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The Phonics Piece of the Dyslexia Puzzle

One needs to understand phonics to read efficiently. A well-constructed phonics program will teach your child how English spellings are intimately linked to the forty to forty-five sounds used to build the spoken words of the English language. Linguists and phonics curriculum writers argue all the time over the number of sounds that are relevant, but most agree that for purposes of instruction the word “sat” can be thought of as composed of three sounds, /s/+/a/+/t/.

A comment on notation used throughout this site: When /…/ is used, it means a particular sound, indicated by the notation between the forward slashes. When “…” is used, it means a letter name.

Thus, we say the letter “s” can represent the sound /s/ (as in “sit”) or it can represent the sound /z/ (as in “is“) and it can even sometimes represent the sound /sh/ (as in “sugar” or “sure.”) See Notation for the 43 Sounds for a complete list of the sounds and the symbols used to denote them.

Phonics and Comprehension

If you have an apparently fluent reader who has poor comprehension, you should administer the four Assessment Tests described starting on the page titled Testing Blending Skill to determine whether he possesses the required skills and code knowledge to efficiently decode unfamiliar words. If your child doesn’t have a decent grasp of the phonics content of English spellings, reading will always be challenging, even if he appears to be reading fluently.

So, why should comprehension suffer if your child doesn’t know phonics, as long as he sounds like he’s reading fluently aloud? Because if he doesn’t understand the phonics underlying almost every English word, then he has to be using some other means of recalling his reading vocabulary. More precisely, he has to be using his memory in some manner. If this is the case he’ll also be inclined to make mistakes, such as confusing “when” for “then” or confusing “house” for “home.”

Using Mnemonics to Read

Clearly, a child who confuses “when” with “then” does not understand the phonics of either word very well. So how is he figuring out which word it is? Well, I believe that he develops a memory crutch of sorts, by which to sort out each of the words he typically confuses, and that the development of those memory crutches, or mnemonics, impedes comprehension.

But why would mnemonics hurt comprehension? Research has established that decoding of the phonics of words is a left-brain activity, whereas the mental picturing of a storyline tends to be a right-brain activity. Therefore, when a child is decoding, he’s using the left side of his brain, while keeping the storyline straight in the other side. If he’s not decoding, but instead is using a string of mnemonics to sort out the words that he’s reading, all of those memory “crutches” are being processed in the right side of the brain.

For example, say he hits the word “when” which he always confuses with “then.” Maybe his mnemonic is something like “‘when’ points down and ‘then’ points up,” and that he’s convinced himself that he can look at the first letters and sort them out. (These mnemonics don’t have to be either easy to use or reliable. After all, they’re being built independently by six-year-olds!)

Comprehension Suffers

Regardless what the particular mnemonic is, every time one is drawn upon, the right brain’s memory and cognitive resources are called into service. But the right side of the brain is where the storyline is being followed. So, the child ends up with two activities going on at once in the right side of the brain. It’s very much like trying to read this page while simultaneously listening to your spouse explain something. One of the two gets ignored, and since your child can’t ignore the mnemonics because that is how he reads, the loser is the storyline. Note though that you can continue “reading” (in that you are doing left-brain decoding) while listening to your spouse. But you’ll have to re-read to get the drift. This is also why we feel like we’re reading when we’re actually daydreaming. The left brain is charging along, decoding reliably, but the right brain checked out a page and a half ago and is busy planning your next vacation.

Incidentally, I have seen numerous examples in my reading practice of very young clients working hard to decode the unfamiliar words in a short story all the way to the end, only to laugh at a punch line that would make no sense to them if they hadn’t been keeping track of the storyline throughout. My point here is that all that decoding wasn't getting in the way of the storyline. Use of mnemonics will though. If your child just doesn’t seem to comprehend, see if he really knows phonics by administering the assessment tests I mentioned above.

A Glaring Example

Here’s my story of the client who convinced me of the existence of these mnemonics: A young boy who was struggling with both comprehension and decoding was reading aloud to me and said “when” instead of “then.” I pointed at the word; his cue to re-examine it. He stared at “then” for a full two seconds and then burst out forcefully with “That is ‘when’!” An instant later, he shook his head and said dejectedly, “then.” I have no idea exactly what he was thinking during that two second interlude, but he was clearly thinking hard, and he was obviously frustrated when all that thinking still yielded the wrong answer. And where was the storyline while all that was going on?

What Next?

If, based on what you've read so far, you think your child needs to learn phonics, and the associated phonics skills, and that he's ready to do so (please see The Vision Piece of the Dyslexia Puzzle before making that decision) then you will find that the OnTrack Reading Phonics Program is the most efficient and inexpensive method you will find anywhere.

But if you're just beginning to explore the need for a phonics program, I'd recommend that you first study the information both The Diet Piece and The Vision Piece before plunging headlong into phonics, particularly if you're considering purchasing one of the more expensive programs available. One huge advantage of the OnTrack Reading Phonics Program is that it moves so quickly and costs so little that you can put it back on the shelf for a while if you find it isn't working. But it it's not working, you should seriously consider finding a developmental optometrist and have your child's visual skills evaluated.

If your child is just getting started in reading, the next page, Basic Code Instruction, discusses a program that I used with children who were not yet ready for the Advanced Code work covered in the OnTrack Reading Phonics Program.