Phonics- the Endless Debate: Another Case of Please Fit the Program to the Child, Not the Other Way Round by Dr Sam Bommarito

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Phonics- the Endless Debate: Another Case of Please Fit the Program to the Child, Not the Other Way Round by Dr Sam Bommarito

Frank Smith once characterized the Great Debate in reading as the never-ending debate.  Recent posts on blogs and twitter indicate that times haven’t changed that much. Proponents of “synthetic phonics & only synthetic phonics” are once more claiming that a changeover to synthetic phonics will go a long way toward solving the reading problem once and for all.  Since my teaching career in reading began in 1977, I’ve seen the pendulum swing many times.  Currently, the pendulum has definitely swung over to the synthetic phonics will cure all position. Problem is, each time such promises are made they are never kept. I think the reason is that pesky word- “all”.

Don’t get me wrong. Phonics is necessary.  Synthetic phonics provides the best place to start, and a place that will help most children.  But look at what happened when a whole country (like England) mandated the exclusive teaching of synthetic phonics. What happened is that a small but significant number of students didn’t thrive.  It could be that this is because of lack of fidelity to the program. Trouble is I have a very hard time accepting that as the explanation. I spent 18 of my teaching career in Title 1 buildings teaching reading and in-servicing staff on reading. I’ve seen first-hand children for whom synthetic phonics simply didn’t work but analytic phonics did.  My conclusion- use the teaching techniques that fit the child. Don’t force children to use approaches that don’t work for them. Don’t ban teachers from using approaches that could work for a particular child. Some of us seem to conveniently forget that research on synthetic vs analytic phonics has never demonstrated that synthetic phonics is superior in every respect. In his June 9 blog entry Timothy Shanahan said “Analytic phonics is, in my experience—and perhaps in that small effect size difference—harder to learn, but it can avoid some of those blending problems and tends to be more consistent with what kids will need to learn about morphology. Sometimes the right solution is “and” and it is not “either/or. Adopt a good phonics program, and make sure it works for your students—which might require that you add some synthetic or analytic instruction depending on how they are doing.”

Hmmm.  Maybe this never-ending debate is never-ending in part because neither side in the Great Debate (do we even call it that anymore?) can accept the that there is merit in using both approaches DEPENDING ON THE CHILD. Also remember, there is more to reading than decoding. Meaning making is important. One of the most telling criticisms of some of the current synthetic programs is that they use up far more instructional time than is needed.  So, one of the things I I look for in a phonics program is efficiency in teaching. The phonics program needs to leave enough instructional time so that kids have time to spend unpacking the meaning of complex text, talking about, writing about that text. Another thing I wish was present, but often is missing, are alternative instruction paths.  If the synthetic part of the program isn’t working for a child, there needs to be an analytic part of the program waiting in the wings.  Teachers need to know how to do analytic phonics when the synthetic program isn’t working. Both the analytic and synthetic programs need to be taught systematically.  Historically people such as myself who have taken what amounts to the middle position in the Great Debate have tended to be ignored.  Be prepared to use both approaches- what an outrageous idea!  But still I have to wonder, what would happen if we actually fit the program to the child instead of the other way round? Dare to dream!

Dr. Sam Bommarito, aka The Middle Man


Copyright 2018, Dr. Sam Bommarito

6 thoughts on “Phonics- the Endless Debate: Another Case of Please Fit the Program to the Child, Not the Other Way Round by Dr Sam Bommarito

  1. authorlaurablog

    While I have taught phonics and phonemic awareness through a variety of means, I’m not sure what you mean by synthetic vs analytic phonics.
    What I do know, it’s important to tailor instruction to the learner’s needs and learning style to make it effective and meaningful.


      1. doctorsam7 Post author

        I just posted the piece on analytic and synthetic phonics. I’m betting you’ll find you do a bit of both. Next week I’m going to take up the issue of why the pendulum keeps swinging between these two approaches and possible ways to find a middle ground.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Eric Litwin

    Wonderful blog entry. Thank you. I applaud your child focused approach. Once a middle ground perspective on reading is taken, that we need both meaningful reading and reading mechanics, then helpful questions, that benefit students, can be asked. What is the role and relationship of direct instruction to independent reading? How do word recognition and word mechanics interplay? I use the terms meaningful reading and reading mechanics because I feel the terms Whole Language and Phonics come with too much harmful conflict and history. I hope proponents of Balance Literacy can engage in this conversation with calm determination to use real research, classroom experience and common sense to create best practice for reading curriculum.


    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      Thanks so much for the kind words. I’ve started to use the terms Comprehension and Decoding. I’ll have a lot to say in the next few weeks about why we should teach phonics (and we should!) and how that might be done in a way that adapts to the child. I share your hope that “… proponents of Balanced Literacy can engage in conversation with calm determination to use real research, classroom experience and common sense to create best practice for reading curriculum.” I remember at the Mo. Early Childhood Conference that you predicted the the dialogue around the teaching of reading being carried out on-line might have the potential to finding solutions to the problems associated with the teaching of reading. So…, lets all keep talking AND LISTENING, and remembering that our job is to do what’s best for the children. I know I’m preaching to the choir on this one. You’ve always had great ideas and you are a careful listener. Thanks again- Dr. B.



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