Phonics and the science of reading

There is a difference between learning to read and learning how to read.

An important difference is the lack of consistency in teaching reading methods, especially considering, that according to the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress – Nation’s Report Card), more than 65% of American students aren’t reading at grade level.

The implications of this are bleak and those statistics have rarely changed in more than two decades.

Poor reading abilities of such a huge demographic suggests these kids are going to keep struggling for their lifetime.

Reading isn’t just confined to the classroom.

The ability to read determines a person’s ability to learn, outcomes at work, wage levels, and the ability to function in your personal life. It effects everything from your ability to vote to how likely you are to be involved in crime.

People who struggle to read have low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy.

Lower achievement levels are also the the common denominator in school discipline, attendance and dropout problems, and juvenile crime.

Believe it or not, many states using elementary school reading rates to determine the number of prisons they will build.

Weak reading skills set students up for a lifetime of struggling – struggling which can be avoided, if they are taught the right foundational skills early on.

These foundational skills include teaching phonics and phonological awareness.

This refers to the ability to connect letters and symbols to their corresponding sounds and combinations of sounds.

This seems to be where the problem comes in.

Phonics and the science of reading is widely researched, tested and established.

A growing body of research highlight science-backed reading strategies which boost the brain’s reading ability, including teaching phonological awareness. New brain scans show that phonics training enhances reading ability. 

Despite this, reading strategies haven’t kept up.

In fact, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey of nearly 700 K-2 and elementary teachers, 72 per cent admitted to using a balanced literacy approach to teach reading.

The Difference Between Balanced Literacy and the Science of Reading

Phonics and the science of readingFor many years, there has been some disagreement in the reading community about whether to teach kids to read through phonics, whole language or a middle road called balanced literacy. Balanced literacy is a framework for reading instruction. It involves teaching  by reading to students, having students read independently, and reading with students.

The biggest difference between these approaches is simple.

The whole language and balanced literacy approaches are not science-backed or proven to work scientifically. And given that more than 65% of students are still not reading at grade level after well more than 2 decades of using these approaches, new evidence shows that phonics changes the brain of students in a way that does work to help them become successful readers.

The balanced literacy approach involves exposing kids to a wealth of rich literature and allowing reading habits to manifest themselves.

Teachers and students have more freedom when it comes to choosing texts.

This creates an opportunity to avoid complex and challenging texts in favor of too-simple ones.

It also includes a lot of guesswork.

If kids don’t know or recognize a word, they are encouraged to look at an accompanying picture, or guess what word would make sense in that sentence.

At worst, this encourages kids to skip words they don’t know or understand altogether and slows down their reading since they don’t know how to break down words they don’t know.

Overall, a balanced literacy approach contradicts what cognitive scientists and neuroscience has repeatedly found through research about how the brain learns.

And this disconnect might be the reason why there is an alarming number of students falling below grade level in reading scores.

What Does the Science of Reading Say?

Phonics and the science of reading

Teaching phonics properly to young students involves familiarizing them with how to connect specific sounds to certain letters and their combinations.

A thorough grasp of phonics involves not just knowing the alphabet but also sounding it out, how to string it together in words, recognizing beginning, medial and ending sounds, rhyming, etc.

This removes the guesswork from reading.

Rather than guessing how to read a word or what it sounds like, students process and intuitively understand how a word is read. They connect the letters to their sounds.

Reading and writing is easier when students have a specific understanding of how letters and sounds translate into one another and vice versa.

For example, once a student learns various site words (that don’t always sound the way they look, i.e. the), that student with good phonological awareness can read a word they’ve never met before by breaking down its sounds and visualizing its corresponding letters.

Students who don’t have practice with phonics, contrarily, are more likely to struggle.

The Five Pillars of Learning How to Read

Phonics and the science of readingPhonics is in fact, one of the “five pillars” of learning how to read.

These five pillars are phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

Phonics is all to do with learning how to string letters and their sounds together and tell them apart intuitively. So naturally they are the necessary first step to achieve the rest of the three pillars.

A balanced literacy approach poses the risk that students and teachers may not spend enough time on phonics. This jeapardizes the robustness of the rest of the pillars in the process.

The guesswork of figuring out what a word is by looking at the first letter, the accompanying picture, or skipping it altogether, can make reading a chore as the demands of reading increase as you age.

On the other hand, a good foundation of phonics means you can read and process unfamiliar words faster and more intuitively.

It provides a base for growth, as you read more complex texts, and develop existing reading skills

Phonics in the Classroom Today

Phonics and the science of readingBrain imaging and eye tracking technology only lend more weight to the fact that phonological awareness is necessary for building healthy reading strengths.

According to Stephen Guffanti, M.D., a phonics expert and creator of Rocket Phonics, “The child who is speaking, has a speech pathway between the meaning of the word and the sounds that child uses to speak those words.

Phonics is a system that connects those word sounds to a specific letter or letter combination in the occiput where the brain stores the image.

In essence, sounding out words allows the child to match a word he already knows to its written form.

The average 5-year-old knows some 5,000 words. If he could read them all he would be an independent reader.”

Unfortunately, the overall consensus from researchers and educators pushing for a more science-backed reading reform, phonics isn’t given enough importance in the classroom.

Teachers are either not trained enough in teaching phonics correctly.

School curricula don’t spend enough time on phonics to build a strong foundation for students’ future reading skills to stand.

What Do Experts Have to Say?

In order to get the best information on why phonics is the most powerful way to teach reading, I decided to consult one of the nation’s leading experts on phonics and phonics instruction.phonics and the science of reading

Here is the transcript of the interview between Pat Wyman, CEO of and JoAnne Nelson, CEO of and the author of over 150 books on reading and phonics.

Pat: While there are many methods for teaching reading such as phonics, whole language, literature, etc., JoAnne, why do you think phonics is the best method?

JoAnne Nelson: Phonics is best because it gives children the ability to match letters and sounds.
This in turn gives them the skills to read words on their own and allows them to become independent readers.
When a child picks up and book with words they can sound out such as “man”, “cat”, or “pup” they feel confident.  Confidence leads to the desire to read books to others.

Pat: What kinds of other skills does phonics provide?

JoAnne Nelson: Phonics develops fluency (the ability to read many words automatically and quickly.)  This ability is necessary for comprehension.

Pat: What are the specific benefits of teaching reading using phonics that other methods might not have?

JoAnne Nelson: By using consonant substitution and rhyming endings, children can develop a large word recognition vocabulary very quickly.
Rhyming endings or phonograms are word endings such as:  -ill, -at, -op.
Kids put consonant sounds in front of those endings to make strings of words, like hill, pill, will, fill; cat, hat, fat, mat; hop, pop, stop, flop – and so on.
Plus, other methods may rely on memorization, picture interpretation, and other strategies that do not hold up in the long run.
Many students do not have the ability to memorize initially.  And if they do – it may be limited
However, phonics skills will become a part of ongoing, life-long strategies for reading and spelling.
Picture interpretation as employed in something called a whole language approach, is neither scientific nor reliable and definitely not the best approach for every reader.
Another benefit about phonics is that it is efficient from a time factor.
When phonics lessons are taught to the whole class, students learn skills they can apply in writing, spelling and reading.

Pat: We know that there are a lot of science-backed studies using brain scans and eye movements to show that phonics dramatically improves reading levels and reading scores.

We also know that your Superbooks program helps teach kids to read in under two weeks.

What is it that is unique about your books for teachers and for parents that helps kids read so quickly?

JoAnne Nelson: Super Books are paced for success.  That means skills are introduced gradually with plenty of time for review and practice.
The stories are about familiar topics, have humor and are only 8 pages long!  That provides built in motivation.

Pat: What do you provide in your books in terms of lesson plans that make teaching phonics so easy for a classroom teacher, parent or homeschooler?

JoAnne Nelson: The Super Books Program provides a total curriculum with activities and suggestions for introducing skills and guided reading.
Each SuperBooks Kit (there are 2 levels for Kindergarten and First grade) includes 40 decodable (or phonics-based) books for a full classroom, and there are 80 books in all.
Each of the 80 stories has an (easy to use) lesson plan that includes phonics instruction, a directed reading lesson, and follow up activities.
The stories are colorful and fun!

Pat: Thank you so much JoAnne. You’ve really enlightened all of us about why teaching reading using phonics is the very best approach. And the new scientific brain scans, showing that phonics training enhances reading abilities is fascinating.

The research is clear over a 10 year period with functional MRI studies showing that the brains of people who can’t sound out words often look different on MRI pictures.

There is less blood flow to the language centers of the brain and, in some cases, not much activity evident at all. Thus, without the ability to sound out words, the brain is stumped.

We appreciate you being here and thank you for all the good work you’ve done over the last 40 years to help kids read!

I want to make sure that people know about your work where you teach kids to read, using your Superbooks programs, in under two weeks, so be sure and visit JoAnne’s site at

The Good News

phonics and the science of reading

The upside of the poor reading statistics is that now states, educators and parents are rightfully alarmed by the more than 65% of American students reading below grade level. There is a more definitive push for change.

This has resulted in a more decisive shift toward science-backed reading.

According to the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), over 50 per cent of teacher training programs have embraced phonics and the science of reading.

While this number is an increase from the 35 per cent in 2013, but there is still a long way to go.

Thankfully, starting early with a good understanding of how to build phonological awareness systematically not only teaches kids to read but also makes reading a positive experience for them.

If teachers and parents are better aware of the steps involved in building good phonics foundations, they can easily set their kids up for stronger reading performance later in life.

Resources like are there to make the job that much easier!

So, are you going to look into the science of reading and start by teaching your students and children using phonics?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject!

  Pat Wyman is a learning expert, university instructor, best-selling author and the CEO of She invites you to take the free Learning Styles Quiz on the home page at

Her courses, Total Recall Learning for Students, How to Read a Book in a Day and Remember It and Total Recall Learning for Professionals, have benefited over half a million learners with higher grades, increased productivity and the ability to know how to read faster, learn and remember anything.

She’s worked with people in such corporations as Microsoft, Facebook, Raychem and Sandvine and has won several life-time achievement awards for her work. Pat is a mom, golden retriever lover and big time San Francisco Giants fan! Come on by if you’re ever at a Giant’s game and she’ll welcome you with open arms.

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