‘Phonic Program’ Caveats

dog and phonicsBefore I move onto the next component in Konza’s Big 6, I thought I would draw attention to Misty Adoniou’s paper, ‘Seven things to consider before you buy into phonics programs’.  This is a reminder that although explicitly teaching phonics is necessary for many students, it is only one component of a balanced reading approach.

Image from: Wayan Vota via Compfight cc

If you have had a chance to explore Version 8 of the Australian Curriculum English, you would have noticed a greater emphasis on phonics in the earlier years, and that from year 3 onwards, it states that phonological and phonemic awareness will continued to be applied when connecting spoken and written language. Below is Adoniou’s paper, which I found to be an interesting read.


Seven things to consider before you buy into phonics programs

Misty Adoniou, University of Canberra

Phonics, or teaching reading, writing and spelling through sounds, is often touted as the golden path to reading and writing.

National curricula in England and Australia have been rejigged to increase their focus on phonics, and entrepreneurs and publishers have rushed to fill the space with phonics programs and resources.

But before you buy their wares, consider the following.

1. English is not a phonetic language

This may be an inconvenient truth for those promoting phonics programs, but English is not a phonetic language and never has been.

English began about 1500 years ago as a trio of Germanic dialects brought over to the islands we now know as the British Isles. Latin speaking missionaries arrived soon after to convert the pagans to Christianity. They also began to write the local lingo down, using their Latin alphabet.

The Latin alphabet was a good phonetic match for spoken Latin, but it was not a good match for spoken Old English.

There were sounds in Old English that simply didn’t exist in spoken Latin, so there were no Latin letters for them. And there were sounds in Latin that didn’t exist in Old English, which left some Latin letters languishing.

Those letters were repurposed and some new letters were introduced. It was a messy match, and 1500 years of language evolution has only increased the distance between the sounds we make, and the letters we write.

As a result, English is alphabetic, but not phonetic. There is a simple sound letter match in only about 12% of words in English. How much of your literacy programming and budget do you want to allocate to that statistic?

2. Sounds are free

The sounds and letters of the English language are the ultimate open access knowledge. Buying them in a packaged program is just a con.

If you weren’t shown the sound-letter relationships in your teaching degree, shame on your degree, but in any case you can Google them or find them in the preface of a good dictionary.

3. Knowing your sounds is not the same as reading

I know all my sounds in French. I even sound reasonably convincing – in an Inspector Clouseau kind of way – when I “read” French. But I have no comprehension, so I’m not really reading.

Children who are failing in literacy in upper primary and high school are not failing because they don’t know their sounds. They are failing because they can’t comprehend.

Observe their attempts to read, write and spell and one thing is very clear – they know their sounds, and they over rely on them. Give them a phonics program and you are giving them more of what isn’t working for them.

4. Politicians are not educators

The push for phonics in England and Australia was spearheaded very conspicuously, almost personally, by the respective former Education Ministers Gove and Pyne. Politicians may have many skills… but they are not educators, and they are not educational researchers.

Educational reforms should not be shaped by personal predilections or political agendas.

5. Programs get it wrong

The narrow focus on sounds and letter patterns in phonics programs obscures more useful information for learning to read, write and spell. On occasion the material presented is just plain wrong.

A popular phonics workbook offers the following explanation for the word “technician”.

“Technician is a technical word. Although it is pronounced ‘shun’ at the end, it belongs to the word family ending in ‘cian’”

Teaching “cian” as a word family is linguistically inaccurate, and fails to teach how the word “technician” actually works.

“ian” is the suffix we attach to base words ending in “ic”, to turn them into the person who does the base word. So “technic” becomes “technician”, “magic” becomes “magician”, “electric” becomes “electrician” etc.

This knowledge develops spelling, builds vocabulary and increases reading comprehension. Being told that “cian” makes the “shun” sound does none of this.

6. Colouring-in is not literacy

Sticking balls of crepe paper on the letter “j” is not a good use of literacy learning time. Neither is colouring in all the pictures on the worksheet that start with “b”, particularly if you thought that picture of the beads was a necklace. And is that a jar or a bottle?

Busy work does not teach children to read and write.

7. There are no easy routes to literacy

Learning to read, write and spell is complex. The brain is not hardwired for literacy in the way it is hardwired for speech.

Each individual brain has to learn to read and write, and because our brains, our genes and our environments are all different, the pathways to literacy that our brains construct will be different.

If a single program could respond to this diversity then we would have solved the literacy problem a few hundred years ago when printed texts for the masses first took off.

Of course there are accounts of students whose progress was turned around by a phonics program – the comments section of this post will no doubt have some of those testimonials – but there are many more who languish in those programs.

Phonics programs can be helpful for students with very particular learning needs, but solutions to pointy end problems are not helpful for all learners.

The alternative?

Consider what the problem is that you are trying to solve before you commit to buying a phonics program.

If the problem is your students write phonetically, and cannot read phonically irregular words, then more phonics is not the solution.

If the problems are reading comprehension and quality of writing, then invest in your library and your staff. Buy quality literature and spend money on professional learning.

The Conversation

Misty Adoniou, Senior Lecturer in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Understanding the Reading Process – The Big Six

I am really enjoying reading Konza’s series of articles on Understanding the reading process. She has synthesised the research beautifully and written the articles in a practical and teacher-friendly way. I wish I had known a lot of these things when I was first teaching in the early years.

So far, I have summarised oral language and phonological awareness – two incredibly important foundational skills for reading, writing and spelling. Today’s blog will look at the section on phonics in her first paper and the supporting article Phonics.


matPhonics is understanding there is a relationship between the individual sounds (phonemes) of spoken language and the letters (graphemes) of written language.  Once children understand that word can be broken up into a series of sounds, they need to learn the relationship between those sounds and letters – ‘the alphabetic code’ or the system that the English language uses to map sounds onto paper (Konza, 2011).

There is a lot of debate around how and when phonics should be taught but Konza stated that the empirical evidence points towards a synthetic approach. My summary will focus on this approach. The single letters and common letter combinations are taught in a discrete, systematic and explicit method that facilitates blending.

Early blending is critical and begins as soon as students know letters can be blended into vc or cvc words. This is then practised in easy, decodable text which will benefit all students but particularly those who are struggling to learn the relationships quickly. Decodable texts should be a short-term strategy to build automaticity and fluency needed to read for meaning.

Although simple, decodable texts are used to practise phonics, the research is very clear that children should be using their newly developed phonic skills in the context of motivating, connected text as soon as possible and that they should continue to have high quality texts read to them (Konza, 2011).

I really like how Konza stresses the importance of phonics instruction for most beginning and all struggling readers but that it has be to be part of a balanced reading program, one that includes rich oral language instruction and modelled and guided reading. She also states that phonics instruction should never take more time in a day than the other elements of the literacy program.

Konza also states that phonics instruction will not assist students when they encounter irregular or sight words.sight words Sight words need to be taught explicitly and systematically, followed by regular practise in context.

The goal of teaching phonics and sight words to the point of automaticity is rapid word recognition. Immediate and accurate recognition of words allows the reader to concentrate on meaning rather than decoding.

When to start and for how long?

If phonics instruction begins in prep, single letter-sounds and common combinations should be completed by year 1. By this time, letter-sound knowledge should be automated and students should be able to read simple material accurately and comprehend it. Phonics instruction continues after that in the form of spelling instruction and word analysis and continues until students are competent.

Guidelines for teaching phonics systematically

  • Teach letter-sound correspondences: in a sequence that introduces the most common sound for a letter; that occur frequently; and to begin with, separate those that look and sound alike.
  • Begin with continuous sounds (/s/, /m/ and vowels) as they are easy to blend.
  • As soon as students know letter-sounds that blend into words, help them combine them with magnetic letters.letters
  • Provide practice with connected text comprised mainly of simple vc and cvc words (eg Fitzroy and Dandelion series).
  • Extend phonics instruction beyond single letter-sound correspondences to include more complex letter patterns (double letters, consonant digraphs eg th, ch), vowel digraphs (eg ea, ai, ou) and vowel consonant digraphs (eg aw, ay, oy) and other commonly occurring patterns (eg –igh, -ear) in junior and middle primary years.
  • Extend phonics instruction to include morphological elements and structural analysis in upper primary years.

NB Do not hold students back if they are moving quickly through the sequence – the speed with which some children learn this material when explicitly taught can be surprising.

Like phonological awareness, phonics is not an entire reading program for beginning readers. Young children should also be listening to stories and information texts, reading texts both aloud and silently, and writing letters, words, messages and stories. The explicit and systematic teaching of phonics in the beginning phases of reading instruction assists students to master the code that underpins the written form of our language. The goal is for students to read for purpose – reading to understand, learn and enjoy.