Alternatives to Phonics
ESL | Phonics | Reading | Teaching | Teaching English

What Are the Best Alternatives to Phonics?

Phonics is one of the most popular reading programs in our school system. It works for most students in most situations, but it is not always appropriate for every student. Phonics is not the only way to teach children to read, and though many programs incorporate phonics into their other reading approaches they are some that offer alternatives to phonics instruction: .

Alternatives to phonics instruction can include Whole Language methodology. the Natural Approach, and Whole Word. These all place less importance on the explicit teaching of phonics and look on English acquisition in a broader context. These include practices such as memorization and reading for context.  

Below we will examine some of the most popular alternatives to teaching phonics to early readers and offer links to free resources to help.

My Children Can’t Understand Phonics; What Do I Do Now?

If your child doesn’t understand phonics, don’t panic. Not every student is going to be good at phonics. You will still want your child to become a proficient reader, but you must first take another approach you just may look at alternatives to phonics. It is still possible to teach your child to read without phonics.

Consider that phonics goes through ebbs and flows of being available in the traditional classroom anyway. There are other methods to learn to read. Teachers and parents must work together to ensure that the right reading instruction is introduced to students. Students should get what they need.

  • As a parent, you also need to understand that teachers may attempt to evaluate a student’s response to intervention in phonics lessons before moving on to another program. RTI simply allows teachers to provide students with more intensive instruction before moving to something else.
  • Consider, also, that sometimes students who don’t do well with phonics have a learning disability. Some schools require teachers to do several types of interventions before special education and disability testing. If you are concerned about these things, you should discuss them with your child’s teacher and doctor.
  • Some programs have been designed to help students with specific disabilities such as dyslexia.
  • Some of the signs of a problem with phonics include not knowing the sounds of letters, not matching graphemes (letters) with phonemes (sounds), reading resistance, reading words out of order, reading few phonics-related words, and focuses only on sight words.
  • These are not the only reading problems a child may have, but they are some of the most common issues with phonics.
  • Check out some of the more traditional games out there that have a focus on grammar and vocabulary. We have a link to a collection below but also you can check out sites like ESL games and Abcya as well. These will keep your children learning while you research alternatives to phonics.
Alternatives to Phonics

How Can You Learn to Read Without Phonics

Phonics was first introduced in 1850. While people have likely been using phonics-like approaches far longer, the truth remains that phonics isn’t required to learn to read. Many variances in reading instruction have taken phonics out of schools periodically. Students still learn to read.

There are many reading programs that use portions of phonics or no phonics at all to teach reading. The bottom line is that the more a person practices reading, the better they will get. Most reading programs utilize at least some of the phonics strategies today, even if they do not use them all.

We have an article that goes into more detail on what to do if your children or students are struggling with phonics linked below.

Alternatives to Phonics: Whole Language

One of the most common alternative approaches to phonics is the whole language program. Rather than sounds of letters and blends, whole language teaches children to consider words based upon all facets of language.

Sounds and rhymes are as essential as they are in phonics, but the emotion, production of sound, and repetition of words are just as important. Children are expected to explore language and books more than sounding things out.

Children are permitted to explore books, and the classroom is designed to encourage reading. Reading corners, quiet reading spaces, a variety of books, and art supplies for recreating letters are all provided in these classrooms.

Children spend time reading, but more than that, books become classroom themes. Books are the basis for art, science, math, and social studies lessons as much as they are part of literacy lessons. Children incorporate concepts into all parts of their learning.

This approach is not devoid of phonics concepts either. The sounds that make up the words are just as important. However, the decoding of the words and semantics are emphasized as well as the context of the sentence or story.

It’s more than just a single meaning of a word. Whole language moves beyond phonics into context and semantics to help children learn to read and comprehend more than just decode.

Alternatives to Phonics: Look and Say / Whole Word

The look and say or whole word method is a little more controversial. It doesn’t use phonics. Instead, children are asked to recognize whole words. English is not a symbolic language, so this method isn’t always suitable.

The word cat is no more symbolic of a cat than the word dog. One argument is that English is a largely phonetic language, and this method does not acknowledge phonics at all. Unlike the whole language approach, phonics is left out entirely, and rote memorization is favored.

While sight words or words that do not follow phonics well require memorization, most words can be decoded using phonics. This lack of phonics means that when children or adults see new words in print, they do not know what to do to decode them.

They have to rely on context and looking up words in a dictionary, either online or in print. Sure, dictionaries are invaluable for new words, but some of them could be decoded with phonics and understanding roots and affixes. The memorization approach largely ignores these things.

If children are reading whole books or stories, they often get frustrated if the text contains words that they haven’t been taught. They have no method for learning new words other than explicit instruction from a teacher. It’s nearly impossible to teach students every word they will need to know.

Likewise, many words do not have a suitable symbol or picture. How would you symbolize question words like who, what, or how? Some concepts are too abstract to use an appropriate symbol.

Alternatives to Phonics
Alternatives to Phonics

Alternatives to Phonics: : Natural Approach

The natural approach is more about language acquisition than learning to read, though there are implications of each. The natural approach uses a child’s natural ability to acquire language. Grammar and sentence structure aren’t taught in this method until much later. Children are encouraged to learn syntax through listening and speaking.

The concept for teaching reading under this method requires text to be at the appropriate level and mean something to the reader. Texts must be comprehensible for the student to gain meaning. The problem is that there must be some reading instruction before providing texts. Children cannot naturally read texts.

Once some reading skill is learned, this approach can help students learn more vocabulary. This approach emphasizes using texts with a few words that the student may not know and allow them to use the natural sense of context clues and prior knowledge to garner meaning from the text.

Final Thoughts

Many reading methods have been theorized throughout history. The fact remains that English is primarily a phonetic language. Whether a teacher chooses a natural approach or whole word method, phonics should be taught in tandem at least to build awareness and skills for students to tackle new and unfamiliar language.

The whole language method seems to combine several methods to give the material the most meaning, but one cannot deny the presence of those phonics skills.

While you do not need to teach phonics explicitly for the entirety of elementary school, students need a strong foundation of phonics when learning to decode English reading, difficult does not mean impossible and every effort should be used to help students gain literacy skills

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