Joanne Yatvin was a teacher, a principal, a superintendent, and president of the National Council of Teachers of English. She was a member of the National Reading Panel in 1998, which endorsed phonics, but she wrote a dissent. I am posting her views to generate a healthy discussion. I have never taught anyone to read except my own children, who were reading before they started school, mostly I think, because I read to them every day and shared with them my love of reading.

Yatvin writes:

Phooey on Phonics!

What is expected of students who are being taught phonics is the ability to sound out letters grouped together and to translate them into a single word. In contrast, students in public schools are taught the pronunciation of a word, not it’s spelling. Thus they become able to make sense of many written words quickly, and to remember them without sounding out their letters. That system turns out to be much easier for teachers to use, and far more successful for students to learn than phonics. 

What teachers in regular classrooms do is to take students through the process of recognizing and remembering new words.  Steady and pleasurable practice with poems, songs, and games will provide them with the ease and satisfaction of recognizing and remembering words when they see them again. 

I am sorry to have to say it, but Michael Petrilli is not the expert we can trust when it comes to determining the best way to teach reading. Continually, he denies the reality of readers’ instant word recognition, and maintains his belief in the necessity to blend letter sounds together until they become a word. Then, he suggests repeating the process until all the words grouped together become a sentence, and all sentences become a message. As a successful teacher of reading in four elementary schools, and later, a school principal in two states, I am disturbed by Petrilli’s descriptions of the reading process, and his frequent claims of successful instruction using phonics. Even though teaching phonics has never been prominent in our public schools, its supporters have consistently claimed that it is the right way to teach reading there. 

Today most respected reading specialists believe that children with difficulty learning to read will not do any better by undergoing phonics instruction. They are more likely to become more confused and dismayed than they were before.

Finally, I don’t know of any university professor who claims that phonics will work when the ordinary teaching of reading has not yet succeeded. Only phonics teachers and their supporters have maintained that belief.  Moreover, all the law suits that have attempted to push phonics into public schools have been unsuccessful thus far.