The following is an excerpt from the book, "Help, I Can't Read!" (available on this website).
Is Phonics Necessary?
Phonics is a method of teaching reading that emphasizes the predictable relationship between sounds and the alphabetic symbols in our language. It is also called “alphabetic principles.” There has been great controversy about the necessity of teaching phonics in our country for many years. Some students can learn to read seemingly without explicit instruction in phonemic awareness or phonics. The reason for this is simple.
Proficient readers use many clues to derive meaning from those squiggly black lines.
Readers tend to favor some methods of determining meaning over others, but sooner or later, we need to use phonics. From my observation, beginning readers who learn without phonics are memorizing word shapes (configuration) or depending heavily on context clues, but they are not decoding individual sounds. They can become proficient up to a point, so teachers say, “Well, they’re just not phonics learners,” but there’s a problem with this thinking. Once students progress beyond first grade, it is impossible to memorize the shape of all the words the language demands, and many times context clues are not enough to unlock the meaning of the word. At some point, their ability to read will break down because they need to be able to decode longer words. Then they will need to use phonics. In short, everybody needs to understand the basic sound-symbol relationships in our language if they hope to become fluently literate adults.
But there has been a war raging between teachers who teach phonics and those who are vehemently opposed. The controversy goes back to the initiation of the “Look/Say Method” in the fifties. Many researchers have studied the effectiveness of phonics over the years. Dr. Jeanne Chall, a leading researcher in how children learn to read, did three meta-analyses of reading instruction in our country over a period of thirty years. In her last edition, she said,
The research …indicates that a code-emphasis method – i.e., one that views beginning reading as essentially different from mature reading and emphasizes learning of printed code for the spoken language – produces better results…The results are better, not only in terms of the mechanical aspects of literacy alone, as was once supposed, but also in terms of the ultimate goals of reading instruction – comprehension and possibly even speed of reading. The long-existing fear that an initial code emphasis produces readers who do not read for meaning or with enjoyment is unfounded. On the contrary, the evidence indicates that better results in terms of reading for meaning are achieved with the programs that emphasize code at the start than with the programs that stress meaning at the beginning.”1
On April 13, 2000, the National Reading Panel sent out the following statement:
In the largest, most comprehensive evidenced-based review ever conducted of research on how children learn reading, a Congressionally-mandated independent panel has concluded that the most effective way to teach children to read is through instruction that includes a combination of methods. The panel determined that effective reading instruction includes teaching children to break apart and manipulate the sounds in words (phonemic awareness), teaching them that these sounds are represented by letters of the alphabet which can then be blended together to form words (phonics), having them practice what they've learned by reading aloud with guidance and feedback (guided oral reading), and applying reading comprehension strategies to guide and improve reading comprehension.”2
Even more telling are the results from the State of California’s reading program when it dropped phonics from its statewide reading curricula in 1987. By 1994, the students in their fourth grades had experienced no phonics in their elementary school education. That year, California tied with Louisiana for the lowest scores in the country on the U.S. Department of Education’s NAEP Reading Report Card (National Assessment of Educational Progress). 
The answer to our initial question is yes—phonics is necessary.
What is Phonics?
There has been much confusion over this term. Phonics is a method of teaching beginners to read and pronounce words by learning to associate letters or letter groups (graphemes* or phonograms*) with the sounds they represent (phonemes*). Students must learn to unravel the secrets of the code (in other words, decode) before they can comprehend the meaning of the written word.
That seems simple enough, but even within such a simple term as “phonics,” there are several versions of instruction which vary significantly from one another.
Naturally, this diversity of approaches causes more confusion. Also, to confuse matters further, different reading programs may combine techniques from more than one of the above-mentioned methods. So what do you need to know to find a method that will work the best for your students?
Is Phonics Enough?
For years, there has been a war raging between two philosophies of reading instruction. One was called “whole language” and the other “phonics-based instruction.”
There are problems with both philosophies. We have a whole generation of children taught with a “whole language” approach where many of them failed when they got to higher reading levels. They were able to learn many of the small words by context clues and by recognizing their shape, but these students bogged down when they hit large multi-syllabic words that needed more advanced phonics skills in order to be able to decode them.
BUT—the “phonics-based” materials were boring, especially for the students who were good at memorizing words. They didn’t want to bother with decoding a word when they could already read it.
The answer to this question is no, phonics is not enough. Even at the emergent reader level, phonics is not the complete reading program. Decodable books are necessary for success at the beginning levels, but they don’t do enough to increase vocabulary or interest in reading. Vocabulary acquisition is critical. Students need to be exposed to rich literature, too.
In the beginning, teachers need to read great books aloud to their class. (Actually, reading aloud to your class is a good idea for all levels.) This is not just for the “fun” of it; it’s essential that students hear new words, deeper thoughts, and more complex sentences and grammar than they would be able to decode for themselves. They need to work on speaking and listening skills, as well as writing and all the other components of a complete language program.
The truth lies somewhere between the two philosophies. Children do deserve to read rich, inviting books, but they also need direct instruction in phonics skills, even if they can already read the little words, because someday they’re going to have to decode the big words. Knowing how to balance these two philosophies is another place where the science of teaching becomes an art form. It develops as you learn to work with your kids.
How Much Phonics Is Enough?
Phonics is the training wheels of reading. So, how much phonics is enough? When do we take off the training wheels and let them fly? You see, that is the question; how much phonics and practice are needed for mastery? Some of us may need training wheels a lot longer than others. Too little, and some children will become struggling readers unnecessarily. Too much, and some can develop an overdependence on phonics if it’s pushed too hard and too long.
I worked with one ten-year-old struggling reader who could read only at a first grade level with very choppy fluency. His mother had done an excellent job of teaching phonics, but that was the focus of all reading instruction. When I asked him to read a passage for me, he actually stopped to sound out the word “the” as /t/ - /h/ - /ē/. I told him the word was “the” so he could keep reading, but he stopped at the next “the” and tried to sound it out, again. When I asked him to just tell me the word, he said, “Well, I think it’s ‘the,’ but I have to sound it out.” When asked why, he said he had to sound out every word—that’s what reading was—sounding out words. We stopped our session right there and talked with his mom. I recommended they shift to reading in unison together for fifteen minutes every day for the rest of the summer in books that he chose. He needed to learn that reading was for enjoyment and once you recognize a word, you don’t have to sound it out ever again.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a phonics-based teacher from way back! But if a student is to gain fluency (speed, automaticity) in reading—sooner or later the training wheels have to come off. Phonics is a means to an end, and generally speaking, most of the phonics a child will need can be covered in two years with more advanced concepts taught in quick mini-lessons at later years. (An adult is able to cover it more quickly.) One study I read said that first grade phonics could be covered in forty minutes per day, while in second grade; it should only take twenty minutes. After that, it can be covered in just a few minutes per week, especially if you’re using a phonics-based spelling program and take the time to teach the phonics concepts. (Don’t just assign the spelling list and leave it at that.)
Students need to be encouraged to work toward automatically recognizing larger and larger chunks of the words. But in the meantime, they must learn the code if they’re every going to be able to read easily.
Breaking the Code by Level
Phonics—Alphabetic Principles—whatever name you choose, is a code that must be broken before a person can learn to read. I have said several times before in this book, it’s critical that teachers identify what level of phonics the students have already mastered. The following is the leveled system I would recommend for introducing phonics to your students.
Note: The terms “phonics” and “alphabetic principles” mean the same thing. I tend to use “phonics” when describing the predicable relationships between individual sounds and symbols that are regular and more common such as is found in Level A and B. I use “alphabetic principles” more when describing the sound-symbol relationships that are not as regular and common, but are still predictable enough to be of value in breaking the code. I also use it to describe learning how to read syllables, prefixes (beginnings of words) and suffixes (endings).
In order to assess exactly where your students are functioning, give them the Informal Phonics Survey which is included in this book. It has both a whole group screening application, and a progress-monitoring application for small-group or one-on-one. It isn’t standardized, but by comparing it to your district reading curriculum’s phonics scope and sequence, you will be able to determine where each student stands in relation to grade-level expectations. That’s all you need to know to intervene where students need help.
Levels of Word Decoding Ability
For our purposes on this website, we have broken Alphabetic Principles into to five levels.
(For more information, see book "Help. I Can't Read!")
1 Chall, Jeanne, S.(1967, 1983, 1996). Learning to Read: The Great Debate. New York: McGraw-Hill. p. 307 (3rd ed.)
2 National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Reading Panel Reports Combination of Teaching Phonics, Word Sounds, Giving Feedback on Oral Reading Most Effective Way to Teach Reading. Press release on April 13, 2000, Retrieved from the internet on 6/28/08 www.nationalreadingpanel.org/Press/press_rel_4_13_00_1.htm
3 Phonics Research Summary. www.projectpro.com/ICR/Research/Phonics/Summary.htm Retrieved from the Internet on 4/9/08.