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Phonics Instruction: Why Phonics Instruction
Sometimes Fails

Because of the complexity of written English, more than a century of debate has occurred over whether English phonics should or should not be used in teaching beginning reading.

Beginning in the mid 19th century, some American educators, prominently Horace Mann, argued that phonics should not be taught at all. This led to the commonly used "look-say" approach ensconced in the Dick and Jane readers popular in the mid-20th century. Beginning in the 1950s, however, spurred by Rudolf Flesch's criticism of the absence of phonics instruction (particularly in his popular book, Why Johnny Can't Read) phonics resurfaced as a method of teaching reading.

Phonics instruction is favored in homeschool circles. However, despite a strong stance in favor of phonics, many parents find themselves at a standstill in terms of their child actually being able to learn the phonics and then read.

A possible cause for the child's inability to learn to read using the phonics method is a poor auditory short-term memory. "Phonics is an auditory learning system," says Cyndi Ringoen, a neurodevelopmentalist, "and it is imperative to have a sufficient auditory short-term memory in order to learn, utilize and understand reading using the phonics method."

According to Ringoen, in order to begin to utilize phonics beyond memorizing a few individual sounds, a child must have an auditory digit span close to 6.

Digit span is a common measure of short-term memory, i.e. the number of digits a person can absorb and recall in correct serial order after hearing them or seeing them. As is usual in short-term memory tasks, here the person has to remember a small amount of information for a relatively short time, and the order of recall is important.

A two-year-old should have a short-term memory of 2, a three-year-old of 3, a four-year-old of 4 et cetera up to seven years old. The average in our society for a seven-year-old to adult is 7.

If a child's digit span is below 6, you will see a child, depending on how much drill they have had, who can say all the sounds of the phonemes, and possibly put a few together into words, but at the end of the sentence or paragraph cannot understand what they have just read.

To test the auditory digit span of a child, say numbers slowly in one second intervals, in a monotone voice. Say, for example, 6-1-5-8 and have the child repeat it back. If he can, then say 9-2-4-7-5. The child must be able to say a 4 digit sequence back correctly 75% of the time on the first try to be considered at a short-term memory of 4, and it is the same for each higher digit.

"To insist on teaching a child phonics before they are developmentally ready is to set the child and parent up for a lot of frustration and laborious struggle. Focus instead on using your time and energy on expanding the child's auditory short-term memory," recommends Ringoen.

Edublox offers multisensory cognitive training programs, aimed at the development of foundational learning skills such as auditory short-term memory, which need to be taught in order to master phonics instruction successfully.