What to do when Phonics doesn't work by Gerald Hughes, Director, Neuro-Linguistic Learning Center

With all the supporting research, there's no question that phonics programs have been the answer to the reading struggles for many children. Several of these "research-based" programs have been helping struggling students for years. But what do we do when phonics programs fail to bring about any significant improvement?

Long-standing research does show that as many as 80% of all children can show moderate to significant improvement in reading ability using traditional reading programs, However, as many as 20% of all children will show little or no lasting improvement in reading ability using phonics-based programs.
It begs the question, is there something the same or different about this particular group of children for whom phonics-based programs have little or no benefit? If we look closely at this group we find certain commonalities that may explain the failure of phonics-based programs.
First, as a group, these children tend to have above average visual and spatial acuity. They tend to relate to their environment via the visual rather than the auditory. They are often good puzzle-solvers because they tend to process information holistically rather than sequentially. Consequently, these children often exhibit some difficulty processing information sequentially. Many have difficulty processing the individual phonemes or sounds that make up language.
Now, let's consider the fundamental requisites of any phonics program. First, they focus on improving the child's awareness of the individual phonemes which make up the sounds of the words. Second, they rely on, or attempt to develop the sequential thought process necessary to decode, process and correctly interpret those sounds.
At first, a phonics-based strategy seems appropriate because it seems to address the specific deficiencies which many ADHD and Dyslexic children exhibit with respect to reading. Yet, despite repeated and often extensive instruction with phonics-based programs, this group of children will often show little or no lasting improvement.

Given the general effectiveness of phonics-based programs for most children, and the apparent lack of effectiveness for this particular group of children, could it be that a phonics-based program is simply the wrong approach for this particular group of children?
Could it be that for this group of children, there is an approach to learning to read that does not rely on the weakest areas of the child's abilities, but instead, relies on the child's strengths.
As a metaphor, let us consider the workings of a large corporation with several divisions. Division "A" consistently generates over $100 million in profits annually. Division "B" generates $10 million in losses annually. Again, like phonics-based programs, a logical strategy seems to be to focus additional resources on division "B" to strengthen it and make it profitable.

Unfortunately, history has shown us that even with an investment of considerable tine and resources, division "B" will probably never be very profitable and our investment of time and resources will probably never produce any substantial return. Following this strategy for any length of time could very likely lead to disappointment, frustration and most likely, failure.

However, if we focus those same resources on division "A", which is already strong and profitable, we are much more likely to receive a substantial return on our investment. The company would most likely thrive and see new and powerful successes.

If we follow that analogy, using a phonics-based program on this particular group of children, is more than likely doomed to failure because it is focused on the very weaknesses of the child. Experience has repeatedly shown that when subjected to an extensive phonics-based program, many of these children will experience frustration, anger and ultimately continued failure.

Conversely, our experience at the Neuro-Linguistic Learning Center has shown us that by simply investing our time and energy in developing and utilizing the child's strengths and natural abilities, we reap a considerable return on our investment. Typically, these children respond to this approach with a new excitement and enthusiasm. Often within several weeks, they demonstrate increased reading speed, increased comprehension and even increased appreciation for reading and learning.

About the Author

In 2006, after achieving success with his own children and several of their classmates, Gerald founded the Neuro-Linguistic Learning Center in El Dorado Hills, California. Since then, he has been assisting both children and adults in overcoming a variety of learning challenges.

Gerald is a frequent speaker/lecturer on education and learning disabilities. He is author of the book, "Gifted--Not Broken: Overcoming Dyslexia, ADD and other Learning Challenges."

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