Sunday, 14 September 2014

Why phonics is nonsense

As my son 'revised key words for year 4', it became clear that his list of spellings this week contained all the proof you need to refute the teaching of reading and spelling through phonics. 

I present… five ways to pronounce '-ough' in English:

English is not a phonetic language

In the last couple of years in the UK, the methodology of phonics has, delightfully, been converted into a government-devised and compulsory 'phonics screening check' at the end of year 1. 

Kids who know how to read can fail this check, if they baulk at pronouncing made-up words using the rules of phonics. 

They are then given remedial attention — to get better at phonics. 

Which is then abandoned as children move through primary education… because it stops working once you are writing anything beyond 'cat'. For example, 'Kate'. Or 'Keith'. Or 'knight'.

I know, I know, the 'phonics method' is really about helping children put together sounds and letters as they begin to decode, but it's so limited, and seems, for all the hype and testing that surrounds it, to be valid only for a matter of months in a child's life, before being shrugged off and forgotten. 

If you want to teach phonics, go to Holland. At least Dutch actually is a (relatively) phonetic language. 

All the '-ough' words above come from Anglo-Saxon, Old German, Old Dutch or Old Danish roots, and all have come to be pronounced differently in modern English. I always remember a French pen friend despairing about learning English, when reading Black Beauty, and finding it impossible to know how to say 'ploughed fields'. 'Pluffed fields', and the subsequent giggling, will always live in my memory as a joyous linguistic moment. To say nothing of homophones (bough and… bow) and homonyms (bow(tie) and… bow (down)). 

Stop plaguing our children with this narrow phonics ideology, which isn't historically or linguistically accurate, and tell them something about how language really works, and the amazing places it comes from. Which, along the way, might teach them something a bit more accurate about what 'Britishness' is — a composite of invading cultures, rather than Morris dancing, Wimbledon and St George and the Dragon (George was Palestinian anyway). While you help them learn to read, then spell, with all the methods that have been developed to do so. One of which is... pleasure. 

Wait, just clambering off my soapbox.

PS. there's a 6th way to say '-ough': 'thorough' (-uh). And I have been. My pedantometer is all the way over at HIGH.


Nieta Wassenaar said...

Sorry Ingrid Dutch is not a phonetic language. We have lots of rules about the spelling and the way we speak our language.

Kirkegaard said...

Hi Nieta!

I was thinking about your comment, and looking things up, and came across this website:

Of course you are right, when you get into the nuts and bolts of phonemics, phonetics, pronunciation and its links to reading and writing -- of course Dutch has exceptions to its 'phonetic' spelling rules.

I was making a polemical point about the complete lack of correlation between sounding, pronunciation and spelling in the English language, because it is such a composite language.

BY COMPARISON WITH ENGLISH, Dutch is a language with a high degree of correlation between sound and spelling.

BTW, my 5 words originate as follows: 'enough' comes from Old English/Old Frisian/Old High German/Old Norse; same for 'through'; 'thought' is from Old English, Old Saxon, Old High German, Old Norse and Gothic; 'though' arose in Middle English, and has a pre-history in Old Norse; bough has slipped its original meaning of chest of a horse, bow of a ship, or shoulder and come to mean the limb of a tree.

And finally, my list of 5 ways to pronounce '-ough' isn't even complete. What about 'thorough'? Which comes from the Old English for 'through'.

Enough already.

Debbie Hepplewhite said...

This Alphabetic Code Chart might help - phonics is very helpful for lifelong reading and spelling.

I provide various free alphabetic code charts at .

Kind regards,

Debbie Hepplewhite

Kirkegaard said...

Dear Debbie,

Many thanks for the link to your excellent Alphabetic Code Chart, which sets things out really beautifully.

Even looking at it as an adult however, I find it bewilderingly complex. My eight year old son clearly makes no connection between the grapheme '-ough' and the multiple sounds and words it can denote. I had to point out the connection to him. So whatever he 'learnt' in year one does not 'make sense' to him now as a writer of English. It's not like maths, where each step of mathematical knowledge really is a building block to the next.

He did learn to read through decoding, while my daughter clearly learnt to read through whole-word recognition. Different brains, different processing capabilities -- he is better at maths than she is, he uses binary logic, and she uses exploratory intuition to arrive at similar philosophical conclusions. Many paths lead to the same desired outcome, just as in phonetic descriptions of words themselves.

I'm not convinced of how useful *learning* phonics has been for his continued development in reading, which has owed more to continual experimentation, exposure, conversation and diversity of reading material, as well as attention to his pronunciation and diction, and his use of register, from us.

I think it's useful for *teachers*, as it clarifies the complexity of phonemes and graphemes in English, and it might give *teachers* insight into WHY a child can't say or correlate a sound with a letter or a group of letters, to help them correct or overcome a block.

However, I think it is less useful for children as a system of knowledge in its own right, comparable say to the four operations in maths, or knowing the date of the Fire of London, and I don't see how testing children for *knowledge of phonics* helps them develop as readers of English.

John said...

Hello Ingrid Kirkegaard,
Don’t worry – no ‘Fear and Trembling’ in this reply!
However, there are, I would respectfully point out, several flaws in your argument for why, in your opinion, phonics doesn’t work. Although I would willingly concede that there are phonics programmes out there that are truly abysmal and there are certainly many teachers who don’t understand the relationship between the sounds (44, unless one is a Scot) and the writing system, which means they can teach phonics in a very confusing way, there are a number of very high quality programmes that do not leave children like your son (or their parents) wondering what on earth is going on.
Without going into where a good quality phonics programme would begin - starting from simple one-to-one correspondences (/m/ /a/ /t/ ‘mat’, etc) - the problem is that the complexities of the English orthographic system are truly enough to mystify any lay person.
Having said that and as you are fond of mathematical logic, I’m sure your son must readily understand the logic that single letter spellings represent sounds in the language. He probably also explicitly understands that sounds can be spelt with more than one letter:
sh i p, n igh t, and eigh t, up to a maximum of four.
The really difficult bit is understanding explicitly that sounds can be spelt in more than one way and that many sounds have multiple spellings (the sound /ee/, or the sound /or/, for example) and that some of those spellings are relatively obscure or infrequent (‘dhow’, where the /d/ is spelt ).
What I find puzzling is that your boy is bamboozled by . What’s the big deal? Many spellings represent more than one sound. For example, the spelling can be /o/ in ‘hot’, /oe/ as in ‘no’, /oo/ as in ‘to’, and /u/ as in ‘mother’. Looked at like that, it looks complex but draw him a circle and say “What can this be?” If he says, “A circle.” respond with, “What else can it be?” He’ll soon get the idea that it can be a moon, an orange, a ball, etc, etc. So, if he understands that, why shouldn’t he understand that can be /ow/, /oo/, /or/, and what not? That deals with one spelling – different sounds. They are symbols and we are surrounded by symbols all the time, whether they be mathematical, musical, or alphabetical: something stands for something else.
The concept that sounds can be spelt in different ways is no more difficult to understand. After all, we understand readily that this four-wheeled infernal confusion engine is a Mini, this one is a BMW, this is a Mercedes, but they are all cars! Similarly, one can spell a sound in different ways (one sound-many spellings). For example, we can spell the sound /ae/ , , /ey/, /eigh>, , , and so on, but they all represent the sound /ae/.
What’s difficult is not the conceptual element; it’s the sheer difficulty of remembering which spelling to use in any particular word. This needs to be taught systematically and with lots of practice, anchoring the teaching in the sounds of the language, which is what the writing system was invented for. If this is taught from simple to complex and understanding and knowledge are built up over time, with enough practice to develop automaticity, no child should be left behind.

Kirkegaard said...

I very much appreciate the comments left here about how phonics works. I do understand phonics, but am against it as the only or predominant approach to the teaching of reading and then spelling.

For me, this is because of 3 difficulties the previous commentator himself sets out:

1. "The complexities of the English orthographic system are truly enough to mystify any lay person."

— There is no true English orthographic system. Also, people who spell are not 'lay' people, or people outside the cult of phonics. They are people, language users, in a shifting linguistic context. This sounds like the debates over whether to translate the Bible from Latin into English: more to do with power than faith.

2. "The really difficult bit is understanding explicitly that sounds can be spelt in more than one way and that many sounds have multiple spellings."

— Phonics does not add further understanding to the idea that ONE sound can have MULTIPLE spellings. That idea can be stated without recourse to phonics.

3. "What’s difficult is not the conceptual element; it’s the sheer difficulty of remembering which spelling to use in any particular word. This needs to be taught systematically and with lots of practice, anchoring the teaching in the sounds of the language, which is what the writing system was invented for."

— There isn't a conceptual element in phonics, or rather the conceptual elements fail when it comes to anything other than a synchronic view of language. That's why it slides off the English language after a while. Phonics, in the end, talks to itself, and loses purchase on the non-systematic nature of English, which is emergent, and evolutionary.

The difficulty with writing good English has ALWAYS been which spelling to use in any particular word, regardless of phonics. Phonics is an add-on, a starter kit, but other methods are needed to teach spelling once children can decode and have moved beyond decoding. They are to do with context, understanding the meanings of words, and their derivation. That's what anchors spelling, the network of associations one builds up around words as one becomes familiar with them.

The writing system was NOT invented to anchor teaching in the sounds of language. The writing system was invented… as a numerical inventory of stock (

You can spell 'Shakespeare' all sorts of ways -- or rather people did, because spelling in 16th C England wasn't secure and has shifted over time. One man's Shakespear is another man's Shakspere.

Americans have a different pronunciation of the sounds of English, because pronunciation changes over time and geography.

I still do not buy phonics as the ultimate method of learning to read and spell. It is limited, and needs to be supplemented with contextual, historical and cultural knowledge about language.

Who knows? Children might even find it interesting.