What to Do When Phonics Doesn’t Work

When I went to school, phonics wasn’t really used at all.  I’m not really sure how specifically we were taught to read (I suspect it was the look- say method) but learn to read I did.  In fact, I adored reading and over time became a speed reader.

So the fact that I really struggled with spelling surprised many people. My dad used to get me to sound out the word phonetically, but that definitely didn’t help. He couldn’t understand how I had such a good ear for music but was completely tone deaf when it came to the sounds of letters and words.

Move on thirty years and now phonics is the standard bearer for learning to read and spell.  In many ways the pendulum has swung completed away from the look-say method to be practically 100% phonics based. So what happens when like me, the phonics system doesn’t work well for your child? Does that mean we should drop phonics in favour of the older method? Or should we look for a more balanced approach?

It is important to recognise that some systems will work best for certain children while others may benefit from a more flexible pedagogy. Pure phonics doesn’t work for every child and that’s okay. Most children would benefit if taught using aspects of both phonics and whole language activities but even then some children can still struggle.

If that is the case, then talk to an expert.  It’s possible your child has a visual, auditory, or learning issue that is at the heart of the problem. Get help addressing these issues if they are present. If a diagnosis such as dyslexia is confirmed or especially if one doesn’t apply, consider the following:

5 ways to help a reader or speller struggling with phonicsEvery language has its own grammar and phonics system. English is not a true phonetic language. Words do not always sound how they look. Allow your child to make an educated guess using context and any recognisable phonics. If your child guesses wrong, then tell him the word immediately.

Teach your child to always get the meaning of a word first. This can be tricky for the Dolch or sight words as most of them are abstract. Can you explain the meaning of the word ‘the’? So you may need to use examples of the word in use. Remember, your child understands the language; they are using it all the time.

Once your child understands what the word means, learn the spelling. The brain will then easily recognise the pattern of letters, associate them with the meaning and like magic, your child will be reading.

Practise makes Progress.  There are 3 ways to improve your reading and they are:

  1. Read
  2. Read
  3. Read

Read whatever the child is interested in. If your child hates reading but loves farming, then read The Farmer’s Journal with them; loves sports, read about their favourite team on the internet; a budding fashionista, read Vogue. It doesn’t matter what they are reading – the fact is they are reading! Who says that it has to be age appropriate?  Lots of so-called age appropriate books are a real turn off for the kids – they find a lot of them boring or they are of subjects that are of no interest to the child.

Finally, remember that every language is different. French sounds very different to German. Spanish is different to Portuguese and Irish is different to English.  If you are sounding out words with your child, remember that the sounds in Irish are different to the English sounds. This is why such a reliance on English phonics can lead to language difficulties for some children. Change the system and they will be babbling away confidently in their new language skills.

I’m sharing here, some of the techniques that are part of the Hummingbird Learning Method®.  If you’d like to know more, just contact me at 087 2996054 or elaine@hummingbirdlearning.com. Vist our website www.hummingbirdlearning.com; our online spelling course is available through it or our Facebook Page


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