Phono-Graphix in Theory and Practice

It's not news that reading is about a phonetic code. A trip to the British museum and a look at the Rosetta Stone will confirm that the notion of a phonetic code is over 5,000 years old. A look in any children's book will confirm the the notion is alive and well everywhere in the English speaking world. Numerous phonetic methods have attempted to teach the code, yet failed. Why? Because they've diresgarded the nature of the two things they wish to bring together - the nature of the phonetic code and the nature of child. When these are addressed together instructionally we will succeed with every single child - girl or boy, rich or poor. The debate needs to be moved from whether the phonetic code should be taught to how the phonetic code is taught.

The Return to Phonics

The turn of the 21st century saw a worldwide return to phonics among the English speaking countries. Many ask will it work? Perhaps a more relevant question is will it last? If recent history is any indication, phonics will enjoy a brief moment in time as the most favored method of teaching reading and spelling, then it will vanish once again into the background, given over to som new "trendy" solution which will, by default, spin us headlong back into the depths of a sight-word approach to reading instruction. Such a change would mark the fourth period in recent history that phonetics has been in the foreground only to be set aside once more. Why would we predict such an end? Because the current phonics paradigm as defined and accepted by the experts in the field is not accurate. It doesn't make sense to the people who are vested with the responsibility for teaching reading and spelling - the teachers. This lack of sense has long been blamed on teachers. It's been said by many that teachers don't understand phonics, that they need to be retrained, that they need to know the sounds, know the rules. But in reality the root of the problem lies in the experts in the field - the researchers, the theoreticians, the reading specialists and the publishers who fail again and again to hold the logic of a phonetic code through to the end of a lesson. A dialogue of discussion on this topic would begin the critical first steps toward agreement on a working paradigm - one that is based upon the true nature of of the phonetic code and the true nature of the child as a learner of that code. Legislation such as the National Literacy Strategy in the United Kingdom and the Reading Excellence Act in the United States has afforded us but a moment in time to get this thing right - but alas, history may not forgive phonics a fourth time.

Concerns of Teachers in the Face of the Return to Phonetics

We've felt that many misunderstand the concerns of teachers in the face of the return to Phonetics. Teachers are practitioners. As practitioners they aren't arguing whether to teach the phonetic code. Teachers are arguing how to teach the phonetic code. The reason this is an argument is that traditional phonics has not proven itself in the periods in which it was the prevalent method of teaching reading. In fact throughout the Whole Language era, Phonics was taught alongside literature based practices (Groff, 1990), and deserves a share of the blame for the crisis we now face.

If teachers are to moved, really moved, their argument must be heard. What teachers are crying out for is a way of teaching reading that addresses the true nature of the English written code and the true nature of the child to whom we wish to teach that code. The system of teaching reading known as Phonics evolved nearly two hundred years ago - before modern statistics, before standardized testing, before the field of child development. If not a dinosaur, Phonics is at least a Victorian, a product of the olden days. Coming to us from another time, it is not surprising that it brings with it many misconceptions about the nature of the written code and about the child - misconceptions that have often proven devastating and have led us to a point where it has failed our children, and many teachers are unwilling to accept it, as it is, any longer.

Regarding the Nature of the Code

Phonetics is not about letter names, but about sounds. Phonetics is not about teaching sounds to children who already speak in sounds. It is about teaching them the code for the sounds of their language. Phonetics is not about rules for why we show a sound this way or that way, nor is it about the numerous exceptions the those rules. It is about teaching children that there are many ways to show a sound, that these are pictures of sounds, whether made of one letter like the sound 'ae' in 'paper', or four letters as in the word 'weight'. While rhyming is fun and is used in the Phono-Graphix method as an extension, Phonetics is not about about families of words that rhyme, like the 'op' in 'top' 'mop', and 'shop'. Nor is it about groups of sounds that being a word, like the 'fr' in 'frog', 'Fred' and 'Friday'. If Phonetics were about sets of sounds, it would be a very different code than the one we presently use. Children would not only have to remember the 140 or so ways to show the 44 sounds in the English language, but they would also have to remember all the potential vowel consonants, and all the potential adjacent consonants - completely redundant information which increases the code to over 1,500 'characters'. Phonetics simply doesn't work this way. It isn't about combinations of sounds. It's about each sound and and how each sound can be blended and segmented to read and spell words. This is the true nature of the English written code - what 'Victorian Phonics' missed entirely, and what some still miss today. This difference may seem subtle if you are not the person vested with teaching our children, but to a teacher who lays this monumental task at the feet of a five-year-old, or a failed ten-year-old, these differences are everything. They are what stand between success and failure.

Regarding the Nature of the Child

We now know much more about how children learn than we did when Victoria was Queen of England. The work of thw Swiss psychologist Jian Piaget, John Flavell and scores of others has revealed to us that logic is a factor to be reckoned with in education. The logic imposed by Phonics rules such as "two vowels go walking and the first one does the talking", for instance, requires propositional logic, also known as contingent logic. In the Victorian era we had not yet learned that children cannot undersond or perform propositional logic. But by the late 20th century teachers knew it well. They see it every day in classrooms where Phonics rules are recited back to them in rote monotone, and then discrded like som many meaningless words. We've made as many discoveries about what children can do as we have about whant they cannot. This gives us insight into how to teach reading to children. Children have a tremendous ability to assess and re-use visual figures. For instance, if a child sees this: ■, he/she correctly identifies it as a square - and this: ▲ as a triangle.

Later when the child sees this: , he/she doesn't need a rule such as "when square and triangle go walking they say 'house'" in order to recognize it as a house (Reading Reflex, C. McGuinness and G. McGuinness). We also know today that children don't learn very well by explicit rote drills - children learn by meaningful exposure to information in the context for which it is used (Flavel, 1977; Bandora, 1985). Based on this, Phonics should not be teaching children the code for their language with songs, animal shapes, mouth pictures, or any other means that is not the precise context for which the code was intended - to read and spell words.

The premise of Phono-Graphix is that explicit instruction in rules that have been invented to explain why letters represent sounds is harmful to the process of learning to read, and that what the child actually needs is explicit instruction that what lies before him or her is a code with a nature, and specifically what that nature is. The nature of the code is presented here with a look at the nature of the child in relation to each aspect of the code (Phono-Graphix - A New Method for Remediating Reading Problems, C. McGuinness, et al, 1996; Reading Reflex, C. McGuinness, and G. McGuinness, 1998). This paradigm was developed by and first written about by Carmen and Geoffrey McGuinness (Phono-Graphix, 1993).

Letters are pictures of sounds

The nature of the code - these are pictures of sounds:

b  oa  t

The nature of the child - children can understand this perfectly well. They have a remarkable ability to assess visual figures. At two days old, a baby can distinguish its mother's face from every other human face. Children assess and use visual figures in the world around them every day.

Sometimes, a sound picture is one letter, and sometimes two or more

The nature of the code - in the word 'boat', the pictures can be made of one b, one t, and more oa letters.

So 'boat' has three sounds, and three sound pictures:

b  oa  t

The nature of the child - children can manage this blending perfectly well. They re-use figures in the world around them every day.

■ square  +  ▲ triangle  =   house

A child does not need a rule in order to recognize this as a house. So why would they need a rule to recognize oa as the sound 'oe'?

There is variation in the code

The nature of the code - most of the sounds can be shown with more than one picture:

oa t    sl ow    m o st    t oe    n o t e    th ough

The nature of the child - children can easily larn that these:

oa   ow   o   oe   o_e   ough

are all pictures of the same sound. They learn easily that these:


are all a picture of the same word.

There is overlap in the code

The nature of the code - some of the pictures are used for more than one sound:

ow = sh ow    fr ow n

The nature of the child - children can manage this as easily as they manage that this: ● can be a picture of a ball, a moon, a polka dot, and more.

The analogy of squares and triangles being re-used to make houses is not learned explicitly, but implicitly as children operate on the world around them each day. Just as learning the label for house or flower is learned implicitly, so too can the code be learned implicitly. Exactly what is learned explicitly as opposed to implicitly is critical to the instructional formula. So where Phonics has invetnted rules to try and explain why letters represent the sounds they represent, Phono-Graphix employs hands-on activities and games that offer an explicit understanding that these figures are pictures of sounds to be assessed and used as tools, just as we assess and use all the visual figures in our world every day. We offer here three additional pieces of evidence to support this approach.

  1. Reber (1989), Berry (1984) and Dienes (1993) tested the hypothesis that direct explicit instruction would improve memory for logic-based systems. They each devised a synthetic phonetic code with rules for combining symbols, and taught it to students under two controls. One group received direct explicit instruction in the rules. Subjects in the other group were exposed to the code and told that it was a code with rules, but received no explicit instruction in the rules.

    The results of these studies clearly indicated that students bacome proficient with the code whether they received explicit instruction or not. In the Berry (1984) study researchers found that explicit instruction improved the subjects' knowledge about the rules. BUT, the study also showed that the students who received explicit instruction AND acquired knowledge about the rules performed the same or not as well as the students who received exposure only with no instruction in the actual rules. The implication is that rules-based instruction impairs performance. It would seem from this study that although it doesn't hurt much, it certainly doesn't help unless the goal is knowledge about rules rather than performance.

  2. The premise of Phono-Graphix, that explicit instruction is not necessary to successful use fo a phonetic code, is supported by and effect that's well known in the field of perceptual psychology. In 1886 James Cattell discovered what has since become known as the word superiority effect. It has since been replicated in dozens of published studies (e.g., Chastain, 1981, 1986; Jordan & Bevan, 1994; Krueger, 1992; Pollatsek & Rayner, 1989; Taylor & Taylor, 1983; Wheeler, 1970). These researchers have found that when asked to perform a visual pattern recognition task, specifically to locate a target letter in a string of real (as opposed to nonsense) words, performance is higher with real words than with nonsense words. the implication is that the process of construction meaning, occurring simultaneously with the process of visual scanning, actually aids the visual scanning process. Based upon this, it would seem that explicit instruction in the rules of the phonetic code may distract the learner and actually prove harmful to learning the visual code for our spoken language. It seems that code would better be taught in context - the context of meaningful words which, as it happens, is the very context for which it is intended.

  3. The premise that explicit instruction is not necessary or helpful to successful use of a phonetic code is further supported by another area of research. Anne Treisman and others (Triesman & Schmidt, 1982; Triesman & Souther, 1986) have isolated what the call an illusory conjuction. These researchers asked subjects to scan text composed of nonsense words such as dax and kay, explaining that they would be asked questions about the text after having studied it for a brief period. They found that subjects reported that, having seen words like day, which could be constructed with parts of the nonsense words appearing in the text. The implication is that the construction of meaning is a powerful overriding force in the processing of visual stimuli, and must be a primary part of the instructional mix.

We've demonstrated thus far what knowledge is needed to be able to understand the nature of the code. To be able to use that code, three skills are also needed (C. McGuinness, et al, 1996):

  1. Segmenting - the ability to separate the sounds in words, so when you hear you can say the isolated sounds: 'f' 'r' 'o' 'g'.

  2. Blending - the ability to blend sounds into words, so when you hear the sounds 'f' 'r' 'o' 'g' you hear the word

  3. Phoneme Manipulation - the ability to manipulate sounds in and out of words, so when you read shown with the sound 'ow' as in 'cow', and you realize it's not a word, you can drop the 'ow' and add the sound 'oe':

    sh 'ow' n => sh 'oe' n

These skills are not an invention. They can be thought of as an artifact of the brain trying to work out our writing system. Just as being able to rotate both legs simultaneously in a clockwise direction is an artifact of being able to ride a bicycle. Such skills are best learned in the context of the procedure for which they are needed. In the case of riding a bicycle we teach the skill of pedaling; in the case of reading and spelling we teach the skills of segmenting, blending and phoneme manipulation using real code - reading and spelling real words. This kind of 'learning by doing' is called latent learning. Latent learning is quite common for the learning of procedural skills.

Procedural knowledge is implicit. We can be completely proficient at the skills but unable to talk about the intricacies of the process. So the child must learn explicitly the nature of the code, implicitly the skills needed to use the code, and implicitly the symbols of the code. The power of Phono-Graphix is maximized by teaching all of these simultaneously. This is instructionally sound for two reasons, again based on the nature of the code and of the child:

  1. The nature of the code - The code doesn't exist in isolation from the process of segmenting, blending, and phoneme manipulation. Neither do these processes exist without the code. One without the other will always be two halves of the whole. So we teach these together in the context for which they exists - reading and spelling words.

  2. The nature of the child - Humans learn best when material and procedure are linked and embedded in the context for which they are intended (Bandura, 1985; Flavell, 1977).

Motivating Your Students

One final piece of the instructional mix that Phono-Graphix has recognized is the importance of motivation. This piece comes to us from the field of motivation psychology. Systematic or analytic Phonics seems bent on controlling every word that falls before a child's eyes so that there is no chance of failure. Yet according to motivation psychology, it is our errors that get our attention. Motivation psychologists call this an orienting response. Without error, there is no disequilibrium, no limit, no reason to take in new information, no reason to do what psychologists call 'orient'. Hence, no motivation. Motivation psychologists Miller and Dollard coined the term learning dilemma to discuss this phenomenon. They summarized that old skills and information must be activated in order to solve problems in our environment. According to this theory, when a problem cannot be solved with the old informationand skills, failure occurs and anxiety results. New skills and information must be taken into the learner's repertoire in order to solve the problems and relieve the anxiety - and learning occurs. Learning always follows failure. In Phono-Graphix, each potential error has been analyzed in advance, and a system of correction worked out which offers just the right amount of missing information to keep the child engaged in the problem solving process, with a success following each failure and each decision.

Orienting Task ⇒ Decision and Attempt ⇒ Failure ⇒ New Information ⇒ Adjusted Decision and Second Attempt ⇒ SUCCESS - New Learning!

The Orienting Task

Using the right kind of orienting task will determine the success that results in the orienting response you get from your students. This can make or break a lesson. When teaching children to read and spell we want them to start out by listening and looking. Much of what we do in reading instruction involves linking what you see with what you hear, and in error correction we encourage children to notice when the two don't match. It is important to gauge our words and gestures carefully, so that this listening to sounds and meaning and looking at sounds pictures and words is what Phono-Graphix orients the child to do. For this reason we always begin with the 'sound' and 'sound picture' content of the lesson first. Phono-Graphix reserves instruction in other areas until after there has been a clear focus on sounds and sound pictures. For instance, if you want to also teach that some of the words rhyme, wait until the lesson in each sound is complete. If you want to teach about the capitalization of proper nouns in the word list, wait until all the words have been read. This allows the children to orient to sounds and sound pictures before you ask them to re-orient to rhyme or capitalization, or punctuation or any other concept that can be taught as an extension to the original lesson.

Shifting the Reading Paradigm

What we've demonstrated here is leading up to something very different to Victorian Phonetics. We know much more toady than we did then. How can we know what we now know and go on teaching reading as we have done for two hundred years, failing with yet another generation? We propose that what is needed in the field of reading is a paradigm shift. According to Thomas Kuhn's Structures of Scientific Revolution:

"A paradigm shift doesn't contain new data but rather, it is...

  • a change in the way things fit together
  • a change in several of the taxonomic categories prerequisite to scientific description and generalization
  • a central change of model, metaphor, or analogy
  • a change in one's sense of what is similar to what, and what is different...
in short, the reorganization of all the variable or components in to a new way of looking and a new way of doing."

As you proceed through the Phono-Graphix lessons and become familiar with the method, I hope you'll agree that what we have is the same old letters and sounds, the same old goal - literacy. But, these letters and sounds do not fit together as the did in the Victorian days of Phonics.

There are no rules to try to explain our code. Just pictures of sounds repeating endlessly in text.

They do not fall under the same categories as they did in the olden days - the point of reference is the sound, not the letter

The analogies are very different. What is similar, is similar because of the sound it represents rather than the letters with which it is shown.

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Related Pages

About the Phono-Graphix Reading Method

Research on Phono-Graphix - Peer Reviewed Publications

Implicit and Explicit Learning

The Research Behind the Phono-Graphix Reading Method

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