Why Phonics Isn’t A Cure For Dyslexia

I’m going to say something kind of controversial in the dyslexia support industry. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I’m not a fan of phonics.

This funny (not suitable for kids), two minute video from teacher-turned-comedian, Ben Knight, gives a great example of why phonics really is difficult, not just to learn but to teach. This is why we poor dyslexics absolutely lose it when we’re trying to figure out the whole phonics thing.

I’m in my 30s now and have been teaching phonics and it STILL rarely makes sense to me. As much as we’re told that the way to teach reading and writing is with phonics, as a dyslexic I still personally find whole word easier to understand and learn. Yes, learn phonics for the basics to understand that words are made up of sounds and that you can decode and guess unfamiliar words based on those rules but…

For fluency, teach words. Yes, there are thousands of words, but there are also hundreds of variations and exceptions with phonics and knowing which of those variations belongs in which words means we still have to actually also learn every single word too.

Dyslexics see big pictures, so every single one of these sounds is right there for us and every single time we sound out to spell a word our brain is scrolling through the variations trying to figure out which one to use. Every single time. With every single word. Even if we just wrote that same exact word a few words ago. When I know the word instead of the phonics, I don’t have to scroll through the possibilities.

When it comes to reading, when we’re just learning to read a word we might do it letter by letter but for fluency, real reading happens on the whole word level. In fact, it’s often done with what is called scansion so we’re reading the word and also the words either side of it practically at the same time so that we can use the context of the line and the sentence to understand every word within it. And again, dyslexics think big picture and with heightened spacial awareness so we not only see the whole word and every letter within it but also all of those letters at every single orientation possible. So we see a “d” but it could be a “p” or a “q” or a “b”. On a single letter that’s not helpful to us but in a word like “bed” which we might read as “ded” or “deb” it’s more helpful, because again in context with the rest of the line, “I’m going to bed” the word “bed” ends up being the only word it possibly could be.

So, forgive us dyslexics when we’re struggling with phonics. Yes, it makes sense to understand that words break down into sounds and letters. And yes, we do need to learn those foundations. BUT please, also understand, that sometimes for those of us who see everything at once, it is actually easier to bridge the gap by supporting that bigger picture rather than insisting we try to unravel the little pieces.

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