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Is Phonics Instruction Necessary?


Published on: July 1, 2024

Written by: Seth Hagler

A woman with glasses undecisive.

Phonics is a well-founded, scientific approach to teaching reading and writing. It involves instilling a solid association between the letters of the alphabet and their corresponding sounds (phonemes). Research strongly supports the educational benefits of phonics—young learners, particularly those aged 4-7, are able to read unfamiliar words based on this foundation. 

The Reading Wars

Despite the years of support, not all educators share the enthusiasm for phonics. There is a debate, currently dubbed the “reading wars.” Opponents of phonics aren’t necessarily against the practice outright; rather, they opt to use it sparingly in the face of a greater focus on meaning. Because teaching phonics effectively requires a systematic approach, those critical of it cite the potential for kids not staying engaged and, in turn, not learning to enjoy reading. As a more recent alternative, the whole-language approach prioritizes a number of things in lieu of deciphering written language as the structured literacy approach would entail (which phonics falls under).

Letter Z and zebra.

Whole Language involves repeated-exposure memorization, contextual clues, immersion, and exploration to create the aforementioned meanings—over observation of the word and its spelling.

Lack of Reading Proficiency

As of 2022, only 1 in 3 fourth-graders’ reading skills were considered ‘proficient.’

Unfortunately, the “for” and “against” argument clouds the larger issue—as of 2022, only 1 in 3 fourth-graders’ reading skills were considered ‘proficient,’ as defined by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. As a solution to the reading wars, there is the balanced literacy approach, which calls for fitting in aspects of whole language and phonics. With this, students have the benefit of phonics along with other important aspects of literacy like reading comprehension and vocabulary building. 

Bottom Line

Experts say that trial and error and even struggling with concepts are normal parts of the learning experience. While trying to teach phonics, the first sign of boredom or disinterest shouldn’t mean forgoing the practice entirely. In other words, do not be too quick to judge a particular methodology as ineffective or wrong. In the end, it is more practical to err on the side of method inclusivity and opt for a well-rounded approach over tunnel vision with a single approach.

Image source:

Alphabet image by Freepik

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