The Antiquity of the Phonics Method

Alan Marshall, B. Sc. (Mathematics), Dip. Ed.
Submission to the (Australian Government) National Enquiry into the Teaching of Literacy.

19 January 2005

The current debate about reading instruction methods would benefit from a historical perspective, for the central issue is to identify the most efficient way to represent objects by written symbols, and then the most efficient way to teach this.

I wish to put forward the argument that this was all settled in ancient times, and that the phonics method of instruction has been world’s best practice for millennia. Teacher trainers may scoff at this claim, but it in fact the method is as old as the alphabet. Indeed, it was why the alphabet was invented!

To analyse this claim in detail, let’s consider the situation in the Middle East some 5000 years ago. The earliest writing, including the first hieroglyphics, used pictures to depict objects. Over time these pictures became stylised. We call them pictograms. It was a rather inefficient means of recording information, and scribes would have to master thousands of pictograms to be proficient. Learning to read and write involved remembering the shape of each of these symbols. It is a process directly analogous to our whole-word method of reading instruction, where children are taught to recognise the unique arrangement of letters that defines each word. They are not taught the sounds of the letters, but rather to associate the sound of the word with the complex symbol for that word, which is the pattern of letters they see on a flash card. It is a tedious business, and if the child is not fully focussed, the result is illiteracy.

Fortunately there was a breakthrough around 4000 years ago when it was realised a pictogram could not just represent a word, but the first letter of a word. In English for example, we might think of the symbol of a goat representing not just a goat, but also the sound “g”. This development enabled a phonetic representation of any word, and thus the alphabet was born. It was much simpler to learn an alphabet of 20 to 30 sounds, rather than thousands of complex pictograms, and so literacy, and indeed civilization itself, flourished. Learning to read in the biblical world or the Greek world was easy, but it needed to be done in a structured way.

There are of course languages, such as Chinese and Japanese, which still use pictograms, and learning to read and write in those languages is very difficult. It baffles me that our educators want to use a similar approach. Think about it for a minute. In Chinese there is one symbol per syllable, and you need to master over 2000 syllables for basic fluency. Whole-word English instructors would need a similar number of flash cards to build a basic English vocabulary.

Unfortunately, the academics who trained our teachers have rejected the time-tested wisdom of the phonics approach to reading instruction in favour the whole-word method, which they adhere to religiously as part of their “progressive” education philosophy. Rational argument and scientific evidence will not move them. Their current defence that they use a “variety of methods” is code for the status quo, and must be rejected. The whole-word method is clearly inferior, and I propose that for learning words, the use of the phonics method alone be mandated.

It is true that as children gain experience in reading that they begin to recognise whole words they have previously sounded out, but this is practicing words, not learning them. The only place for the whole-word method is in reinforcing words already mastered by the phonics method. The child who has been properly grounded in phonics will recognise words as patterns of sounds, not patterns of funny strokes on paper. He or she will also be able to decode words not previously encountered. This is what it actually means to be able to read. The child taught by the whole-word method cannot do this, and is therefore not truly literate.

The other furphy peddled by the education establishment is the contention that English is not a phonetic language. It is true that the 26 letters we have inherited from the Romans don’t adequately cover our range of sounds, but phonics instruction is not limited to these letters. In fact it teaches 40 sounds, the 75 ways these sounds are represented on paper, and the rules that need to be followed. The alphabet is extended by 2 letter combinations. The consonants, such as “ch”, “ng”, “ph”, “sh” and “th” are known as diphthongs. Then there are the compound vowels such as “ai”, “ea”, “ee”, “oa”, “oo”, “or”, “ou” and “ow”. The letter “e” on the end of a word turns a soft vowel into a hard vowel. And that’s really about it. It’s not that hard! I had no trouble mastering this as a 6 year old in 1960. It is a pity that since then so many children have been disadvantaged by a politically correct, but ineffective, approach.

It is surely time that logic, scientific evidence and the needs of children be put before the sensitivities and reputations of our educators.

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