Are Phonics Strategies Still Relevant?
Although in our modern era, it seems like solutions are ever evolving, in the area of phonics and reading instruction, research continues to show the relevancy and effectiveness of the phonics system. In a wide range of studies, phonics awareness has shown to be superior to whole word recognition (although 16 percent of words in the English language are not phonetically readable and thus need to be taught as sight words). While the first studies showing this were conducted in the 1960s, recent research continues to point toward similar results. Here are some research articles and reports that have come out in recent years supporting the importance of phonics in learning-to-read systems.
Phonics and Brain Activity (“Hemispheric Specialization for Visual Words Is Shaped by Attention to Sublexical Units during Initial Learning,” 2015)
This study was aimed at investigating how the brain responds to different approaches to reading instruction, and it found that beginning readers who focused on letter-sound relationship (aka, phonics) experienced a higher rate of brain activity than simply memorizing a word. In fact, not only did instructing a child to sound out the word “c-a-t” spark more optimal brain circuitry than memorization of that same word, but these differences in brain wiring showed up in future encounters with that word.
Phonics and Poor Readers (“Development of Left Occipitotemporal Systems for Skilled Reading in Children after a Phonologically-based Intervention,” 2004)
Although this is a slightly older study, it’s still quite impressive. A research team from Yale looked at the brain activities of both poor and good readers between the ages of six and nine (through functional magnetic resonance imaging). The poor readers (49 in all) were then split into two groups: one that received standard remedial reading and special education programs, and one that received a different kind of reading program, also known as phonics instruction. Those who received the phonics instruction demonstrated strong gains in reading accuracy, fluency, and comprehension, but even more impressively, their brains began to function more like the brains of the good readers, with increased activity in the word recognition center.
Phonics and Reading Instruction (National Reading Panel Report, 2000)
In what has come to be a definitive report on reading and phonics instruction, a panel of experts in the field of literacy was asked by the US Congress to examine the current research on reading education. This subgroup of the National Reading Panel reviewed 38 studies (each which met rigorous criteria for research) and determined that phonics is an essential component of beginning reading instruction (along with sight recognition, analogy to words already recognized, and prediction/memory). The findings of the National Reading Panel were later highlighted in President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act (2001).
Keep in mind that just as important as the phonic system itself is the way it’s presented to a young child. It’s most effective to teach a few phonic sounds at a time, show the child how to blend those few sounds to form words, and then introduce the child to early readers that use only those sounds. This draws a strong connection between phonics sounds and reading, and makes the process much more meaningful.