A number of years ago there was a company called "Hooked on Phonics", which made a name for itself with a successful ad campaign, and whose aim was to emphasize connecting different phonemes of words as a means for teaching reading.

While it is apparently still widely used, I wonder if linguists and education professionals have studied its effectiveness as a teaching tool.

Have they, and what have they found?

  • "Phonics" means emphasizing the sound values (where they exist at all) of some of the English letters and letter combinations. There is no single way to do "phonics", because the term has no precise meaning. There are a lot of ways to do this. And there are a lot of different ways of learning to read -- don't forget, humans have co-evolved spoken language for hundreds of thousands of years, but there is no human adaptation for literacy, which has been widely spread for no more than 2000 years. This is technology, not language. – jlawler May 17 '13 at 17:23
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    There isn't any it. Basically, English spelling is so mixed-up that there is no coherent system of learning to read by indicating spelling cues, without memorizing huge lists of phony "exceptions" to phony rules, and then exceptions to exceptions. And therefore, there is no single thing called "phonics" that has been studied; instead, every study is of some different system, under different conditions. Since everybody learns reading differently, any system will help some and not others; the only feasible solution is to use everything you can. – jlawler May 17 '13 at 17:40
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    I think this question may be about the efficacy of the program "Hooked on Phonics" specifically and not about the more general usefulness of phonics as a concept. – Adele C May 18 '13 at 0:58
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    Of course there is no such thing as a program that teaches reading using phonics. No phonics program teaches more than a fraction of the many hundreds of rules required to convert text to speech. – Gaston Ümlaut May 24 '13 at 2:39
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    @jlawler thanks for the comments and clarification. Also, see the afterthought in mweiss's answer below. – Seth J Sep 25 '15 at 13:35

There has been a ton of research on the efficacy of phonics programs, but it is nearly all contentious and its significance hotly debated. Back in the early 1990s (the heyday of the Hooked On program) things got so tense and politically charged that people referred to the "Reading Wars". (Google it.) On one side were the proponents of "phonics first", who argued that the work of decoding individual phonemes necessarily must precede the other skills that are part of reading; on the other side were the proponents of "whole language" instruction. The Wikipedia article on "Whole language" has a good overview of the controversy. Matters were made even more complicated by the fact that "whole language" was often mischaracterized (not only by its critics but also by some teachers who were supposed to implement it) as an approach that did not include phonics instruction at all, rather than an approach that insisted on phonics instruction only in the context of meaningful interaction with text.

Suffice it to say that most academics who study literacy acquisition believe that the evidence clearly supports whole language as the preferred approach; skeptics, on the other hand, have produced voluminous critiques of the academic research, which they regard as ideologically biased.

(Slightly OT digression: The controversy over literacy instruction has much in common with the analogous politicization of math education, with which I am much more conversant.)

(Much more OT afterthought: It is both weird and delightful to see jlawler, a former college professor of mine who I have not seen in nearly 20 years, answering a question posed by my cousin.)

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    +1 from me, cousin. Incidentally, wrt your second OT comment, when your rep score reaches 50 points you can comment on the question and @tag jlawler (as in @jlawler) to catch his/her attention. – Seth J Jun 3 '13 at 0:08
  • @mweiss: Nice to "see" you again, too. Feel free to make use of my math handouts -- umich.edu/~jlawler/geb.html links to most of them. – jlawler Sep 25 '15 at 14:43

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