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What To Do When Phonics Doesn’t Work

Phonics is the method of associating the sounds of letters, and groups of letters, with the symbols or words that they make. While phonics is a tried and true method of learning to read, every child learns differently, which means that phonics does not work well for every student. So what do you do if phonics does not work?

Methods such as whole language instruction, balanced literacy, and Native Instruction are alternatives to phonics and may prove successful for many children who struggle with phonics systems. Allowing the students to learn words in context by using pictures, motivation and expression all can improve literacy.

If students are having difficulties learning to read and write using phonics systems, they are not alone. Many students struggle to learn how to read and write using phonics.

There are alternative methods available that have been proven to work for many children who do not respond well to phonics.

So let’s take a look at why phonics is such a popular teaching strategy, why it may not be the right method for every student, as well as some alternatives to the phonics methods.

How Do We Teach Without Phonics?

Alternative methods for English learning are critical for the educational development of many children. To teach without using phonics, the first step is to identify the reason why the student is not responding or progressing well with the phonics-based learning systems.

Identifying these underlying reasons will allow you to find the right methods and take the necessary steps to help the student progress.

Next, familiarize yourself with some of the alternative methods and strategies, such as whole language instruction, balanced approach and native / natural instruction as well as other appropriate strategies based on the requirements of your students.

Kinesthetic Phonics

Although traditional phonics instruction may not work for all children it may be worth looking at not just alternatives to phonics but instead alternatives on how Phonics is taught. A new approach is to use kinesthetic learning and movement in phonics and English lessons.

Phonics in Motion is one of the new approaches, and their aim, like ours, is to make English lessons more lively and fun and also engage those hard to reach students. Certainly worth a look below, if you use the code EnglishIsFun20 then you can get 20% of any item as well.

Whole language instruction

Balanced Approach

This is increasingly hard to pin down into a definitive explanation. As the Reading hub states it can mean multiple things to different teachers however in essence. It aims to offer elements of different approaches. So it is likely a teacher following this balanced approach will be using elements of whole language methods and phonics instruction. It would be difficult to argue against combining the best of all styles, but care should be taken to not just add confusion to the mix if the methods contradict earn other.

Multiple Intelligence / Learning Styles Adaptations

As we mentioned Learning Styles play a large part in how students react and relate to materials and methods. As far as possible we should be trying to hit as many of these styles as we can over the course of our teaching. The more we can the more engaged all of our students will be.

  • For example, encourage visual learners to read everything around them – road signs, labels on toys or packaging, recipes, posters – encourage them to look for things to read in the world around them.
  • Associate colors and pictures with letters and sounds, use visual aids to teach them entire words. Pictures of animals and places are great options for this, teaching the learner a variety of sounds and words quickly in an easy to associate way.
  • Physical learners can benefit from having tactile interactions while learning to read or by having physical objects to use to manipulate or look at to help them associate words and letters.
  • Magnetic letters to spell out words, blocks with letters on them, or simply letting the student draw letters and write words themselves are all great ways to help physical learners progress in reading and writing.

Dyslexia Adaptations

  • Children with Dyslexia will require more attention and specialized learning methods depending on the severity of their condition.
  • Whole language and whole word-learning strategies, along with many repetitions, can be effective methods for helping these students learn how to read well.
  • These students need to learn to make their own associations with the shapes of words and individual letters, so let them go at their own pace, encouraging them to seek out words that they recognize and building upon them with associated words.
  • With these methods, students with Dyslexia have an opportunity to learn to read and write without any long-term hindrances.

Phonics is a popular learning strategy for teaching children to read and write largely because it incorporates a wide variety of methods and learning styles that have been proven to help many learners from different backgrounds and languages.

Phonics is a very straight-forward method of learning, as it associates letters, letter groups, and shapes within words with specific sounds that constitute spoken words and syllables. We have hundreds of resources on phonics in your resources section here.

Phonics is an effective learning method for most students, as it causes them to take their time and internalize words, sounds, and syllables before even speaking the full word out loud. The time that it takes to sound out a word using phonics gives the student time to process and remember the sounds and words that they are verbalizing.

However even if using a phonics methods of instruction it is important to remember that there are many ways to teach the same material and students are not all the same, learning styles motivations can all differ. Tailoring your lessons to fit these styles will be way more beneficial to both the students and the outcomes!

Why Would Phonics Not Work?

Phonics is a method that requires every student who uses it to learn in a similar way. (styles and presentation aside) Phonics works very well for many students and should not be discounted from the possible learning strategies for any pupil, but there are reasons why phonics does not work well or does not work at all for other students.

Some of these reasons include:

  • The student has a dominant learning style that is not conducive to learning to read using phonics strategies.
  • The student has not been exposed to much literature or reading opportunities before entering school.
  • The student has some form of Dyslexia, mild or serious that prevents them from progressing using the phonics strategies.

Dominant Learning Styles That are Non-Conducive To Phonics

The three main learning styles that are not conducive to learning to read using phonics are auditory, visual, and physical learning styles.

  • If a student is more adept as an auditory learner, they may struggle to identify the shapes of letters or letter groups in order to associate them with specific sounds or words. Sounding the words out using phonics may seem like the right approach for an auditory learner, but the broken-up sounds may not help these students progress well.
  • Visual learners do not respond well to auditory or tactile cues, and for this reason, phonics may not work well for them. These students require visual aids and cues to associate with letters, sounds, and words.
  • Physical or kinesthetic learners may struggle with phonics because of the lack of physical stimulation and physical shapes. Their motivation may suffer as a result.

Inexperience With Reading

If a student has not had much exposure to reading before entering a phonics-based syllabus, they may have difficulty piecing together the various sounds and verbalizations that phonics employs. The actual concept may be difficult for them and it would be very important to spend time going through pre reading skills with them prior to phonics.

Of course be sure they are at the correct developmental age to actually start phonics instruction as well. We have more on this in our what age to teach phonics post here.

Students With Dyslexia

Students with Dyslexia are certainly able to learn to read, but phonics may not be the best strategy for them in the beginning stages.

Someone who has Dyslexia will not make shape, letter, or word associations in the same way as a person who does not have Dyslexia. This means that an alternative approach must be taken to help these students learn to read and write well.

These students require a whole language instruction method to help them progress, learning to read words as a whole, as opposed to the normal practice of breaking them up into parts and then repeating them to solidify the identification of the words.

Phonics strategies will not work for a student with Dyslexia in the beginning stages of learning to read but may become helpful as the student progresses. Always seek help from speech and language therapist if you suspect or have students with dyslexia in your lessons, they will have multiple tips and resources for you to help make learning more successful. There is a lot more information here on learning strategies and dyslexia.


I always wondered, though not to much as I don’t really want to see the answer, of where the phrase the are many ways to skin a cat came from. However we can offer an alternative, and much better visually image!, there are many ways to teach a child.

To most teachers this will not be enlightening news, we are constantly trying, tweaking, twisting our teaching methods to fit the students in our classes. What works one year may not work the next. Phonics is new, educationally speaking as 40 years in education can be regarded as recent!!. We have had great success with it, but we have not had 100% success with it, we always have to look to see if our students are coping and understanding and adapt.

If a student does not progress well, or at all, with reading and writing skills using the phonics methods, that does not mean that they will not learn to read or write well or that they are a slow learner; it simply means that they require a different method of learning to succeed.

All children learn differently in some way or another. It is important to identify the learning style of the student before deciding on the right learning method for them. Take the time to understand the learning style of the student, identifying their strengths and requirements, and structure their learning program accordingly. They will progress and they will succeed.


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