Phonetic Decoding and "Phonics" as a Method

The first stage in reading is phonetic decoding or word attack, commonly known as "sounding out words." This is an important part of early reading experience for many students. It is the core of the reading instruction method known as phonics.

What is phonetic decoding? What was the phonics debate about?

In the 1950s and 1960s phonics was a controversial teaching method. Many reading professionals recommended the opposite approach: the look-say method of instruction, in which a beginning reader was encouraged to recognize one whole word at a time. Young readers were given simple reading materials that repeated certain words many times. ("Look look," Dick, said Jane. "Look at the dog.") This approach was based on the finding that skilled readers were able to recognize words as a whole without conscious phonetic decoding. In the 1990s, this was called the whole language approach.

The whole-language approach was based on the belief that beginning readers were best motivated by meaningful engagement with reading material, not by laboriously sounding out words. If words were simple and familiar, and a story was interesting, then (the reasoning went) children would learn to read faster

However, many beginning readers appeared to benefit from phonics instruction. Researcher Jeanne Chall addressed the question in a book titled Learning to Read: The Great Debate (1967). She summarized a great deal of research and concluded that phonics produced better results than whole-word instruction with beginning readers.

What techniques are commonly used to teach reading now?

Educators continued to disagree about the best way to teach reading. More than two decades after Chall, Marilyn Jager Adams addressed the issue in a book titled Beginning to Read: Learning and Thinking about Print (1990). She agreed with Chall that phonics was helpful in the context of other reading activities, but she did not recommend phonics alone. Beginning students appear to benefit from a mix of activities that make reading a meaningful and fun activity, including writing. Phonics, writing, and whole-word recognition are typically mixed together in today's reading programs, and that is what Adams recommended in 1990.

What tactic by readers can produce embarrassing results?

Like any cognitive skill that is repeated often enough, word attack (the ability to "sound out" a word quickly) becomes automatic with experience. Once you are a proficient reader, you do not have to stop and sound out a word like "proficient." But many students, even in college, are hobbled by poor word-attack skills. Faced with a college-level text, they must slow down frequently to sound out difficult words.

The worst tactic is to skip over large words entirely. Students who do this end up being unable to use the words, or mangling the pronunciation and embarrassing themselves. For example, I have found that sometimes a student is unable to pronounce the word "cognitive" after studying this chapter. The only way this could possibly happen, after reading the word 74 times, is if a student ignores a pronunciation key like COG-nit-iv, then skips over the word or mispronounces it from that point on while reading.

What alternative is recommended?

It is better to sound out a word than to skip over it. After you sound out a word like "cognitive" or "acetylcholine" a few dozen times, it begins to roll off your tongue with ease...and you start to sound like an expert. The best tactic for a serious student is to slow down and sound out a word whenever the pronunciation is unfamiliar, even if this means consulting a dictionary.


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