Center for Expansion of Language and Thinking

CELT, founded in 1972, is a nonprofit educational corporation, international in scope, whose members believe in the principles of education for democracy with a focus on natural language learning and inquiry.  These principles are supported by beliefs in learners and learning, teachers and teaching, and language and curriculum.  The members of CELT are dedicated to the improvement of education through a greater understanding of the relationship between language, thought, and learning.

  CELT includes a rich diversity of people who share similar beliefs about language and learning but have widely varied background experiences.  CELT members are university educators, independent consultants, school administrators, and teachers.

Phonics Phacts

"For too long, we have been unwilling to deal with the root cause of the problem of illiteracy in America the flawed methods we have used to teach our children to read.  Research shows phonics is the most effective way to teach people to read. It's the way most of us learned to read. But it fell out of use in the last 20 years, with disastrous consequences."

This quote could be attributed to many people who haven't taken the time to look closely at reading. It's an example of how simple solutions to complex problems often involve confusion of issues, misinformation, and logical fallacies about cause and effect.
 Most of us were not taught to read through a method called phonics. We were taught to read with basal readers which were based on controlled vocabulary and "word attack skills," including considerable attention to phonics. In fact, there never was a period when most learners were taught exclusively with a "phonics" method. Although there have been variations in reading instruction in this country during this century, there was no sharp pervasive change 20 years ago in the way reading was taught. Since the early 1930s, basal readers have dominated American reading instruction. There is no evidence of any "disastrous consequences" to literacy beginning 20 years ago. In the 1970s, with a strong back-to-basics movement, basals increased rather than decreased time devoted to explicit instruction in phonics. In the last decade there has been a definite shift away from basals and toward the use of children's literature in reading programs. And basals have responded by including more actual literature which is less heavily edited.With the shift toward experiences in whole language programs with real literature, sales of children's books have increased 500% in the last 10 years and use of children's rooms in libraries is up dramatically. A lot of children are reading a lot more. What is the role of phonics here? What IS phonics? What role does it play in learning to read? Why is phonics NOT a method of teaching reading nor a solution to the literacy problems of the world? ~

What Is Phonics?

English, together with many other European languages, is written with the Roman alphabet.  Each language that uses this alphabet modifies it to fit the particular nature of that language. Spanish and French use accent marks over vowels, for example. Scandinavian languages add some vowel letters. English uses some letter combinations--th, sh, ch, ph--to represent single sounds.

In alphabetic writing, the letters and patterns of letters relate to meaning as well as to the sounds and sound patterns of the oral language. Phonics is a term that is only appropriate to use with an alphabetically written language because it refers to the system of relationships between the sound system and the writing system. Phonics is not the relationship between letters and sounds, but the relationships between systems. The relationships are much more complicated than letters to sounds.

Sometimes, it may seem like the relationship is between letters and sounds. In writing the word man, for example, the letters m, a, and n each relate to a sound of the oral word. But consider the word mane. The change in vowel sounds from man to mane involves the addition of an extra letter as a marker. The writing system uses the vowel-consonant-E pattern to differentiate two sets of English vowels. So we have pan/pane, can/cane, van/vane. There is another pattern in spelling that contrasts man/main, pan/pain, ran~rain. This illustrates that phonics really involves relating patterns to patterns, not individual sounds to individual letters.

But now consider other words, main and Maine , which sound the same as mane ; they are homophones. All languages--not just English--have homophones, words that mean different things but sound the same. Having different spellings for words that sound the same may help a bit in reading. For writing, however, one must remember which which/witch is which , which pair/pear/pare is the fruit. And, of course, words which sound different may be homographs, sharing the same spelling. Read/read , lead/lead , and desert/desert are examples.

English tends to have such complexities because of the multiple language roots that contributed to the language. The letter N seems to be a stable spelling of the last sound in man. But from our Danish roots we get kn as in know , knew , knee , knight , knife , etc. From our Greek roots we get gnaw , gnat , gneiss . We also get the pn spelling in pneumonia and pneumatic . A variant of the n sound can be spelled gn at the ends of words, as in campaign , reign , and sign/resign/design . That comes from our French roots.

But notice that when sign becomes signal , the g and n represent separate sounds. That happens also with designate . But if the affixes are grammatical, like s , ed , or ing , there is no g sound: signs , signed , signing .

Here's another problem with our n sound spellings. That sound is what linguists call a nasal. It kind of goes up our noses. In many dialects of English, it all but disappears up our noses before certain consonants, particularly t and d . Examples are want , went , band , bend . The spelling keeps the n even though it's a fairly weak sound in these words.

This is not a unique complexity. A unit like man may represent a different sound pattern depending on the word it is a part of (for example, manic and maniac ). In oral language, sounds change in regular ways depending on other sounds preceding and following them. That's partly due to the changing positions of mouth parts for each sound; as tongue, lips, teeth, and vocal chords change position, they change the sounds. The spelling, however, often does not change. An example is site . Add an affix and that becomes situate . The t of site is still there but the sound is not t but ch . When situate becomes situation , the second t stays in the spelling but the sound goes from t to sh . By keeping the spelling, we preserve the meaning relationship which would be lost if we

kept the phonic relationship constant.

Add one more common complexity of English phonics. Several hundred years ago, the sound of all unaccented vowels shifted to a common sound, usually called schwa by language scholars. So the vowel in the unaccented second syllable of woodsman is not the vowel in man but a schwa. Function words like to , can , was , were , and or are usually unaccented. That means that at least the second most common sound of any vowel is this very common sound. Think of the sounds of the vowels in this sentence:  Can I have a ticket to the game? Five of the vowels shift to the schwa in ordinary usage.

By now you may be thinking, if phonics is so complicated, how come people can read at all?" The answer is that people don't depend on phonics to read. In meaningful language contexts it is easy for a reader to sort out the complexity because the meaning and the grammar, or language structure, clarify the phonics complexities. Here are some examples:

The main feature of the male lion is his redmane . I read about that in a book I got in the mail last week. I like to read such books. In this sequence, telling red from read or the past tense from the present tense of read is no problem. The context makes it clear.

Readers never rely solely on phonic relationships as they read. Their preoccupation is with meaning, as it should be. They predict what will be in the text and only need a little of the phonic information to make sense of the whole. So they are rarely stopped while they figure out what a word might be from its spelling. They have plenty of other cues to tell them what the meaning must be and what part of speech they need. Furthermore, the way we eventually learn the alternative spellings of the same sound sequence in words that are homophones is through our reading.

Phonics as Method

That gets us to the issue of phonics as a method of teaching reading. A commonsense notion is that if someone trying to learn to read just learns to match letters and sounds they can read. That leads to the simplistic conclusion that if they don't learn it is because they haven't been taught "phonics." This simplistic reasoning then leads to the notion that since all this is so obvious, there must be a conspiracy to keep people from being taught this sure, simple way. But the phonic relationships are anything but simple. Furthermore, these relationships are abstract: phonics isn't about the relationship of print and sound; it's about the relationship of abstract systems.

What we've learned from the study of language development, both oral and written, is that language is easy to learn when it is used functionally in the real world to make sense. Little children understand and make themselves understood in oral language long before they fully control the sound system. That's because they learn language in the context of its use. Children learn written language in the same way. They may learn the names of letters and even have some sense of how they relate to sounds as they're learning to read. But they can only learn the abstract phonics system in the context of vying to make sense of meaningful print. They are very good at learning language in meaningful contexts. They are not very good at learning abstractions out of context. Current research shows very young children becoming aware of the alphabetic nature of written English. They invent spellings as they experiment with writing and are able to test out their own developing phonics rules. These invented phonics rules often show how keenly these young learners discriminate sounds. They hear features adults have learned to ignore. Gradually, young learners also tune out features which are not important in the system. Direct instruction in phonological rules is not what helps babies learn to talk; direct instruction in phonics is not what helps people learn the complex system of phonics relationships.

Phonics is an important part of reading alphabetically written language. But it is only a part. How do you say going to? Try it in I'm going to the store. Now try it in I'm going to go home now. Most of us say something like gonna in the second case.  But we don't say it that way in the first sentence. That's because the words have different grammatical functions in the two sentences. We can't pronounce it until we decide, intuitively, what its grammar is.

How Much Phonics?

Phonics is an important part of reading English, but when we make it into a method of teaching reading, we're making these mistakes:

If we support our pupils in developing their phonic generalizations while they are learning to make sense of print, then we avoid these mistakes. In Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll said it well: "Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves."


Braunger, J., & Lewis, J. (1997). Building a knowledge base in reading. Urbana, IL National Council of Teachers of English.

Goodman, K. S. (19931. Phonics phacts. Portsmouth, NH Heinemann.

Mills, H., O'Keefe, T., & Stephens, D. (1992). Looking closely: Exploring the role of phonics in one whole language classroom. Urbana, IL National Council of Teachers of English.

Moustafa, M. (1997). Beyond traditional phonics: Research discoveries and reading instruction. Portsmouth, NH Heinemann.

Weaver, C. (Ed.). (1998). Reconsidering a balanced approach to reading. Urbana, IL National Council of Teachers of English.

©CELT, 1991. Revised, 1998. A project sponsored by the Center for the Expansion of Language and Thinking (CELT), c/o CED, 325 E. Southern, Tempe, AZ 85282. CELT Crisis Hotline 602-929~0929. This statement may be photocopied for distribution.

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