Language & Literacy


In my last post (yeah, it’s been a long time. I don’t get paid for these, you know), I made the case for the importance of phonics instruction, while acknowledging it should be just about 30 minutes a day in the early grades. But I also pointed out that the quality of that 30 minutes can be highly variable.

Even when you have a program that sequences phonics instruction systematically and explicitly, it needs to be acknowledged that this is only a small part of what is on most teachers’ plates each day. Kindergarten – 2nd grade teachers usually teach most core subjects, and may be drawing upon a panoply of programs they are supposed to be experts in, while managing a bunch of young homo sapiens who have not yet fully developed a prefrontal cortex and the ability to regulate their emotions and behavior. It’s exhausting, to say the least.


Why do I keep harping on the importance of explicit, systematic phonics instruction? I know it bugs some people.

Teaching decoding and encoding of written words in English shouldn’t be much more than 30 minutes a day for most kids at a K-2 level. So what’s the big deal, right?

Here’s my “why”:


My son just entered kindergarten. We received a folder from his teacher with two sets of materials: an overview of the Fundations phonics program (good!), and a list of sight words that he would be expected to memorize each week (um).

This is how the sight word overview began:

Dear Families,

Did you know about 75% of words we read are sight words?

Sight word are words that do not follow the rules of spelling and therefore must be recognized by sight. The more sight words a student can recognize, the more fluent of a reader they will become.


We recently examined Phillip Gough and Michael Hillinger’s 1980 paper, Learning to Read: An Unnatural Act, in which they made a neat analogy of learning to decode an alphabetic writing system to cryptanalysis. As a part of this cryptanalysis, children aren’t simply learning to decode, but more precisely, learning to decipher the written code. This distinction highlights that learning to read in English is not driven by paired-associative learning, but rather by internalizing an algorithm, a statistical, systematic, quasi-regular mapping.

This point is a sharp one because what they were saying is that we can’t teach such a cipher directly. We can’t just hand a kid the codebook.

So when I saw a reference recently to another Gough paper called Reading, spelling, and the orthographic cipher, co-written in 1992 with Connie Juel and Priscilla Griffith, I knew I needed to read this one, too.


Learning to Read: An Unnatural Act

In our last post in this series exploring the question, “What is (un)natural about learning to read and write?,” we looked at a paper from 1976 by Ken and Yetta Goodman that argued that written language is a form of oral language and thus, learned naturally in a literate society through exposure and use in the environment.

In this post, we’ll explore a direct counter to that argument made by Phillip Gough and Michael Hillinger in 1980.


When I began this journey into learning more about literacy and language development (not too long ago), one of the first areas where I began sensing a tension in the field was around phonological awareness and the notion of instruction related to different “grain sizes.”

We know that phonological awareness develops in a manner that moves from large grain sizes (syllable, onset-rime) to small grain sizes (phonemes). Furthermore, we also know that phonemes are at a greater level of abstraction — they are harder to hear and speak — then something like a syllable, which is relatively easy to hear. So it certainly makes sense that instruction would follow the same trajectory in order to support that progression towards greater abstraction. It’s a compelling idea that unfortunately does not appear to be backed up by anything other than anecdotal evidence.