Phonics – The Dyslexic’s Nemesis?

I wrote this post for the wonderful OT Expert as part of dyslexia awareness week put have been kindly allowed to share it here too.

Every time I read an article promoting the benefits of phonics and it is so ‘essential’ for dyslexic children learn them too I let out an involuntary ‘arrgggggh!

Perhaps they do work for some dyslexics all I can say is I’m yet to meet one. The fact they are always pushed tells me that no one has ever sat down and asked a dyslexic how they learn to read, how they they see and interpret letters or if they have then they have totally disregarded that information.

In my days phonics were known as breaking down a word, I was taught that way as an undiagnosed dyslexic and in theory I know phonics however,I don’t really know actually phonics because if I want to use a word I have not written before and try to sound it out, I can’t even get the first letter right. I haven’t really learnt the letters that make up the sounds at all. However if you asked me to sound at a written word I would be able to break it up into sounds. This is because of the method I use to read as a dyslexic.

You see in all those remedial reading classes what I learnt to do was memorise a word by taking a ‘photo’ in my mind of it and that picture matched itself with the shape of the letters on the page. I also have these ‘mind photos’ of the phonic sounds so I would then need to take an extra step of matching those shapes to each phonic in order to sound out the word. This of course does not work in reverse because to me a word is a pattern not a sound. To explain this I can only describe the way I learnt to play the saxophone and read music. I never thought a note on the paper was an A or D or whatever I just knew that symbol meant press the keys in a certain shape, pattern came first always then the sound is attached afterwards and finally the name of the note if that makes sense?

The very easiest way for me learning a word is visual exposure to the word with a visual cue then it falls most quickly into place.

I found with my son using flash cards with words and pictures worked well, labelling actual objects and just allowing him to see the word everyday was even better. The school however had a phonics system with a sound and an action for each phonic which were put on a key ring and the children asked to go through them several times a day and then again when he got home.

A week into the system all I had to do was take the key ring out of my sons bag he would cry and scream. I let the school know who implemented a reward chart which made him not only cry at the sight of the keying but again when he realised there was to be no star on the chart because he would not do them. I kept buying books and reading them to my son and one day he told me he had taught himself to read and read me any age appropriate book I picked out because he had learnt to sight read. He was so pleased with himself but the teacher told him he had to sound out his phonics so he had to go through the process I have just described to make it look like he had learnt phonics when he had simply learn to sight read them as well as the word.

Being forced to read this way is slow and it is exhausting and as a dyslexic you are actually learning nothing about the structure of the word.

When he failed to thrive in school by year 4 I suggested to the teacher that she asked him to read without sounding out and he was put up 3 reading groups as a result. However being forced to read dull, age inappropriate books over and over again with someone sat at his shoulder put him off reading completely and learning phonics did nothing to improve his spelling because he still couldn’t sound a word out into letters because he needed the visual to make the sounds.

He is now home educated and three years out of school has just started reading books again. I have never forced him with his spelling or reading, I simply give him a lot of access to written language and he can read just about anything now, his spelling is coming on and he can spell all the essential words on his own but needs help with the more descriptive or obscure. He has just started dipping his toe back into reading for pleasure.

Things that helped my son learn to read and spell were;

Thinking more about the content of a book than the what age or level it was aimed at, it is far more appealing to try and read an interesting book than to be forced to read a boring one.

Sites such as Oxford Owl where it reads the words for the child and highlights them as it goes.

Reading aloud to him using my finger to highlight the words.

Gaming, particularly story led adventure games with written instruction.

Using the internet to search so having to type in the search subject and read the content.

Labelling household items with the word so he sees them everyday.

Games using illustrated flash cards such as matching games.

Board games with cards to read such as monopoly and game of life.

Written instructions in his education. This also helps him because his processing is slow so he is not panicking to take in all the instructions.

Worksheets with multiple choice or fill in the missing word are good as they both help his reading and minimise the need for writing by hand.

Comics and magazines because of there bitesize pieces of text.

Short paragraphs and larger text so it easier to follow without the words jumping about.

Speak to text and text to speak on iPad.

Being allowed to do the majority of his work on the iPad or laptop.

While I understand the principles behind the idea of teaching dyslexics phonics in practice even when it looks like it is working it really isn’t as it just doesn’t suit our very different learning approach,

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2 thoughts on “Phonics – The Dyslexic’s Nemesis?

  1. Wow. This article is so timely. I have always felt such pressure to use x program for dyslexia. Its the idea that its the only program that will work. It is expensive an I live in South America. This article was refreshing to read and gives me hope to not quench my son’s learning struggles by dumping a heavy phonics program down his throat. He would be considered to have pda also so he is very rigid in what he tries. I try to keep a 80/20 ratio between successful learning and challenging material. I do this for myself as well since there is nothing worse than teaching an unwilling student. I try to set us up for success each day. Thank you for this article.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So glad it helped. My son is PDA too and all phonics and the mainstream reading program did for him was put him off books. I hope some of the approaches that worked for us help your son discover the joy of reading.


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