Phonics Based Direct Instruction

Linguist John McWhorter strongly supports phonics and direct instruction:

Now that it’s summer, I have a suggestion for how parents can grant their wee kiddies the magic of reading by Labor Day: Pick up Siegfried Engelmann’s Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. My wife and I used it a while ago with our then-4-year-old daughter, and after a mere 20 cozy minutes a night, a little girl who on Memorial Day could recognize on paper only the words no and stop and the names of herself and her family members could, by the time the leaves turned, read simple books.

…Engelmann’s book, which he co-wrote with Phyllis Haddox and Elaine Bruner, was first published in the early 1980s, but it was based on work from the late 1960s. That’s when Engelmann was involved in the government-sponsored Project Follow Through, whose summary report compared nine methods for how to teach reading and tracked results on 75,000 children from kindergarten through third grade. The results, though some critics over the years have rejected them on methodological grounds, were clear: The approach that proved most effective was based on phonics—teaching children how to sound words out, letter by letter, rather than encouraging students to recognize words as single chunks, also called the whole-word system. Specifically, the most successful approach supplemented basic phonics with a tightly scripted format emphasizing repetition and student participation, often dubbed “direct instruction.” As I have previously explained for NPR, the results were especially impressive among poor children, including black ones.

…And yet in the education world, Engelmann’s technique is considered controversial.

Here are previous MR posts on Direct Instruction, the teaching method that works even though many teachers don’t like it.


If it was April 1 I might chuckle at the behavior of the link to previous posts. Are you saying there are none but wanted to have a link nonetheless?

Just takes me to the July 8 post -- self-referring?

Scroll down.

Unsurprising that the study subjects ended with 3rd graders, that being about the point where it becomes obvious to those young readers that phonics is as worthless as any other method in using English spelling to properly pronounce words.

'with a tightly scripted format emphasizing repetition and student participation'

And one can wonder what sort of participation is involved in following a tightly scripted format, especially if one wishes to avoid using a word like 'rote' to describe what is going on while following that script.

Though of course, reading is clearly a quay to sailing into a successful future, especially if one avoids using such vocabulary too early in the classroom

"...Unsurprising that the study subjects ended with 3rd graders"

Unsurprising, because once you know how to read you don't need phonics any more, duh. Nobody's suggesting that phonics-based instruction should continue for years and years.

Is it possible for you to just accept something that Alex or Tyler write, or is your need to disagree with them an actual compulsion that would take medicine to overcome?

This guy clockwork is just trying to stay consistent in being both wrong and asinine in all of his commentary. And is succeeding!

The man has dedicated years of his life to trolling the comment section of this blog. Try to show a little respect. A very very very little bit of respect, because that's pretty pathetic, when you think about it.

Third grade is also the turning point in elementary school curricula when English language instruction transitions from "learning to read" towards "reading to learn", which is also why so many education pundits make such a big deal of third grade reading achievement figures.

'Unsurprising, because once you know how to read you don't need phonics any more, duh. '

Sure, everyone knows that 3rd graders make excellent readers, who require absolutely no further instruction. Which is a book just waiting to be written - 'Everything I Needed To Know About Reading I Learned By 3rd Grade.'

Well, at least in this comment section that likely sounds plausible.

“Well, at least in this comment section that likely sounds plausible.”

Peak Prior!

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Well, 3rd grade is about where it has been documented for more than a century that the damage of formal education has defeated the student. Loss of creative thinking, compliance and deference to teacher without independent thought, etc. (The earliest I've personally seen this pointed out is in an article published in 1880. Sir Ken Robinson cited similarly from the creativity aspect in a 2007 TED Talk).

In addition after 2-4 years of vocational training, students in around 3rd grade start receiving more abstract instruction, but never any instruction in how to actually do their job, i.e., study. So kids start falling by the wayside as they reach the end of the muscular "study" abilities. Those who reinvent how to study go on to school success and often professorships. But also by 3rd grade the kid has learned not to think past the lesson plan and to depend on the teacher to provide initiative.

"Unsurprising, because once you know how to read you don't need phonics any more, duh."

+1. Everyone agrees you don't use phonics in English Literature.

Based on the research that I have seen, getting kids to read earlier is of zero importance. Kids who are taught to read at age 4 and kids of comparable ability who are taught beginning at age 7 read at the same level by the time they are 8.
Learning faster also seems to me to be of minor importance. Does it really matter if it takes you 100 hours or 200 hours to master reading? What would the pupils be doing with the hours they free up that would be more constructive? The kiddies are in school for over a thousand hours a year.

+1 postmodern sociology bullshit!
reading is the means to an end
the earlier you read the earlier you can start learning
stuff from books like which is the pointy end of a stingray
& why they call it a stingray
a kid age 4-8 is exposed to a lot more good stuff if ze/zer/zem
can read

I was able to read at age 4 and I sure enjoyed being able to read books whenever I wanted without having to ask my busy parents if they had time for it.

As a busy parent, I would enjoy it if my kids could read on their own sooner, so they could read books whenever they want instead of always asking me to do it.

As a busy parent, I 100% agree with this.

It's almost as if here were value to education other than matching some bureaucrat-imposed metric.....

There's an easy solution - in nearly every county of the country selling your kids is possible. So, not only do you not have to waste your time teaching them, but you save on food, housing, clothing, entertainment, etc. Plus there is some chance that the kids will be placed in a home where the parents give a damn.

"Based on the research that I have seen, getting kids to read earlier is of zero importance."

I'm told that in America about one 17-year-old in eight, is functionally illiterate. Does it matter if the kids learn to read before they leave school?

"Based on the research that I have seen, getting kids to read earlier is of zero importance. "

If only because early readers are stuck waiting for the rest of the kids to catch up.

In my experience school teachers make decisions on the basis that the value of time to pupils is zero. Hence long boring days being made to keep quiet and sit still. Doctors often work on the same principle.

our American public schools and their professional educators do a fantastic job of teaching all children to read proficiently, especially low income & disadvantaged kids.

No need for amateur parents to hinder that great education system with silly DIY home teaching gimmicks.
Why tamper with perfection -- let the professionals handle it. ?

The irony of course being that your sarcasm is actually accurate. American teachers do a better job teaching literacy than teachers in almost any other country, once you correct for the native intelligence of the pupils and the stupidity of English orthography. Americans really have no idea how poor education is in other countries. The American left idealizes a European utopia that doesn't exist, and the American right just likes to denigrate teachers, and both factions are pushing ideology over reality.

Of course, since American teachers make more than teachers in just about any other country, maybe we should not be surprised. Just another ironic truth about the US education system.

On paper American teachers may make more, in reality Austrian and German teachers still seem to enjoy more comfortable lifestyles than American teachers I know. The lower salary is balanced out by other socialist amenities - cheap healthcare, no need to save for children's education, guaranteed pension, etc.

Something similar occurred with respect to teaching math: the new method dropped algorithms (e.g., long division). To paraphrase an old expression: No man's life, liberty or property are safe while the faculty from the college of education are at work.

On the topic of long division: there are other division algorithms that are much simpler and easier to teach. They're slower, but only by a small-ish constant factor which hardly ever matters in practice. My parents taught me one, which is how I learned division as a child in a couple of hours. Then I spent a whole year bored in class as teachers tried to get everybody to learn how to do long division in the traditional way.

From what I've seen of the modern math curriculum, it looks like a shaky step vaguely in the right direction.

Can you give a reference for a “different” division algorithm? I’ve seen different ways of organizing on paper the same, ancient algorithm, and maybe some are better than others.

I think we are witnessing a phonics Renaissance. Brazil's President Captain Bolsonaro has mandated a new focus on phonics-based instruction for Brazilian children.

sr. ribby,
is bolsonary really for more child labor (8yrsold)?
doesn't that sorta stuff reduce literacy!

It is not that simple. He just said he labored hard when he was a boy and it did not harm him in the least, quite the opposite indeed. He also pointed out it is much better to work than using drugs. Drug use has reached epidemic proportions in the USA, where crack is openly smoked on the streets while the Big Pharma-pushed opioids swallow communities whole.

President Captain Bolsonaro has said he will not introduce new legislation allowing child labor because he has another economical reforms to push through Congress. One also should remember that Brazil, under President Captain Bolsonaro, won the America Cup yesterday. The grateful team awarded him of the gold medals they earned as a token of the Brazilian people's wise admiration. I wish we had in the United States a leader such as Brazil's President Captain Bolsonaro.

crikey!,ribby did you go to smith college?
tell bolsonaro/a that child labor vs. crack smoking is what they call
a false equivalency!
orange man a little sketchy
but child labor creepy!

His point is, learning discipline and diligence is better than doing drugs.

The difference is not on how you start but how long you practice after you start. Take a musical instrument. Does anyone cares about the method used during the first months? Reading is not so different. It doesn't matter if it took 2 weeks or 2 years to learn. Once it's possible, just practice.

A better method would increase teacher productivity, but should not have a long impact on the student.

PS. English is not that hard, ~20% of the world population is able to use it =)

I grew up in the early 90’s when the whole word system was in vogue (at least in West Virginia). Although I read pretty much all of the time, had perfect scores on reading and English on ACT, etc., I have terrible pronunciation.

The whole word method relies on you memorizing how words sound which means any new word I encounter Im screwed on pronunciation.

'which means any new word I encounter Im screwed on pronunciation.'

No, it is English spelling that screws you. For example, how do you pronounce 'buffet?' Or 'bow?' Or 'read?' The list is very long, and pretty much the only way to know how to pronounce an English word is to hear it (in context, with a clear understanding that one type of bowed is not like another type of bowed). A quay point, actually.

I'll disagree. The situation you describe is real enough (I recall reading the word "epitome" years before I heard the correct pronunciation), but I'd suggest that for the subset of words that make up the bulk of everyday speech, a kid will either figure it out on their own or will have their mispronunciation pointed out to them by an adult pretty quickly. It's a non-issue.

'but I'd suggest that for the subset of words that make up the bulk of everyday speech, a kid will either figure it out on their own'

But not by using phonics, obviously.

'It's a non-issue.'

It isn't even an issue, merely a reply to Andrew Marcum who believes that the whole word method limited his ability to correctly pronounce any new word he encounters.

Its really not that bad. five or six different ways and a few oddballs to spell 809 words that rhyme with "hum".

bum, slum, from, hum, glum, gum, mum, rum, yum, plum, chum, drum, scum, strum, sum, swum, alum, album, datum, dumdum, fulcrum, gypsum, hoodlum, humdrum, lignum, magnum possum, eardrum, septum, wampum, velum, phylum;

some, awesome, handsome, lonesome, grewsome, fearsome, twosome
come, become, outcome, welcome

dumb, thumb, numb, plumb.....

It would be ever more consistent if y'all stopped pronouncing "from" wrung.

My wife and I bought that book after reading a previous Marginal Revolution post about it, and doing some additional research. It works. It works beautifully. It's not fun for very small children, but my daughter was reading at age 3 and has continued to improve. I don't know if this teaching method is a silver bullet, but it worked for us.

+1, always good to hear some feedback.

I don't know how to interpret your post. "It's not fun for very small children, but..." " worked for us." Is your daughter now ~30 years old (+) and happy? Or don't you include her in your "us"?

Phonics, like learning to study, and formula math, gives you to tools to tear down a heretofore unseen, complex, situation and understand it. With phonics, you don't have to have seen the word before. With formula math, you apply the rules, formulaically, to a new problem till you can match it to your understanding. With studying, you learn to break down a text or talk to essentials then flesh is back out with the fluff you had to tear away to see the skeleton.

And yes, each is hard at first because it is disciplining the intellect. It isn't just more game show education where you regurgitate against a clock.

Empirical evidence generally counts for almost nothing in education. Ed school professors, like professors generally, have an almost total ability to override empirical evidence that does not support their political preconceptions. And phonics and algorithms have a conservative valence, just as almost all reductionist theories have a conservative valence.

ED Hirsh had an article in Political Science Reviewer about 20 years ago. His thesis was that research in education was 'cargo cult social science'. All the trappings of observational studies and statistical analysis were there, but the studies are inconclusive or inconsistent. His explanation for this was that mis-specified models were a chronic problem and poor study design was a problem (e.g. selecting coarse-grained classroom studies which could not demonstrate what you sought to demonstrate).

A problem he didn't discuss was that a lot of education professors are political sectaries and their pathologies have infected NCATE.

There's no need for empirical evidence. The teaching profession has already established that that the learning they impart is so amazing that it can't be sensed by any test.

Teaching a child how to read at 3 or 4 is child abuse. What's next? Calculus at 6? What's the hurry?

Reading to a child as soon as they can talk is a great idea. It is a tradition in our family. It's a great way to spend some intimate time with your child.

This idea of forcing kids to learn to read before preschool or kindergarten is crazy. Is it the competitive, achievement orientation of the parents driving this abuse?

Let them be kids. They are only toddlers once - they have a lifetime of grim competition ahead of them.

Reading at 3! Calculus at 6! Dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!

This is one of the themes of the wonderful French film La Gloire de Mon Père (set at the turn of the 20th century), where Marcel Pagnol's parents argue over him reading at a young age. His mother locks up the books in the house, so he resorts to things like soap wrappers. Plus ça change. When our own kids were little, we 'read' the film to them (subtitled films make for excellent reading-to-your kids material).

I was reading at 2-3, and the big advantage is that reading is fun. I loved books, but you don't even have to limit it to that. Speculatively, we seem to take satisfaction in taking in information about the environment. How many words do you voluntarily read just going about your day? The ability to read fluently is liberating, not oppressive.

I love reading, and have since elementary school. That is not the point. If a child shows an interest in learning to read before going to school, then fine, teach them to read. Otherwise, let the child explore the world and exercise his or her natural curiosity.

I think imposing reading lessons on children younger than kindergarten age has more to do with the egos and competitiveness of the parents, who really want to brag about how smart their kids are and want them to excel in school, to be steps ahead of the other kids in their class.
The parents are basically stealing childhood from their kids.

Life is finite, and short, and only a small amount of that short life is spent on childhood.

Let kids be kids.

I guess we just diverge on what "stealing childhood" is. There's plenty of time for both unstructured free play and structured phonics lessons (which the kids may well enjoy anyways if they're doing it with parents).

I don't doubt that a lot of parents are engaged in miserable zero-sum competitiveness with their kids, just don't see teaching kids reading early as a big marker of that, ymmv

There's plenty of time, but if the kids don't enjoy it, they shouldn't be forced to do it. Forcing things on kids is much more likely to result in them hating and avoiding those things in the future.

Kids should be forced to do anything that they need to do and won't do on their own. Reading is one of those things and the earlier the better.

Why teach anybody to read, ever? It's really quite totalitarian, changing their brains to hold such content as you want to have in it.

People who really want to want to read will teach themselves. Like I did at age four.

If this method works then that's all the more reason to fix English spelling.

It is odd that societies with archaic illogical spelling, or no alphabet at all - the Anglosphere, France, China and Japan - somehow outperform, and are more literate, than societies which have very rational and logical spelling systems - Indonesia, Turkey, even Mexican Spanish for the most part.

English orthography is what it is largely because of the failures of past reformers. That and through the revages of sound changes and regional variation. Neither of which has stopped.

Do you want to create some new half-arsed standard that gets outdated to the extent that even got adopted?

I don't think that's a good idea at all. For example -- would you favor entirely distinct rhotic and non-rhotic spellings of English to match differences in pronunciation?

And cats would stay cats but dogs would be dogz. So much for supposed regularity.

I also wonder if literacy is really an issue in the age of smartphones. Are there really any young people left who can't read text messages?

All 6 of my children were reading by age 4 with thanks to my wife and her commitment to "Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons". It works.

See the charming page by a former teacher at He sells a sequence of word lists. Students get 20 seconds to successfully read out loud each list of 5 words. It is cute when a little boy balls up his fists at the challenge of "bat, hat, rat, cat, ... the".

The last item is always an especially hard "word of the day". At lunchtime, the teacher stands by the cash register and won't let the kids have their milk until they say the word of the day.

I learned silent letters, dipthongs, and digraphs in the third grade. But phonics provided a good foundation. My condolences to all the Mandarin readers.

Withholding milk for not complying seems cruel and unnecessary.

It seems a mystery to me, but I have a hunch the interest in story (or facts about the world, depending on the child) should precede the process, whatever it is. I read to my child regularly from babyhood (when you are home alone with a single little one, you must find ways to pass the time), not lingering overlong in the story-less, purely-graphic word book or "board book"-type period: as soon as any suggestion of talking was underway, we shifted to picture books with interesting or funny narratives, as much for me as for him. At some point with favorites we had read often it was natural to move my finger along the text, and pause at a climactic moment - "Bang bangety BUMP!" - so he could say the words. At three he could say any word you pointed at - but as this was not the pleasure we took in reading, I didn't particularly stress it. He often looked at his books, but I didn't know whether he was reading them. When he was four, nearly five, I recall having him read "Green Eggs and Ham" aloud to his great-grandmother. But by then, our read-aloud was as often a "chapter" book, some favorite from our own not-that-long-ago childhoods, as a picture book. Still, I supposed that there must be a learning curve between his reading to himself picture books, and reading longer things on his own. So I was surprised, a couple weeks after the proud showing off to the grandmother of "Green Eggs," which for all I knew he had simply memorized, he and I began "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" one afternoon. I read him three chapters, he wanted to hear more, but I demurred. A couple hours later I found him just finishing it up, and turning to the first page to start over. I wondered a little at this - mustn't there be words he didn't know, that would render the exercise futile? Apparently not. I was similarly baffled not long after that - he had come to find me, and share with me the story of the pussy and the painkiller, not exactly choice Twain, in my view, nor - would I have thought - entirely comprehensible to a five-year-old unfamiliar with drugs. But it had made him laugh so hard he was hyperventilating.

Oddly enough, I have since wished we had de-emphasized books in favor of other things; if I had been more mature myself, perhaps we might all have spent that early pre-school time more fruitfully, if less congenially to our dreamy, mutual book-loving natures, than listening to stories. But we are who we are.

I used Engelmann’s Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons with my 3 year old. It is extremely simple. You are reading a script with the child. After about the 30th lesson, he was reading and by the last lesson, he could read third grade level books. He now at 9 reads constantly, and enjoys it. All of the people who envision this as abuse, haven't tried it. It is really not hard for the child (except at 3 yrs old, they sometimes don't want to cooperate about anything. And, with respect to those people who keep saying reading early has zero benefit (which is now the prevailing attitude in the education establishment) should be a little more skeptical about education studies in my opinion. How could you possibly measure the benefits of early learning? Sometimes common sense is better than pseudo-scientific attempts to measure small interventions on long term outcomes.

"How could you possibly measure the benefits of early learning?"

If you can't measure them, they probably don't exist.

Well that's news to us....

"I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be."

If you can't measure the alleged benefita, it is not science we are talking about. We are talking about voodoo.

Christianity is 'voodoo'?

No, I am talking about voodoo trying to disguise itself as science.

What are the measurable benefits of Christianity?

Many. Christians worship the real god, God. That is why Brazil's leader, President Captain Bolsonaro, adopted the motto "Brazil above everything. God above everyone".

But the point is, teaching children should be a much more tanglible matter than the soul and Heaven.

Many? Can you give me just three?


God favors Christians. As President Captain Bolsonaro pointed out, God has chosen him to deliver the Brazilian faithful from communism.

Christians lead happier and more purposeful lives.

Christians get to enjoy great musics such as I Vow to Thee and The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

But those aren't measurable. So there are none. Sad.

They are very measurable. Brazil's President Bolsonaro got more votes than his rival, corrupt leftist Mr. Haddad. Crime is down. The stockmarket is rallying.

Also, as I pointed, religion is not a science, which was what Lord Kelvin was talking about. Teaching to read should be a science.

Broadly true, but useless in this case. What, exactly, are we measuring? If you go by "Does this kid score higher on a standardized test than other kids?", there probably isn't a benefit. If you're going by "Does this kid enjoy reading?" there may or may not be, depends on the child and the parents. If you go by "Does the child appear to be enjoying himself while doing something that's proven to benefit his brain?" there certainly is.

Measurement is not a simple matter, in any science but especially in sociology.

That is the whole point. There are no benefits whatsoever.

You missed my point--I can only assume deliberately. My point IS NOT that there are no benefits. It's the opposite, in fact. My point is that YOU are measuring the wrong thing.

My wife and I picked up this book when we saw our son trying to teach himself to read. The benefit was giving structure to something he was already trying to do. That's going to be tricky to measure. Not, of course, impossible, but certainly not something that can be judged by standardized testing. He's getting to share something he sees his mother and father enjoying--again, a benefit that's difficult, but not impossible to measure. He gets to sneak a flashlight into his bedroom and read his RescueBot book after bedtime, allowing him to enjoy stories he likes at a time when they'd otherwise be unavailable (and sneak one past Mom and Dad in the process, as far as he's aware)--again, real benefits that are hard, but not impossible, to measure.

When you step outside The World According to Bureaucrats, the term "benefit" takes on meanings that standardized testing cannot imagine.

For further arguments along these lines, see G. K. Chesterton's essay "In Defense of Penny Dreadfulls". It's freely available on in audiobook format, if you prefer that to reading it (public domain work, after all). My argument is essentially his, and it shows just how long people like you have been making the same error you are making.

Let us be blunt: there is no efficiency increasing whatsoever in such methods. I started reading before I was four and I can assure it is not that great -- or horrible, by the way -- it just is. As Brazil's President Captain Bolsonaro pointed out, a country needs to prepare its citizens to man its armies and enterprises to make sure it can keep its living space.

I see. You consider children to be property of the state, and want to make sure you get the most use (by YOUR metric) out of that property.

I consider children to be humans, and I further consider the idea of humans as property to be one of the most vile evils that has befallen the world.

I think we understand one another perfectly well at this point, and I do not have the stomach to continue a conversation with someone who views humans as property.

Obviously it is never that simple or melodramatic. My point is, societies have to educate children to be productive. Societies that fail to do that... fail. Brazil's President Captain Bolsonaro likes children and supports state initiatives to make them stronger and more productive. It is for their good.

What, exactly, are we measuring?




JHFC please *don't* get vaccinated and for humanities sake use condoms.

One of my fondest memories of Mom was the day she first took me to the public library, at about age 6. "Here are the books on cars, here are the books on dinosaurs, over here are the planets and we'll find out where the baseball books are." I was amazed, walked out with a big stack of stuff and the rest was history. As opposed to any particular lessons or method.

Dr. Seuss and TV's Rocky & Bullwinkle were also crucial in my early development, as was having the afternoon paper go thwap at our door each day.

If a child wants to learn to read, this might very well be a good way to learn. There are lots of good ways to learn to read. As more are being allowed to, we're now observing kids teaching themselves to read.

supports phonics and direct instruction
That would be fonics, if we were truly phonic.

When I first encountered Direct Instruction (thanks AT!) I was optimistically curious. The meta-analysis paper from 18 months ago has been cited 4 times since.That requires an explanation other than "it's not main-stream". Seems like many (if not most) commentators here don't understand the problems with using anecdotal testimony to make conclusions/decisions. One problem (imho) with education in the USA is the "Education" meme: there is a single best way to teach any particular subject. Irregardless (love that word) of the child, irregardless of the teacher, irregardless of the system, community, or conflicting interests.

…And yet in the education world, Engelmann’s technique is considered controversial.

See Marva Collins on this point. Elementary schoolteachers dislike phonics because it's boring for teachers.

Former school teacher here. Engelmann's system is very effective, it is not meant to be done all day, every day, and it succeeds with at-risk children.

I don't think we use the term 'phonics' in Europe, because it's self-evident that reading should be based on relating letters to sounds.

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