Speaking of Boxing…

At the NDSC Conference in Pittsburg last month, the Phonics Or Whole Word (POWW!) issue attacked me personally in the form of one attendee who voiced the opinion that, although maybe 90% of my generation (“Dick and Jane” people) learned to read with the whole word approach, the other 10% never did, and they all wound up as criminals.

That particularly personal POWW! got me thinking:

What, in fact, is the history of this phonics war?

So I researched it a bit, joined a Journal website, and found just what I was looking for. A well-researched “History of Phonics” with a plethora of documented references, along with the information that this remains the most heated argument in the long history of teaching reading.

Seriously? For how long?

Surprise! This argument has been going on at least since 1534. Yes, 1534. I had no idea. This competition has been going on for over four centuries, with history repeating itself endlessly, like variations on a theme.

For centuries, P and W have fought each other, alternately landing a knock-out punch every–oh, say–20 to 40 years.

Along the way, each has taken a time-out to huddle in the corner with their research teams, doing studies to support their convictions.

P would figure out a new method of phonics, since the old didn’t quite work as it hoped. But W would eventually say, “Well, that didn’t work either! We still have students who can’t learn to read.” So W landed a left hook and was the champion for another 20-40 years. But that didn’t work perfectly, either, so P jumped up and KO’d W, and…well, back and forth, back and forth.

A Sampling of Tidbits

The good news is that quite a lot of good research was done in the process, and the following tantalizing items are just a few of many:

  • Teaching children to read with letter names didn’t help them learn to read on their own. (Duh.) Letter sounds did. (1570)
  • Ben Franklin kicked it up a notch and published a device for teaching letter sounds. (1768)
  • Folks were slow to catch on to that until the end of the American Revolution because they were, um, busy with other things.
  • Noah Webster (yes, the dictionary fellow) jumped into the ring with his own scheme of phonics in his “Blue-Back Speller” in 1798. But he was not trying to teach reading; rather, he wanted to homogenize the American language and get rid of dialects: a kind of “United Speech.”
  • Horace Mann (educational reformer) gave whole word reading a huge leg up when he visited Prussia and Switzerland and saw that their whole word method was waaaaay more effective than the phonics in vogue. (1840) So now the pendulum swung the other way.
  • But in 1890 it swung back again with “extreme phonics” and an emphasis on word families.
  • Extremism usually precedes a backlash, and it did. There was a huge reaction (1920s) and whole word reading was back, with new studies done that showed superior comprehension and fluency with whole word reading.
  • (Are your eyes glazed over yet?)
  • With new research in the 30s, and an emphasis on reading for meaning, “phonics was practically abandoned throughout the country.”
  • Phonics came back on the scene again. (1940s). [But I gotta say that when I learned to read in the early 1950s, in the deep South where time moves much more slowly, phonics had not yet arrived by pony. We learned to read with “Dick and Jane,” not with word families or phonics in any form]
  • Synthetic phonics gave way to analytic phonics. (1940s). Synthetic = build up words from their parts; Analytic = taking apart a word in order to recognize it. Analytic phonics works by starting with the whole word, words which are familiar to the student.
  • As far as I know, and W will still be trading blows for eons to come.
  • One final note, from 2008: a team of 90+ of Britain’s best children’s book writers and illustrators, led by Children’s Book Laureate Michael Rosen (think, “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt”) lobbied against Britain’s move to install synthetic phonics in their educational system. They lost.
  • But, looking at history, we only have to wait another 30 or so years, and W will be champion again, until of course P is…and then…and then…

Some Take-Aways

You can read the whole research article yourself if you like (*see footnote). But from the research and studies done, here are what I think are useful take-aways. Take what you like and leave the rest…

  • Letter sounds at the outset help children learn to decode.
  • Phonics is helpful in the pronunciation of words, but students not exposed to phonics training had “superior comprehension and smoothness of reading.”
  • Each time phonics was reintroduced, it wore a different dress. It was never the same as previously taught.
  • Given testing of no phonics, moderate phonics, and heavy phonics, moderate phonics won out. (1938)
  • Phonics instruction was of little help in early reading stages, but of “great value in the second grade.” (More than one resource reported this.)
  • No one method is best for all. (1956) (Finally! Some wisdom!)
  • Emphasis on whole words with incidental phonics is best. (1961)

Bottom Line

Use the approach that is best for each individual learner. No single approach is going to work with all students. 

But we could have figured that out for ourselves, right? You probably already have.

We use our intuition when Down syndrome is in the reading mix, with compromised auditory processing, cognitive delays, and secondary diagnoses, not to mention personalities. I claim that my son Jonathan (DS, now 34) was “born without the patience gene,” and anything more than learning letter sounds really well + reading personal books for meaning was out of the question. If I had pushed phonics in this particular case, he would not be the excellent reader he is today. I would have lost him in the early stages, and as his mom I knew that. Each learner has different needs.

Do I use moderate phonics with my students? For some, not yet. For others, yes indeed. Do I use synthetic phonics? No. I use analytic phonics. We start with whole words, meaningful words, but we learn to decode. I wave the “reading for meaning” flag tirelessly. We read for fun, for joy, for finding out what that book is all about! Michael Rosen would love it.



*Research article: Go to and search for “History of Phonics” by Robert Emans. You’ll need to join (for free) to get past the first page.


Recent Posts