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Phonics is Phonics - or is it?
For sixty years, confusion and misinformation have reigned supreme whenever the subject of teaching phonics
comes up for discussion. Witness recent news articles on the marketing success of "Hooked on Phonics."
Naturally, to counter this success story, rebuttal articles often quote the establishment which regularly
confuses the issue by not really addressing it. Could it be that most major voices in the heated debate
haven't a clue as to what, exactly, they are talking about? What phonics? Does one teach phonics for
pronunciation only or should we examine letters and combinations of letters which are needed to spell
English correctly? We need a list so everyone knows the content of the debate.
I first learned about one successful phonetic system (we judged it successful because all our students
learned to read, write, and spell) twenty-three years ago when I was drafted to administer a failing
school in a low socio-economic area of Omaha, Nebraska. After implementing a simple, but complete
multi-sensory, "explicit" phonetic, and integrated language arts program, our Afro-American, Hispanic,
and students of other ethnic backgrounds finished grade one reading from the World Book, spelling at
3rd to 7th grade levels, mastering the parts of speech, and writing creatively with proper grammar,
syntax, capitalization, punctuation, and legible handwriting (whole language capabilities?). They also
learned to think and were enjoying classic literature which both educated and entertained. Second-year
results brought equally spectacular success even with students who had been previously diagnosed as
Beginning with listening, speaking, and comprehension skills, we dictated instructions for the formation
of the letters which stood for the 42 speech sounds they already knew how to say and had been using in
words and conversation for several years. First graders then applied these letter combinations, using
28 rules of spelling, in a dictated list of 850 of the most commonly used English words which they then
read aloud and used in oral and written sentences. They began to read interesting, classic literature in
their ninth week of instruction. They were happy, involved children, learning at their individual full
potential. I was as impressed as their parents were delighted.
I discovered that a complete phonetic system teaches the common correct spelling patterns of the sounds
A Complete Phonetic System Teaches Correct Spelling Patterns.
This fact is virtually unknown among educators and publishers because, generally, it has not been
taught for nearly seventy years at the teacher training level. Can't be, you say? I learned these phonetic
"facts" and 47 spelling, plural, and syllabication rules from a retired teacher who had learned them from
another retired teacher who was educated before the turn of this century. A footnote in one of our teaching
manuals clarifies some finer points. It says, "Actually, there are over 250 sounds and as many dictionary
key symbols that can be used to designate all the nuances in all the dialects of English throughout the
world. However, the use of 42 'pure' sounds and 71 'common' phonograms (one or more letters which stand for
one 'voiced' sound in a given word) is a sufficient 'working set' to enable primary children to successfully
spell the vast majority of all English words which are in their spoken or comprehensive vocabularies." So,
if this information is known, why are we still having a problem?
Notable recent and past examples of misinformation on the subject follow:
- For instance, the success of the prolific Hooked on Phonics ads do show that there is still a keen
interest in phonics which is causing concern in the entrenched reading establishment now selling their
latest anti-phonics invention called "whole language." The media ads for Hooked on Phonics confuse the
issue by claiming that setting the "44 sounds" of English to music is "phonics." It is some "phonics,"
but only about one-third of the known phonetic system.
- Not to be outdone, even the growing number of IBM's Writing to Read critics wrongly refer to that
42-phoneme, invented-spelling system, as "phonics." It has been used in 85% of all school districts in the
country which should be proof enough that the media needs to address the subject. How can board members be
convinced to spend money encouraging children to spell food, do, dew, due, through, fruit, you and shoe as
"food," "doo," "doo," "doo," "throo," "froot," "yoo" and "shoo"? John Henry Martin of the IBM system
suggests that such false spelling is just fine -- as do many other authorities. We beg to differ; it was a
colossal failure with the Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA) system many years ago and it is now proven a
failure again. Invented spelling does not "map" accurately to book print for reading. Children's minds,
programmed with the wrong information, will take seven times longer for unteaching and reteaching than if
we had just put in the right information at the outset. Where will we find the time?
- Some critics are suggesting that "businesses" like IBM should not be involved in education, yet, the
large textbook publishing houses are multi-billion dollar businesses. Like the late Dr. Jeanne Chall, Dr.
Barbara Bateman, and Siegfried Engelmann, I believe they need to prove that the programs they publish meet
research criteria before they are foisted on the taxpayer and the taxpayers' children enmasse. There should
be some "truth-in-packing" standards for these publishing houses in something other than the research
findings and testing instruments they purchase for their own programs.
Invented Spelling Was (and is) a Colossal Failure
But, back to the phonics question. With straight and sincere faces, schools and teachers using
whole language programs posture that "they teach phonics," and those who are using "decodable" text readers
and the accompanying visual worksheets declare "they also teach phonics," and they do -- to a degree. They
tell children at least one sound for each of the 26 letters of the alphabet plus a few common digraphs such
as th, sh, and ch, over about a 3 to 4-year period of time. "Hooked on Phonics" does approximately the same
thing only they set it to music. Instead of long-term help, this is enough "phonics" to be dangerous.
Incredible as it may seem, high school children are dropping out of school as functional illiterates
because they are unable to sound out a simple, phonetically-regular word like "fight." They try to sound
each separate letter because they have never been taught that a letter combination like igh simply says
its first or long sound.
Lest we think the debate has run its course, the February, 1992 Phi Delta Kappan ran another anti-phonics
article from Canadian citizen, Professor Frank Smith, 30-year architect of American reading instruction,
now touting the whole word, whole language approach. In the article, he declared that the words, I, you,
they, is, are, was, of, by, to, have, has, and mother are "flagrant exceptions to the rule." What rule?
It is quite apparent that he has never learned that ou and ey, should be taught with more than one sound,
and that the digraph th has two sounds.
Single letters i, s, y, and o, have more than one sound (easily taught to children in grade one) not to
mention his apparent ignorance of the use of silent final e's. Of is the only word which cannot be easily
explained phonetically if the teacher first knows, and then teaches, 47 rules of orthography.
Children need to learn rules by their application in words to give them practice in analytical thinking and
deductive reasoning as well as the obvious help it affords in learning to spell. Yes, spelling is considered
harder than reading, but it is also much more easily organized because of the rules.
A "60 Minutes" guest professor several years ago expressed heated concern about black children who
"turn off" to reading at the third grade level, but he forgot to mention that these once eager learners
have been systematically thwarted by a too-little-too-late, picture clue, phony phonics system which has
crippled them for life. This has now blossomed into a demand for "decodable" text. On the surface, this
sounds plausible, but we must ask, "Decodable by what phonics content?"
Nationwide test scores decline at the third grade level (and not just for Afro-Americans) but education
reformers have failed to point out (is it possible they don't know?) the simple fact that these children
never could read independently. Grades one and two found them simply memorizing simple, short, three-letter
words, using pictures and their knowledge of the single letters of the alphabet, in look-say programs with
insipid, "dumbed-down" Dick and Jane vocabulary.
Children who have been watching National Geographic,
Discovery, and some other not-so-savory fare on TV are not remotely interested in reading such inane drivel
even when they are sight-oriented enough to memorize the words. When the words get longer and the picture
clues fewer, lo! we have non-readers, and this concerned professor declares that it is because "their
female teachers are not qualified to teach them what it is going to be like to be an Afro-American man in
the coming century." The children already know it won't be pleasant if they can't read, and for that,
they need no more lessons.
The two major adult literacy groups who unfortunately get all the ink and whatever meager funding is
available, teach the same kind of so-called "phonics" in sight-oriented programs offering more of what
caused their unfortunate clients to fail to learn reading and spelling in the first place. And surely, we
should all know by now that the 100,000-member (or is it more?) International Reading Association (IRA),
made up primarily of reading professors and teachers of remedial reading plus giant textbook publishing
houses and their representatives, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Association
for the Education of Young Children are in charge of the status quo. Serious reformers and holders of the
purse strings to change, such as foundations, concerned corporations, legislators, and board members, should
cease seeking their counsel. They give "lip service" to the teaching of phonics, but I have never met even
one member of any of these organizations who had ever studied a complete phonetic system.
The I.R.A., N.C.T.E. and N.A.E.Y.C. Give "Lip Service" to Teaching Phonics
We do need to keep in mind that these groups are not only the 50-year-old architects of the present
illiteracy, but that their membership, the remedial reading teachers and the textbook publishers, profit
twice over on the backs of their victims. Oregon's State Department of Education now establishes criteria
for and adopts "low level" reading materials as standard practice and no one questions it.
One of the biggest surprises is that our good old phonics advocate, our dear, departed Dr. Rudolph Flesch,
our pro-phonics spokesperson since 1955, didn't know that one could teach "do" and "so" and "have" and
"save" in the same phonics program and declared as much in a Reader's Digest article several years ago. He
knew so little about complete phonics that he thought that the words do and have should be taught as sight
words. No wonder teachers made jokes about his theories and he lost all credibility with the reading
Many simplistic phonics programs mislead when they teach foolish rules like, "When two vowels go walking,
the first one does the talking," which is true about 14% of the time if one looks at a group of diphthongs
- ai, ay, au, oi, ui, eu, oy, oo, ea, ei, ie, ey, ou.
Yet, the International Reading Association's testimony pointed to this rule to prove to members of
a 1984 Senate hearing on reading just how absurd phonics instruction is. Though pro-phonics advocates had
ample time and opportunity to rebut, they were speechless! So much for my side either not knowing the
answers -- or not knowing when to speak up.
Not to be outdone, the federal government's contribution to mass confusion includes a 1985 compilation of
reading research entitled, Becoming a Nation of Readers (BNR). "Explicit" phonics (teaching the sound/symbol
relationships ahead of words and/or picture clues) is recommended from the data compiled. However, this
report doesn't say what phonics or anything about how to teach it. If Dr. Jean Osborne of the Center for
the Study of Reading (the group which produced the report) "knows a good phonics program when she sees it,"
why doesn't she tell teachers what it is so that it cannot be misinterpreted? The BNR phonics chapter is
so garbled with misinformation (we assume the research itself is at fault), it is little wonder schools
aren't paying any attention. Also, the government appropriated little funding to distribute this report to
teachers and textbook selection committees who need it. Meantime, The Riggs Institute has prepared a
paragraph-by-paragraph critique on the phonics chapter in BNR (just e-mail your request to us).
Becoming a Nation of Readers is Full of Distortions
Former Secretary of Education William Bennett demonstrated some remarkable leadership in trying to
shed light on the subject with his What Works I and II, First Lessons, Illiteracy in America, BNR, Private
Sector Alternatives for Preventing Reading Failure and Preventing Reading Failure: An Examination of the
Myths of Reading Instruction, all of which discuss the phonics issue at considerable length (see our catalog).
Yet, in 1986, when flatly ordered by a unanimous vote of the Congress to provide schools with a
consumer information report within one year, to address whether existing reading curricula, particularly
on the phonics question, met the criteria of research recommendations, he sat on his hands! The study
mandated by Public Law 99-425, better known as the "Zorinsky Amendment," was finally completed in June,
1993. However, the research team admitted that they didn't judge the phonics applications on when they are
taught which just happens to be the primary difference between "implicit" and "explicit" phonics. So, the
report, seven years late, was seriously flawed! Wouldn't the Food and Drug Administration be in contempt of
Congress if it attempted to sidestep a similar mandate from the Congress? What is the practical difference,
folks? And where is Ralph Nader when we really need him?
Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print, by Marilyn Jager-Adams, is another
government attempt to assuage public outrage over reading reform. Though in many respects it is quite an
exceptional book, Ms. Jager-Adams talks all around the phonics question. She seems to realize that there is a
great deal more to phonics, and the role it should play in beginning reading and spelling instruction or that
the research has examined, but it is also quite clear that she doesn't know exactly what it is.
a no-research (or no knowledge of research) basis, archaic state textbook commissions in twenty-one (21) states
still mandate a state empowered and funded textbook monopoly in reading programs to the great detriment of their
students. Of these states, only five rate above the national SAT-score averages while, of the 28 states
allowing a free market, only five states rate below the national average. Are quality control people
interested in this data? And, speaking of monopolies, aren't there federal anti-trust statutes to protect
the consumer in all other areas? Why local boards of education allow states to mandate a monopoly in
reading instruction - particularly programs which are proven to be neither safe nor effective - boggles the
mind! If states can do this (and some would say, violate federal anti-trust statutes in the process), why
was the federal-level Department of Education, at its creation, specifically denied any access to, or
control of, the curriculum our children must, by law, use? Isn't that the same as telling the U.S. Food and
Drug Administration they could have nothing to do with food and drugs? Or, if you do, do it only at the
state level? One has to do with protecting the human body, the other with protecting the human mind.
Now that we truly are "A Nation at Risk," don't we need a congressional investigation or a grand jury to
determine who lobbied what exclusions into place with the establishment of a cabinet-level Department of
Education during the Carter administration? And why doesn't the U.S. Department of Justice convene a grand
jury to examine the evidence as to just who influences the criteria in each of those twenty-one states
which, in turn, keeps the status quo in reading instruction in place in all 50 states? With the current
crop of illiterates -- some 90 million or about 48% of the adult population -- is anyone concerned?
WHY DOESN'T THE DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE CONVENE A GRAND JURY TO INVESTIGATE?
To bring the magnitude of the problem into focus: A grant invitation from
the U.S. Department of Justice used the following definition for literacy
in the May 17, 1991, Federal Register: "Literacy is the ability to
accurately and fluently read and write what one can talk about, hear,
and understand." According to this definition, virtually all first graders
move to second grade as illiterates in this country. Currently, in the year
2000 as this article is being updated, the national goal is to teach
children to read "by grade three." How ridiculous! What's wrong with by
the end of kindergarten. This writer doubts there is even an intent to
bring print skills to speech and comprehension levels with the present
whole-word memorization system. The Department advertised for
proposals to teach remedial teachers to teach multi-sensory, intensive
phonics to incarcerated illiterate youth in homes for juvenile
delinquents. If it works at this level, why not do it to begin with?
Confusion also governs well-meaning corporate involvement. David Kearns, former Xerox CEO and after that with
the Department of Education, speaks widely about school culpability in not preparing young people to enter the job
market. Yet he authorized the expenditure of $5 million on research within his own corporation to determine how the
brain functions in the learning process apparently not knowing that some very productive work on that subject
was already published in 1937 by Dr. Samuel T. Orton - a neuropathologist who spent a lifetime experimenting with
real students to find an early answer to "learning disabilities," as well as a promising answer to winning the
brain race with normal children. We can applaud Mr. Kearns for his very good intentions, but also think he should
have pursued some homework as should the current crop of neuroscientists, now in receipt of billions of dollars in
federal funding under the auspices of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's Dr. Reid Lyon
who is quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, "Now wait a minute, folks, we're learning a lot about how the
brain functions, but it will take another ten years for the researchers to produce something suitable for the
No one protested because virtually no one knows that methods have existed since the late 1920's which are brain-based
and are effective for intervention with learning disorders and even more effective with normal primary children. I
leave it to you to ponder why Dr. Lyon isn't interested to know about these "facts" of reading reform in America.
Some researchers say that Dr. Orton didn't present proper evidence and that he could have been wrong about right and
left brain dominance, etc. Few understand or are interested in the fact that he solved the teaching problem anyway
and found an answer to neurological discrimination in teaching methods in his discovery of the full cognitive benefits
of multi-sensory instruction.
And, yes, Orton's findings have a great deal to do with phonics, or the lack thereof, when and how it is taught.
Instead of trying to figure out what English teachers knew, he worked in tandem with teachers who were all trained
before the turn of this century; these teachers knew what is not generally known today. They regularly taught the
structure of correct English spelling and its rules. How long does it take for a nation or world to forget a body
of information entirely? In this case - the real structure of English words? Might we lose this forever? Considering
the growing movement to change the English spelling system, must we still ask that when we lose it, will anyone be
here who knows what was lost? Will our data banks remember when we don't? I attended the Harvard Brain Conference in
November of 1999 and personally witnessed a very famous neuroscientist presenting phonics instruction to about 900
teachers by writing "buh" "aaah" "tuh" on the overhead with an flat statement that this was the way to teach the word
"bat" using phonics. Not one teacher protested! Did they not know in this day of the "phonemic awareness" and the
"decodable" text frenzy, that they had just been taught five distinct sounds of English, not three??
Mr. McGraw, of McGraw Hill Publishing (now the second largest publisher in the U.S.), spearheaded the
Business Council for Effective Literacy, apparently not realizing that his own publishing company might
be a big part of the problem. And this continues. Today, he is the proud and rich owner of the old and
used-to-be-very-good-phonics-and-literature-based Open Court program -- that is until something quite
awful happened to the phonics portion of it. Now, it teaches one sound for each of the letters of the
alphabet in the entire first year of instruction, and offers a broader variety of visually-oriented
workbooks and the best 100% "decodable" text in the country. As a small test, see how many and what
size words you can write with that much phonics. Open Court, none the less, and now under McGraw Hill
ownership, is blessed by the state of Texas, California, the Los Angeles Times and Mrs. Marion Josephs,
phonics proponent grandmother of the California State Board of Education.
Ross Perot, the benevolent Texas billionaire and well-known wannabe
president, known widely in Texas for his untiring work for educational reform,
doesn't seem to know that the primary basis for his own children receiving
an excellent academic background was because the expensive, Dallas academy in which they were
enrolled has used a simple, but effective and inexpensive, "Orton-based" spelling and writing
program for the past 35 years.
Does our former First Lady Barbara Bush really understand why one
her children had trouble reading? If she knew, wouldn't her work for
literacy possibly accomplish a lot more by addressing the real issues
facing it? Unless we want to continue to admit to the world that we no
longer know how to teach our own language to our own children, we
need to exhibit some curiosity, at least, about the primary root causes
of the illiteracy problem in the English speaking world. We need to truly
examine what's between the covers of the materials our teachers must
use to teach language skills. We need to stop consulting the failing
"experts" and rely on some facts and common sense. While we are at it,
we need to find out why existing research doesn't cover that exact point.
Ordinary people need to believe, once again, that teaching reading is not
the next thing to brain surgery. We need to put someone in charge who is curious
and knows how to determine cause before designing cure. Our social and economic future
is very much at stake.
And, yes, we do need to list a reliable set of spelling patterns (phonograms) which are proven to work
through scientific research. Dr. Orton's work and experience is not considered to be reliable or scientific
because, apparently, there wasn't another innovative doctor across the hall trying a different method on
the same kind of patients with yet a third party looking on. Nevertheless his methods have stood the test
of time and perhaps two dozen programs which derive from its concepts have survived into the next century
-- many of them being promoted by non-profit agencies. Certainly, there is more than one workable list,
but there are also far too many differences in the various lists teachers are asked to use by various
publishers who have no"reliable, replicable research base" to prove efficacy. The subject of the great
debate needs, finally, to be determined after some forty-five (45) years. The Riggs Institute's phonics
list is shown here. While we wait for some curious researcher's findings, you may find it helpful as a
comparison with your own:
- b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, qu, r, s, t, v, w, x, y, z a, e, i, o, u, er, ir, ur, wor,
ear, sh, th, ee, ay/ai, ow/ou, aw/au, ew/eu, oy/oi, oo, ch, ng, ea, ar, ck, ed, or, wh, oa, ey/ei, eigh,
igh, ie, kn, gn, wr, ph, dge, oe, ui, tch, ti, si, ci, ough
Since many of the above 71 phonograms represent multiple sounds, there are 118 combinations which are
taught together with their applications for spelling; you will note there are no two- or three-letter
"blends" listed which retain their own individual sound value ever after being combined. We use only
vowel or consonant digraphs which change sounds by having been combined or represent sounds normally
depicted with only one letter. These are better taught during dictated spelling lessons, otherwise they
may destroy auditory discrimination, phonemic awareness, and the auditory, verbal, and visual processing
skills needed for correct spelling and fluent reading. Primary children learn these 118 combinations quite
easily in four of the first nine weeks of school. They are infinitely easier to memorize than is the entire
English lexicon. When these are taught first, a "whole" or completely integrated language arts system can
become a reality.
Subtracting nine weeks from the life of a child to teach the basis for what he/she needs
to know for all other learning for the rest of their lives may seem exorbitant to some who want to pass up
everything between "Go" and "Finish," but, we say it is time well spent. It will be a great pity if we give
up on the end goals of teaching the integrated "strands" of the language arts before we discover how to
make it work. We must then continue to admit to the world that we have forgotten how to teach our own
language to our own children.