Myths About Phonics

Phonics Instruction

There are long-standing myths about phonics instruction. Keeping these myths alive
(and thus keeping phonics instruction from our students!) undermines a student’s
reading acquisition. As educators, we must constantly look to the current research and
adjust our instruction accordingly. The National Reading Panel recommended
systematic phonics paired with phonemic awareness as two crucial components to
foster efficient word reading. Current research still supports those findings. It tells us
that word recognition (through phonic decoding) and language comprehension are the
building blocks for skilled reading. So, if 50+ years of research supports a systematic
phonics approach, why are we not providing that for all our students?

There are likely many reasons, but several can be attributed to myths about phonics

Myth #1 Any Phonics Will Do

Although the recommendations of the National Reading Panel are still supported by
science, there is great debate on how to teach students to become proficient readers.
Many current curricula and teaching practices adopted portions of the National
Reading Panel’s recommendations, but they lack implementing phonics in a
systematic and explicit manner. For example, they sprinkle in phonics components
guided by student spelling errors or sounds in the students’ names. Some approaches
encourage multiple strategies for reading an unfamiliar word. These include using
picture clues, context clues, guessing, and phonic decoding. However, the science tells
us that proficient readers do not rely on context clues to read. So, by teaching these
compensatory reading strategies, we rob our students of opportunities to
orthographically map words (the cognitive process by which we store words for
automatic retrieval).

Research is clear on which phonics approach is most effective. It needs to be
systematic and explicit. The students move from simple phonics skills to more
complex skills. Students in kindergarten and first grade will spend more time learning
letter-sound correspondences, reading in decodable texts, and using their phonics
knowledge to help them spell words. As they progress through the systematic phonics,
they will foster their skills of reading comprehension and language by reading a

variety of texts, utilizing the morphological units of words for spelling, and engaging
in advanced written expression activities.

Myth #2: Phonics is Boring for Children

Some portray phonics as robotic and void of engagement. Although quality phonics
instruction requires direct instruction and repetition of skills, teachers can employ
many engaging techniques to keep the learner focused and energized. Consider some
of the following techniques:

  1. Make it multisensory! While the multisensory approach utilizes several modalities
    to optimize learning, it also makes the learning more engaging. Ask your students to
    trace with their fingers as they read or to tap out the individual sounds as they spell.
    They will enjoy jumping for rhymes and swooping under words as they combine
  2. Practice phonics skills with a game. My students love phonics games like matching
    pairs of words in Go Fish or Memory. They read the targeted phonics skill in the
    game, but don’t even realize they are learning!
  3. Get up and MOVE! Go on a scavenger hunt for beginning sounds, lay out sight
    words and have your students jump from one to the next, toss bean bags to the correct
    vowel sound, or hop for each syllable in a word. They sky is the limit when you add
    movement into your phonics lessons.

    As part of a structured literacy approach, phonics does need to be explicit and
    systematic. But weave in games, multisensory techniques, and overall movement to
    make the instruction engaging.

Myth #3 Too Much Time Spent on Phonics Takes Away from Reading Comprehension

Phonics instruction is an integral part of a structured literacy approach. It is one
foundational piece that helps support reading comprehension, instead of taking away
from reading comprehension. Quality phonics instruction teaches the student to attend
to all letters and their corresponding sounds. Building this connection between speech
sounds and letters leads to orthographic mapping and fluent word reading. When a

student reads fluently, he no longer uses as much working memory to decode. Instead,
he can use that cognitive energy to comprehend the text. Studies show that direct
phonics instruction leads to gains in word reading and reading comprehension scores.

MYTH #4: English is too Irregular for Phonics

87% of English words are decodable. That leaves a lot of work for direct phonics
instruction! This implies that only 13% of English words are non-phonetic (not
following the patterns/rules of the English language). Many of these types of words
are adopted from other languages such as banquet from French, bagel from Yiddish
and patio from Spanish. Explicitly explain the origin of these types of words so that
they are not “irregular” to your students.

Other non-phonetic words include our function words (to, do, of, a, the,) as well as the
many Old English words which changed pronunciation during the Great Vowel shift.
While their spellings did not change, their pronunciations have changed many times.
They include words such as great and could. Teach your students the etymology of
these words. They will enjoy learning the “why” behind these irregular spelling

For example, many teach the word have as an irregularly spelled word. This
description would be accurate if the only job of the silent e is to make the vowel
sound long. However, the silent e has many other jobs. In the case of have, the
addition of the silent e goes back hundreds of years. In the 16th century, scribes wrote
the same symbol for -v- and -u-. They added on a silent e to words ending in -v- so
that the reader knew to pronounce the letter with a /v/ instead of an /u/. Knowing this
explains the spelling of high frequency words like love and have.

We should encourage students to attend to all of the regular letter-sound
correspondences in a word first and then focus on any “irregular” part(s). Using the
example above, the word have has three sounds. All three sounds follow the regular
letter-sound correspondence. Walk your student through those letters/sounds and then
teach him the reason for the silent e on the end.

MYTH #5: Only a Small Percentage of Students Need Phonics

Close to 60% of students require explicit, systematic phonics instruction to break the
code of reading. The other 40% of students learn to read with a broad range of reading
instruction. But to be able to decode novel, multi-syllabic words, ALL students
benefit from phonics.

Insufficient phonics instruction in early grades can impede students’ reading ability in
later grades. If we encourage students to rely too heavily on context clues and
pictures, they will not build a strong sight word vocabulary (words they can recognize
instantly). This will affect their reading fluency, spelling, and comprehension.

By directly teaching phonics, we give students a solid foundation of decoding skills.
This increases the likelihood that they will be able to read complex texts—containing
unfamiliar words—independently.

So, I hope that you will consider these myths about phonics instruction as you plan
your instruction, take part in phonics lessons, or choose your curriculum. We owe it to
our students to provide them with a systematic phonics approach as part of an overall,
structured literacy approach.

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