Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Reading: NOT heavy phonics, NOT memorizing spellings of thousands of words

Sent to the Sydney Morning Herald, April 11
Prof. Anne Castle is quoted as saying that without heavy phonics instruction, readers have to memorize the spellings of thousands of words: "If you don't have phonics,  learning to read is like learning the telephone book. You can only learn so many words."  ("Phonics tests: why some children struggle to read," April 11).
This suggests that there are only two options: memorizing words, known as the "whole word" method, or learning all the rules for converting spellings to sound.
Both are impossible. Nobody can deliberately memorize the spellings of all the words in English, and the rules of phonics are far too numerous and complex to be studied and consciously learned.
Here is a famous example from Frank Smith: hot, hoot, hook, hour, honest, house, hope, honey, and hoist all begin with "ho" but each is pronounced differently. I don't think one person in a million knows the phonics rules that explain this, but all fluent English readers can pronounce these words correctly.  We learned how to do this by reading experience. Learning some basic rules is helpful, but nearly all of our knowledge of phonics is gradually absorbed from reading.
I wonder if Prof. Castle is aware of the published research showing that intensive explicit phonics instruction will produce somewhat more accurate pronunciation of words presented in a list, but has no significant effect on tests of reading comprehension given after grade 1.  The best predictor of performance on reading comprehension tests is how much the children have read.
What really does work in raising reading achievement is access to lots of good books. This means support for libraries and librarians, not complex phonics programs and more tests.

Stephen Krashen
Professor Emeritus
University of Southern California

original article: http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/phonics-tests-why-some-children-struggle-to-read-20170411-gvimkj.html


  1. You obviously don't keep up with phonics teaching methodology, Stephen. Smith's example is nonsensical. Take the words you've cited: 'hot': three sounds /h/ /o/ /t/; 'hoot': three sounds /h/ /oo/ /t/; 'hook': three sounds /h/ /oo/ (as in 'put') and /k/; 'house': /h/ /ow/ /s/; 'hope': /h/ /oe/ (taught as a split spelling) /p/; 'honey': /h/ /u/ /n/ /ee/; 'hoist': /h/ oy/ /s/ /t/. 'Honest' is one of a few words in which the sound /h/ was first lost (early centuries CE) and then restored (15th C) out of respect for the Classics. Other examples are 'heir' (one sound) and 'hour' (two sounds). All of that to a person who teaches phonics backwards would still make no sense. However, if phonics instruction begins by basing it on the 44 (45 in Scottish English) sounds of the language, which children learn to speak without having to be taught, after teaching the basic one-to-ones, the rest of the alphabet code can be grouped and taught according to sound. The common spellings (C. 175) of all the vowel and consonant sounds in English can easily be taught over the first three years of school and will also include the teaching for reading and spelling of five and six syllable words.
    This would proceed alongside lots of practice examples of reading and writing. Through a sound-to-print approach, by halfway through the child’s second year in England, a child can read easily more complex texts from a ‘First’ encyclopaedia.
    Instead of throwing outdated, theoretical hand grenades at the pro-phonics lobby, why don’t you take the trouble to find out what is really going on in phonics these days. I’m sure any one of a number of English schools would be only too happy to present themselves to a respected academic such as you.
    Best wishes, John Walker

  2. Could you please direct me to the part where Professor Castles uses the word 'heavy'? Or did you make that up? If you made that up, then what we have here is a straw man argument.
    Also, can you give me an example of 'the rules of phonics'? I know of about 30 core rules of spelling, but 'rules of phonics' sounds made up.
    I'll just go ahead and tell my dyslexic students and their parents that what they lack is access to lots of good books.
    PS Quoting the demonstrably wrong Frank Smith is hilarious!

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