Phonics Myths and Facts

Myth: Learning to read is natural, like learning to talk.

Reality: Human speech evolved organically over hundreds of thousands of years, whereas the first alphabet was invented only around 3200 BC. As a result, reading is a learned skill—while the necessary regions of the brain must be sufficiently mature and connected, there is no natural developmental reading “window” during which children automatically begin to match sounds to print.  

Myth: Only a small percentage of children require phonics.

Reality: Around 60% of children require some degree of explicit, systematic instruction to break the “code” of English. Among the 40% or so who need little to no instruction, phonics instruction improves spelling and fills in gaps that may not be apparent when children are young but that have the potential to cause serious problems later on.

Myth: All children will learn to read eventually, if given enough time.

Reality: If that were the case, this website would not exist, there would have been no reading wars, and thousands of children would not need to seek remediation for poor reading instruction and/or fails to become proficient readers.

Myth: Phonics is just another fad, like Whole-Language. 

Reality: Even if phonics has been treated like a fad by the educational system, it is in a fundamentally different category. The American educational system largely operates around revolving fads, put in a place for a short period and then abandoned; phonics has at various points been more and less in vogue, albeit typically taught in conjunction with methods that are either ineffective or that directly undermine its effects, and by instructors who have received insufficient training to teach it effectively. 

That said, it is crucial to distinguish between what happens in the education world vs. the scientific world. Since the 1970s, an enormous body of research has consistently demonstrated that phonics supports the way the brain acquires the ability to make literal sense out of squiggles on a page, in a way unmatched by any other method of reading instruction. 

Myth: Phonics is very controversial. 

Reality: Within the mainstream scientific community, there is effectively a universal consensus that a systematic phonetic approach is by far the most effective way to teach children to read. This is as close to being a settled matter as possible. The fact that its importance may be minimized in the education community for ideological reasons, and that the media sometimes treats phonics as controversial in the name of objectivity, does not negate this reality.  

Myth: Teaching phonics prevents children from focusing on meaning.  

Reality: Children cannot focus on the meaning of a text unless they know what the words say. If they already knew how to turn squiggles on a page into words, there would be no need to teach them! Even in Balanced Literacy programs, which supposedly emphasize “making meaning,” children are required to memorize long lists of sight words. 

The ultimate aim of reading is of course to focus on the meaning, and adult readers can do this easily because their brains process words instantaneously. However, the goal for beginning readers is to understand how letters correspond to sounds and then words. As they build a store of automatic letter-sound correspondences, they will gradually be able to devote less attention to decoding and more attention to meaning. 

There is no shortcut for this process: asking beginning readers to mimic the behaviors of expert readers means that children are deprived of a necessary stage of development.

Keep in mind that children’s oral/aural language far outpaces their understanding of written language, and that books for beginning readers are written to be understood by five- or six-year-olds. While some children obviously do struggle with comprehension, the main problem is generally NOT that children are unable to grasp the meaning of simple texts and need to be taught detailed comprehension strategies. Rather, it is that they do not know what the words literally say.

Myth: Phonics destroys children’s love of reading.

Reality: On the whole, children who are learning to read LOVE the clarity of a well-designed instructional program that, for the first time, allows them to read—really read—new materials. While the early lessons may not be highly exciting to an accomplished adult reader who takes many skills for granted, they are important and necessary to build skills, confidence, and enjoyment.

The bottom line is that children cannot love to read unless they are actually able to read—and children who do not learn sound-letter correspondences to the point of automaticity often do not become adept readers in the long term, with frustration, discouragement, and low self-esteem as the result.

Myth: Phonics is developmentally inappropriate for young children.

Reality:  Children are ready to read when the relevant areas of their brain are sufficiently mature and connected to the other regions with which they must work. They must also possess the necessary memory and attention skills to be able to process and retain sound-letter patterns, and be able to hear the component sounds of words well enough to match them to letters and groups of letters. 

For a very small number of children, this may occur as early as three or four, but at the other end, it can occur as late as seven. Most children fall somewhere in between. 

Children’s ability to connect sounds to print also depends on the strength of their pre-reading skills, e.g., letter knowledge and ability to perceive individual sounds within words (phonemic awareness). Children who have learned to easily recognize and discriminate between sounds as a result of exposure to rhymes or word/sound games prior to kindergarten will generally find it much easier to connect their knowledge to print than their peers who lack these skills.  

Because the vast majority of children require some direct instruction to break the reading code, failure to read “naturally” in the absence of systematic, high-quality instruction should not be automatically taken as a sign that a child is “just not ready to read.” If a child is clearly struggling by mid-late first grade, the difficulty could just as easily result from poor instruction. 

If, on the other hand, a child on the younger end of the spectrum has access to a structured, high-quality phonics-based program but demonstrates a lack of interest and is unable to focus and/or retain what they have learned, maturity may indeed play a role.  

Myth: All children need to become good readers is consistent exposure to a print-rich environment. 

Reality: While it is true that some children raised in homes where literacy is emphasized are natural readers, one is not necessarily the result of the other; in fact, children who struggle to read may also come from homes with many books and have parents who read to them frequently. 

Recall that around 40% of children will learn to read with minimal to no instruction—in such cases, the environment may support an innate tendency, but it is not responsible for actually creating the ability.

Myth: Skilled readers process text in many different ways.  

Reality: Skilled reading occurs through a process called orthographic mapping: sounds and letters/groups of letters are hardwired together in the brain for instant retrieval, allowing expert readers to recognize and process words immediately and effortlessly.

Studies show that skilled readers focus on virtually every letter of every word, in sequence; they simply do so at lightning speed (McConkie and Zola, 1987; Just and Carpenter, 1987). To a casual observer, it may appear that they are only focusing on certain letters/words and skipping others, or that they are reading entire words as single units, but that is not in fact the case. In contrast, weak readers focus more on initial consonant sounds and use context clues to try to fill in the rest. 

Myth: It doesn’t matter how children figure out the words as long as they can understand the text. 

Reality: How a child reads is just as important as whether they can understand a text.

Two children who appear to read equally well in first or second grade may in fact have very different skills, with one predicting long-term success and the other struggle and frustration. A child who relies primarily on workaround strategies such as memorizing, educated guessing from context clues, and looking at pictures will be poorly positioned to figure out new words and cope with a flood of more challenging vocabulary/fewer pictures starting around fourth grade—even if they appear to be reading at or above grade level in kindergarten or first grade.

In contrast, a child who grasps that the most effective way to identify unfamiliar words is to sound them out—even if attempts are awkward and not always successful—is on the road to reading well in the long term. 

Most students do not naturally grow out of using workaround strategies; without intervention: a child who is firmly in the habit skipping and guessing at eight will very likely be doing the same at 12, and probably also at 16, when context clues are far less reliable.

Myth: Phonics consists primarily of worksheets and rote drills. 

Reality: Most high-quality phonics programs have a multi-sensory component. Children may sing, chant, clap, draw, use manipulatives, and listen in addition to writing and listening.  

Myth: Phonics-based programs do not include “authentic texts.”  

Reality: A high-quality phonics program aims to get children reading real books as quickly as possible—even after they have learned fewer than 10 letter-sound combinations. Phonics programs rely on books known as decodable readers, which allow students to build their skills and confidence, and avoid becoming overwhelmed, by practicing only the sound-letter correspondences they have already learned. Although decodable readers employ a limited vocabulary by necessity, they are no way less “authentic” than the memorization-based repetitive readers used in many Balanced Literacy programs. The range of sounds represented in decodable readers is gradually expanded as children are introduced to additional patterns; all the while, children are exposed to more challenging literature through read-alouds. 

Myth: Sight words should be memorized in their entirety, without attention to phonics.

Reality: Sight words are typically considered high-frequency words taken from the Dolch or Fry lists; these make up around 50% of the words that elementary-school children read. Although some of these words are irregular (areoneyou), many others are spelled the way they are said (itdidcat).  Originally, these words were simply compiled to provide a baseline list of what children needed to know to become readers; they were not intended to be memorized by rote, without attention to their phonetic components.

While children do need to be able to process these words instantaneously, the normal rules of reading are not suspended simply because they appear so often—if anything, they represent an excellent opportunity for children to solidify common sound-spelling patterns through frequent exposure, and to then be able to transfer that knowledge to unfamiliar words (e.g., it  –> sitfitkitbitpitlitwit).

In addition, many irregular words on the Dolch/Fry lists are still partly phonetic, e.g., from has only one irregular vowel sound; the consonants still make their normal sounds. As much as possible, the phonetic aspects of irregular words should be emphasized. (For strategies, see this excellent article on tricky words from Phonics Hero. )

Teaching high-frequency words phonetically when possible does initially require more time than assigning lists to be memorized, and certain texts will need to be introduced later, but the long-term payoff in terms of developing fundamental skills is immeasurably greater. 

Myth: If children memorize the Dolch/Fry (sight word) lists, they’ll know most of the words they need, and the can figure out everything else from context. 

Reality: Research indicates precisely the opposite: high-frequency words such as its and the can most accurately be guessed from context. In contrast, more specialized and complex “high information” words that are key to understanding the text often cannot be determined from textual cues.

Myth: Context cues are just as effective at getting children to understand the meaning as phonics is. 

Reality: Relying on context clues is associated with weak reading skills; it is a compensation strategy used by people who cannot decode effectively. When children are taught to depend on contextual information, including pictures, they are essentially being trained to read like weak readers The ability to use context is, however, important when identifying words with only partially phonetic spellings. 

Myth: Phonics turns children into “word callers” who can only decode text robotically, without understanding it.  

Reality: No one would argue that a pianist was incapable of playing a Beethoven sonata with authentic feeling simply because they spent a lot of time playing scales and mastering all the notes, or that a basketball player was incapable of true athleticism because they spent too much time doing drills and layups. The same is true for reading.

While strong decoders with weak comprehension certainly do exist, strong readers are by definition strong decoders, and automatic decoding supports comprehension because it leaves the mind free to think about meaning.

In the very beginning stages of decoding, the sheer effort of matching letters and sounds generally leaves little mental room to focus on meaning, but as children become more proficient, the balance shifts towards understanding. Furthermore, any high-quality early reading program will incorporate a comprehension component to ensure that meaning is not ignored.

Myth: English has too many exceptions to be taught phonetically. 

Reality: While English has more exceptions than other European language, 86% of words are spelled phonetically (50%) or have only one minor irregularity, usually involving vowel sounds (36%). Many of the remaining words have some phonetic components as well; only a tiny percentage (around 4%) are so irregular that they must be learned primarily by sight.   

In additions, many constructions that seem like irregularities are actually alternate patterns. For example oughis pronounced “uff” in several common words, e.g., roughtoughenough. Although the letters involved do not make their literal, individual sounds, they work as a fixed unit and can be taught as a sound/letter-grouping correspondence. 

English contains around 90 high-frequency sound-spelling correspondences that must be learned. That might sound like a lot, but the alternative is to memorize thousands of words individually, or to turn reading into a continual game of guess-and-check using (unreliable) context clues. 

In addition, studies show that children who are solid phonetic can often accurately infer the identities of words with mildly irregular spellings.

Myth: Children should be given lots of different strategies to help them decode words. 

Reality: When reading instructors invoke “many strategies,” they are almost always referring to ineffective three-cueing/MSV approaches. Looking at pictures, searching elsewhere in the text for context clues, and skipping words all pull children’s attention away from the specific sequence of letters on the page and interfere with their developing the ability to rapidly associate sounds and letters, which is the hallmark of skilled reading. On the other hand, strategies such as breaking longer words into syllables in order to make them more manageable, or deliberately blending individual sounds together to make a word, support phonetic decoding and should be encouraged.

While some children who are taught cueing strategies may figure out that phonetic decoding allows them to read more efficiently, others—including many children who are weaker readers to begin with—will prefer less taxing strategies such as looking at pictures, inadvertently setting themselves up for trouble in the long term. 

Myth: Phonics proponents think that phonics is a cure-all for reading problems and ignore all the other aspects of reading. 

Reality: This is an extreme misrepresentation—virtually no one would argue that phonics alone can turn children into proficient readers. Proponents of phonics recognize that the ability to decode phonetically is necessary but not sufficient, and that proficient reading involves many other skills, some of which are quite complex. 

The simple view of reading (Gough and Tunmer, 1986), the accepted model of reading within the scientific community, states that reading is the product of two elements: 

1) Decoding ability 

2) Aural understanding, including vocabulary, syntax, and background knowledge

If one of these components is missing, reading cannot occur: it does not matter how well a child can sound out strings of letters if they lack the vocabulary to connect them to actual words. As a result, any effective program must develop children’s general language and vocabulary skills as well as their overall knowledge of the world alongside phonetic understanding. 

Myth: A child who struggles to read/needs phonics must have a learning disability like dyslexia.

Reality: Many children without reading disabilities fall behind because of poor instruction; a reading disability may or may not be the cause. Behaviors such as skipping words, misreading words, and guessing can also be brought about as a result of ineffective or directly harmful teaching strategies.

Myth: Proponents of phonics all want to replace teacher with computers and/or are in cahoots with the textbook industry.  

Reality: This is a blatant falsehood; most proponents of phonics have no relationship to the ed-tech and/or textbook industries, nor do they have any financial stake in reading instruction beyond a normal salary. They include classroom teachers, parents, tutors, psychologists, and scientific researchers, many of whom have firsthand experience with the effects of poor instruction.