History of Reading and Phonics

Children learn to speak by noticing that adults associate the sounds of words with objects and actions. Learning to talk is a gift of evolution that distinguishes human beings from all other life forms. Children experience the sounds of their native language from before birth. Areas of their brain evolved to support speech recognition (Wernicke's area behind the ear in the temporal lobe) and speech production (Broca's area in the frontal lobe). When around one year of age children begin to mimic the sounds they hear. Within months their babbling sounds become recognizable as words.

But reading is not a naturally evolved property. The evolution of life took billions of years. Evolution of the human brain took millions of years. Writing is a human creation, invented only a few thousands of years ago independently by early civilizations (Sumer, China, Egypt). They drew pictures which could symbolize a spoken word or name of a physical object, of a living thing, of a person, or of an abstract concept.


A thirty-letter alphabet in modern semitic alphabetic order adapted from Sumerian cuneiform wedge shapes by scribes in Ugarit c.1500BCE.
Between one and two thousand years ago, the alphabetic principle of abstract graphical symbols (letters, or graphemes) that represent isolated sounds (phonemes) emerged in the middle east. The ancient kingdom of Ugarit, in western Syria, was a major center for trade with Egypt, Mesopotamia (ancient Sumer and modern Iraq), and Phoenicia (modern Israel, Palestine, and Syria). A few hundred years before Ugarit's destruction in the Wars of the Sea Peoples (early 12th century BCE), scribes in Ugarit had adapted Sumerian cuneiform to form a semitic alphabet (an abjad of consonants only) at about the same time that Egyptian scribes were adapting the beginning sounds of Egyptian words as their alphabet. This consonantal alphabet was used by Phoenician traders sailing the Mediterranean. Around 1000 BCE Greeks augmented the consonantal semitic alphabet with vowels. The Greek alphabet, with letter names alpha, beta, etc. and our alphabetic order ABC, became the basis for all the alphabets of the world today.

In a few languages, each letter of the alphabet corresponds to a single sound. In Latin, for example, the sound of a letter is also its name! Sadly English, a conglomeration of many different languages, is as far from this fundamental alphabetic principle as any language. On the bright side, more people speak English, as a first or second language, than any other, giving English a competitive advantage as a lingua franca in science and in business.

Children must be taught to read by parents or teachers giving them hundreds or thousands of experiences of careful pronunciations of written words, associating sequences of visible letters with sequences of audible sounds that is the basis of the alphabetic principle. To be sure, very bright children may learn to read by careful observation of what adults are doing with letters and sounds, but this is quite rare.

Brain areas in the visual cortex that evolved to recognize faces and objects (long before reading was invented) must be trained or "programmed" to recognize the abstract shapes of our written language symbols (Chinese characters, Egyptian hieroglyphs, or Roman alphabets and numerals). Only when these brain areas are trained to convert the sequence of written symbols (automatically) to the sequence of audible sounds will alphabetic reading become subconscious.

Note that the "whole-word" logographs or ideograms of Chinese and Egyptian likely use the same object recognition or face recognition areas of the brain.

Near the specialized areas of the visual cortex (faces, objects)) a specialized word form area or "letterbox" has developed in the occipital lobe at the back of the brain in good readers who have been given direct instruction in letter-sound correspondences.

Stanislas Dehaene, who discovered the word form area and dubbed it a "letterbox" says that a young child's brain can be trained to associate letters with their sounds in just a few hours over a few weeks time and they will become fluent readers for the rest of their lives!

Neural wiring connects the letterbox in the visual cortex to the speech recognition area behind the ear in the left temporal lobe, so for example the letter "o" triggers neurons to fire that were wired together by the sounds of /o/. Similarly, experience has wired neurons from the face recognition area to the auditory cortex so when a mother's face is seen by the eye it triggers the sound sequence "mama".

Note that the letter "o" was first sensed on photoreceptors in the retina of the eyes in the frontal lobe of the brain. Thes signals must travel over long neural network paths through critical brain components to the visual cortex in the occipital lobe at the back of the brain, which then send signals to the auditory cortex in the temporal lobe behind the ear, then back to Broca's area in the frontal lobe behind the eyes where the huge prefrontal cortex in the human brain is arguably the site of human intelligence and comprehension and the location where speech is produced by signals to the motor cortex.

Letters to Sounds, Sequence of Sounds to Meanings

Note that if the letterbox is not scanned in the correct direction for a temporal letter sequence like c-a-t, the speech recognition area behind the ear could not send the correct sound sequence to the prefrontal cortex allowing it to understand the word to be "cat." fMRI and MEG (magnetoencephalography) imaging confirms this sound sequence occurs in less than the few milliseconds of a spoken word,

Educators in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries understandably opposed the tedious drills of letter combinations such as ba, be, bi, bo, bu which they thought were required to instruct children in the relation between letters (graphemes) and sounds (phonemes). Letters have no intrinsic meanings for children and their shapes and sounds must simply be committed to rote memory.


First pronunciation lessons from Webster's so-called "blue-back speller"
Most early books on reading included dozens of these "meaningless" drills. From well before the Revolutionary War to the early twentieth century, Americans taught children letters and their sounds from Noah Webster's American Spelling Book, which sold over 100 million copies (second only to the bible).

In the mid-nineteenth century, the most influential critic of meaningless drills of letters and sounds was the great educator Horace Mann, who returned from honeymoon in Germany with new wife Mary Peabody Mann, having learned from Friedrich Gedike that children are taught to read starting with whole words.

In her 1967 book Learning to Read: The Great Debate, Harvard Professor of Education Jeanne Chall found evidence that early training in phonics improved children's performance in later years, but resistance was strong to Rudolf Flesch's 1955 book Why Johnny Can't Read, which claimed (correctly!) that with a very short period of training in phonics a child will have learned to read all but a small fraction of irregularly spelled words, which would still have to be learned "by sight."

Flesch's critics argued that the ability merely to pronounce any word with regular spelling cannot provide the meaning of a word. They called it "mechanical reading" or "word calling" without comprehension.

But many children come to school already knowing how to read, taught by parents who do not do meaningless drills of letters and syllables, but teach their children their letters using words whose meanings a child already knows that include a given letter, such as "c" as in "cat," "d" as in "dog."

Even two-year-old children have vocabularies of hundreds of words they can already comprehend, without yet being able to pronounce all of them. Using these words whose meanings they already know to teach children how letters and letter combinations can be "sounded out" to produce those words they know will delight children. It need not be a mechanical meaningless drill. If their parents or teachers make sure they are having fun while they learn to pronounce words clearly and come to understand that words are blended sequences of distinct sounds (phonemes) corresponding to letters and letter combinations (the alphabetic principle).

Many of those words in a two-year-old's vocabulary are spelled or pronounced irregularly. But they are also among the most commonly used words in English, said to be half the words found in typical texts. Mastering these high-frequency words will jump start the child's fluent reading as well as their reading comprehension. They must be learned "by sight" as "whole words," as educators like William Gray argued in the 1960's. Children will likely be happy to learn how such familiar words look in print.

Some phonics-first advocates tell parents and teachers to avoid these irregularly spelled “sight words” as harming the child’s learning of phoneme-grapheme correspondences. Leonard Bloomfield and Rudolf Flesch suggest that initial training should limit letters to the short vowel sounds and limit consonants to a single sound, hard c and g for example. A few weeks such training will instill in children the valuable idea that there are rules, that language is rational, later that much of nature is rational, understandable and rule-governed (by laws of science), even if children will soon encounter the many spelling exceptions in the English language.

It may take new readers many years to learn every one of these exceptions, but most every fluent adult has done so, simply by reading a lot. This website provides the most recent research into all the variations in single-letter and multi-letter phoneme-grapheme correspondences, to prepare teachers and curious parents to answer questions by inquisitive children. But we do not recommend direct instruction in all these variations. They will be encountered and learned, the brain will absorb them and make them automatic, over a lifetime of meaningful reading experiences.

44 Phonemes and 75 Phonograms
One of the earliest reading experts to identify the English phonograms was Anna Gillingham. In 1935, Gillingham introduced a systematic and orderly approach of categorizing and teaching a set of 70 phonograms, single letters and letter combinations representing the 44 discrete sounds (or phonemes) found in English. In the years since Dr. Orton's death in 1948, this method has become known as the Orton-Gillingham teaching method. It remains the basis of the most prevalent form of remediation and tutoring for children with dyslexia, or dyslexia-like reading disabilities.

Since Gillingham, a number of other women have published the phonemes and their spelling alternatives. Notable are Diane McGuinness (1997), Denise Eide (2011), and Debbie Hepplewhite, who publishes valuable wall charts of the phonemes and phonograms at Phonics International.

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Author: Bob_Doyle
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