Phonics Information

The subject of phonics continues to remain controversial. Almost 80% of public school children are taught to read using the whole word method. This practice continues though educational and medical research has shown beyond a doubt that phonics is the only way to teach individuals with learning disabilities how to read and it is the best way to teach anyone to read. This page will provide the information you need to not only understand the phonics issue while it also details a program that has been successfully using phonics to teach children and adults how to read for over 20 years.


May 13, 1996
By LynNell Hancock and Pat Wingert

If You Can Read learned phonics.
Or so its supporters say.

IN 1989, WHEN GAYLE CLOUD'S TWIN BOYS entered the first grade, her California district had just introduced the state's version of the "whole language" method of teaching reading. Her children were assigned good books but given few tools to help them figure out unfamiliar words. Vowel sounds, word families, even silent E remained a mystery. What happened? Spelling skills dropped: homework was returned filled with errors. First-grade reading scores in the Riverside district slipped by 7 percent that year, and have been falling ever since. The rest of the state fared no better. Last March, U.S. Secretary of Education, Richard Riley announced that California tied for last place in the most recent national reading tests.

That did it for Cloud. The 46-year-old mother of six became yet another convert to the nationwide movement to revive the phonics approach to reading. Phonics was once blamed for turning school children into repeat-after-me robots. But now, alarmed by low reading scores, state after state is trying to return to phonics, which teaches kids how to make connections between symbols and sounds. California passed the "ABC" bill last year, requiring, among other things, that textbooks include lessons on spelling and alphabet sounds. Another bill would require new teachers to take phonics courses to be certified. North Carolina is urging schools to teach alphabet sounds. Nebraska and Virginia have settled on a mix of both decoding words and reading literature. Even GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole cast his ballot for phonics, saying recently that California's whole-language "fad" has produced "disastrous results."

The Great Debate over reading methods has raged for centuries. Educator Horace Mann warned in the 19th century that letters of the alphabet were "bloodless, ghostly apparitions." Still, phonics continued to dominate until the late 1930's, when Scott Foresman published its "Dick and Jane" series. These ubiquitous readers were designed to teach children to read not by repeating sounds but by learning simple words.

Proponents of whole language believe that reading is learned best when the child is immersed in real books and real writing. The theory is that children can figure out what words mean by seeing them in context. Children are encouraged to skip unfamiliar words. Overall understanding, not word-by-word accuracy, is the goal. Whole-language advocates insist that phonics were never given short shrift. Kenneth Goodman professor of reading at the University of Arizona, says decoding skills should be taught as one of many strategies.

Like most education issues, reading methods are a political battleground. Boodman believes whole language has become just another easy target for right-wingers intent on narrowing the scope of public education. There's more to schooling than reading, he says, and more to reading than phonics. But, critics ask, what's more basic than learning to read? "There is strong evidence that a lot of kids just aren't getting it with whole language." says former California school superintendent Bill Honig, now a phonics crusader.

Most research backs the need for lots of phonics, the sooner the better. While many beginners may be able to figure out what words mean by their context, most children-particularly those having trouble-need help learning the shapes and sounds of English. The brain has no inherent knowledge of the alphabet, says Dr. Frank Vellutino, director of the child-research center at SUNNY-Albany. It has to be taught.

The most successful schools are those that compromise, blending the best of phonics and whole language. Teachers at Rosendale Elementary in Niskayuna, N.Y., realized several years ago that whole language was not enough without daily phonics, so they developed a system combining the two. After just two years, the number of children needing remedial reading was reduced considerably. Children, the teachers insist, tackle literature with more confidence now that they are armed with better skills. And phonics, they've proved, does not have to be "drill and kill." Second graders in Karen Hess's class wriggle with excitement as she holds up a flashcard. First the children "chunk" it into syllables and identify the letter combination ("auc") and spelling pattern ("-tion"). Then they rotate their arms like a steam engine to help their brains connect the parts. "Auction!" several shouted last week, and one of them added: "Like Jackie O!" With Jeanne Gordon in Los Angeles.

The Great Reading Debate

Does phonics turn kids into robots? Does whole language leave them dazed and confused? Here are the pros and cons.

Whole Language Phonics
*The early emphasis on literature make reading fun from the start.
*They learn words in context, with a goal of increasing overall understanding.
*Children learn strategies for decoding words they've never seen.
*Tutoring may help bring kids with early reading problems up to grade level.
*If they "skip" words, they may never learn them.
*Teachers often don't fully teach kids how to decode the alphabet.
*Teachers may rely on "kill and drill" lessons.
*The emphasis on decoding practices may turn children off to literature.

For twenty years The Phonics Game has taught children and adults how to read with comprehension in just 18 hours. This complete learning system makes learning to read fun. It has been adopted by the California Sate School Board along with a growing number of other states. Junior Phonics is excellent at helping children from 3 to 6 master early reading skills.

Phonics History

Phonics: which stresses teaching children the sounds of words dates to the 1700s. Since then, it has been eclipsed from tie to time by the whole language approach.

1700s - mid 1800s: Children are taught to read through memorization of the alphabet. Primary text: the Bible.

1783: Noah Webster publishes The American Spelling Book, used for almost 100 years.

Mid 1800s - early 1900s: McGuffey Readers prevail. Very phonics oriented.

1910 - 1920: Ginn and Co's Beacon Readers, an efficient and intelligent sequence of systemic phonics.

Late 1930s: Scott Foresman introduces the Dick and Jane series. John Dewey and others promote whole word reading. Emphasis on "site reading" a limited list of words and word guessing .

1955: Why Johnny Can't Read by Rudolf Flesch, attacks look-say instruction, urges a return to phonics. "We've thrown 3,500 years of civilization out the window," he writes.

1967: Jeanne S. Chall's Learning to read: The Great Debate endorses direct instruction in phonics.

1981: Twenty-six years after Why Johnny Can't Read, Rudolf Flesch publishes Why Johnny Still Can't Read.

1984: The federal commission on reading issues Becoming a Nation of Readers. "The issue is no longer, as it was several decades ago, whether children should be taught phonics," the commission said.

1995: California's "ABC" laws require instructional materials to include "systematic, explicit phonics, spelling and basic computational skills." North Carolina and Ohio follow suit.

1995 - 1997: "Word Identification" programs in most Maryland school systems include phonics.

A 1996 article in Scientific American reports that 10 years of brain imaging research shows that the brain reads sound by sound.

In 1996 a First Grade teacher in Murrieta, California introduced The Phonics Game into her classroom and in one month her students were reading The Book of Virtues by William Bennett. She video taped this success story and over 500 people came to "Phonics Night" to celebrate. Now all the classrooms in the school use The Phonics Game or Junior Phonics.

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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, December 26). Phonics Information, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 16 from

Last Updated: February 13, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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