, has, rise, and confuse. Notice that several of the words in this list are high-frequency words, which are found in even the most simple books.
The phonics rules most students have been taught work for about 40-60% of English words. If students do not learn an accurate phonics code, they need to memorize the remaining 40-60% of all words as exceptions. Since the average adult has a vocabulary of 60,000 words, the student will need to memorize about 30,000 words.
If a student memorizes a sight word, the student has gained only the ability to read one word.
Yet when students learn a linguistically accurate phonics code, which includes 75 phonograms and all of their sounds, they can decode 98% of English words logically!
Myth #2: Students who sound out words sound-by-sound using phonics will not become fluent readers.
It is common for educators today to discourage students from sounding out words. This stems from the belief that sounding out words is a sign of poor fluency and will interfere with reading comprehension, since strong readers seem to recognize familiar words "automatically," yet this idea is based on a misunderstanding. By sounding out words, the brain develops pathways for understanding the letter-to-sound correspondence within words, which builds the pathways needed for fluency.
This is why a pianist will break down a piece of music and practice the individual phrases to play the whole piece fluently. It is why a figure skater will practice each of the skills and even subskills in isolation before combining them into a fluid routine.
Developing the neural pathways for reading requires practice.
Practice in the beginning stages of learning to read looks like sounding out words. As a student practices reading the sounds of phonograms and blending those sounds with other sounds, they become more and more fluent at reading.
Myth #3: Phonics is only beneficial for reading.
What is most frustrating about this myth is that it is propagated by people who do not support phonics education and have never learned accurate English phonics and by many reading experts who know all 70 Orton phonograms.
Yes, phonics is essential for reading; but phonics is also essential for spelling.
Though it is commonly believed that people who read a lot are good spellers, this is not always true. Countless strong readers struggle with spelling. The solution is to know a linguistically accurate phonics system. With knowledge of phonograms and spelling rules, writers can sound out words to spell them accurately and figure out where the error lies when a word is misspelled.
Myth #4: Phonics is beneficial only for struggling readers or students with dyslexia.
This may be the argument that has been the most detrimental to bringing linguistically accurate phonics to our students. Again and again, I have heard people say that the phonograms and spelling rules are only necessary for kids with reading disabilities.
"Why does someone need to be diagnosed with a disability to have their questions about English words answered?"
Kids who are gifted with language tend to ask just as many questions about English spelling as kids who struggle with written language. Why is there a silent final E in have? Why isn’t confusion spelled with TION?
Knowing how to think critically about language helps us to learn other languages. This point was illustrated to me at the Education Minnesota Conference years ago. At the Logic of English®️ booth we had a sign that said, "Do you know why the C says two sounds in circus?" A native French speaker walked by and said, "Oh yes, that happens in French." A Spanish speaker read it and said, "Yes! That happens in Spanish!" An Italian speaker stopped and said, "Yes, I do! This occurs in Italian as well."
But American after American came by and said, "I have no idea." They then flipped the page to read the answer: C softens to /s/ before an E, I, or Y as in center, cinder, and cycle.
When students understand how the building blocks of our written language work, they have a far easier time learning the different tools of any alphabetic language because they already have a strong framework within which to place this knowledge. Learning the tools to understand English will make us better language students.
Myth #5: Phonics is boring.
Let me tell you a secret: Any subject can indeed be boring if it is taught in a boring manner! I believe the phonics rules should be discovered through carefully designed word experiments. This also teaches students how to analyze language and look for patterns, and it engages them in the learning process. Students should then develop mastery with the phonograms and spelling rules through fun, age-appropriate games. Homeschool parents as well as classroom teachers tell us their students beg to do Logic of English® lessons because they find learning fun. These students are developing a passion for words and for reading!
Students develop confidence because they are successful, and they are successful because they have tools that work.
The United States has been educationally hamstrung for a century. Two-thirds of our nation's students struggle with reading. Countless more struggle with spelling. These are the tools ALL our students need. It is time we dispel the myths and begin the hard work of teaching our nation so that EVERYONE can be successful with reading and spelling!