the trouble with phonics

Teaching with phonics – Conclusion

This part brings our little ‘The trouble with phonics’ series to a conclusion, and it is here where I will attempt to show you why we should no longer be using the phonics method of teaching people to read – children in particular.

Other parts in the series:


Teaching with Phonics – why it must stop

Teaching with Phonics – What is phonics

Teaching with Phonics – The whole word approach



Phonics is fundamentally flawed

We have already shown that phonics is flawed, no teaching method is perfect but what makes phonics a really bad choice? Mostly, it comes down to how the brain actually ‘sees’ things. In this case, we need to consider how the human brain visualises and understands words.

You will notice that I didn’t say ‘understands letters’, and that’s because when we are reading the brain does not see individual letters – it takes the word in its entirety.

Take a look at this passage…


“Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteers be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.”

You may recognise it, as it has been doing the rounds for a few years now, but ignore the false statements for a moment (there was no research conducted, as stated, and the statement as a whole is incorrect) we will get to those.

The basic idea is correct, in that the brain reads words and not letters. Matt Davis covers this meme in his piece on the Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit website.

While Matt, correctly, calls into question the total accuracy of the statement, the important thing to remember, for our purposes, is context. While words written in this way may contain errors in spelling and grammar, we not likely to spot them (or at least, not all of them) and not all words lend themselves to this kind of jumbling.

This is where context comes in to play, and where the phonics system falls flat on its face. Words jumbled according to the rules of the research carried out by Graham Rawlinson are still legible, even when the word itself is not immediately recognisable. How? Context. When looking taking surrounding words into consideration, the meaning of ‘alien’ words is more easily deciphered.

When teaching phonics, context is not taken into account (which is especially troubling when the meaning of a single letter can be altered by the rest of the sentence, let alone the word that it is a part of!) which makes learning words more difficult because a child is often having to learn several variations of a single word within a short space of time.


Words build a visual landscape that the human mind can navigate


Think you have a handle on how the brain sees and understands words, now? It gets better. From the article The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens…


As far as our brains are concerned, however, text is a tangible part of the physical world we inhabit. In fact, the brain essentially regards letters as physical objects because it does not really have another way of understanding them

This helps to understand why the vast majority of people prefer ‘real’ books over digital, but when put together with the fact that most people are visual learners, and not aural, the case against phonics gets that little bit stronger.

With phonics, students are also taught ‘non words’ – basically random gibberish. The idea is that when a child learns how to decode a word, they can move on to think about meaning.

Can you see the massive problem? Children that are already learning are going to be frustrated by suddenly being faced with meaningless text, sitting there thinking that they are not as good as they thought and so destroying confidence in their abilities which just goes to further slow down their progression even further.

Why even bother with this? It’s akin to to making a learner driver plow into a crowded bus stop, then asking “do you know what went wrong there?”

It serves no other purpose than to shake confidence and hold pupils back.


The majority versus the minority

The Department for Education says that phonics is best, and a major argument for that is that ‘only’ 65% of the population are visual learners… What happened to the needs of the many?

Can they really be serious in suggesting that fully supporting the minority is preferable to supporting the vast majority?

It’s a ridiculous notion, and a complete non argument. Perhaps, for total ‘coverage’, there is a space for both methods in the one classroom? Clearly teaching phonics on its own is potentially more damaging than not, so why the continued stance by the DfE?

I don’t think we will ever know their true intentions (and don’t cite the research they had conducted to me, I’ve read it and the DfE cites only the parts that looks favourable (and puts a biased twist on it too, I might add) and conveniently ignores the rest).

Whatever their reasons, they are dead wrong and I hope that this series has gone some way to showing you just how much.

I would love to hear your comments, ideas, criticisms and anecdotes… Leave them in the comments, and share your thoughts with us!

Save the world, save the cheerleader... Or leave a comment. Whatever