Graduate Program

School Psychology

Degree Name

Specialist in School Psychology

Semester of Degree Completion


Thesis Director

Christine McCormick


This thesis reviews the major trends regarding the place of phonics in reading instruction since the 1950's and attempts to integrate current perspectives on phonics in regard to both classroom and individualized instruction. In the 1950's, instruction in the regular classroom tended to emphasize sight-words at the expense of word analysis or phonic skills. The mid-1960's classic study by Chall, Learning to Read: The Great Debate, documented the value of phonic instruction in beginning reading and led to later refinements regarding the place of phonics in beginning reading instruction.

The attempt to match individual children's preferred modality for learning to instructional method received widespread attention in the early 1970's following growing interest in the new field of learning disabilities and assumed that many children prefer the visual or auditory modality. Although intuitively logical, this either phonics (for children preferring the auditory modality) or sight-words (for children preferring visual modality) approach to instruction was not supported by research. More recent work with processing style preference, in which suggestions are made for teaching reading via methods geared to the child's most efficient mode of processing information, have limited research support. A few recent studies suggest that some children with extreme processing preferences may benefit from differing instructional approaches. However, the content of instruction needs to include phonic analysis skills for all children.

Current views of phonics and reading instruction no longer suggest an either phonics or sight-words approach, but generally accept the importance of phonics instruction in beginning reading for all children. This issue is not the phonics or sight-words dichotomy of earlier decades, but rather the new question of how to most effectively teach word analysis skills and how to incorporate phonic instruction into meaningful reading instruction.

The field of emergent literacy, which has developed since the 1970's, describes the range of early reading skills many children acquire informally before entering school. This body of research is pertinent to issues regarding phonics in beginning reading instruction since those children who enter school with several years of informal introduction to print at home or preschool are the most successful with beginning reading instruction. Several effective programs are described which suggest that attention to emergent literacy skills, such as the ability to hear individual sounds in words, is a useful task for explaining why many children continue to have difficulty with beginning reading instruction.

Reading Recovery is presented as a model approach to reading instruction. This program targets children not succeeding with first grade instruction and provides daily individualized instruction incorporating word analysis skills in meaningful reading and writing. Reading Recovery is a program which shows educators how to adapt instruction to best meet the needs of children getting off to a slow start in learning to read and integrate the development of phonic skills into meaningful reading.