Phonics Helps Beginning Readers

After learning that there is no standard method for teaching children to read, I started wondering which method was best for beginning readers. Admittedly, learning to read involves multiple steps:

  1. Being able to identify and manipulate sounds associated with speech (phonemic awareness);
  2. Grasping the alphabetic principle;
  3. Learning which letters and letter combinations are associated with which sounds;
  4. Decoding words and blending the relevant sounds into words;
  5. Building an instantly recognizable vocabulary of words;
  6. Understanding the meaning of a phrase, sentence, paragraph, etc.;
  7. Moving past literal meanings to infer implicit information and meanings;
  8. Analyzing information; and
  9. Using critical thinking skills to apply the information and evaluate it for further use.

It seems logical that in order to accomplish 6 – 9 above, a child needs to be able to accurately identify the word. But what method will best help do that? On the surface, the whole word method seemed to make sense. It does appears as if fluent readers memorize words and then read them instantly and accurately…

But appearances can be deceiving! It only looks like we memorize words visually and store them in long-term memory for instant reading access. Using current technology, science tells a very different story. Because we don’t store words visually in our memory, phonics is the best way to help children learn to read (steps 3 – 5 above). Here’s why.

When children are first learning to read, most words – if not all – are unfamiliar. Once they understand the Alphabetic Principle , they can associate printed letters and combinations of letters with specific sounds (Shaywitz, 2003, Overcoming dyslexia, 44). At that point in time, phonetic rules help decode unfamiliar words. But eventually, children stop sounding out words and start recognizing them just by looking at them. How does that happen?

Despite appearances, we now know that the words are not stored visually in long-term memory. Rather, the words are stored as letter sequences translated into sounds and pronunciations. Kilpatrick describes the process as one where the sequential letters and their associated sounds align with the pronunciation of a spoken word already in long term-memory. This alignment is one reason that helping a child build a robust spoken vocabulary is important.

After several exposures *, most children can read that word just by looking at it. No decoding or blending required. Kilpatrick calls this process orthographic mapping, and it is responsible for building the large dictionary (i.e., lexicon) of words that proficient readers read accurately and automatically. Such readers continue to use phonics throughout life only when encountering an unfamiliar word. But phonics builds the initial vocabulary of instantly recognizable words known as the phonological lexicon. And at that point, we are reading the word as a unit. Our eyes see all the letters. The alignment of the letter sequence and associated sound renders the word instantly recognizable.

Of course, there is more to reading than just being able to identify the words on a page. Successful readers understand what is written and can work with the content to analyze it, apply it to other information, evaluate it, and create new material. But doesn’t all that depend upon the person being able to read the words accurately in the first place?

* The exact number of exposures needed to put a word in the phonological lexicon depends upon the child. Estimates are between one and four exposures for typical children. Children with reading difficulties still follow the same process but the number of exposures they need is much greater – some estimate between 25 and 50 exposures may be needed.

Reference List

Kilpatrick, D. A. (2015). Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.