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Is phonics really necessary?

and our response to that.

We launched our newsletter series on Foundational Learning in September 2022, and owing to the launch of the National Curriculum Framework for the Foundational Stage in October 2022, deepening our collective understanding of principles of learning in the foundational years has become significantly more urgent. Today we write about a topic that has been a subject of intense debate among educators for several decades – the phonics approach to learning to read.

Over the past few years, we have worked with many teachers, heads of departments, principals and curriculum developers in strengthening their understanding of foundational literacy – and some common questions we are asked include:

  • We learnt to read without phonics. Is phonics really necessary?

  • Won’t children just pick up new words if they read them in books over and over?

  • Phonics is like asking children to rote learn each letter – won’t it make them hate reading?

In today’s edition, we answer these questions and bust some common myths around the phonics approach.

We learnt to read without phonics. Is phonics really necessary?

It is true that especially in India, the phonics approach has become known and prevalent only in the past decade or so. Many of us reading this article jumped directly from singing the Alphabet Song to reading full words in preschool, without the middle step of connecting sounds to symbols (which is what phonics is about).

It is also true that some children will learn to read seemingly “naturally”. However, this “natural” learning to read is usually a result of a supportive and stable home environment, where parents speak the language that the child is learning to read, where parents read regularly with or to the child, where the home has several books and games – in short, an environment that supports reading and literacy.

However, the data points to a serious reading crisis in our country. The ASER 2018 data showed that in rural India, only 50.3% of students in Grade 5 can read a Grade 2 text. The ASER 2019 data showed that only 16% of students in Grade 1 can read a text at that level, while almost 40% cannot even recognise letters. The reading crisis is very real. A systematic phonics approach is one of the best ways to ensure that a vast majority of our students learn the basic reading skills of decoding and reading fluency.

Read more about our thoughts on students’ struggles with reading in the 2nd edition of our newsletter.

Won’t children just pick up new words if they read them in books over and over?

Before we dive into the answer, let’s do a quick exercise. Read the sentence in grey using the given code. The catch is – you have to read the complete sentence within 10 seconds.

What was the experience like? What did you feel as you were trying to break this code – frustrated? anxious? annoyed? Were you able to complete reading the sentence in 10 seconds?

Now, imagine that you were not explicitly given the code; that you were taught some words like the ones given in the image above and then simply asked to use that knowledge of a few random words to “read” stories that use this script; that you were asked to just “know” how to read…

Learning to read is not a natural process, like learning to walk or learning to speak. Our brains don’t have the wiring needed to naturally learn to read – in fact, reading is an invention, like playing the violin or driving a car. Every child needs a systematic, step-by-step approach in order to read, play the violin or learn to drive a car (at the legal age).

Read more about how the brain needs to restructure itself in order to cop with the invention of reading in the 4th edition of our newsletter.

The phonics approach is just that – a systematic, step-by-step approach that explicitly teaches children the sound that each letter makes, how to put sounds together to first read short words and then phrases and sentences, and how to break sounds down to first write short words and then phrases and sentences. Hundreds of studies have shown the benefits of the phonics approach, not only for reading fluency but also for reading comprehension, and have concluded:

“the support from this form of [synthetic] systematic phonics appeared to be strong: that is, the synthesis of separate sounds associated with letters appears to be superior to many other methods. … Overall, phonics instruction is powerful in the process of learning to read – both for reading skills and for reading comprehension”

(Hattie, J. (2009) Visible Learning. OX: Routledge)

Phonics is like asking children to rote learn each letter – won’t it make them hate reading?

Our answer to this common question is – the right pedagogy that blends explicit instruction with multi-sensory learning and application makes phonics a lot of fun and not rote. Here are some examples of these approaches from the unboxED Early Learning Curriculum:

  • Building stories around each letter and its sound

  • Building songs around each letter and its sound

  • Building whole-body movements around each letter and its sound

  • Building fun texts that use the sounds children have learnt to read

Phonics is just the starting point, focused on skills of decoding and reading fluency. In parallel, we must also focus on building children’s listening and reading comprehension skills, on building their vocabulary, on strengthening their grammar skills, and on giving amply opportunities for written expression. Together, these skills will contribute towards strong reading skills.


Useful Links:

  1. Why aren’t kids being taught to read: This article summarises what the research says about how children learn to read and how they should be taught.

  2. Decodable Texts or Levelled Texts?: This article describes the different types of texts and what features a text must have to build reading fluency.


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Edition: 1.25

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