The Big Five: Phonics




“We human beings have to learn to read. That means we must have an environment that helps us to develop and connect a complex assortment of basic and not-so-basic processes, so that every young brain can form its own brand-new reading circuit.”  


From Reader, Come Home, The Reading Brain in a Digital World by Maryanne Wolf


Maryanne Wolf goes on to explain that what we read (the writing system as well as content), how we read (the medium, whether print or screen,) and how reading is taught (methods of instruction,) are all incredibly important factors in developing a reading brain. In addition to these factors, Maryanne Wolf says that building networks in the brain “allows us to see the smallest features of letters or hear the tiniest elements in the sounds of language, or phonemes, literally in milliseconds,” and this is vitally important to the reading process. My previous blogs on phonological and phonemic awareness discussed the importance and the how of developing such skills. 


My focus in this blog will be methods of reading instruction that have failed and continue to fail a sizeable proportion of the population, and why a majority of the population has often learned to read in spite of them. I will discuss why phonics alone is not the answer for struggling readers, and why it needs to be combined with scientific research and practice to be truly effective. 


David Kilpatrick introduces us to such scientific research in his book, “Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties,” when he discusses the most important scientific discovery in reading that you have probably never heard about, that of orthographic mapping. He describes this as the process that students use to turn unfamiliar written words into instantly accessible “sight words.” He defines a sight word as a known or familiar word as opposed to an unfamiliar word that has to be sounded out or guessed. This skill determines whether students easily remember the words they see. Students who are poor at remembering words they read must rely heavily on phonic decoding and/or guessing words from context. Orthographic mapping also helps us understand why Whole Word, Whole Language, and Phonic approaches, are inadequate methods of reading instruction. These classic approaches have the following to say about identifying new words and recognizing familiar words. 


Whole Word Approach


In the Whole Word approach when students become stuck on an unfamiliar word, they have to be told the word, or guess it using context, or perhaps use the visual “look” of the word, or its letters. Words are recognized, according to this approach, by visual memory. However, visual memory is not how we establish memories of printed words, although it is involved in learning letter names and sounds. 


We input written words visually, but we don’t store them visually. The process for naming objects is not the same one we use for reading words, however the visual memory hypothesis upon which the Whole Word approach is based concludes that it is. Science, especially more recent neuroimaging studies have shown that areas of the brain that activate during visual memory tasks (naming objects) are not the same as those areas that activate during word reading tasks. 


The fundamental problem with Whole Word methods is that exposing students to many, many exposures of the same words is a very inefficient way of remembering them. To be fair, this approach was developed long before researchers understood how words are remembered for instant retrieval, but this is no longer an excuse, and it is time we switched to science based methods that work for all students. 


Three Cueing Systems Model


The Three Cueing Systems Model is a very popular approach to teaching reading, and has been fully integrated into the Whole-Language, Balanced Literacy, and Balanced Instruction approaches, despite the fact it actually reinforces the habits developed by poor readers when learning to read. These habits include relying on guessing using context, despite the fact that skilled word recognition does not require context. The model has three systems of cues that supposedly work together to help the reader make sense of print. These are the semantic cues gained from context, syntactic cues gained from the structure of printed language, such as word order, and finally grapho-phonic cues gained from letter and sound relationships. Research has shown that syntax is important for comprehension, but not for identifying new words or recognizing familiar words. Guessing using semantic cues gained from context is inefficient for word level reading, and the third, grapho-phonic, cueing system, although it could make quite a difference to word-level reading, is not taught in any explicit or systematic way. In fact, this would be discouraged.


Phonics Approach


Although the Phonics Approach has demonstrated far better outcomes in word level reading and comprehension when compared with Whole-Word and Whole-Language approaches, this does not mean that all reading difficulties will be resolved using this method. Phonics does help students identify words with which they are unfamiliar, but it doesn’t support “sight word” development, and that’s a problem when you consider that good readers immediately recognize the words they are reading; pulling them from their “sight word” bank. It is assumed that if phonics is taught, that children will be able to successfully sound out words and, after doing this multiple times, visual memory will take over and they will magically remember the word. As mentioned when discussing the Whole-Word approach, visual memory is not how we establish memories of printed words, though it is involved in learning letter names and sounds. Research has shown that poor readers enrolled in intensive phonic programs improved their phonic skills, but showed limited improvement in their overall word reading. 


Phonics certainly plays an important role in reading, but the research says it needs to be combined with the following three levels of development, and further needs to be combined with phonological awareness, for the process to be successful. I will be discussing the first of these levels in my next blog. 


● Level 1: Letters and sounds

● Level 2: Phonic decoding

● Level 3: Orthographic mapping


For training in reading development that will bring about successful outcomes in all readers, but especially those that are struggling, I highly recommend checking out the Orton-Gillingham Online Academy training. 


For more information about the “Reading Wars” please refer to these two blogs:


1. The Great Reading Debate Part 1

2. The Great Reading Debate Part 2


For more information about why children have difficulty reading, along with some solutions, please refer to these blogs.


1. Won’t Read, Can’t Read. Part 2

2. Why Can’t All My Students Read? A Teacher’s Perspective

3. Why Can’t All My Students Read? The Solutions

4. The National Reading Panel and The Big Five





Lorna Wooldridge is a dyslexia specialist tutor with over twenty-five years of experience and qualifications in the field of learning differences, from both the UK and USA. Lorna has a unique perspective on this condition as she has dyslexia, and her passion is to serve this community in any way she can.

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