P is for Phonics

27 02 2011

A recent item on the BBC website (Reading test for six-year-olds to include non-words) reminds us that the debate about phonics continues to polarise educationalists and the public alike. The fact that a government-mandated reading test for six-year-olds is to include nonsense words, like ‘koob’ and ‘zort’, which the children are required to sound out, has incensed advocates of a more meaning- and context-driven approach to developing first language literacy: “It’s just bonkers!” The very mention of  phonics is guaranteed to elicit this kind of knee-jerk reaction in some quarters.

Just to remind you, phonics (to quote the entry from An A-Z of ELT)

is an approach to the teaching of first language reading that is based on the principle of identifying sound-letter relationships, and using this knowledge to ‘sound out’ unfamiliar words when reading.

The analytic, bottom-up phonics approach contrasts with a more holistic, top-down approach to developing literacy skills that is called (in the US at least) whole language learning. Whole language learning is premised on the belief that, “in the development of both speech and writing, children begin with a whole and only later develop an understanding of the constituent parts… Parts are harder to learn than wholes because they are more abstract. We need the whole to provide a context for the parts” (Freeman & Freeman, 1998, p. 65).

Because so much is at stake (i.e. first language literacy, and hence access to all the ‘cultural capital’ that goes with being able to read and write) the debate between advocates of phonics, on the one hand, and of whole language learning, on the other, has become iconic – representing as it does the war between traditionalists (‘teach the facts’) and the progressivisits (‘nurture the child’). The former claim that there can be no learning without knowledge of the system (i.e. the rules), while the latter claim that the only real learning is self-directed, socially-situated, and experiential.

Supporters of the phonics position cite research studies that suggest that the best predictors of reading ability are good phoneme-identification skills (the ability to sound out a word like c-a-t) and a knowledge of letter-sound correspondences, enabling accurate decoding of the written word. In one of a series of studies, for example, Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley (1995) found that children who had been instructed in phonemic awareness in pre-school “were superior in nonword [i.e. nonsense word] reading 2 and 3 years later and in reading comprehension at 3 years” (cited in Grabe & Stoller, 2002).

Advocates of whole language learning, on the other hand, argue that learning to read emerges out of immersion in a world of texts. “Children growing up in literate societies are surrounded by print. They begin to be aware of the functions of written language and to play at its use long before they come to school. School continues and extends this immersion in literacy…” (Goodman & Goodman, 1990, p. 225). Krashen (1999) cites a number of studies that show that what he calls ‘free voluntary reading’ “profoundly improves our reading ability, our writing ability, our spelling, our grammar, and our vocabulary” (p. 54).

Is there a compromise position? In her fascinating book, Proust and the Squid, (Wolf, 2008), Maryanne Wolf argues that successful decoding is contingent upon “knowing the meaning”, and that “for some children, knowledge of a word’s meaning pushes their halting decoding into the real thing”. One clue to a word’s meaning is its context, and an understanding of context requires reading skills, such as predicting and inferencing, of a more global kind than simply knowledge of sound-letter relationships. And it also assumes the existence of an already extensive and well-connected lexicon: “The more established our knowledge of a word, the more accurately and rapidly we read it” (p. 153).

Thus, successful readers are able to marshall both bottom-up (i.e. phonics) and top-down (i.e. whole language) processes more or less simultaneously, drawing on the one when the other is less reliable. Effective teaching of reading, arguably, achieves a similar balance. In the Reading Recovery approach, as pioneered by Marie M. Clay, the child’s reading aloud is supported and scaffolded by the teacher, allowing both a bottom-up or a top-down focus, as appropriate. As Clay & Cazden (1992) observe:

This program should be differentiated from both ‘whole language’ and ‘phonics.’  It differs from most whole language programs in recognising the need for temporary instructional detours in which the child’s attention is called to particular cues available in speech or print.  It differs from phonics in conceptualising phonological awareness as an outcome of reading and writing rather than as their prerequisite (pp. 129-130).

How does all this relate to second language learning? As I point out in An A-Z of ELT “the phonics debate is less of an issue [for us] since most adult second language learners are already literate”.  Nevertherless, the more fundamental argument – as to whether the parts should be taught in advance of the whole, or vice versa – is just as relevant to  language teaching as it is to literacy learning, and just as capable of inflaming similar passions.


Clay, M. & Cazden, C. (1992) A Vygotskian interpretation of reading recovery. In Cazden, C. 1992. Whole Language Plus: Essays on Literacy in the US and NZ. New York: Teachers College Press.

Freeman, Y.,  & Freeman, D.  (1998).  ESL/EFL Teaching: Principles for Success. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Goodman, Y., & Goodman, K. (1990). Vygotsky in a whole language perspective. In Moll, L. (ed.) Vygotsky and Education: Instructional implications and applications  of sociohistorical psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grabe, W., & Stoller, F. (2002). Teaching and Researching Reading. Harlow: Pearson.

Krashen, S. (1999). Three Arguments against Whole Language & Why They are Wrong. Portsmouth, NH.: Heinemann.

Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain. Thriplow: Icon Books.