Find out how teaching phonics prevents failure in reading

No-one was teaching phonics when 60-year-old Martin went to school. He told me he was taught to learn long lists of words by memorising their shape, and writing them down. But he didn't have a hope of reading or spelling them correctly during end of week tests. His mind went blank. He simply couldn't remember them.

Feeling Of Hopelessness From Beginning

The teacher told Martin in no uncertain terms how incompetent he was. The boy, in his opinion, was downright lazy and needed a wake-up call.

Martin had one goal... to leave school.

He told me he despaired. Nothing in the education system was helping. As he fell behind with reading, learning other subjects became impossible. He couldn't read instructions to do exercises and sit tests. It meant he couldn't learn geography, history or read instructions in maths. It made school a humiliating waste of time.

Teaching a phonics strategy would have helped Martin but he didn't know that then. He does now!

The 'whole word method' of reading which Martin was taught as a boy was originally a system designed for the deaf.

Sadly, it didn't work for the deaf. For reasons no-one seems to be able to explain, educators insisted it worked. As a result, hundreds of thousands of potential readers have suffered or failed.

True to his word, Martin left school the day he turned 15. He burned his report card and found himself a job as a labourer on a building site. He told me it suited him there.

He wasn't required to read much and if he didn't recognise the odd health and safety sign on the job, one of his mates would shout out a warning...hopefully in time!

Teaching Phonics is the Best Method

Teaching reading and spelling is a skill and requires a teacher with a sensitive and flexible approach. Martin's teacher was a bully who destroyed his self-esteem.

Fortunately most teachers these days understand that teaching by frightening children does not work.

In spite of this, many children still struggle. Their reading and writing problems escape unnoticed. Many end up as adults with debilitating literacy problems and disturbingly low self-esteem like Martin.

This is because teaching phonics, and I have found this, is the most successful method of teaching reading and writing. Tragically Martin was not taught by that method.

Phonics Not New

Teaching phonics is not a new idea. It has been around for many years but as educators attempt to be "innovative" they often change methods and destroy the best parts.

Teaching phonics as a method of reading, writing and spelling has repeatedly suffered this fate with disastrous results.

Phonics teaching becomes the trend for years, then someone comes in who wants to change everything and it is abandoned for a few years. Suddenly they realise the whole word method is not working and they start to teach phonics again.


Recently, an internationally acclaimed remedial  reading program was  criticised for this reason. To read about it click here.

How Phonics Works

If you are unaware of just what phonics is let me just go back a step.

Phonics is about the connections between letters and their sounds. It includes individual letters and combinations or clusters of letters. There are 26 letters in the alphabet but they make approximately 44 different sounds.

Let me give you an example... the letter a can say many things in a word.

It can say aa as in cat

 ay as in cake 

 ay as in rain

 ay as in day.

This might seem initially confusing but if taught in a logical sequence, children learn to recognise the differences between the sounds and soon understand.

Then they will begin to recognise these same patterns in lots of other words.

Teaching phonics involves helping learners identify what sound and spelling particular clusters of letters make in words, so that they will be able work out most words without having to memorise every single one.

It is important to note that some words have to be learned almost totally by sight. These are what teachers refer to as sight words.

They are short lists of words which are like filler words in sentences. They are useful when a child is learning to read.

In the beginning, they include words like...

I   a   look   come   he   she   me 

Some sight words can't be pronounced the way they look which is another reason for learning them by sight.

These sight words act like glue and join other words (with patterns inside them) into sentences.

If you compare the huge numbers of words we learn in a lifetime of reading, there are very few we learn by sight.

The Other Controversial System Of Teaching Literacy

The whole word method of reading is a system which has failed because it involves memorising thousands of words. The problem is that our brains can only cope with a certain number, and then it closes down.

MRI scans have shown that this happens by the time a child is about seven years old.

Children learning by the whole word method find their visual memories are overloaded and that they are unable to continue to read.

After meeting adult learners, who at school learned the whole language approach and were  badly let down, I am absolutely convinced teaching phonics is the only solution.

An Experiment to Help You To Understand

If you are a parent, home-schooled or teacher reading this, try to think back to the days when you were learning to read.

Understandably, you may have difficulty remembering. Perhaps this will help ... try reading this ...

De smell bruin vows spring over de lie hand De briar prioriteit glijdt in het kader van het betrokken nietjesdocument uit. De overwoekerde luiaard valt op de lustelooze verglaasde duiker en rolt op een bongostal. De onverzadigbare haai weeft sneeuw in de duistere peer naar de eenzaamheidbrug. En zo gaat het in het in.

Unless you know the Dutch language I imagine you struggled with that.

How many words did you attempt before you gave up? Did you find yourself muttering ... "It's written in another language. Of course I can't read it!"

Like you, I haven't a clue what it says.

It doesn't matter, as long as you felt the sensation of being confused and that the letters meant nothing to you. That's exactly what young readers like your child feel when they see words written down for the first time.

We Forget How Children Think

This comment by a six year old child will remind you of what it is like. He looked at the words he had been asked to read on a page and said to his teacher...

"Oh, I get it. You try to read the black stuff not the white stuff on the page!"

We forget how much we have learned since we were children. It is a challenge but we need to try to think like a child if we are going to help them.

Unlike the child above, some children learn to read without much help. The problem is that most don't! They need to be taught in a clear, structured way.

By not teaching phonics but using the whole language method, students are forced to try to memorise thousands of words.

As their brains are overloaded they then tend to guess difficult words based on the meaning of what is being read. All this does is overload and stress the child. The result is failure.

Phonics is a passport to literacy success.

Teaching phonics is definitely the answer. I have taught phonics to children at kindergarten level through to adults.

Even adults, who have never learned to read, can make spectacular progress. They develop a new-found sense of self-esteem and a passion for learning.

Most tell me that their lives were filled with fear and loathing towards reading, writing and spelling until they asked for help as adults. They were always worried that someone would find out their secret ...that they couldn't read.

Their greatest regret is that they have been exposed to the wrong methods for decades.

Teaching phonics to teach reading, spelling and writing involves an initial phonics assessment including a check on the phonological awareness of the learner.

It's just teacher terminology and not nearly as complicated as it sounds. It does, however, require a qualified person to do the testing.

On this site I'll explain it in simple terms. We’ll look at phonics sounds. Also the teaching of kindergarten phonics, how powerful it is to start your child at that age and what's more have them love it! We'll cover phonics for children including primary phonics.

You'll find some free phonics lessons, help on how to teach phonics plus some tips and techniques for getting the best out of your child.

Go from Teaching Phonics to Phonics Literacy Home Page

Go To Phonological Awareness

Go to How to Teach Phonics

Go to Phonic Sounds Insights

Go to Phonics For Adults

Go to Phonics For Adults Top Tips

Go to Open Syllable

Go to Closed Syllable

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