Synthetic phonics isn’t working

I found this from an article on “The Conversation”:

“Our view, as academic linguists, is that part of the reason why so many children do not experience joy in reading is the excessive focus on synthetic phonics in early education.”

… and I could not agree more! I love that this article describes the difference in various phonics approach with “synthetic phonics” being the real issue. In synthetic phonics, “children do not focus on texts or even paragraphs or sentences. Instead, they process language word by word, letter by letter. An extreme but real example of this is when they are asked to read word lists that even include nonsense words, such as “stroft” or “quoop”. The goal here isn’t to expand vocabulary but to practice blending letter sounds, turning each word into a challenging task.”

I have posted before my opposition to teaching children to read like this and gotten flak for it. I’m *not* opposed to teaching children letters or letter sounds. I also am *not* recommending making children just guess at words. However, I have an issue with a specific part of the traditional phonics approach. It is specifically asking children to read every word they come across by asking them to “decode” it that I take issue with. Instead of pointing to “cat” and simply saying “cat” for the child or perhaps even “kkk aaa tt,” as said by the adult, a too-heavy emphasis on phonics asks children to decode it entirely on their own, having only learned letter sounds. There is data, as cited in the article, from actual empirical data that this approach fails. It is cognitive overload for the child. It’s also not the way any of us learn a new word. If you had to learn a word like “nascent” or “asylum,” you would need someone to actively pronounce it for you too. Yes, please, teach children letters and letter sounds. Let them play with words, perhaps with movable letters. Perhaps sound out a few words slowly for them. But otherwise when you start to read with children, just point to words and say what they are for children. It’s *effective* and, no, this isn’t really “whole language.” It is a highly involved *mentorship-based* approach. I learned this approach from “Help Your Preschooler Build a Better Brain” by John Bowman, who owned and operated his own Montessori schools.

I strongly believe we need to be having this conversation more and more. We are losing out on a huge potential by keeping children too focused in a world of what I call “analytics.” My child development work shows that children have an enormous capacity for *memory*. I document the age-related “stages” children go through, which is when they “act up” at fairly age-related times but following this is new growth. I have mounds of data of child development on a nearly day-to-day basis. After doing this work for years, I consider my work to be a study of *human memory*. Each major upgrade in child mental development comes with an upgrade in their memory capacity, both how much they can learn and with how much detail. It’s intricately related to their growing imagination. More imagination = more memory. This makes sense, if you think about it. The more you can remember from the past, the more you can project into the future. I find there is a general developmental cycle that children go through repeatedly. At first they become wildly imaginative. The imaginations children have are roughly similar across children at particular ages, suggesting something biological is going on. This imagination spurs them to go learn about the world. In this, they are a vacuum for knowledge. They can record information like no other. Their memories do not work like our adult memories. I cringe anymore when I’m told about some neuroscientist describing “how the brain works” by asking us, as adults, to think about how we think. How we think is not how children think. Children have a capacity for memory that we do not have. They are wired to learn and learn well and for it to be *relevant*. They love new words, word lists, reading, stories. Children love to learn *real* words that then help them navigate life. Simply learning the word “Exit” is a simple example, which helps them learn how to find their way out of a building. Nonsense words for the sake of phonics is about the most discouraging thing you can do, keeping them in a world of analytics with no relevance or purpose.

He was reading through a book on mathematics when he was 10.

And, yes, as child development is so driven by *imagination*, telling them *stories* is key to unlocking this enormous capacity for memory that they have. Children can absorb way more than we think. When it comes to pure knowledge/content, i.e., not skills like writing, young children are capable of learning what any high schooler can learn. Natalie Wexler’s book “The Knowledge Gap” makes this point. Children aren’t benefited by promoting “reading comprehension skills” but rather being given actual knowledge. My favorite example from the book is children who were asked to describe a baseball play as created by a miniature baseball field. The students strong in reading comprehension but had never played baseball struggled with this. But the children who didn’t have such strong reading skills but played baseball could do this easily. You need familiarity with the topic/content. No amount of analytics really makes up for actual experience. I argue the same exact thing applies to phonics. You can read well because you learned a lot of words, not because you can “decode” any word you come across.

I’d love to see more and more kids learn how to read in a straight forward way so they can then absorb the vast amount of knowledge that we humans have collected over generations. My book series, Misbehavior is Growth, describes some of these cycles I just described and how to unlock their enormous hunger for knowledge. It’s through play, imagination, stories, and access to information. I continue to write/make educational material to help accelerate children’s learning. My work and materials can be found at my website, The Observant Mom. I hope you check them out and I hope this conversation continues. Thank you, The Conversation, for keeping the conversation going.