Why Phonics Doesn’t Work for Dyslexic Students

In my work as a dyslexia specialist, I get a lot of calls from homeschool parents — usually of 8–12 year old students — and all saying the same thing:

“I taught my child to read, but I’m not sure I did a very good job. He reads very slowly, guesses at a lot of words and it takes him forever to finish his schoolwork every day. What am I doing wrong?”

First off: you haven’t done anything wrong. To understand why your child might be having trouble learning, we first have to understand what your child is learning.

Most homeschool parents use phonics to teach their children to read. Phonics is a method by which students are taught to quickly identify the sounds in unfamiliar words. For example, if you’re teaching your child, you might point to a word and say: “This word says, /ssss/ /iiii/ /t/. Sit.”

Phonics is extremely effective for the vast majority of students, but unfortunately, it’s not a great fit if your child is dyslexic.

Phonics assumes that a child’s brain can detect the difference between spoken sounds. But the brain of a dyslexic child can’t detect the sounds spoken by his parent, let alone the difference between them. It’s as if their hands are clasped over their ears as the parent/teacher says, “/ssss/ /iiii/ /t/.” They can’t identify the underlying components (sounds) in “sit” and instead hear the word as a single block of sound.

When faced with the seemingly impossible task of learning to read, dyslexic students develop their own strategy. They try to memorize every word. “Mat,” “fit,” “path,” “play,” and “cross,” are common words that dyslexic children can easily store in their memory. But, of course, this strategy can’t work forever. By fifth grade, students are exposed to approximately 10,000 new, multisyllabic words — far too many to memorize. They’ll have to rely on the words that they’ve stored in their memory. For instance, they’ll be able to read the “sit” in “situation” but perhaps nothing beyond that. And, while you may be frustrated that your fifth grader is only reading part of the word, they’re thrilled they’re reading at least part of the word. As for the rest of the word — they’ll either stop trying to read it, or start guessing.

So, if phonics doesn’t work for dyslexic students, what does work? Dyslexic students can be taught to read effectively using an evidence-based, remediation program. One of these programs, Barton Reading and Spelling, was designed for parents to use in teaching their children to read. You can also hire an experienced remediation specialist who will train your child’s brain to identify the letter sounds and then to blend those sounds into words.

If you’re concerned at all about your child’s ability to read, don’t hesitate to reach out to a specialist who can recognize dyslexia and help with the remediation process. There’s a quote from Susan Schaeffer Macaulay’s For the Children’s Sake that has stayed with me ever since I stumbled on it over 10 years ago:

“All children deserve great care in the building skills of literacy, to build a foundation upon which they can carry on their own education at a later stage.”

Kathy is a dyslexia specialist and educational consultant based in Franklin, TN. https://tandemlearning.co/

Kathy is a dyslexia specialist and educational consultant based in Franklin, TN. https://tandemlearning.co/