Some tweeters (hi @MiriamFein @PATSTONE55‪ @DavidWray @ManYanaEd) have asked whether the summaries of the findings about phonics and top-down guessing strategies in Chapter 11 are accurate. They are, but the book isn’t a review of the literature and so only a few representative studies are cited and discussed in detail.  Here’s some additional information.  I’ll split this into two posts.  This one about “phonics”. The next will be about “the guessing game” and top-down strategies in reading.

I’ve left the comments section open. Someone post, please, so that I can see if it’s working correctly!

Phonology and Reading

Table 11.2 lists a bunch of findings, most discussed in earlier chapters. I have only updated previous reviews of this literature slightly, adding some recent findings from the neuroscience.  However, I will post a version of the table that has at least one reference to a primary source for each entry,  ASAP.

As always, a lot of concerns focus on “phonics”.  Phonics, schmonics: The deeper point is that the use of phonology in reading (i.e., comprehending texts read silently) is inevitable and almost unstoppable. We can talk about the properties of these codes and how they are learned as though they are independent, but in skilled readers the two types of information are thoroughly intertwined, “like a couple of linguistic codependents with serious boundary issues” as I wrote in the book.

The basic principle is that reading depends on speech, at every level.  From the properties of writing systems (which are codes for representing spoken language), to the impact of children’s early spoken language experience on reading acquisition and skill, to the use of phonological information in silent skilled reading, to the role of phonological impairments in reading difficulties—and more. *

It’s important to know that Smith, Goodman, Clay et al.’s specific claims about phonics were wrong, but it’s more important to understand why reading and speech are so inextricably connected.  Many of the earlier chapters are about this.

• Chapter 2, about reading and speech: comprehending texts requires recovering information about their sounds. We do it all the time.

Permit me to illustrate.  Get me the parking permit. One day at band camp? You talking to me? These are just vivid examples of a very general phenomenon: Understanding texts requires recovering phonological information that print doesn’t represent systematically.

• Chapter 3, on writing systems:  The linkage between print and sound is built into the fabric of the written code.

Writing systems are solutions to the problem of representing spoken language in visuo-graphic form.  It’s what they all do, despite their superficial differences. Writing systems that represent words as visual patterns independent of their pronunciations do not exist.  Such systems are inadequate for representing large numbers of words: Too hard to learn or use.

• I later discuss various behavioral findings showing the close links between spoken languge development and reading acquisition. The evidence is everywhere; it doesn’t rely on one type of study or population or lab or even writing system or language.  It all converges on the same conclusion: reading depends on speech.

I particularly like

— the prospective longitudinal studies of children who are or are not at risk for reading difficulties (Scarborough, Molfese, Snowling and colleagues)

— the evidence about how variability in early spoken language experience affects learing to read (richness of the language the child hears; impact of the language or dialect on reading)

— the evidence that good readers are better at computing phonological codes (Perfetti’s early studies, many later ones).  Work-around strategies (like guessing words based on context plus some letters) are not efficient  because of the statistical properties of texts discussed in Ch. 5. They lead to something very much like skimming—picking through a text rather than reading it closely.

— studies of skilled readers showing they cannot inhibit using phonological information.  We can set up reading experiments in which the use of phonological information interferes with performance (such as the Van Orden and tongue-twister experients).   The reader would do better if they could suppress phonology, but they can’t:  it’s not a switch that can be turned on or off.

— the brain evidence shows why:  orthography and phonology become integrated in the neural system that supports reading and spoken language.  The spelling area, for example, is thoroughly penetrated by knowledge of phonology.   The phonology we’ve learned from using spoken language gets changed by exposre to print.  (“Phonemic awareness” results from this.)

Treating reading as a “visual” process (or visual + context) is a non sequitur because the visual and phonological codes are not separable at the neural level, or in behavior.

— The PNAS study cited on p. 211  (Rueckl et al. 2015) shows that the integration of the neural systems for reading and speech is a hallmark of reading skill.   This was observed in studies of 4 languages with different types of writing systems.

What About “Phonics”?

The logical problem of learning to read, as I called it, is developing a new conduit linking knowledge of print to existing systems for speech.  Gough had that part right years ago. We now have vastly more behavioral and neurodevelopmental evidence about how this occurs–but especially how the systems shape and change each other.

This integration of spoken and written language has several parts.

  • knowledge of spoken language (vocabulary, lexical phonology, prosody, lexical quality; how language relates to the world, of course)
  • knowledge of print (orthographic statistics: how letters combine, frequencies of letters and letter combinations, knowledge of combinations that occur—the spellings of words—and ones that are unlikely or do not, etc.)
  • knowledge of how the visuo-graphic and spoken codes relate to each other (“phonics”)

This analysis is accurate (though much detail has been left out).  It does not, however, speak to the pedagogical issues. As I wrote, “Incorporating phonics in a serious way requires addressing some tough questions: how to teach it, how much is enough, how much is too much, how to integrate it with reading and literacy activities, how much to individualize instruction, and so on.”  The research does not come with pedagogical prescriptions attached.

There’s hope, however.  Learning the relations between print and sound is a statistical learning problem, similar to many others we engage in: learning a first, spoken language; recognizing letters, objects, faces; and many other things.

Most of this learning goes on without awareness, in the background as we engage in behaviors like reading and speaking.  But we now have a much better idea of why even a small amount of well-targeted explicit instruction can be highly effective.

Take vocabulary. There’s only limited time to explicitly teach vocabulary, but words that are taught also have an impact on learning other, related words.  See the discussions of the statistical properties of language and spelling, and the Landauer and Dumais statistical learning theory (p. 112) and here (item 5). Same for learning mappings between written, spoken language.

Instruction is the visible tip of the learning iceberg; implicit statistical learning is the mass below.

In the near future we should have much better tools for calibrating what to teach when:  given the state of the child’s knowledge and what they need to learn, which explicit learning experiences would have the biggest impact?  (See the endnote for p. 113 on p. 319).

Next post: about the psycholinguistic guessing game.


  • Conditions such as deafness and some types of developmental reading impairments require developing alternative solutions—work-arounds. But there is zero evidence that these are good models for children who do not have these conditions.


15 thoughts on “Really?

  1. Re” ‘Writing systems that represent words as visual patterns independent of their pronunciations do not exist’, are you including Chinese because even though characters can’t be sounded out they still assign specific sound/s to each character?


    1. I do include written Chinese, but I would put it differently. It’s included by written Chinese does indeed contain symbols that provide cues to pronunciation. It definitely does not consist of graphical symbols that represent meaning and leave pronunciation unspecified. It’s a complex system in which the structure of characters varies–especially the extent to which they provide reliable cues to sound or meaning. Most characters do contain a cue to pronunciation (the phonetic), and combination of phonetic and radical (semantic cue) is usually sufficient to determine the character and its pronunciation. That’s what “sounding out” is like in reading Chinese. Of course, there are characters that depart from the radical + phonetic structure in various ways. There are some logographs, and there are complex characters that consist of multiple components, none of which is an obvious phonetic. The system is different from an alphabet, to be sure.


  2. Thank you for such a thorough review and explanation. Your point that “the research does not come with pedagogical prescriptions attached” is important, and plenty of tough questions are out there. But it seems to me the understanding gleaned from psychological research combined with evidence from studies that look at the effectiveness of various instructional programs and methods, gives us a lot that can lead us to some good answers. Looking forward to your next post about “top-down” strategies.


  3. In England, the government have mandated the teaching of systematic phonics. Sir Jim Rose called it ‘synthetic phonics’ . This method teaches children a single sound corresponding to each letter as a first step. It begins, usually, by teaching six sounds corresponding to six letters, s, a, t, p, i, n. When they know the sounds corresponding to the letters children are taught to blend them to make words, e.g. sat, sit, pin, in, sip, sap, it, at, … and so on.
    But it is impossible to say some of the sounds singly, as you point on on page 27, and it is impossible to blend them together, as you also point out on page 27.
    Does this mean that this type of reading instruction is beginning from a falsity? It is trying to teach children from false premises?
    Surely reading instruction should begin with whole words that children already know. They can then be taught to segment these into phonemes to match the letters, rather than teaching the sounds of single letters in isolation and blending these to make words?


    1. Hi. I don’t know about details of the program. I would not call it a false premise. Phonemes are a helpful illusion! Most people don’t know that spoken words don’t consist of distinct segments. This is true in both listening and speaking.

      The demo I set up is a recording of the word BAT, which shows that aren’t any parts of the signal that correspond to the phonemes. You can clip out various parts of the “bat” recording, but none of them will sound like a discrete /b/, /a/, or /t/. They will sound like weird blips.

      Just like you can’t isolate the phonemes in “bat”, you can’t produce those phonemes in isolation, either.

      Thus if you record the sounds of BAT one by one and then combine them (using sound wave editing software, say), the result does not sound like the word. Phonemes are illusions. We treat speech as if it consists of them.

      Once this is understood, the question is whether it’s important for children to learn to do this. The answer is yes because it sets up learnable correspondences between units in the written and spoken codes.

      Given that we can’t actually SAY the phonemes, we make due with the conventional approximations, like “buh”. Does that help the child or is it just confusing? It helps. You have really pay close attention–or be a linguist–to realize that “buh” is not an isolated consonant.

      Speech is strange. Words don’t consist of sequences of discrete phonemes, and sentences don’t consist of sequences of discrete words, either (there are no “spaces” between them; just like phonemes they run together). We nonetheless learn to treat speech as though it had these discrete parts. It’s essential to using spoken language, and to learning to read.


    1. Do you still have a problem with this? There is a Kindle version in the US; don’t know about other countries. It’s called an eTextbook, but it’s just the Kindle version. They are marketing it this way because people are using the book in courses. It’s been really confusing for people who just want the their Kindle version!


  4. Dr. Seidenberg, your book makes what I think is an unbeatable case for the role of phonology in reading. It’s somewhat mind boggling to me that anyone would still argue against explicitly teaching the morpho-phonemic nature of the English writing system to beginning readers. The Every Student Succeeds Act should stipulate that every Director of Elementary Education in the U.S. read your book.


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