Research Regarding Phonics
Phonics defines the set of relationships between written
letters and the spoken sounds that those letters represent.
Closely related to phonics is "phonemic awareness",
a child's understanding of the idea that spoken words can
be broken down into constituent sounds.
During the 20th century, an enormous amount of scientific
research was conducted on the subject of reading instruction.
Several formal surveys of this research were conducted during
the latter part of the century, and all of them reached the
- On three separate occasions, Jean S. Chall surveyed the
entire body of reading research available up to the date
of the survey (1967, 1983, 1996). The first of these studies
was commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation and conducted
at Harvard University. Chall concluded that comprehensive,
systematic, phonics-first instruction was overwhelmingly
supported by the vast majority of the research. Reference:
Chall, Jean S., "Learning to Read: The Great Debate",
1967, 1983, 1996. Her final conclusion on p. 307 of
the third edition was:
"The research … indicates that a code-emphasis
method … i.e., one that views beginning reading as
essentially different from mature reading and emphasizes
learning of the printed code for the spoken language …
produces better results … The results are better,
not only in terms of the mechanical aspects of literacy
alone, as was once supposed, but also in terms of the ultimate
goals of reading instruction … comprehension and
possibly even speed of reading. The long-existing fear that
an initial code emphasis produces readers who do not read
for meaning or with enjoyment is unfounded. On the contrary,
the evidence indicates that better results in terms of reading
for meaning are achieved with the programs that emphasize
code at the start than with the programs that stress meaning
at the beginning."
- In the late 1980s, Marilyn J. Adams (at University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) was commissioned by the U.S.
Department of Education's Office of Education Research &
Improvement (OERI) to survey the entire body of reading
research. She reached the same conclusion that Chall did,
presenting her results in the form of a fully research-based
textbook. Reference: Adams, Marilyn J., "Beginning
to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print", 1990.
Her final conclusion on p. 416 was:
"In summary, deep and thorough knowledge of letters,
spelling patterns, and words, and of the phonological translations
of all three, are of inescapable importance to both skillful
reading and its acquisition. By extension, instruction designed
to develop children’s sensitivity to spellings and their
relations to pronunciations should be of paramount importance
in the development of reading skills. This is, of course,
precisely what is intended of good phonic instruction."
- In 2000, the National Reading Panel issued the following
statement in its April
13, 2000 press release:
"In the largest, most comprehensive evidenced-based
review ever conducted of research on how children learn
reading, a Congressionally mandated independent panel has
concluded that the most effective way to teach children
to read is through instruction that includes a combination
of methods. The panel determined that effective reading
instruction includes teaching children to break apart and
manipulate the sounds in words (phonemic awareness), teaching
them that these sounds are represented by letters of the
alphabet which can then be blended together to form words
(phonics), having them practice what they've learned by
reading aloud with guidance and feedback (guided oral reading),
and applying reading comprehension strategies to guide and
improve reading comprehension."
In another comprehensive survey of research regarding twenty-
four widely used school reform models (commissioned by the
National Education Association [NEA], the American Association
of School Administrators [AASA], and others), only three models
showed "strong evidence" of effectiveness. Only
two of the three were applicable in elementary school (the
third was a high school model), and both of these models featured
highly structured, systematic phonics instruction; most of
the other models did not feature such instruction. Reference:
Educator's Guide to Schoolwide Reform, 1999, published
on line by the American Association of School Administrators.
In addition to these surveys, two ultra-large-scale government
research projects also support the use of comprehensive, systematic
- In Project
Follow-Through, the largest educational study every
conducted in the history of education research, the U.S.
Department of Education compared a systematic, comprehensive,
phonics-based approach against eight other styles of teaching
reading. The results indicated the overwhelming superiority
of the phonics-based approach. The study was especially
interesting because it was conducted in "real-world"
classrooms rather than in the lab.
National Institute of Child and Human Development has
spent 30 years conducting credible, large-scale scientific
reading research. Perhaps no other organization is as strident
as the NICHD in its consistent recommendations that teachers
implement comprehensive, systematic phonics. Bonnie Grossen's
of the NICHD research findings and the recent testimony
of Dr. Ried G. Lyon (of the NICHD) to the U.S. Congress
make for some interesting reading.
And finally the entire state of California inadvertently
performed its own large-scale "research" during
the late 1980s and early 1990s by dropping phonics statewide
from its reading curricula in 1987. The resulting catastrophe
precipitated several events:
- By 1994, when all of California's public school
fourth-graders had been trained exclusively in a phonics-free
environment, their performance had dropped to the very bottom
of the national scores on the U.S. Department of Education's
NAEP Reading Report Card (it tied with Louisiana for last
place among 39 states tested).
- The state education superintendent of the time, Mr. William
Honig, stepped down from his position. He has since written
a book (Teaching our Children to Read: The Role of Skills
in a Comprehensive Reading Program) explaining the enormity
of California's mistake.
- The California State Board of Education has now revised
reading policy, and California is just beginning its
long, slow climb back up the ladder (in 1998 it ranked fourth
from the bottom among participating states).
Conclusions of decades of research in reading (not just the
"latest research" so often cited in the promotional
material for many curricula) are summarized succinctly in
the following set of recommendations:
- Teach phonemic awareness explicitly. Although
there are some children who have an implicit understanding
of phonemic awareness, almost all children benefit greatly
from explicit instruction. Phonemic awareness is a prerequisite
for successful subsequent phonics instruction.
- Teach every letter-sound correspondence explicitly.
Research supporting this idea is simply overwhelming. Children
who have been trained explicitly to decode words are far
more likely to read successfully than children who have
had limited training or no training.
- Teach high frequency letter-sound relationships early.
Successful curricula tend to involve students in activities
in which they can experience immediate and ongoing success.
A successful phonics program gets children reading as soon
as possible by teaching the highest frequency relationships
early and presenting students with stories that consist
of words containing only the relationships that have already
- Teach sound-blending explicitly. Students do
not necessarily understand how to connect the phonemes in
unfamiliar words. Students with explicit training outperform
those who have had little or no training.
- Correct every oral reading error. All children,
and especially children with reading difficulties, benefit
the most when they receive corrective feedback regarding
all reading errors, regardless of whether those errors influence
the meaning of the passage (many meaning-emphasis programs
encourage teachers to correct only errors affecting meaning).
- Use code-based readers rather than ordinary literature
during early instruction. Any curriculum whose early
reading experiences consist only of exposing children to
ordinary literature will almost certainly induce a high
failure rate, and consequently lead to initial discouragement
and confusion among students. Programs which compensate
for this failure by encouraging the use of context (i.e.
guessing) actually hinder reading development. In contrast,
curricula that induce and sustain a high level of success
through careful, systematic design produce the highest levels
of reading success and self-esteem.
To see a listing of research supporting each of the above
assertions, please visit our Phonics