The Phonics Trap
Reading is an acquired skill. Adept readers are able to instantly and effortlessly recognize and understand most of the words they see in print. Their ability to recognize new words improves naturally with practice, through a process that has been described as “self-teaching”, and which allows typically-developing children to expand their reading vocabulary by thousands of words a year.1 Deciphering text becomes effortless and largely takes place at an automatic and subconscious level.
Phonetic decoding is not reading. It is merely one of a number of elements that must come together to enable the reading process. It is a precursor to reading, a starting point that helps to crack the code of how the letters come together to form words. It functions something like the training wheels on a bike – it gives a child a way to begin to make sense of the letters that form words on a page before that child’s brain has developed the wiring needed to become a fluent and automatic reader. For typically developing children — the kids who go to school and pick up their reading skills in the time and manner that their teachers expect — the transition from decoding to full-fledged reading generally takes place at around age 8. This is the phase that Jeanne Chall labeled “Confirmation, Fluency, Ungluing from Print”. 2
This transition to automatic reading and fluency is also the major barrier encountered by most dyslexics. Often, no matter how many hours have been spent studying and learning about letters and their sounds and the mechanics of reading, the process of deciphering print remains slow and laborious. The dyslexic student becomes stuck in the decoding stage.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Many dyslexic individuals ultimately do become capable, fluent, and even very enthusiastic readers. Researchers and educators often refer to these capable dyslexic readers as “compensated” or “resilient” – they become readers despite their early difficulties, and often despite continuing difficulties with phonetic decoding. One reason for the use of the term “compensated” is that these dyslexic readers generally rely on different mental strategies to develop reading proficiency. 3
So what is the phonics trap?
Dyslexic children who fall behind in the early years of their schooling usually perform poorly on tests of phonemic awareness or phonetic decoding. If they are given extra help in school, it typically will be a remedial teaching strategy aimed at improving their poor phonetic skills. However, many of these children will have difficulty gaining proficiency with phonics, precisely because dyslexia is usually associated with difficulties manipulating and making sense of the sounds of language (a “phonological deficit“). 4 These difficulties are tied to inborn, neurobiological differences in the internal wiring of the child’s brain – so it is not something that can be fixed through tutoring or teaching.
When a young child is struggling with beginning reading, it makes sense to provide remediation geared to beginner-level skills. Many children do benefit from short-term, intensified phonics intervention; they show significant improvement and are able to catch up to grade level in a relatively short time. But many other children either fail to progress or move very slowly through the phonics-based remediation.5 Too often the educational response is to double down on the phonics, rather than to consider that the struggling student needs a different approach.
And here is where the phonics-based intervention becomes a trap: The child has been channeled into a program that is not effective for that child. Rather than interpreting the child’s difficulties as a sign of a mismatched approach, the educators persist and prolong the efforts to improve the child’s phonetic decoding skills. Because it is targeted at an area of weakness, the extended efforts at practice and repetition simply make the task of becoming a reader more difficult and confusing to the child.
Meanwhile, because of the school placement in a strong remedial phonics-based program, the child is not given other strategies that may help build reading skills, geared to other elements of word recognition. The child may also miss out on exposure to instruction geared to language comprehension, which is crucial for dyslexic readers to develop fluency.
If the reading intervention follows a strict sequential approach focused initially on building phonetic proficiency, the linear structure of the program can create an additional barrier. That is, the child is not allowed to progress to meaning-based instruction because of their inability to meet defined benchmarks within the phonics-based teaching. Because of the mismatch between the instructional approach and the child’s mode of thinking, the phonics instruction itself can increase the child’s level of confusion and frustration. This can be discouraging and demotivating, and stand in the way of the development of more advanced reading skills.
The child also suffers psychological harm, with a loss of self-esteem along with a sense of failure. Because the child is not progressing with the chosen intervention, the educational system treats the child as disabled, and lowers expectations for academic achievement. The child may then be deprived of other educational opportunities due to the lack of progress with the remedial intervention, either because of scheduling limitations or because the child is deemed to be unready or unqualified for the other instruction.
This “trap” is not a problem with the particular methodology, but rather with a lack of flexibility within the system to explore and provide alternative interventions for children who are not faring well. This is complicated by general acceptance of minimal progress with early-stage reading, rather than a consistent focus on the end goals of building reading fluency along with strong comprehension skills. In essence, the goal of succeeding at the intervention replaces the long-term goal of building overall reading proficiency.
Dyslexic children are bright and capable — their dyslexia simply means that they learn in different ways than their non-dyslexic peers. The education system would do well to focus its resources on better understanding the dyslexic perspective, and incorporating a wider range of age-appropriate teaching strategies, including those geared to the inherent strengths of the kids who are struggling with phonetic decoding. Many children will do better when teaching includes a focus on visual recognition of common spelling patterns and letter sequences,6 instruction exploring word morphology,7 and whole-word strategies to build automatic recogntion of common sight words.8 Dyslexic strengths include reasoning, concept formation, comprehension, general knowledge, problem-solving, vocabulary, and critical thinking — all of which are vital skills for literacy.9
- Share, D.L. (1995). Phonological recoding and self-teaching: sine qua non of reading acquisition. Cognition, 55, 151-218.
- Chall, Jeanne. 1983. Stages of Reading Development. New York: McGraw Hill
- Shaywitz SE, Shaywitz BA, Fulbright R, et al (2003). Neural Systems for Compensation and Persistence: Young Adult Outcome of Childhood Reading Disability. Biological Psychiatry 54:25-33.
- Snowling, M. (1998). Dyslexia as a Phonological Deficit: Evidence and Implications. Child Psychology and Psychiatry Review,3(1), 4-11.
- See Research Topic: Nonresponse to Traditional Intervention
- Doignon-Camus, N., Seigneuric, A., Perrier, E. et al. Evidence for a preserved sensitivity to orthographic redundancy and an impaired access to phonological syllables in French developmental dyslexics. Ann. of Dyslexia 63, 117–132 (2013).
- Jeffrey S. Bowers & Peter N. Bowers (2017) Beyond Phonics: The Case for Teaching Children the Logic of the English Spelling System, Educational Psychologist, 52:2, 124-141,
- Castles, A., Rastle, K., & Nation, K. (2018). Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition From Novice to Expert. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19(1), 5–51.
- Sally Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, Second Edition (Alfred A. Knopf, 2020), at page 56 (Figure 12: Sea of Strengths Model of Dyslexia.)