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Illusory Phonics

Illusory phonics: Balanced magic

 Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

My blogs can be viewed on-line or downloaded as a Word file or PDF at

Illusory phonics - simply sprinkle a little phonics into your literature-based program and poof! - your program is balanced.

We know from a strong consensus of research that effective programs include phonics (among other components), so it is tempting to conclude that simply adding some phonics to a list of activities in an existing program will supply some vital catalyzing ingredient, strengthening the existing program, and thereby make it research-based. However, program effectiveness is not ensured solely by the presence of a portion of this vital program element. It also depends on the proportions in the final curriculum mix, in the quantity and quality of the elements, and when and how the curriculum is taught.

The proper role of phonics in a literacy program can be compared to a building’s foundation. We understand that stable buildings invariably have foundations. However, foundations may be weak or strong or in-between. It is not the mere presence of a foundation that provides the fundamental strength and stability of a building. It derives from the presence of the correct foundation. The difference between a strong and weak foundation lie in the details of the former’s make-up, such as appropriate concrete composition and the correct grade of reinforcing mesh - evenly laid through the site. A foundation’s preparation is equally critical. Trenches are meticulously prepared to ensure that the poured foundation is correctly sited to support the walls, and of adequate breadth and depth. Also, formwork or scaffolding is employed to provide initial support to any exposed or potential weak points, and to avoid any risk of slump.

The concrete of phonics requires the additional strength of reinforcing mesh if it is to avoid cracking under pressure. Thus, those approaches ensuring that students have or develop sensitivity to the sound structure of spoken words at the time that letter-sound correspondences are presented - have an increased likelihood that the phonics teaching will evoke in students appreciation of the alphabetic principle. Gradually, it will produce a generative strategy to handle the eventual heavy load presented by previously unseen words.


The foundation for a building is formed and poured before any other task, because all the construction that follows is reliant on the integrity of this initial base. If a fundamental element of the foundation is missing, then the structure is inevitably compromised. The building will be unable to attain its anticipated integrity and performance. Indeed it may fail, catastrophically or sequentially, either initially or later in its lifespan.

This foundation is allowed curing time to ensure it sets hard (thereby providing strength) before it is expected to carry a load. If this load is applied too early, the foundation will be weakened or deformed, and the building may not have the strength to handle its own weight much less the additional load of the building’s superstructure itself. So, in explicit phonics students are taught the foundations of spoken and written word structure before attempting to carry the load of reading increasingly sophisticated texts. They are provided with carefully planned, rather than incidental, instructional sequences.

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