Phonics, a method of correlating sounds in a language to letters or groups of letters, is often used to learn proper pronunciation of words in a language. However, in the case that a language's characters/letters and pronunciation don't correspond to each other, is using phonics as a method to learn pronunciation still effective?

(For the purpose of this question, I'm looking for answers geared more towards English, but the answer should be similar regardless of the language being learned.)

  • 4
    I have trouble understanding what this question means. Phonics as I understand it is a kind of mental "tool" composed of information about regular correspondences between spelling and pronunciation. Why do you want to know if phonics is "good"? What kind of answer do you think would demonstrate this, or demonstrate that it is false?
    – sumelic
    Dec 26, 2016 at 6:20
  • Which writing systems does this question apply to? Alphabets, abjads, abugidas, syllabaries or logographic writing systems?
    – Tsundoku
    Dec 26, 2016 at 20:56
  • What do you mean by pronunciation and alphabet not corresponding to each other? Can you give some examples?
    – Tsundoku
    Jan 2, 2017 at 1:22
  • @ChristopheStrobbe -- I assume the original poster means a non-ideograph language where most characters usually correspond to sound(s), but in many cases a single spelling (such as "ough") can have multiple pronunciations, or a single sound can have multiple spelllings. English includes lots of examples.
    – Jasper
    Jan 7, 2017 at 4:57
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    Phonics is a method to teach children (native speakers of English) to read English (see this other question), not a method to teach non-native speakers the pronunciation of English.
    – Tsundoku
    Jan 7, 2017 at 18:36

2 Answers 2


Since the last paragraph of the question says, "For the purpose of this question, I'm looking for answers geared more towards English", I'll assume that the OP mainly wants to know if phonics is effective for English.

The challenge of using phonics in the teaching of English is that English has 26 letters but 44 sounds (or phonemes), and that certain letter combinations can be pronounced in various ways. For individual letters, take for example the 'o' in "hot", "note", "woman" and "women" (four different pronunciations). For letter combinations, take for example the 'ou' in "bough", "bought", "boulder", "boulevard" and "tough".

The USA have gone back and forth between phonics and the whole-word approach. The British Department of Education promotes phonics, but the article Five things about phonics (BBC News, June 2012) points out that:

The government's phonics-only approach is controversial, with many teachers and educationalists advocating a more balanced approach in which other reading strategies are also used. "Some children will need more phonics-teaching more than others," says Andrew Lambirth, professor of education at the University of Greenwich.

The English Teachers Association NSW in Australia published a position statement that points out, among other things, that phonics is just one part of a bigger set of reading strategies that learners are taught. The position statement contrasts the Australian approach with the strong emphasis on phonics in the USA:

The USA through its national program, Reading first ,can be said to have effectively advocated phonics as the main method of reading instruction in US schools - with legislation reflecting a long history of phonics-based instruction in the US. In the 2003 international PISA test despite the "overwhelming scientific evidence" in favour of phonics-based instruction, 15 year-olds in the US scored significantly worse than Australia with its more inclusive reading instruction. Australia, in fact, was beaten by only one country - Finland.

The Australian position statement also quotes a paper by Stephen Krashen, which says, among other things, that the general public and the media in the USA support phonics instruction without being aware that there are several different phonics methods (intensive, systematic phonics, basic phonics, zero phonics).

Based on this, a phonics-only approach to teaching English seems too limited.

It is not so easy to find information about phonics for languages that use a different writing system (i.e. not the Latin alphabet). There is some evidence that phonics can be used for teaching Arabic (see e.g. A First: Cartoon To Teach Arabic Reading Through Phonics, December 2015), but I have not found any evidence about its effectiveness compared to other methods.

People have also applied phonics to the teaching of Russian. According to the article Russia has phonics debate, too (Baltemore Sun, 4 March 1998), the teacher Olga Viktorovna Pronina argues that the whole-word approach required too much memorisation because word endings change, and children who learnt to read a word according to the whole-word approach can't apply that approach to other words. However, Russian has a much more straightforward relationship between spelling and pronunciation than English, so it does not serve as a good argument for using phonics in languages with a complicated relationship between spelling and pronunciation.

So, until someone can point to evidence about the use of phonics for other languages and other writing systems, the question cannot be answered definitively.

  • The English Teachers Association NSW link is not working for me. Aside from that, it seems to me that none of the links you have posted really have presented any good evidence against the effectiveness of phonics. The BBC article says many people consider it "controversial". But many people consider e.g. vaccines or evolution "controversial". People's opinions aren't worth much without supporting evidence. The quote from Australia ignores the many possible confounding factors in a U.S.-Australia comparison.
    – sumelic
    Sep 15, 2017 at 22:37
  • I think your last sentence is more accurate than, and conflicts with your earlier statement "a phonics-only approach to teaching English seems too limited"
    – sumelic
    Sep 15, 2017 at 22:38
  • (1) The fact that phonics is controversial among teachers and researchers (i.e. not simply in "people's opinions") does not compare with vaccines being controversial among people who ignore science ("people's opinions"). (Evolution is not controversial at all, at least among people who know that science trumps faith.) (2) The question does not ask for evidence against the effectiveness for phonics but in favour of its effectiveness. For English, phonics only seems too limited. For other languages where the relationship between spelling and pronunciations, I don't have enough information.
    – Tsundoku
    Sep 15, 2017 at 22:56
  • Thanks for fixing the link; I find the English Teachers Association statement much more informative than the BBC article. My point was that the BBC article doesn't provide enough information about why "many teachers and educationalists" find the "phonics-only approach" controversial. Things may be considered "controversial" for good and bad reasons. Teachers can be expected to have more practical knowledge about how to educate children than other people, but they aren't vastly more rational than the rest of the population--they are also susceptible to biases and so on.
    – sumelic
    Sep 16, 2017 at 0:53

Phonics still remains a very controversial topic. Phonics seems highly effective for certain populations of learners. However, for learners that are already quite advanced, phonics may slow down their learning, and the introduction of phonic complexity may make the more advanced students lose the focus on meaning and understanding.


"Many children will learn to read well regardless of the methodology, but it's those children that might have a propensity to struggle ... they're the ones we know benefit most from really explicit phonics instruction."

There are many proponents of phonics education though and argued against the current whole language emphasis.

Whole Language literacy-teaching approaches are not effective (ES 0.06, where any ES under 0.4 means “don’t bother”), and Phonics approaches are much more effective (ES 0.52). Direct instruction (ES 0.60) and the teaching of spelling (0.58) also get the nod as effective approaches.


Australia is trying to balance the whole-word and phonics approach. Year 1 phonic testing has been trialled and national introduction is currently explored.


National phonics testing is very controversial, and whether the UK experience is successful or not is still quite contentious. It seems that a balance of intense phonics education for those students that need while maintaining the focus on meaning making and understanding is the way to go.


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