Introducing the Literacy Pod

Don't Be Fooled By Fake Phonics!

By Dolores Hiskes, From the Right to Read Report, February 1998

Dolores Hiskes has been a master reading tutor and author for many years.

Explicit or Implicit Phonics: "Therein Lies The Rub"

Phonics is in the air! Schools across the country are looking for ways to incorporate it into their reading programs, and it is even mandated in some states, including California.

An exclusive elementary school in New York teaches phonics. There are 20 teachers, 14 reading specialists and 400 K-3 students with an average IQ of 132. However, by fourth grade, half of these students have been referred for reading disabilities.

A not-so-exclusive elementary school deep in the heart of Chicago's south side also teaches phonics. There are no reading specialists at all, yet by the end of the first grade, all of the students are reading and spelling words such as "malignant" and "benign" with ease and accuracy. Why such a difference, if both schools teach phonics? As Hamlet said in his famous soliloquy, "Therein lies the rub." The definition of phonics is like that of beauty: it is in the eye of the beholder, and means many different things to many different people.

The actual body of knowledge called "phonics" may be summarized as follows: there are 26 letters used to symbolize about 44 speech sounds which may be spelled in roughly 70 most common ways. There are essentially two ways to teach phonics: implicitly and explicitly. Scientific research has clearly demonstrated that explicit phonics is the most effective for all students. The New York school uses implicit phonics instruction, and the elementary school in Chicago uses explicit phonics instruction. What is the difference?

We will consider "implicit" phonics first, as it is the most widely used form of phonics taught in schools today. Implicit phonics is moving from the whole to the smallest parts; "blending-and-building" is not usually taught. Approximately 300 words a year are taught as whole words. The student must make her "best guess" as to what the word is by its shape, beginning and ending letters, any context clues from the rest of the sentence or any accompanying pictures.

Are guessing and context clues the best way to determine the identity of a word? Consider the following words: "lobotomy" and "laparoscopy." They both have the same shape, the same beginning and ending letters, and the same general meaning in context (a surgical procedure), but few of us would wish for a surgeon who might possibly confuse one with the other. Do mistakes like this really happen? Betty Price, Director of Professional Reading Services in Roanoke, Virginia, reports that she was hired to tutor a fully licensed pharmacist who was unable to discern the difference between "chlorpromamide" (which lowers blood sugar) and "chlorpromazine" (which is an antipsychotic).

Now let us consider "explicit" phonics, which is moving from the smallest parts to the whole. Students first learn letters and their sounds, and then build and recombine them into syllables and words. With explicit phonics, "lobotomy" and "laparoscopy" would be read by syllables: lo-bo-to-my and la-pa-ros-co-py. When read by syllables, there is no chance of ever confusing one with the other.

Initial reading practice using explicit phonics should consist only of highly decodable (skills already taught) text until the most common letter/sound correspondences have been learned. At that point, students are able to read anything in their comprehension vocabularies, which Dr. Seashore of Northwestern University estimates to be about 30,000 words by third grade. Compare this with the 900 words third-graders are able to read using Whole Language.

Explicit phonics builds up from part to whole; implicit phonics breaks down from whole to part. They have vastly different results, and because the difference between the two is poorly understood, they are frequently confused—even at the highest levels. Many current programs labeled "systematic contextualized phonics," "balanced," "embedded phonics," and "integrated language arts," in fact, use implicit phonics. If explicit phonics is so much more effective, why is there such confusion? The reason is that explicit phonics has not generally been included in graduate teaching curriculum for over 50 years, and most of the classic old texts have long been out of print. Teachers cannot teach what they do not know.

In recent years, scientific research has not only reaffirmed the importance of explicit phonics, but has also brought to light the essential role of phonemic awareness in learning to read. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear the sounds within a word when it is spoken. It is an important precursor to specific reading instruction and should not be confused with the reading and writing skills taught in reading instruction itself. Reading aloud to children, rhyming and syllabication practice, and other oral word games and activities will develop this skill.

For a truly effective reading program, it is meaningless to say that reading should be taught by either whole language or phonics. All must work together and support one another, but in the proper order. Students should receive:

  1. Direct instruction in phonemic awareness.
  2. Direct instruction in letter/sound relationships, one at a time, in isolation.
  3. Explicit instruction in blending, to establish smooth eye tracking skills.
  4. Instruction in building sound spellings into words as soon as possible, providing concrete examples for what can otherwise be confusing and abstract rules.
  5. Opportunity to practice reading using decodable text, to review and reinforce these skills until they become automatic.

Our human attention is limited—we cannot be concentrating on identification of letter sounds at the same time we are trying to understand what we are reading. For skillful comprehension, readers first must be able to sound out letters and spelling patterns quickly and automatically.

As phonics skills develop and become automatic, focus begins to shift naturally from decoding to meaning. Equipped with these skills, students frequently seem to read whole sentences at a time. They become immersed in a rich and authentic literary experience, joyfully exploring the exciting, uncharted world of new words and fresh ideas. And teachers experience the unique joy and fulfillment that results from seeing 100% happy faces and starry eyes—all busy reading.

Explicit phonics instruction is a critical step leading to a truly balanced "whole" language reading program. It is the indispensable key that gives students the skills needed to unlock, decode, and thus comprehend all of the wonderful, classic stories in today's literature-rich reading programs. It is essential that students have these skills to demystify reading, to be successful in school now and to become productive members of our society later.