Myths About Phonics Instruction

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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. Remember, although there are many different ways to TEACH reading, science continually reminds us that there is only one way that students LEARN TO READ proficiently. And that includes phonics.

Myth #1: ‘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. Try 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 finger as they read or tap out the individual sounds as they spell.
  • 2. Practice phonics skills with a game. My students love their beloved PIG card game, Go Fish, and 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 jump 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 #2: ‘ 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 has to use as much working memory to decode. Instead, he can use that space in his brain to comprehend the text. Studies show that direct phonics instruction leads to gains in word reading and reading comprehension scores.

“There is no comprehension strategy powerful enough to compensate for the fact that you can’t read the words.”

Anita Archer

MYTH #3: ‘English is too Irregular for Phonics’

87% of English words are either fully decodable or easily decodable. That leaves a lot of work for direct phonics instruction! This implies that only 13% of English words are non-phonetic (or not following the patterns or 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.

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. 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 patterns.

We should encourage students to attend to all of the regular letter-sound correspondences in a word first and then focus on the “irregular” part(s). In the picture 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 the student why there is a silent e on the end. The reason might surprise you.

MYTH #4: ‘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.

Nancy Young's Reading Ladder and the mthys about 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 (or 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 lessons and choose your curriculum. I encourage you read more about structured literacy and the part that phonics plays in it.

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