Why Learning Phonics Is Essential for Learning to Read

Teaching children how to read is its own kind of science, but teachers have historically been trained to ignore that science — if they’ve even been taught it themselves. 

For decades — especially here in California — teacher-educators stressed that it was too tedious for young elementary students to learn phonics and instead advocated for “whole language teaching,” journalist Emily Hanford writes. This method relies on context clues, or “three-cueing.” Whole language advocates claimed that encouraging children to break words into separate parts to create meaning between letters and sounds would prevent them from “developing a love for reading.” But as Hanford explains, research shows that explicitly teaching phonics to children actually improves reading achievement. When early reading instruction ignores phonics lessons altogether, education systems potentially fail their students.

A young African American boy sits in a tall red and white top hat reading a book by Dr. Seuss. He is surrounded by other Dr. Seuss books.

Sarah Cacciato, a special education teacher and educational therapist at L&S Special Education Consulting and Services, tells us that the debate over three-cueing versus phonics has been an ongoing issue in education for quite some time. Many teachers don’t use explicit phonics programs in their lessons, Cacciato says, and that can create barriers for students, especially those with disabilities, as they move through different grades. “I think the biggest issue with three-cueing is that it works when you’re learning basic letter sounds,” she says, “but you’re lacking a lot of foundational skills and knowledge when you get into middle and upper elementary classes and aren’t familiar with phonics.”


 What early reading instruction often looks like

Early education has mostly relied on three-cueing to teach children how to read. EducationWeek breaks down what that means:

  • Cueing is a commonly used strategy in which teachers prompt students to draw on multiple sources of information to identify words. It’s based on the now disproven theory that reading is a series of strategic guesses, informed by context clues
  • The term “three-cueing” refers to the three sources of information that teachers tell students to use: 1) meaning drawn from context or pictures, 2) syntax, and 3) visual information drawn from letters or parts of words.

Years of education research has shown that teaching young readers to rely on pictures or make guesses based on sentence structure or context clues when coming across a word they don’t know actually makes it harder for them to recognize that word in another sentence or context, because they aren’t using sounds to “read through the word part by part.” 


 Bringing phonics back into classrooms

“Reading isn’t something that’s explicitly taught. It’s a lot of exposure, picture knowledge, and different strategies, like picture and context clues and sound power,” Cacciato says. She tells us that four or five years ago, schools she worked at did not explicitly teach any phonics lessons. “The big shift I’m seeing now is that there are a lot more strategies and ideas that incorporate phonics within reading curricula, as opposed to what we’re used to seeing.” 

EducationWeek reports that the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP) — a significantly influential reading program — has started transitioning away from three-cueing. This has caused leaders in the education field to wonder “whether changes to written materials will lead to shifts in classroom practice.”

  • TCRWP founding director Lucy Calkins told EducationWeek that their program used to have educators prompt students to use all their resources when reading a word by asking questions like “What word would make sense there?” and “What do the letters say?”
  • Calkins says TCRWP now emphasizes that prompting for meaning (using context clues and related pictures) and prompting for word solving (deciphering letters in unfamiliar words) both need to be encouraged. “When a student is stuck on an unfamiliar word,” Calkins explains, “it is important that teachers prompt kids to draw on their phonics knowledge.”
  • Using a combination of cueing and phonics to teach kids to read — what neuroscientist Mark Seidenberg calls “balanced literacy” — can backfire, though. As Emily Hanford points out, this method sometimes means that “phonics is treated a bit like salt on a meal.” 

"We are not born wired to read," Hanford says. "The starting point for reading is sound. What a child must do to become a reader is to figure out the words she hears and knows how to say and connect to letters on the page. Writing is a code humans invented to represent speech sounds. Kids have to crack that code to become readers."

 Why phonics can help our children become better readers

  • “Within special education, the main goal is finding engaging ways to teach phonics because it can be very tedious and repetitive, which can lead to a lot of frustration,” Cacciato says. But in her work with students with disabilities, Cacciato has seen huge improvements in their reading skills after incorporating explicit phonics curriculum into larger reading lessons. “What I love about how phonics is now being embedded into lessons is that it brings back a love for reading by using highly engaging books with pictures and asking students to put meaning to words,” Cacciato says. She adds that this type of prompting is more effective than an isolated phonics lesson.
  • It’s also important to note that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to learning to read — especially since some students who weren’t previously taught phonics skills are now going to have phonics lessons. Cacciato says any learning gaps may reveal themselves in second or third grade and beyond, if students are lacking foundational phonics information.

For students who may need more support in understanding phonics, Cacciato recommends the following tools that kids can use at home:

  • Zoo-phonics: A multisensory language arts program that incorporates videos and songs into phonics lessons
  • Boom Cards: Interactive activities that many educators and parents have used in distance learning — Boom Cards offer lessons on reading basic text and understanding letter sounds

Do your child’s teachers incorporated phonics into their reading lessons? We’d love to know!

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