The phoenix that is phonics

person holding string lights on opened book

One of the less publicised drawbacks of growing old is that you are likely to suffer fresh outbreaks of past absurdities more often than is reasonable.  And so it is today with ‘phonics’.  It started in the familiar way:  a Report came out from somewhere stating that Australian children were falling behind in reading; the public, without seeing the Report, scrutinizing it or querying what ‘falling behind in reading’ might possibly mean, went into ‘outrage mode’ and called as usual for a ‘back to basics’ approach; and right on cue the ‘Phonics Pholk’ stepped up.

It has happened many times before, almost as if the need to revive and promote phonics is genetically determined; and notwithstanding the absurdity of their position, the ‘Phonics Pholk, many of whom have nice little earners with names such as ‘Reading Enhancement Colleges’ promising to ‘increase your child’s reading level by two years in 12 easy sessions’, or something of that sort, stepped up to the rescue.

This has to be stopped, once and for all.  Let’s get it straight:  Written English is not a phonetic language:  phonics will not teach children to sound out words (see letter, say letter) and it will not teach reading which, as should be well known, is not merely a matter of making the appropriate aural responses to given printed stimuli.  I will develop a somewhat more comprehensive case for these claims, but before doing so I must note a practical complication.  I can write phonetics, or at least a simplified version of the International Phonetic Alphabet, but my computer can’t; and I don’t know if Agora can print them or if my reader can read them.  So — in not using the IPA at certain crucial times I am placing a bit of extra pressure on the reader to follow this.  I apologise and proceed in good faith.

Being neither in the position, nor wanting to approach the matter through contributing yet again to the academic literature, I chose to make my initial attack via the popular press and asked, through the ‘Letters’ page of the Sydney Morning Herald:

… could [phonics supporters] kindly tell my 5 year old how to pronounce the ‘o’s in ‘John ordered one woman, no – two women – to come home now’ and perhaps explain why, in a single sentence they represent at least 8 different sounds.

I received two replies.  The first suggested that I should explain to the child that the pronunciation of each ‘o’ is dependent on the selection and arrangement of the phonemes that surround it.  Well, I tried that but the kid seemed as baffled as I was; and so I will leave that small task for the phonics promoters.  And while they’re doing that they might explain how they handle not just the problem of the plethora of homonyms, but also the fairly common occurrence in English when two words which are spelt identically (e.g. row, bow, lead) have to be pronounced differently (or elicit different phones) depending on their context.  Do they not see that even the word ‘read’ calls for different phonic responses at different times?

The second response was a little more conciliatory and claimed that phonics was more than worthwhile in that it was perfectly suitable for 43% of English words.  Now I have no idea which orifice he pulled that 43% from, but more importantly it is just plain wrong.

If phonics is to have real credibility then it must be the case that, in English, there must be letters (or groups of letters – but brevity requires that I leave ‘groups’ aside:  my argument still holds for them) for which there is one, and only one correct sound (or phone), and the more of these letters the better.  The problem here is that English has 26 letters, of which at best only 5 meet that criterion, and no combination or permutation of any or all of those 5 make up any known English word.  Let’s look at this in detail.

Of the 26 English letters, 5 are vowels and all of these are notorious with regard to the many phones they can evince (witness the ‘o’s in my sentence above).  That leaves the 21 consonants, which I will divide into three groups: super (9), normal (7), and applicable (5).

My super consonants are those which, as text, can have multiple soundings (or elicit multiple phones) not only in different words but also within the one word as well, and thus would be super-problematic for someone relying on phonics when learning to read.  They are (with examples):

b: bomb

c: civic, Access

d: dodge

g: gauge

h: high

k: knock

s: surmise

t: tarot

x: xerox

My normal consonants are those which can, and very often do, call up different phones in different words:

f: for, of

l: coal, calm

n: can, damn

p: potty, phonics

q: quick, pique

w: know, woe

y: yet, fancy, polyp


The ‘applicable’ (to phonics) list is: j, m, r, v, z.  I accept that each of these letters signifies one and only one phone in English, although if I were to really push my case I might suggest ‘r’ for the ‘super’ group (martyr) and ‘j’ for the ‘normal’ group (jungle, junta), but I’ll leave it to those more ingenious than I to seek out better exceptions.  However, I absolutely defy anyone to show me an English word that can be constructed, in any way, from any or all of them.  Until somebody does I categorically state that not a single word in English can be pronounced/read/stated in one single discreet way by means of phonics.  I will come back to that conclusion later.

So, you might ask; how should we teach reading (especially in crisis times when our country is ‘falling behind’)?  Quite a number of ways have been suggested, from the ‘word whole’ method (see ‘cat’, say ‘cat’) right through to the unscientific method of just reading to your kids until they pick it up by some form of cerebral osmosis.  But before I get to that, there is the matter of what ‘reading’ actually entails.

This has been the subject of much philosophical, as well as less rigorous, debate, and I want to just touch lightly on it here, beginning with the rhetoric question that seems to lie at the heart of these debates: ‘Is correctly sounding out the phones in a word or sentence actually reading?’.  Let me approach this from personal experience.

Thanks to my father literally dragging me to our synagogue’s Sunday school as child, I learnt my ‘aleph beith’:  that is I learnt to recognize, name and pronounce the consonants and vowels of Modern Hebrew, which in written form is, unlike English, as close as you might get to being phonetic.  When I saw a ‘beith’, for instance (which my computer can’t print for you) I learnt/knew that it’s associated phone was ‘b’ (which my computer also can’t print for you), so there were no traps for the unwary as there are in English with ‘bomb’, ‘lamb’ and so on.  Thus, by moving my finger from right to left I could correctly pronounce every word the teacher put before me, or make the correct sounds represented by the printed squiggles on the page, usually, but not always, without having much of an idea of what it meant.  But was I reading Hebrew?  If so, then this is surely a ridiculously low, as well as an inappropriate bar to set, not just for reading per se, but also as a measuring stick for gauging a country’s relative reading standards.  But let’s take it further.  Like any normal teenager, I followed up my Bar Mitzvah by back-sliding, and now I encounter Hebrew usually only on a number of special days in each year, or at weddings and funerals.  Yet, seventy years later, the situation is almost exactly the same.  I still remember the letters and the sounds they ‘stand for’, so, put a page of Hebrew in front of me and I can slowly and labouriously ‘sound it out’ more or less accurately depending on whether the vowels are printed or not (sometimes they aren’t).  I see ‘beith’ and say’ beith’, and can do so without having the slightest clue as to what the words mean, in Hebrew that is, before we even consider the matter of translation.  However I do know the Hebrew and English meanings of some small bits (words, phrases and sentences) such as the common blessings and the Prayers for the dead that I learnt to recite as a child.

I am, of course, fully aware that for me Hebrew was, for all its phonetic neatness, a foreign language, but for the non-reader-young-child, English too is, in an important way, foreign; and I do not think I am drawing too long a bow (that’s ‘bow’, not ‘bow’) in holding up both experiences for comparison.  But the point I really seek is this:  could it be that context, along with memory, counts more than individual text/phone association in making/deriving meaning from visual text?

There was some method in that madness; and you don’t have to be Jewish. It is well known that non-reading kids (probably wagging school) have been able to find their way home by recognizing (reading?) the street signs along the way; and as adults order prawn cocktail, steak and gelato correctly as their Entrée, Main Course and Dessert by pointing to items on the first, second and third lists of the Menu.  Context can provide meaning for text: as well as the weaponry for ‘translating’ text into the appropriate phones which convey that meaning.  And now, with ‘context’ brought centre stage, I can conveniently leave the mighty issue regarding the relationship of words to meaning to greater philosophers, and return to the matter of how we might teach children to read.

I begin with a small concession to the phonic pholk.  Phonics seems intuitively correct on two counts.  Psychologists’ learning theory favours ‘small steps’, so learning to read letter by letter fits somewhat into that.  And common sense regularly tells us to begin at the beginning, so when teaching reading maybe you shouldn’t start with the whole novel, a chapter, page, sentence or word and instead get right back to the beginning (basics) and sort out the letters first.  The problem, apart from the non-phonetic nature of English, is that for the very young non-reader-child the letter is not the smallest step nor is it the beginning.  The letter is foreign and unconnected to experience:  it is the mystery, not the clue.  It exists in children’s lives, and looms rather disproportionally large there, mainly because teachers put it there – in coloured charts, on flash-cards, in oral chants and even grades.  Maybe if we start thinking outside the norm and rid ourselves of a belief in the primacy of the letter, something important might ensue.

So let’s look for the moment for what else seems intuitive.  Clearly, a child who never encounters printed text is most unlikely to ever learn to read it.  So; intuitively, it seems a good idea to make the presence of text (not disconnected letters) common and familiar to the child.  And adding in some good old common wisdom, present the more and expect the merrier.  Next, intuitively we believe that the more motivated a child is to achieve something, the better the chance that success will follow.  So, perhaps a lot of motivating experiences will help, such as reading to – and with – the child frequently, and building word recognition into daily activities (e.g. labelling toys, furniture and any old available thing around the house) could build up a base of textual vocabulary.  Add in here some reading of your own:  read things out in the open and have quiet reading times of your own, and maybe the kid will come to think that might be a nice thing to do too.  Invite the kid to come up for quick ‘lessons’ but proceed only if there is positive uptake.  Perhaps even go back into the past and give a nod to Maria Montessori who argued (this time counter-intuitively) that writing should be taught as a prelude to reading. She seems to have had some success with that:  maybe more of us can.  Or embrace more seriously what is happening in the present and known future.  ‘SMS-speak’ and ‘Twitter-talk’ demand that the respondent read; and while LOL, OMG and THX may not be traditionalists’ favourites, let alone suitable examples for those pushing phonics, there may be at least motivational value in using them as teaching tools.

Now the reader will surely have picked up two points from the above.  First; it sounds sort of home, or at least ‘out-of-school’, centred:  what about the teachers?  Well, that’s deliberate.  No one has more respect for teachers and their general pedagogical expertise than I do, but in this area I suspect that they are at worst counter-productive, and at best adjuncts and re-enforcers of what happens outside of school and mainly in the home and on social media.  On this one point – teaching of reading – after sixty-plus years as a teacher, teachers’ college lecturer and academic with long and deep experience of the research into the matter, I cannot see where teachers have all that much privileged knowledge or ability.  Which brings me to my second point:  the suggestions above are all more than a little bit wishy-washy.  That too is absolutely deliberate; because when push comes to shove, and when all the experiments and studies are finished, and all the literature is read and countered and re-countered, the simple truth is that we just do not know how children learn to read.  We know a bit about patterns and ages, but are still puzzled as to why so large a proportion of our population remain functionally illiterate (they can’t read but get through just about everything life throws at them by means of avoidance and defense mechanisms:  ‘you order, Fred; you’re the food expert here’), and we’re continually thrown by those kids who just cannot learn to read but suddenly one day just ‘pick it up’.  And as for those league tables showing our place in International rankings of reading ability, well just don’t get me started.

Reading is undoubtably one of the greatest enrichers of life, which makes the learning of reading so essentially important, and all the more reason why, notwithstanding the paucity of credible reliable and valid results to date, we must continue with rigorous research in the area.  But teaching reading is both a minefield and a maze so far not successfully traversed by any single theory or combination of theories and practices.  Of course few theorists or practitioners stick firmly to one, and only one, line; and to be fair to the phonic pholk, most of them see phonics as a major, perhaps central part of the process rather than the be all and end all of learning to read.  But why even take it to be a major part of the process?  Given, as I have noted above, that not a single word in English can be pronounced/read/stated in one single discreet way by means of phonics, this seems to me to be an exceedingly strange thing to rely on in teaching reading.


I have no contacts with, nor do I receive any monetary or other benefits, from any person or organization connected in any way with teaching reading.  However, once as a junior academic I gave a paper on ‘D.H.Lawrence’s portrayal of Women’, only to find the audience tittering and holding back laughter every time I referred to ‘Her-me-own’ Roddice in Women in Love.  As a working-class child I had never encountered the name ‘Hermione’ and picked it out phonetically as best I could.  Luckily, I had no need to reference Goethe.

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Full Citation Information:
Harris, K. (2020). The phoenix that is phonics. PESA Agora.

Kevin Harris

Kevin Harris is Emeritus Professor of Education at Macquarie University. He notes that he is enjoying retirement. He writes:

I have previously romanticised myself sufficiently; those interested can look up Educational Philosophy and Theory, 44(5), 450-463. I am now going on 84 and, with apologies to Shakespeare and Keats, I now ‘suffer the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to’: that is all ye need to know.

Article Feature Image Acknowledgement: Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash