How Phonics Instruction Teaches Critical Thinking Skills

Phonics Critics Have It Backwards

A common misconception about phonics is that it consists entirely of rote memorization, and that it stunts children's intellectual development by limiting their opportunities for the development of critical thinking skills - but this is actually the opposite of the reality. Children who learn to read using phonics develop superior critical thinking skills because phonics instruction automatically teaches many aspects of formal logic, which is the foundation of all critical thinking.

One of the most surprising outcomes in the entire field of education research was the unexpectedly high performance of phonics students participating in the world's largest-ever educational experiment, Project Follow-Through. One purpose of this study was to evaluate the performance of early-elementary students who were being taught to read using various teaching strategies. At the end of the study, the strategies were evaluated according to the students' performance on tests that evaluated three things:

The study consisted of nine experimental groups, each using a different approach to reading instruction, and one control group whose teachers were using the standard methods that they had always used in the past. The reading study in Project Follow-Through was quite large, consisting of about 15,000 students spread throughout many school districts.

In one of the nine experimental groups, children were learning to read using the phonics-based DISTAR curriculum, which was the predecessor of the curriculum we use at I Can Read! The prevailing view of the people conducting the study was that phonics-based instruction was inferior because it taught only basic skills, leaving its students lacking in both critical thinking skills and self esteem. Before the results were announced, almost all of the educators' bets were on five competing experimental groups that attempted to teach critical thinking and self-esteem directly, or indirectly through the encouragement of self-directed learning activities. (Three other experimental groups used other approaches; hence a total of nine.)

The educators involved in the study got a rude shock when the results were published in 1977 at the end of ten years of experimentation. The phonics-trained group outperformed all other groups by far, not only in basic skills but also in critical thinking and self-esteem. All five groups that attempted to teach critical thinking skills and self-esteem directly (or indirectly though the encouragement of self-directed activities) were catastrophic failures that actually underperformed the study's control group, which itself was a dismal failure. The lessons for educators were clear:

Unfortunately, the policy-making division of the U.S. Department of Education (which conducted the study) has had a huge and ongoing ideological and financial investment in the five failed curricula, and so the results of Project Follow-Through have been effectively suppressed for decades. Today almost nobody, either inside or outside the teaching profession, has even heard about the world's largest, longest, and most expensive educational experiment.

As large as it is, Project Follow-Through is just a tiny fraction of the 20th century's enormous body of research supporting the use of comprehensive, systematic phonics in teaching young children to read. For more information:

The Critics' Position

The central problem of early reading is word recognition - teaching children how to determine which words are on the page. Non-phonetic ("meaning-emphasis") reading programs rely on two primary strategies - whole word memorization (to increase the number of words that a child recognizes) and the use of context clues, where the child is trained to determine the identity of an unknown word by deducing the most likely meaning of the word that would fit in that spot, based on the semantic context of the word.

Phonics critics believe that children who use context clues will develop better critical thinking skills than children who recognize words using phonics. They assert that children will learn deduction by using the context-clue procedure, which involves:

Students will presumably then improve their future performance by making inferences about the deductions that they have used in the past. Unfortunately there are several problems with using context clues, either as a primary word recognition strategy or as a vehicle for developing critical thinking skills:

  1. Context clues generally don't work well because the number of possibilities for typical contexts is simply too great, causing children to tend to choose the wrong word. Objective research demonstrates that context clues are little-used by good readers, and are effective only as crutches for students who are poor readers due to their lack of training in the use of more effective strategies (i.e. phonics) (1,2,3)

  2. Children using context clues learn to accept inaccuracy and failure. Since context clues don't work very well, teachers must artificially increase the success rate by accepting semantic near-misses as successes (e.g. accepting a child's answer of "pony" when the word was really "horse").

  3. The use of context clues teaches little, if anything, specific about critical thinking. The problem is that there is no systematic framework, because each deduction is done within a new context. Rather than learning specific strategies of logical deduction that can be shown to work over and over again in a controlled environment (such as the realm of letters and phonetic rules), children are faced with an essentially new problem every time, since the number of contexts is potentially infinite and the number of unknown words is nearly so (in the tens of thousands even for middle-elementary readers).

  4. The huge universe of potential combinations of contexts and words also precludes the possibility of learning or using inference skills, since little can be inferred from large numbers of generally unrelated situations.

Phonics Teaches Logic Automatically and Indirectly

Even though a phonics teacher is not explicitly trying to teach logic to his or her students, it is simply impossible to avoid doing so. Phonics students learn formal logic (i.e. "critical thinking") more quickly, more effectively and at an earlier age than otherwise possible, for several reasons:

  1. Phonics defines a small and relatively well-defined environment in which a young mind can comfortably operate without being overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of the possibilities.

  2. The logic lessons of phonics are taught by example during the learning and the application of phonetic rules. Even though a child of 4 or 5 might be incapable of comprehending direct formal logic instruction, it is quite clear that children of that age can implicitly grasp logical concepts that are taught by example.

  3. Decoding and encoding are themselves well-controlled logical operations, embodying many concepts that facilitate the student's future understanding of more advanced concepts in mathematics and various sciences, most especially computer science.

Students in a true (i.e. systematic) phonics program do not start out by "reading" but rather by learning individual letters. Students learn how to recognize and discriminate among a small, manageable number of symbols. This implicitly teaches the logical concept of identity. For example, students learn that there is a symbol "a" and that "a" can be easily distinguished from "b" or "m" or "x". Because the total set of symbols is very small, the identity concept is easily learned by almost all children, including even those with severe learning disabilities, whereas even normal children in reading programs that rely on whole-word memorization are generally overwhelmed by the sheer number of symbols (i.e. words) to be learned.

In well-designed phonics programs, children are first taught to associate only one sound with a particular letter. This implicitly teaches the concept of analogy. Phonics is a wonderful tool for teaching analogy, because all phonics analogies are formed across two entirely distinct dimensions - sound and print - which cannot be easily confused (as might be the case when trying to teach analogies using pairs of printed symbols, for example). Along with the concept of analogy, phonics students also learn the most fundamental form of logical relationship, which is the one-to-one relationship (since each letter is initially associated with just one sound and vice-versa).

As students progress through the letters, they discover that some letters are mirror-images of each other ("b" and "d", for example). Thus they learn the concept of graphic symmetry, and to distinguish symmetrical objects from one another. During instruction in blending, students also discover that sounds can be symmetrical when they study symmetrical blends (such as "im" and "mi" or "st" and "ts") and consequently they understand that symmetry exists in more than just one dimension. They also learn that symmetry can be preserved through analogies (i.e. symmetric phonograms can produce symmetric phonemes and vice-versa).

Phonics students learn that objects can be combined in different ways that have analogues in the field of chemistry:

After learning that a printed symbol can be associated with just one sound, students are introduced to the idea that a phonogram might represent several different sounds (as in the case of "a" representing both a short and long sound). Students also learn that a phoneme might be represented using several different phonograms (as when long "e" is spelled "ee", "ea", and so forth). This introduces a new logical concept, the many-to-one relationship, which is a fundamental concept of sets and groups, and is perhaps the most-used concept in computer database design. Children also observe the asymmetry of many-to-one relationships, and they see such relationships operating in both directions (i.e. from sound to print and print to sound).

In the more advanced stages of phonics instruction, students learn that multiple spellings may represent multiple sounds and vice-versa (as in the case of "ea" and "e" representing both the short and long "e" sounds in different contexts). This teaches the many-to-many relationship, which is the foundation for modeling all complex logical relationships. (Although such relationships are actually a hindrance to decoding, they are fairly rare and nonetheless generally decodable, and so they do not justify the abandonment of decoding as a reading strategy.)

Two of the most powerful concepts in logic are deduction (arriving at the correct answer through the successive application of known rules) and inference (where one makes reliable assumptions about large numbers of things based on a knowledge of just a few similar things). Phonics students learn deduction during the process of decoding, and inference during the process of encoding:

Phonics students also learn that blending rules can be applied over and over again, i.e. that one set of symbols that have been blended can then form the basis for another blend. For example, the letters "a" and "r" can be combined to form the diphthong "ar". This diphthong can then be blended with the consonant "b". The new combination ("bar") can then be used as a component in yet another blending operation with the letter "k", yielding "bark". Finally we might use this new construction as one component of another blend by adding the suffix "ing".

At the simplest level, this type of word construction teaches the concept of concatenation, one of the fundamental operations of set theory and all of the mathematical concepts that rely upon it. Since concatenation is an associative operator (like addition and multiplication in math), children learn the mathematical concept of associativity.

At a higher level, phonics-based word construction teaches the concept of recursion, which is the notion that an operation can be applied repeatedly to the outputs of its previous applications. Recursion is arguably the most powerful tool in all of logic, and perhaps even within the entire realm of mathematics. Recursion is the foundation of the most versatile and elegant algorithms in computer science, and it is at the core of most computer programs that perform any kind of sophisticated functions (such as the compilers that interpret high-level computer languages). It is quite amazing that a five-year-old can grasp such a concept, but phonics instruction makes it possible.


Phonics instruction provides an extraordinary environment for the easy learning and practical application of several elements of formal logical analysis. These are:

Contrary to critics' claims, we should expect phonics-trained children to be far more capable of independent, logical thought than comparable children who have not received phonics instruction. Any parent seeking to raise a child who can quickly and intuitively grasp the basic concepts of mathematics (and especially logic) would do well to start that child reading through the use of phonics.

-Dave Ziffer, Director, I Can Read!


My primary inspiration for this article came from an associate who over the years has supplied me with many startlingly lucid thoughts on the subjects of phonics, reading, education, and the world at large. He is:

Dr. Martin Kozloff
Watson School of Education
University of North Carolina at Wilmington
601 South College Road
Wilmington, NC 28403
Email: kozloffm@UNCWIL.EDU
Phone: 910-962-7286

During 1998-2000 Martin posted many brief articles to the list server of the Association for Direct Instruction refuting a nearly constant barrage of criticisms in the educational press suggesting that Direct Instruction is merely an exercise in rote memorization or worse yet, some form of Pavlovian stimulus/response training or Skinnerian behaviorism. (Interestingly and as far as we know, none of these criticisms came from people who had actually tried Direct Instruction). I decided to collect some of Martin's and my ideas on this subject into one unified article. Thank you, Martin!

Other references are:

1. Stanovich, Keith E.. Toward an Interactive-Compensatory Model of Individual Differences in the Development of Reading Fluency. Reading Research Quarterly; v16 n1 p32-71 1980: "A review of interactive models of reading combined with the assumption of compensatory processes indicates that compared to poor readers, good readers appear to have superior strategies for comprehending and remembering large units of text and are superior at context-free word recognition."

2. Stanovich, Keith E.. The Interactive-Compensatory Model of Reading: A Confluence of Developmental, Experimental, and Educational Psychology. Remedial and Special Education (RASE); v5 n3 p11-19 May-Jun 1984: "Studies are reviewed on the interactive-compensatory model of reading, which explains developmental and individual differences in the use of context to facilitate word recognition. One major implication reported is that, with context adequately instantiated, less-skilled readers utilize context to facilitate word recognitions as much, if not more, than skilled readers."

3. Stanovich, Keith E.; And Others. Relation between Early Reading Acquisition and Word Decoding with and without Context: A Longitudinal Study of First-Grade Children. Journal of Educational Psychology; v76 n4 p668-77 Aug 1984: "The speed and accuracy of skilled and less skilled first-grade readers were assessed in the fall and spring. Children read random lists of words and coherent paragraphs. Poor decoding skills, rather than an inability to use content to facilitate word recognition, caused the poor performance of less skilled readers."