The Verdict is In: Phonics is the Way to Teach Reading

Terrence Moore

January 1, 2004

This is the first article of a three-part series.

Without a doubt, the most important thing a school can do is to teach children how to read. All the rest of education depends upon the student’s ability to read, beginning with simple stories in the early years and culminating in complex texts such as Moby Dick and the Constitution. Even mathematics often involves the student in complicated word problems that require the ability to read. Beyond formal schooling, most careers nowadays demand a high degree of literacy. For people to be active and informed citizens, they have to be able to read and understand important issues as they appear in newspapers and political journals. To say that reading is the sine qua non of education is simply to state the obvious.

Yet teaching children to read is precisely what our schools are not doing, or at least not doing very well. The statistics are simply staggering. The National Center for Educational Statistics found in 1998 that 38% of fourth graders nationally cannot read on a basic level. According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 40% of the population have reading problems severe enough to hinder their enjoyment of reading. Dr. Reid Lyon of the NICHD estimates that 20 million schoolchildren in this country suffer from “reading failure.” In 1990, 60 million adults were “functional illiterates.” That number today is approaching 90 million. These numbers do not even reflect the various degrees of semi-literacy in children and adults. Countless people who can read, at least the average newspaper article, say they “cannot spell,” as though the ability to spell were something you are born with, such as blond hair or freckles.

In any sane world, the schools in this country would have to answer for this epidemic of illiteracy and semi-literacy. If UPS or FedEx failed to deliver 40% of their packages, no one in his right mind would use their services. In the world of education, however, dogma rather than sound research and proven practice too often prevails. The dogma that holds in the realm of reading is that children learn to read by recognizing whole words that have been previously taught and by guessing at words by using the context in which they are found. This method (or methods) has gone by many names: “look-say,” “whole-word,” “whole-language,” “guided reading,” and, most egregiously, “literature-based reading.” The techniques used in whole-word and whole-language learning all eschew the traditional acquisition of words through the decoding (or “sounding out”) of letters and groups of letters that stand for particular sounds called phonemes.

The whole language vs. phonics debate is probably the most controversial issue in education today. This controversy unfortunately obscures the fact that all the rigorous scientific research conducted into children’s reading over the last forty years has proven that children need explicit phonemic awareness to become successful readers. In three separate studies, the late Professor Jeanne Chall of Harvard surveyed all the research on literacy and conducted her own classroom observations, as well as directing the Harvard Reading Laboratory, and found that the “code-emphasis method” (phonics) produces substantially better readers not only in the mechanical aspects of reading but also in terms of “reading for meaning” and reading for enjoyment, contrary to the claims of whole-language theorists.

The National Reading Panel, the NICHD, and Marilyn J. Adams in a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Education Research and Improvement have all reached similar results. Most telling was the experience in California. In 1987, the state ceased to use phonics to teach reading. The outcome was predictable. By 1994, California tied for last with Louisiana in the U.S. Department of Education’s Reading Report Card. The state superintendent of instruction at the time, William Honig, stepped down and has written a book explaining the huge mistake of abandoning phonics.

With such overwhelming and compelling evidence to support the efficacy of phonics and the failure of whole-language, why should so many education schools and school districts across the country fail to insist that teachers use phonics in the teaching of literacy? The March 2002 Scientific American put it well: “Because the controversy is enmeshed in the philosophical differences between traditional and progressive approaches… The progressives challenge the results of laboratory tests and classroom studies on the basis of a broad philosophical skepticism about the value of such research.” In other words, they are willing to ignore solid research that contradicts their beloved theories, theories that keep kids from reading.

Continue to part two of this series: “Johnny’s Fate: Guesser or Fearless Word Attacker.”

Terrence Moore is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado.