Ask Reading Kingdom: Could phonics instruction contribute to the development of dyslexia?


Chris (Parent) asks

Could phonics instruction contribute to the development of dyslexia?

Dr. Marion Blank (Reading Kingdom Founder) answers:

This question at first glance may seem “far out.” It is basically asking: Is it possible that the dominant and well-intended teaching method used in reading instruction can cause the very difficulties it was designed to avoid? In other words it is suggesting that phonics could cause dyslexia. That is almost certainly not the case.  Research in neuro-science has clearly shown that some individuals with dyslexia show patterns of brain organization that are different from the general population. Often the differences are in the language areas of the brain—suggesting that these individuals come to the table with particular difficulties in certain aspects of language.

Language encompasses a huge range of skills and only some of the language abilities are affected. One of the major difficulties is in analysis of the sounds of words. That is where phonics instruction may play a role –not in causing dyslexia but in exacerbating the difficulties that the individuals bring to the reading setting. With its relentless concentration on sounds, phonics forces the individual to grapple endlessly with input that is frequently confusing. The situation is akin to forcing a color-blind person to sit and look at a color TV all day—while steadily being asked to find distinctions that she cannot perceive. Of course, in the case of reading, the belief is that in the absence of sound analysis, an individual cannot learn to read—and so phonics instruction, difficult as it may be, is deemed to be critical. But that assumption is just that – an assumption and not a fact. There are, for example, deaf persons who have never experienced the sounds of words but who still become proficient readers.

One of the underlying principles in the Reading Kingdom rests with offering an alternative route; namely, developing visual memory in specialized ways that enable students to distinguish and retain words. It is an extremely effective component. Paradoxically and happily it often leads to effective phonological analysis (while bypassing the traditional emphasis on sounding out). At the very least, given the importance of reading, there should be a significant research effort on alternative methods for developing reading which bypass the reliance on traditional phonics instruction.