For years, we’ve been reading studies that demonstrate the negative impacts of illiteracy on individuals and society – from feelings of sustained frustration to low earnings to crime and imprisonment. Some say America’s educational system is broken, turning out more illiterate students and high-school dropouts than ever before.
Question: Is Phonics a proven, viable model to teach people effectively?
Research shows that, yes, phonics, combined with one-on-one tutoring, is the single most powerful tool to teach reading skills. Phonics can help even the readers who struggle the most go from learning to read, to reading to learn.
Phonics-Based Teaching Can Solve the National Education Crisis
In 1997, responding to this national education crisis, Congress asked the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) to work with the U.S. Department of Education in establishing a National Reading Panel that would evaluate existing research and evidence to find the best ways of teaching children to read. The National Reading Panel’s analysis made it clear that the best approach to reading instruction is one that incorporates:
• Explicit Instruction in Phonemic Awareness: The knowledge that spoken words can be broken apart into smaller segments of sound known as phonemes. Children who are read to at home, especially material that rhymes, often develop the basis of phonemic awareness. Children who are not read to will probably need to be taught that words can be broken apart into smaller sounds.
• Systematic Phonics Instruction: The knowledge that letters of the alphabet represent phonemes, and that these sounds are blended together to form written words. Readers who are skilled in phonics can sound out words they haven’t seen before, without first having to memorize them.
• Ways to Enhance Comprehension
Other studies back up the National Reading Panel’s conclusions and endorsement of phonics, including an international study launched by the University of York in the United Kingdom. Their Institute for Effective Education joined forces with researchers from Johns Hopkins and the Success for All Foundation to evaluate the achievement outcomes of alternative approaches for struggling readers in primary school. The key findings in their report, “What Works for Struggling Readers,” include endorsements for sustained phonics teaching methods and one-to-one tutoring:
• One-to-one tutoring works. Teachers are more effective as tutors than teaching assistants or volunteers, and an emphasis on phonics greatly improves tutoring outcomes.
• Although one-to-one phonetic tutoring for children aged six and seven is highly effective, effects last into the upper primary years only if classroom interventions continue beyond this initial period.
In 2012, a University of Houston study concluded that, “intensive use of the phonics approach actually does result in young students being better readers.” Writes Carolyn Saunders of Scholars for Life, “Before the 1996 UH study, linguists and educators had argued, largely on the basis of theory, the merits of phonics vs. those of the whole language (i.e. traditional) method in teaching young children to read. The whole language approach emphasizes stories and discussion, while minimizing drills on letter-sound relationships. The UH study solidly supported the use of concentrated phonics in teaching children to read.”
The Reading Reformation Foundation (RRF) in the United Kingdom is an organization dedicated to campaigning for better teaching of reading in the English language. From their website: “Our members include people from a wide range of backgrounds with a variety of experiences.” Partly as a result of RRF campaigning, the UK government has endorsed synthetic phonics for the initial teaching of reading in primary schools in England. This is a huge achievement.”
“We have all been convinced by a wealth of evidence that … phonics is the most effective for teaching everyone to read.”– Reading Reformation Foundation Click to Tweet
Scientists, Educators and Parents Working Together
“Work like this can provide important background information to develop new research-based teaching programs that can ultimately help all children to become proficient readers and identify those who are need of specific interventions,” said Peter Turkeltaub, primary author of this study. “This is an exciting area of research in which scientists converge with educators and parents to achieve the common goal of helping children achieve the reading skills they need to succeed in life.”
As a parent, teacher, administrator, tutor or student, you have a voice in this matter. Contact your advocate – be it your mom, your teacher, your school administrator or your representatives in Congress. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Phonics alone won’t solve the national literacy crisis. The reading dilemma must be addressed by researchers, teachers, administrators, politicians and parents, using phonics as the fundamental teaching tool. One-on-one or small group teaching is as imperative in the classroom, as reading – and being read to – is at home.
National Reading Panel (Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the U.S. Department of Education)
“What Works for Struggling Readers,” University of York’s Institute for Effective Education
“Michael S. Brunner: Working to Get Education Back on Track,” by Alexander R. Jones, Freedom Magazine, investigative reporting in the public interest
“UH Study Endorses Phonics Approach in Teaching Young Students to Read,” by Carolyn Saunders, Scholars for Life
The Reading Reformation Foundation in the United Kingdom
“The Struggling Reader,” findings from ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development), a global community dedicated to excellence in learning, teaching, and leading. ASCD’s innovative solutions promote the success of each child.
“How Can I Help My Struggling Readers? Two top literacy experts tackle your toughest problems,” by Scholastic. The mission of Scholastic is to encourage the intellectual and personal growth of all children, beginning with literacy, the cornerstone of all learning.