On Reading and Phonics

 Some of the material in this position statement is repeated in the ETA position statement for parents on What do we know about how reading is taught?.

The first thing to be said about reading with respect to phonics is that media presentations of how reading is taught have tended to present debates on the teaching of reading as if there were a war between two approaches to reading. One of these approaches is usually represented as based on "sounding out" words; the other is usually referred to as "whole word" and represented as "guessing" by trying to recognise whole words from memory. It has to be said that the war is largely perpetuated by the loudest advocates of phonics, who argue that:
a) phonics is the only useful method of teaching children to read
b) phonics is neglected in schools
c) the alternative method is about "guessing" ("whole language") or "memorising" whole words ("whole word")

The latter is in fact a misrepresentation of particular approaches that aim specifically at meaning in reading ("whole language") or the perpetuation of a myth about memorising that probably never existed in reality, but, nevertheless, the idea that most classroom teachers take up one position or another in teaching reading is probably incorrect. The "reading war" is, in reality, one between those who advocate a "phonics only" approach and those who advocate phonics as part of a larger, more inclusive system. Classroom teachers, on the whole, tend to be represented in the more inclusive system, while "phonics only" advocates tend to be academics in the field of psychometrics who are most comfortable with systems that appear neatly sequenced and measurable.

Before commenting on phonics itself in any more detail, it is worth reviewing what we do know about reading.

The most important aspect of reading is understanding. Without understanding, reading is, literally, useless. Anyone who can read English can probably "read" the following:

Kuipers flugen madsed derl nich scree

but no-one would seriously believe that they had understood it (it is, in fact, total nonsense). Hence, simply turning the words on the page into sounds is only "reading" in a very limited sense. Without understanding, reading the above "phrase" is of no real use.

Thus today, reading instruction focuses on meaning. We think of readers as users of the language who are trying to "gain" or "construct" meaning from written texts. Reaching meaning is usually thought of as the result of combining three sets of strategies:

  1. a strategy that uses the total sense of a sentence, or even of the whole passage, to identify unknown words.
    Let's say we're reading the following the sentence and get stuck on the word represented by the dots: "The blue sedan drove along the....... at high speed". Our sense of the whole sentence (which we have been able to read to this point) tells us that the problem word has to be something like, "road", "freeway", "highway", "lane", "street". The possibilities are limited and we know enough about the world to identify the possibilities of what it is that sedans usually drive along. Hence, even if we recognise the first letter as "s", we would be unlikely to "guess" the word "sight".
  2. a strategy that tells us the kind of word that fits the space in terms of its grammar.
    No native speaker of English who is thinking about it would predict "red" or "freezing" or "hollow" or "long" or "straight" instead of the words listed in the paragraph above, even though this list resembles that list somewhat - because a native speaker has a knowledge based on experience of the language that the kind of word which the problem word is, is a noun, not an adjective.
  3. a strategy that relies on the way words look and sound.
    If the word we can't identify is a short word, we'd probably eliminate "freeway" and "highway" from our list of possibilities. If it starts with "s", and we recognised "s" AND recognised that "l" and "r" made distinctly different sounds from "s", then we'd eliminate "road" and "lane" from the list of possibilities.

So, in trying to read the sentence, "The blue sedan drove along the....... at high speed", we're now left only with: a word that tells us what it is that cars drive along, that has to be a noun and that is a short word beginning with "s". Now for most of us, this kind of thinking occurs with such split second speed that we're almost never aware of it - n fact, experienced readers only realise any of this when they DO come to a word that they don't understand AND when that word is clearly going to be crucial to understanding the passage.

Given this view of reading, what follows in terms of teaching?

For beginning readers, or for children who have had trouble learning to read, these strategies have to be taught - and ALL of them have to be taught, since they don't work in isolation. Different readers with different experiences with language - and with different degrees of familiarity with the reading material in front of them - will use these strategies in different "proportions" in any particular reading situation. Many beginning readers will rely as beginners very strongly on letter sounds ("phonics")and shapes for decoding the words on the page in most situations and all beginners will be taught these strategies. However, an inclusive reading program catering for all learners in a class will mean students are taught all of the following:

  • predicting words they don't recognise based on what the whole passage or sentence is about. This would occur by learning to read both forwards in the sentence and back over what has been read already.
  • using their knowledge of the kind of word (grammatically) that the troublesome word is
  • sounding the word and use letter recognition to identify the letters in the word.

Typically, then, when a student pauses/stops at a word, one of four things will occur:

  1. the student will spend time over the word and get it correct
  2. the student will go no further
  3. the student will substitute a word that makes no sense
  4. the student will substitute a word that does make sense, but is not the correct word

If we take these scenarios one at a time, teachers will typically1 :

  • in case#(a)
    allow the student to read on, UNLESS they have spent so much time on the word that they may have forgotten the flow of the meaning - in which case, they will be told to start again from the beginning of the sentence or paragraph
  • in case#(b)
    ask the student to go back to the beginning of the sentence and to think of a word that
    • makes sense
    • sounds right (grammatically) and
    • looks and sounds like the word on the page
  • in case (c)
    ask the student to start the sentence again, read to the end of the sentence and think of a word that
    • makes sense
    • sounds right (grammatically) and
    • looks and sounds like the word on the page.
  • in case (d)
    have to weigh up whether to take the student back to the word.

They may NOT because they recognise that meaning is most important, that we ALL make such mistakes EVERY time we read, and that this mistake shows that the child understands what they are reading.

On the other hand, they MAY because they believe THIS student should recognise THIS word accurately - in which case, they will praise for a good attempt, but take the student back to the word and ask them to substitute for their chosen word one which mean the same, but looks and sounds like the word on the page.

Thus, students ARE encouraged to sound out words and to use letter recognition, but they are also encouraged to read forwards and backwards and to make sensible predictions. In encouraging students to develop ALL of these strategies, teachers might have students engage in an activity that focuses on meaning, such as:

  • predicting missing words in a text - a cloze exercise
  • taking a piece of text that has been scrambled and "unscrambling" it - a sequencing exercise.

What can be said about a "phonics only" approach, then?

  • Firstly, phonics is not neglected in classrooms, but an inclusive classroom realistic about reading puts phonics within an inclusive program.
  • Secondly, phonics only works if you know the word already (Smith, 1978: 57). Go back to the earlier example - if you "sound out" "flugen" correctly so that the individual letters correspond to recognisable English sounds, that's great, but what has it achieved? A child asked to sound out words they do not understand is in the same position (what does sounding out "barrel" correctly mean to a child who's never heard the word, doesn't know what a barrel is and hasn't seen the word in print before?). However, if a child "sounds out" a word they then do recognise ("tunnel") because they've heard it and know what it is, then phonics has been of use, because they knew the word already. This is actually an important role for phonics, but is not an important enough notion on which to build a total program of reading.
  • Thirdly, phonics advocates will claim that "sounding out" is not just what phonics is about, but it is about a detailed conscious awareness of many aspects of word and grammatical structure. This argument makes one wonder how any child learns to read without a degree in linguistics first.
  • Fourthly, phonics advocates claim that the only really "scientific" evidence for reading is on their side. This continuing claim is simply intellectual dishonesty. In fact, it is not at all uncommon that the studies cited to support the efficacy of phonics instruction are studies which simply prove that students become better at the phonics tasks which they are set , ie better at sounding out drilled letters and words rather than better at understanding reading. For important studies of this position, see Coles (2003) and Allington (2002).

The influential research of Marie Clay provides a perspective on key elements of early years literacy teaching. She suggests the following as key:

  • Oral language, and a child’s control over sentence structures and inflections
  • The reading of continuous text
  • Letter knowledge
  • Reading vocabulary (words known in reading)
  • Writing vocabulary (words known in writing)
  • Concepts about print (how print encodes information)
  • Hearing sounds in words
  • Making links between those sounds and letters. (Clay, 1993: 1).

Here, the inclusive model is favoured.

The USA through its national program, Reading first ,can be said to have effectively advocated phonics as the main method of reading instruction in US schools - with legislation reflecting a long history of phonics-based instruction in the US. In the 2003 international PISA test despite the "overwhelming scientific evidence" in favour of phonics-based instruction, 15 year-olds in the US scored significantly worse than Australia with its more inclusive reading instruction . Australia, in fact, was beaten by only one country - Finland.

Brian Cambourne (2006) produces strong evidence from psycholinguistic research, evolutionary theory and linguistic phenomena such as homographs and homonyms to show that recoding from print to sound is not an essential pre-requisite for constructing meaning from alphabetic script (otherwise, how do prelinguistically deaf children learn to read?).

Stephen Krashen (2002) has the following important position on phonics:

There are several possible positions about the role of phonics in reading, although they do not exhaust all the possibilities.

Intensive, Systmatic Phonics. Ehri (2004) defines this position as follows: "Phonics instruction is systematic when all of the major letter-sound correspondences are taught and covered in a clearly defined sequence .." (p. 180). This position claims that we learn to read by first learning the rules of phonics, that is, we learn to read by sounding out or reading outloud ("decoding to sound"). It also asserts that our entire knowledge of phonics must be deliberately taught and consciously learned: Intensive instruction is "essential" (Ehri, 2004). Proponents of Intensive Systematic Phonics tell us that learning to read is hard work (Ehri, 2004).

Ehri gives us some idea of what the "major" rules are: They include "long and short vowels and vowel and consonant digraphs consisting of two letters representing one phoneme, such as oi, ea, sh, and th. Also, phonics instruction may include blends of letter sounds that represent larger subunits in words such as consonant pairs (e.g. st, bl), onsets, and rimes" (p. 180). (It is unclear what happens to the "minor" rules, whether they are also taught or whether they acquired incidentally. One must ask: if the minor rules can be acquired, without direct instruction, why can’t all phonics rules be acquired?)

Basic Phonics: According to this position, it is helpful to teach some rules of phonics, but just the basics, just the straight-forward rules. According to Basic Phonics, we learn to read by actually reading, by understanding what is on the page. Most of our knowledge of phonics is the result of reading; the more complex rules of phonics are subconsciously acquired through reading (Smith, 1994). A conscious knowledge of some basic rules can help children learn to read by making texts more comprehensible. Smith (1994) demonstrates how this can happen: The child is reading the sentence "The man was riding on the h____." and cannot read the final word. Given the context and knowledge of ‘h’ the child can make a good guess as to what the final word is. This won’t work every time (some readers might think the missing word was "Harley"), but some knowledge of phonics can restrict the possibilities of what the unknown words are. (One could subdivide Basic Phonics into sub-positions, into those who claim that learning the basics is essential and those who claim it is helpful.) Basic Phonics appears to be the position of authors of Becoming a Nation of Readers, a book widely considered to provide strong support for phonics instruction:

"…phonics instruction should aim to teach only the most important and regular of letter-to-sound relationships … once the basic relationships have been taught, the best way to get children to refine and extend their knowledge of letter- sound correspondences is through repeated opportunities to read. If this position is correct, then much phonics instruction is overly subtle and probably unproductive" (Anderson, Heibert, Scott and Wilkinson, 1985, p.38).

Zero Phonics: This view claims that all phonics rules can be acquired by reading, and that direct teaching is not necessary or even helpful.

The evidence
An argument against intensive, systematic phonics is the claim that many rules are very complex and many don’t work very well. As Smith (2003) notes, they are "unreliable … there are too many alternatives and exceptions … 300 ways in which letters and sounds can be related" (p. 41). In fact, Smith points out, most of the words of the English language are "spelled irregularly" and it is a real challenge to write "decodable text." (Some have claimed that the rules of phonics that appear not to work very well can be repaired and should be taught. In Krashen (2002), I argue that some recent attempts to state better sound- spelling generalisations have resulted only in more complex rules that are only slightly more efficient. )

The National Reading Panel (NICHD, 2000) concluded that the experimental research supports intensive systematic phonics. Garen (2001), in an examination of this report, noted that the impact of intensive phonics is strong on tests in which children read lists of words in isolation. But it is less evident for tests of reading comprehension, and what is most important, it is miniscule for tests of reading comprehension given after grade 1, tests which include more complex texts with more irregular words. Thus, intensive phonics instruction may only help children develop the ability to read words in isolation, an ability that will emerge anyway with more reading.

If the Basic Phonics position is correct, which rules are teachable and useful? Most likely, experienced professionals will agree that most initial consonants can be taught and learned and applied to text by small children, but some rules will be impossible for six year olds (and most adults), rules such as this one, recommended by Johnson (2001): "the a-e combination is pronounced with the long vowel and the final e silent (except when the final syllable is unaccented - then the vowel is pronounced with a short-i sound, as in "palace," or the combination is "are," with words such as "have" and "dance" as exceptions).

The great misunderstanding
There is certainly strong support among the public and the media for "phonics" instruction. What is not clear is whether the support is for Intensive Systematic Phonics, or Basic Phonics. Whole language advocates are regularly accused of supporting the Zero Phonics position, but most actually support Basic Phonics, maintaining that basic phonics is one way to help make texts more comprehensible. Public opinion might be much closer to the whole language view than to the extreme position taken by the National Reading Panel.

phonics taught in sequence
all "major" rules
all rules consciously learned
reading = practice of learned rules

no optimal sequence
consciously learn only basic rules
most rules subconsciously acquired
reading = source of most phonics knowledge

rules subconsciously acquired
reading = source of phonics knowledge

To Krashen’s summary, we need to add the position on phonics currently being strongly supported in the UK : 'synthetic phonics' . In the UK, this approach has been contrasted to ‘analytic ‘phonics, which

  • starts with the word and
  • breaks it down into sound units which are learned and then
  • blended together to re-form the word (a whole-part-whole approach).

‘Synthetic’ phonics does not encourage reading of words until the sound units are learned (part-to -whole approach). There are definitions of the differences in Appendix 1 of Teaching Reading (DEST, 2005).


Allington, Richard (2002). Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum: How Ideology Trumped Evidence. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Australian Government Dept of Education, Science and Training (DEST) (2005). Teaching Reading: Report and Recommendations. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.

Anderson, R., Hiebert, E., Scott, J., & Wilkinson, I. (1985). Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission on Reading. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Education.

Cambourne, B. (2006). “The Marketing of Literacy Failure In Australia : Why and How”. In B.Doecke, M.Howie and W.Sawyer (eds) Only Connect: English Teaching, Schooling and Community. Adelaide: AATE/Wakefield Press.

Clay, Marie M (1993). Observation Survey: Of Early Literacy Achievement. Melbourne: Heinemann.

Coles, Gerald (2003). Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation, and Lies. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Education Dept of Western Australia (1998). FirstSteps: Reading - Resources. Melbourne: Rigby.

Education Dept of Western Australia (1998). FirstSteps: Reading -Developmental Continuum. Melbourne: Rigby.

Ehri, L. (2004). "Teaching phonemic awareness and phonics" in P. McCardle. and L. Chhabra, L. (eds) The Voice of Evidence in Reading Research. Brookes Publishing Company. Baltimore

Garen, E. (2002). Resisting Reading Mandates. Heinemann.

Johnson, F. (2001). The utility of phonics generalizations: Let’s take another look at Clymer’s conclusions. The Reading Teacher, 55, 132-143.

Krashen, S. (2002). Defending whole language: The limits of phonics instruction and the efficacy of whole language instruction. Reading Improvement 39 (1): 32- 42.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction: Reports of the Subgroups. Washington, DC: NIH Publication 00-4654.

Smith, Frank (1978) Reading. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, F. (1994). Understanding Reading. Erlbaum.

Snow, C.E., Burns, M.S. and Griffin, P (1998)Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children Washington: National Academy of Sciences.