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Phonics (Fonix) Can Cause Reading Problems for Kids

January 20th, 2012 by Tony Barlow

Phonics an NLP Perspective

I have to say a few words about the current approach being taken by most specialists and school systems i.e. the emphasis on phonics when teaching reading, spelling or attempts to correct reading problems by drilling students in ‘Phonics Rules’ which in my opinion is causing a lot of damage in our educational system.

How do I know this?. Having used a technology called NLP, specifically to help struggling students for over 10 years now, I have noticed the same problems with spelling and reading coming up over and over again.


According to the phonological model this is how we read the word ‘CAT’.

1) The reader looks at the word ‘cat’

2) The readers brain parses or segments the word into its underlying phonological elements (known as phonemes). In plain English this means that your brain splits the word into individual sounds for ‘cat’ it would be kuh – aah – tuh

3) Once the word is in its phonological form it can be identified and understood.

In my opinion this model of reading is not only non useful but severely flawed.

Rather than looking at the scientific research on what reading is supposed to be. I have taken a different approach and looked at what good readers actually do INSIDE their mind where no one else seems to have been looking.



A lot of English words don’t look like they sound so you can’t read them by breaking down the sounds of the letters.

Read the following words – one, two, three, four, five, six.

What did you do?

How did you recognize the word ‘one’ ?

Which actually sounds like ‘wun’, ‘two’ sounds like ‘tu’, ‘three’ pretty much sounds like it looks.

How about ‘four’ sounds like ‘for’ to me.

How did you recognize those words? You saw the word and the sound of the word popped into your head like magic right? That’s what good readers do !. GOOD READERS RECOGNIZE WORDS AS A WHOLE AND YOUR BRAIN DOES NOT BREAK DOWN AND RE ASSEMBLE THE SOUNDS.

AND HERE IS THE PROOF. Read the following at your normal reading speed. Your brain only requires a hint to the general shape of the word, and that’s enough.

I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg: the phaonmneel pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to a rseearch taem at Nottngiham Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

The Solution

To become a fluent reader and build up the number of words you can recognize in the fastest way possible, I suggest the following method:

-Find some reading material where you do not recognize around 10 words per paragraph.

-When you come to a word you don’t recognize and you can’t guess from the context or the letters just ask someone what the word is. Someone sitting with you is far faster obviously.

-Then look at the word on the page as a whole, not the individual letters just the general shape of the word.

Method 1) -**If the word is already in your speaking vocabulary. At the same time you are looking at the whole word on the page, say the word inside your mind 3-4 times then carry on. (5 seconds total)

Method 2) -**If the word is not yet in your speaking vocabulary and is totally new to you: Look away from the paper and visualize the word in your mind and at the same time say the word to yourself. (5 seconds total)


If the words are already in your speaking vocabulary by using this method you can learn a 50-100 new words per hour depending on age, motivation and other factors. For totally new words it will take a little longer.


Trying to recall the spellings of words by sounding them out is a common strategy of poor spellers. You can’t even spell ‘Phonics’ by sounding it out it comes out ‘Fonics’ or ‘Fonix’.

When I speak to someone who believes in the phonics model they tell me that the reason why the student is having trouble spelling ‘Phonics’ is that they have not yet learned the ‘Rules’ of phonics yet. This is totally contrary to what I have found.

Good spellers record words in their mind as visual images and don’t guess by sound, this was discovered by NLP practitioners more than 25 years ago but the ‘Scientific Research’ holds more weight with the schools and the specialists so they continue to believe in it.

The Solution

The NLP Spelling Strategy – How good spellers learn words so easily


I must admit that the title to this page is a little dramatic (More people will read it that way : ) In defense of the phonics method. Some students have learned to read very well with it. You can still learn to read well with pretty much any method that exposes you to words and reading. I believe that the phonics approach to reading only becomes a problem when the student takes it to literally and and even after they can recognize words they still try to sound them out. For example I had a student trying to read the word fragile and she came up with 8 different ways to sound it out.

fragilly, frajilly, fragill etc.   I asked her “What do you think that word says ?”   “Well I think it says fragile” !!

In further defense of phonics, at the very start of learning to read it is important / essential to familiarize students with the sounds of the letters and some letter combinations. But sticking on this method to long just slows kids down. Move on to whole word learning as soon as possible. The end game is to get the student to associate sight of a word with the sound of that word, period.

The one benefit of phonics

When you are on the way to being a fluent reader there is nothing wrong with having a go at sounding out a word that you don’t immediately recognize, it might help you to guess the word if it actually looks like it sounds.

Especially if that word is already in your speaking vocabulary you can guess what it is from the other words around it in the sentence and the letter sounds.

Variations and Exceptions

Phonics advocates will tell you that for words (about 40% of English words) that don’t look like they sound, you need to learn all the exceptions to the sounding out rules like the sound ‘or’ could be ‘aw’ in fawn or ‘our’ in four (There are 13 combinations for the sound ‘or’ !!) To me this is just a waste of time and creates a lot of frustration in some students. You’d be better spending all that time learning hundreds of whole words. Good readers never even think about these kind of phonics rules.


What we need to be concerned with here is not necessarily what the research tells us but what is it that good readers do inside their internal thought process when reading and then compare it to what a poor reader or a dyslexic reader does and the reasons for the issues become clear and solvable.

Using NLP in education provides us with a wonderful opportunity to teach students what works as opposed to what the scientific theories currently are. The scientific theories will change and be updated, they always are !

If you are interested in knowing more please leave a comment or question below and I’ll write a reply giving more specific steps to take. I always reply the same day !

4 Responses to “Phonics (Fonix) Can Cause Reading Problems for Kids”

July 16, 2015 at 11:24 am, Jenny said:

Um – I can read three/two/one etc on sight because I am an experienced and very good reader. I know these words. However, a child of 5 or 6 will not know these words by sight and needs to learn the phonics that opens them up . And what do you do with words you do not know? It sounds lovely to learn hundreds of words but there are thousands in English and a good reader must be able to read every one of them! Can anyone learn between 250,000 and 450,000 as whole words without knowing the phonics?


July 16, 2015 at 9:06 pm, Tony Barlow said:

Hi James. The average Adult has a vocabulary of 30,000 to 60,000 words depending on which study you look at. Most children of 5 or 6 will already have one, two, three in their reading vocab in my experience. Anyway, thanks so much for reading my article, there are a couple of very important points you have raised that I would like to give an answer to.

1) Doesn’t a child need to learn the phonics rules to ‘open up’ other words?, for example once you have learned that ‘ph’ has the sound ff.. then you can use that rule to read many other words with ‘ph’ in them. My answer to this is no you don’t need to learn the rules of phonics to open up other words. Just tell them what the words are ! Forget the rules. LEARNING WHOLE WORDS HAS THE SAME BENEFITS, once you know the whole word ‘cat’ it opens up lots of other words like hat, mat, fat, chat, bat etc. Although I think it is important to learn the basic letter sounds early on such as ‘a’ is ‘ah’ etc. but thats as far as I would go. So learning the phonics rules has no benefit over learning whole words in this respect, phonics doesnt open up anything that you can’t get by learning whole words, and learning whole words instead of a bunch of rules is way faster and what all good readers are doing.

2) What about words that you do not know ? OK there are 2 scenarios here, there are words that are already in your speaking but not reading vocabulary. If its already in the childs speaking vocabulary its a very easy task to connect the sound of the word they already know to the sight of the word on the page. So lets say they already know the word ‘train’ in their speaking vocab, including the meaning, but don’t recognize it on the page yet. Its just a matter of linking the sound ‘train’ with the sight of the word. Once they have it that opens up ‘brain’ ‘rain’ ‘grain’ etc. Scenario 2 is the word is completely unknown like ‘pteridophytes’. Pronounced teri-doh-fites. Same solution, have them look at the word and say it 3-4 times to connect the sound with the sight of the whole word, just takes more repetition with totally new words. Don’t let someone struggle to figure out a new word by learning phonics rules, its just a waste of time and effort, instead of teaching them all the phonics rules to sound out a word like ‘caught’. Just tell them that says ‘caught’ !!!! Then you have opened up a bunch of similar words like taught, fraught, distraught. There is no need to go through this phonics tedium.
So to be clear, instead of teaching them a bunch of complicated rules to learn how to sound out words (That doesnt work anyway for many english words) Just tell them what the word is, have them learn it and move on.

3) Im a very good reader so I can read words like one, two, three because “I know these words”. Yes, yes exactly you just ‘know them’ in other words you see the word on the page and without any phonics rules the sound of the words just pops into your mind right? This is what we are aiming for, so the only question is. WHATS THE FASTEST WAY TO GET TO BE AN EXPERIENCED AND FAST READER so you just ‘know’ the words by sight.???? Well in my experience its teaching students whole words straight away (after they have the basic letter sounds) and don’t waste your time on phonics rules. Millions of good readers, including me ! never heard of phonics rules when they were at school !!

Sorry to be so kind of harsh about this but I get kids coming through my office every week who are behind in reading for their age because someone is trying to teach them the rules of phonics and the kids who try to follow the rules get totally confused. Students who do improve with phonics drilling are improving despite the method not because of it.
I then teach them whole words in the method I have described on my website and they are off and running. I don’t want to see more kids suffering with reading when it’s not necessary. Phonics is still ingrained in the educational system and its time to get it out and teach kids to do what good readers do and not follow a theory someone came up with.


October 07, 2015 at 5:30 pm, Jenny said:

Actually no one teachers ‘rules’ of phonics. Mostly they do not work. what you teach is sound letter correspondence. I was taught to read by my mother an inferred phonics (and got taught them in French) and know well that there are several ways to spell ‘f’ eg f, ph, ff, gh (end of words only) fe. Easy – and of course I recognise words I see – I see them a lot, But a child who can’t read doesn’t. And what on earth are you doing suggesting that words can be guessed? Reading needs to be accurate – not just the giste.


October 08, 2015 at 6:17 am, Tony Barlow said:

Hi, thanks for reading and commenting.
No one teaches phonics ‘rules’ – Teachers all over the world do I can assure you, google phonics rules and you’ll find hundreds of websites teaching phonics rules.
Sound letter correspondence – (identifying and producing the most common sound associated with individual letters) is another term for phonics. Other terms for phonics include letter-sound correspondences, letter-sound relationships, and sound-symbol associations. I would agree with you and I do state in my article that it is important / essential to familiarize students with the sounds of the letters and some letter combinations.
I child who can’t read doesn’t recognize words they see – I think that goes without saying 🙂
What on earth are you doing suggesting words can be guessed – To clarify this if you can read ‘grain’ you could then guess ‘brain’ or ‘train’ fairly easily the first time you come across them. Or if you already know ‘caught’ you can easily recognize ‘taught’ etc.
So I agree with you that learning the sounds of letters / letter combinations is essential at the beginning and then the focus should be on recognizing whole words, as you have experienced with your own reading. Letter sounds first then as you see words more and more letter sounds are no longer needed.
The problem comes when kids do not shift from sounding out to just recognizing the whole words. Some students carry on sounding out individual letters for far to long because thats what they think they should be doing and it slows down their reading progress.
After seeing the word ‘caught’ many times, they still try to sound out ‘ca’ ‘ug’ ‘huh’ t which just holds them back.
So moving them on to recognizing whole words more quickly after the stage of learning sound letter correspondences is what I am getting at.


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