Phonics: Why I don’t bother (mostly)

Because the majority of English Language Learners learn English in grades K-5, the phonics discussion is an important one to address.  The debate is a heated one, with skills-building in phonics dominating the discussion in most US schools.  However, there are several flaws inherent in intensive phonics instruction.

Explicit phonics instruction relies on memorizing rules and applying them to decode individual words, often out of a meaningful context.  The lower-order thinking from rote memorization of phonics skills tends to limit children’s access to compelling text and stifle early reader’s love for reading.

Most teachers tasked with drilling wiggly 5 and 6 year olds in phonics find they have to fall back on at least some whole language instruction to keep children engaged in stories.  Most teachers report using a balanced approach of phonics and whole language (Baumann).

Additionally, Stephen Krashen cites Johnson’s Complexity Argument: English is less phonetic than one would think, with rules applying to only 45% of the high frequency words early readers rely on to make meaning of text (2002, 2).

But most significantly of all is the fact that there is no research to support the use of phonics to promote reading comprehension.  While results vary depending on the instructional methods, the whole language approach in general demonstrates growth in empirical studies of reading comprehension (Krashen 2001, 2004, 2002).  On their own, independent of whole language, all phonics drills succeed in doing is preparing students for tests of phonics drills.  They do not actually contribute to reading comprehension.

Explicit phonics instruction goes against Krashen’s Comprehension Hypothesis: students will acquire language and literacy through “osmosis” by reading and understanding compelling, comprehensible messages (2004, 46).

Occasionally, there is some benefit to teaching English phonics, but only to the limited extent the English language is phonetic (for example, identifying consonants and associated letter sounds).  But as with all teaching, providing compelling messages through high-interest stories and books should be the focus of ESL curriculum.


Baumann, J., Hoffman, J., Moon, J., & Duffy-Hester, A. (1998, May). Where Are Teachers’ Voices in the Phonics/Whole Language Debate? Results from a Survey of U.S. Elementary Classroom Teachers. The Reading Teacher, 51(8), 636-650.

Krashen, S. (2001). Does “pure” phonemic awareness training affect reading comprehension? Perceptual and Motor Skills, 93, 356-358.

Krashen, S. (2004). The Power of Reading. Heinemann Publishing Company and Libraries Unlimited.

Krashen, S. (2002). Defending Whole Language: The Limits of Phonics Instruction and the Efficacy of Whole Language Instruction. Reading Improvement, 39 (1): 32-42.

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Published by

Claire Walter

I am an ESL teacher and I promote differentiated, compassionate instruction and assessment for English Language Learners.

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