I am fed up with the phonics police! Prepare for a rant.
English is not a phonetic language. As is demonstrated by the word phonics.
Also the words: the / these / where / were / are / our / school / table / centre / through / night / why
And many other key words. These words have to learned visually since they make no sense phonetically whatsoever.
How did we get here?
Phonics makes a lot of sense in early literacy, as it gives very young children the chance to make sense of enough of the words on a page to grasp context. They work out the rest from them there. However, in later literacy, say year 2-6, phonetic reading becomes remedial. It’s what we do when we don’t know the word! It’s a great strategy for new words that we might have in our verbal vocabulary but haven’t seen in print yet, but we wouldn’t expect older children to use it all the time.
“When we see a word for the first time, it requires some time to read and sound it out, but after perhaps just one presentation of the word, you can recognize it without sounding it out,” she says. “This occurs because our brain first uses phonology to encode the word and match the sound with the written word. Once we do that and encounter the word a few more times, we no longer need the phonology at first, just the visual input to identify the word.” Laurie Glezer, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow, Laboratory for Computational Cognitive Neuroscience at Georgetown University Medical Center
As adults, phonetic reading is not sufficient for most jobs. If you have to sound words out you can’t read fast enough to manage most day to day activities. I know this because I have spent over a decade working with dyslexic adults and, when they read that slowly, they are at risk of losing their jobs. A literate adult who comes across a word they don’t know will use the context of the rest of the paragraph to work out what it probably means and then they will move on. But you need a quick visual reference for the majority of the words to do that.
So, it’s clear that the primary process for decoding words we know, once we CAN read, is visual. And some children aren’t being taught how to bridge from phonic decoding into fluent reading. Worse still, some children arrive at school already knowing how to process key words visually and are confused by learning letter sounds that only make sense in some cases. This is because many children aren’t being offered a wide range of learning methods for literacy. One size fits all methods rarely work, even when they look good on paper. I am so grateful that my sons’ school is better than that! They stopped teaching Ollie phonics after 6 months and instead began focusing on retaining key words. He went up 5 reading levels in a term. Ollie couldn’t HEAR the difference between ‘m’ and ‘n’ in lots of words, so how could he sound them out? Once he was reading a few key words he could be interested in the story and work out the probable meaning of new words from context and the first few letters. Reading for pleasure is key.
And don’t get me started on spelling. If we don’t learn to chunk the whole word, as one visual image, how will we ever spell a word like ‘beautiful’? How will we ever remember the number of consonants in a word like ‘physically’? One ‘L’ or two?
Check out http://magicalspellinglimited.com/ for more information on how to engage your visual memory in learning to spell. Interestingly most people who learn to spell visually also improve their reading…
So where does this leave the dyslexic learner?
Well, we know that dyslexics tend to have poor sound processing skills and excellent visual processing skills. So by using phonics, we are relying on the worst performing brain area to do the thing we find the hardest! And it’s not even necessary! I wouldn’t mind the extra time and effort that dyslexics have to devote to repeatedly practising phonics and blended sounds, if it were the ONLY way to learn to read and spell, but it isn’t! We CAN bypass that remedial stage and move straight only whole word recognition.
The politics of education
The government might be plugging phonics as the only way, or the best way, but since when did they know what they were talking about? Every primary school teacher I’ve ever talked to thinks a once size fits all strategy is a nightmare. 92% of NUT members and 72 leading authors are opposed to the dominance of phonics in early education. Phonics programmes are big business, produced by educational publishers with a vested interest in funding research that promotes their product. And since schools have been using them with increasing regularity since the 90s, why are literacy levels still falling? Phonics has its uses. But it is not the ‘be all’, and most definitely should never be, the ‘end all’ of learning to read.
Okay, rant over.
 Aghababian, V. (2000) Developing Normal Reading Skills: Aspects of the Visual Processes Underlying Word Recognition Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 76, 123–150 FOR EXAMPLE – there are a LOT of references for this, just google.