The International Reading Association describes phonics, the relationship between letters and the sounds they make, as "an important aspect of beginning reading instruction." However, it also point out that phonics needs to be included in a complete language arts program. While phonics teaches important reading skills, reading success requires more than just instruction in phonics.
Pro: Word Recognition
Phonics instruction teaches students to recognize and correctly pronounce new words. The National Reading Panel analyzed the best designed studies researching phonics and found that learning phonics improved students' word-reading ability. Beginning readers and older students with difficulty reading demonstrated an increased ability to sound out words with regular spelling. Knowledge of phonics even helped, to a lesser extent, with words that don't follow phonics rules.
Phonics improves children's spelling ability. According to linguistics professor Dr. Johanna Rubba, English spelling is problematic because the pronunciation of words has changed over the centuries, and many words have been borrowed from other languages. She states that teaching phonics, which finds the patterns that are present in English, makes learning to spell easier for students than leaving them to figure out those patterns themselves. The National Reading Panel's study supports Rubba. Kindergarten and first-grade readers taught phonics demonstrated significantly better spelling skills than students lacking such instruction.
Con: Understanding Words
An overemphasis on phonics can lead to students correctly pronouncing words but having no understanding of what those words mean. Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Connie Juel describes how in her study on children's reading acquisition she found children who could sound out words like "pond" and "hog" but had no idea what those words meant. Some confused "pond" with the word "paw" and thought it meant an animal's foot. Others assumed "hog" was like "log" and might be part of a tree.
Con: Understanding Text
Children with a satisfactory understanding of phonics may be able to read words in a text but not understand what the text itself means. A 2003 study by Marsha Riddle Buly et al. for the Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy found that over half of fourth graders who lacked proficiency on state reading tests had adequate word identification skills. Instead, they struggled with comprehension, language and fluency -- areas where further phonics education wouldn't help.
- International Reading Association; The Role of Phonics in Reading Instruction; January 1997
- California Polytechnic State University; Phonology, Phonics, and English Spelling; Johanna Rubba; April 2006
- Harvard Graduate School of Education; The Limitations of Over-Emphasizing Phonics; Abigail Bucuvalas with Connie Juel; December 2002
- University of Washington; Meeting the Needs of Failing Readers: Cautions and Considerations for State Policy; Marsha Riddle Buly et al.; April 2003
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