The role of phonics in learning to read is one of the most researched aspects of education, in terms of both the volume of research over the past few decades and the consistency of the evidence. Numerous reviews of scientific studies of reading have recommended that early reading instruction should have a well-developed systematic and explicit phonics component.
The research has also shown that children who struggle to learn to read — either because they have had an impoverished home learning environment or because of a learning difficulty — are most likely to benefit from highly systematic and explicit phonics instruction. However, all children benefit from phonics instruction to some extent, whether it is for learning to read or learning to spell.
Systematic phonics instruction is significantly more effective than non-phonics instruction in helping to prevent reading difficulties among at-risk students and in helping to remediate reading difficulties in disabled readers.
The Simple View of Reading
The Simple View of Reading says that reading comprehension requires word recognition and language comprehension. A deficit in either aspect will result in poor reading ability. If a child can read words aloud correctly but does not know what they mean, the child will not understand and therefore is not really reading. Conversely, a child can have a large vocabulary and good listening comprehension but these will not be of use if they cannot decipher the words on the page. The Simple View of Reading has been validated and extended in many studies in many languages.
Explicit and systematic instruction in phonics is the most effective and efficient route to accurate and fluent word recognition; by teaching children to decode words. When children know how to decode, they will be able to read almost any word they encounter.
Longitudinal studies have repeatedly found that a child’s ability to decode is a strong predictor of their reading level. Lervag, Hulme, & Melby-Lervag (2017) found that decoding and listening comprehension together accounted for 96% of variation in reading comprehension. The authors wrote “Without adequate levels of decoding, oral language comprehension skills cannot be engaged to allow the comprehension of a written text.”
Beginning readers need to know how words sound
There have been hundreds of studies of the cognitive processes involved in developing skilled reading (for a recent review see Castles, Rastle, & Nation, 2018). When children are first learning to read, they need to build neurological connections between the parts of the brain that store letters (visual information) and sounds (phonological information). This seems to happen almost effortlessly for some children; but others — such as children with dyslexia — need multiple exposures for this information to be retained in their long-term memory. The word that is read must then find a match in the semantic (meaning) area of the brain for comprehension to occur.
Beginning readers do not make direct connections between print and meaning in the same way that skilled readers do. However, as children become proficient readers with a large store of familiar words via a process called orthographic mapping, the phonological route to meaning is required less often.
What are the Essential Understandings of the Nature of Reading Development, Reading Difficulties and Effective Instruction? This presentation by David Kilpatrick addresses the nature and causes of reading difficulties; the importance of explicit instruction in advanced phonemic awareness, and fluency as a byproduct of having instant access to most or all of the words on the page.
The complexity of English makes systematic and explicit phonics instruction more important
English is a more complex language than other alphabetic languages such as Finnish or Italian — English has a ‘deep orthography’. While some other alphabetic languages have close to 1:1 letter sound correspondence (each letter has one sound associated with it), written English has 44 sounds associated with the 26 letters of its alphabet — some sounds are represented by combinations of letters (eg. /sh/), and some letters are represented in spoken language by more than one sound (eg. the letter c can be /s/ or /k/).
English is thus more accurately described as a morphophonemic language than a strictly phonetic language, but most words are phonetically decodable; that is: they can be ‘sounded out’ using knowledge of the rules of written English. This characteristic of English makes good phonics teaching more rather than less important — the complexity of English makes it difficult for children to learn the rules (and the exceptions) without careful and explicit teaching.